This Is How The NXIVM Cult Started

NXIVM. It's spelled like the name of Julius Caesar's spaceship. Unfortunately, it's pronounced "nexium," so when read aloud, it sounds more like a magnesium-based anti-diarrheal. And that's about the nicest thing you can say about NXIVM, a self-proclaimed multi-level marketing company which, in the latter half of 2017, gained international notoriety as an alleged sex cult, complete with skin branding, slavery, and celebrity guest appearances by television's own Allison Mack.

It's impossible to put your finger on exactly where ideas for NXIVM first started gestating. It was run by a convicted sex trafficker, racketeer, and alleged sociopath, making the narration of the group's history naturally unreliable. The group was officially founded in 1998, according to the Hollywood Reporter, and touted as a "personal development company." But the seed of what the group would become seems to have been in the process of developing for decades, all the way back to their leader's childhood. Rather than pointing to a specific starting point, one should look at the early component pieces that came togethe,r to create one of the most infamous and bizarre criminal cases of the last ten years: science fiction novels, cabinet arcade games, your local Avon lady, and a kid whose dad described him as being "like Jesus Christ."

From humble beginnings

Keith Raniere, born August 26th, 1960, was described as a relatively normal child — right up until he was labeled "gifted," after taking an intelligence test around the time he was seven or eight, according to the CBC. At that point, his father stated that "it was almost like a switch went off. And suddenly, overnight, he turned into, like, Jesus Christ. And that he was superior and better than everybody." Keith was reportedly a big fan of science fiction from an early age, and would later claim that Isaac Asimov's Second Foundation, the story of a mentally gifted man building an empire through subconscious manipulation, served as the basis for NXIVM. During college, he developed an interest in an arcade game called Vanguard, a side-scroller where destroying enemies makes the player more powerful. Don't worry, that part comes up again later.

After graduating, Raniere started working for Avon, the all-American multi-level marketing company. He started his own MLM in the early '90s, Consumer Buyline Inc. There, he incorporated the business models of both Amway and, interestingly, L. Ron Hubbard, creating a real mishmash of legal liability. The company shut down in 1993 after an investigation that spanned 20 states, and brought up the words "pyramid scheme" a lot.

... And it gets worse

In the mid-1990s, Raniere first ran into Nancy Saltzman, a hypnotherapist and neuro-linguistic programming enthusiast. Together, they developed the Executive Success Programs, self-improvement courses based around helping people to "experience more joy in their lives." By 2003, Forbes was reporting on the group's remarkable drawing power. Over 3,700 believers had signed up, referring to their guru by his preferred title: "Vanguard."

The FBI, meanwhile, had a different read on the situation. As the CBC reported, the feds stated that "what was pitched to NXIVM members as a secret, sorority-like women's empowerment group called DOS actually 'operates as a pyramid' with levels of 'masters' and 'slaves' and Raniere sitting at the top." As the group's devotees grew in number, Raniere's desire for control reportedly escalated. It was alleged that he, along with his enthusiastic follower, Allison Mack, began branding the pelvises of his bevy of sexual partners. Allegations of brainwashing, enslavement, and relationships with children started to come forward.

In March of 2018, Keith Raniere was arrested in Mexico, and charged with a laundry list of offenses ranging from sex trafficking to wire fraud. The following June, he was found guilty on all charges. He is currently awaiting sentencing, as is Allison Mack.