On a recent episode of The Simpsons, Marge and Lisa lead a campaign to convince Springfield to revoke the municipal tax exemption for a local golf and country club. But to rebuff those efforts and maintain the club’s tax-exempt status, its owner turns it into a church. The episode ends with a strange deus ex machina, in which police execute a raid on the golf-club-cum-church, with Chief Wiggum explaining that “like every new religion, sooner or later, it turns into a sex cult.”
NXIVM is perhaps the most famous “sex cult” in recent years. Yet it didn’t present itself as a religion, and as Sarah Berman explained in a Globe and Mail op-ed in April, it also didn’t really pivot around sex. More than that, she argued, it was about coercive control as an end in itself.
Berman, a Vancouver-based journalist who covered NXIVM for Vice, is the author of Don’t Call It a Cult: The Shocking Story of Keith Raniere and the Women of NXIVM. She joins host Jesse Brown on this week’s CANADALAND to run down just what NXIVM was and how it took advantage of common tropes around self-improvement to achieve buy-in from both adherents and potential recruits. (Raniere, the group’s founder, was ultimately sentenced to 120 years in prison for a range of crimes including racketeering and sex trafficking.)
Berman says that at one point in her reporting, Sarah Edmondson, a whistleblower who’d been a recruiter for NXIVM, walked her through a typical pitch for one of their week-long intensives, which would run $3,000 to $5,000.
“I thought she was gonna pounce on my insecurities,” Berman says on the episode. “I thought she was gonna be like, ‘Sarah, you’re so messed up, and we’re going to help you.’ But no, she made me think of a blue-sky future where I’ve got everything I want in life. She basically tried to get me to invest in that dream.”
Far from telling a candidate they could wind up branded with the founder’s initials, “She’s telling me about what I want, what I’m dreaming of,” Berman says. “And so if you have a pretty strong imagination, if you can see yourself breaking through and becoming great in some way, then you are gonna want to see what this was about.”
Jesse asks her to try it out on him. This is what happens:
Jesse Brown: Do you remember it well enough to do it to me?
Sarah Berman: (laughing nervously) Uh, God. Uhh… I mean, maybe. Sure. Like, Jesse, what is it that you think is holding you back from getting everything that you want? What’s the one thing you wish you could just sort of fix and then everything would be so good?
Jesse: Deep-seated personality flaws, baked into my character.
Sarah: (laughing) Okay. Well, presuming we can work on your personality, right, like we could maybe train you out of them… What do you think that pattern has cost you in life?
Jesse: Oh, jeez. Uh, you know: friends, sleep, wellbeing.
Sarah: Right, but if you had to put, like, a dollar amount on it, like, lost business opportunities, a hard dollar amount, over the course of your entire life, what do you think it would be?
Jesse: I might not be the right candidate for this, because I attribute some of my financial success to those deep-seated personality flaws.
Sarah: Oh, I see. So it’d be like negative money…
Jesse: Yeah, I might be a lot poorer if I was a better person.
Sarah: I see. Yeah, I’m not sure this would work on you then, ’cause then she’d bust out that, “Well, our course is only $3,000, so you’re getting a hot deal.”
Jesse: But she wouldn’t have tried it on me. Was this mostly women who were pursued for this?
Sarah: Yeah, I think that’s very true. I think she definitely would say, “This doesn’t sound like it’s for you.” And I would say, probably the majority of people. She was good at finding the people who had rapport, who had similar dreams that she could relate to and could guide them through what she had been through. I would say, maybe Jesse wouldn’t be a candidate from the start.
Jesse: I got that going for me, anyhow.
Top screenshot of NXIVM founder Keith Raniere from a video on the “Keith Raniere Conversations” YouTube channel.