- Strong families are a powerful defense against people getting caught up in cults in the first place, and the most successful cult leaders realize that breaking those bonds is necessary to ensure total fealty. Tweet This
- Many women, couples, and even families joined NXIVM not because they were alone and desperate but because they wanted to improve their lives. Tweet This
When Seagram’s liquor heiress, Clare Bronfman was sentenced to more than six years in prison for her role in financially and criminally supporting the NXIVM cult, many people probably wondered how such a privileged woman fell prey to the pyramid schemes, psychological manipulation, and messianic delusions of the cult’s leader, Keith Raniere. The cult, which had been branding the private parts of its members and blackmailing them to keep the group’s secrets—not to mention engaging in sex trafficking, child abuse, and racketeering—counted plenty of intelligent, educated, and wealthy professionals among its members.
What causes people to be susceptible to joining cults?
In her new book about NXIVM, Don’t Call It a Cult, journalist Sara Berman provides some insight into the insecurities that plagued many of the women who joined. Bronfman and her sister Sara were the products of their father’s short-lived third marriage. They rarely saw him, and their mother had a tendency to leave them—at one point “in the care of a remote Kenyan tribe.” Their involvement with Raniere and NXIVM seemed to be some combination of a search for a real family, an urge to exact revenge on their father, and a desire to use their wealth in some meaningful way.
The background of the broken family is unsurprisingly a common theme among NXIVM’s participants. A 15-year-old named Gina found herself caught up with a 24-year-old Raniere at the beginning of his “career” right after her parents went through a messy divorce and her older brothers left home. Berman notes that Raniere used various hypnotic techniques to persuade people to join him, but their initial interest was not random. Once the (mostly) women were in his grip, then he was able to use social pressure they exerted on each other to get them to act in bizarre, illegal, and self-harming ways.
It is important to note, though, that many women, couples, and even families joined NXIVM not because they were alone and desperate but because they wanted to improve their lives. “It was a lifestyle, a community, and most of all a chance to think about your best self,” Berman writes.
The inclination toward self-help is strong in this country. As Christine Whelan, a professor at the University of Wisconsin who wrote her dissertation on the self-help industry, told me, “The NXIVM cult started out as a traditionally leadership self-help model of empowerment and behavior modification. …. the lessons that were being taught to the broad introductory group were fairly simple strategies for accomplishing goals in your life.”
But then, she notes, NXIVM faced the same problem that all personal-improvement workshops seem to face: “How do you continue to ‘transform’ people after they’ve completed the entry-level experiences?” she asks, adding: “You up the ante.”
She cites James Arthur Ray who led a “Spiritual Warrior” group into the desert in 2009, dehydrated them on vision quests in the desert, and ended up killing three and injuring dozens more in a sweat lodge. As Whelan notes, “Ray blocked the only exit to the makeshift hut and told those inside that they needed to tough it out, that failure in the sweat lodge meant failure in life and failure in the afterlife as well.”
But another way to up the ante is to isolate people, especially from their loved ones. There are tales in Berman’s book of Raniere demanding that couples break up or even that parents shun their own children to demonstrate their loyalty. Strong families are a powerful defense against people getting caught up in cults in the first place, and the most successful cult leaders realize that breaking those bonds is necessary to ensure total fealty.
Raniere was ultimately sentenced to 120 years in prison and ordered to pay $1.75 million in restitution. When Raniere’s lawyer tried to defend him in court, implying that it was the women who manufactured this abuse in retrospect, the judge grew impatient. “I am not going to tolerate spending time on what his intent was when he seduced a 15-year-old girl… It’s an insult to the intelligence of anyone who listens.” Unfortunately, intelligence alone is not a guard against the advances of monsters like Keith Raniere.
Naomi Schaefer Riley is a senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum and a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.