Alleged cult leader Keith Reniere has been apprehended in Mexico after a lengthy investigation by the FBI stemming from allegations that his organization, an MLM scheme masquerading as a self-help group, had been involved in a series of horrific human rights violations including sex trafficking.
Drawing inspiration from Scientology, Ayn Rand’s objectivist philosophies, as well as MLM sales pitches, Keith Reniere cobbled together the organization known as Nxivm in 1998. Beginning in Albany, New York and growing to include multiple centers based in the United States, Canada, and Mexico, Nxivm specializes in selling invitation only self-help workshops for upwards of $3,000 each. Existing members are then encouraged to introduce family and friends to the group in order to receive a small commission, depending on the member’s rank in the organization. It’s been claimed that throughout its nearly 20 years of existence more than 16,000 people, including celebrities, have attended some of the group’s seminars.
Once initiated into the group, new recruits are pressured into adapting to an assortment of rituals which include bowing while entering into group meetings, secret handshakes, chanting mantras taken from Reniere’s writings, and referring to Reniere as “Vanguard.” Many members also wear sashes to workshops and meetings conducted by Nxivm, color-coded in order to indicate their rank within the organization. Members are convinced that by joining Nxivm they are on their way to making the world a better place by putting Reniere’s teachings into practice and are allegedly encouraged to cut off contact with individuals who do not subscribe to the group’s philosophies.
With all the trappings of a cult, it should come to little surprise that in 2017 the New York Times wrote a scathing expose on the group, with defectors coming forward to blow the whistle on a “secret sorority” where they alleged that select female members were held down and branded with Keith Reniere’s initials while other members recorded the terrifying ordeal. Additionally, it was claimed that these select women were also forced to adhere to a strict diet, in order to maintain a dangerously slim figure, and would become part of what can only be described as Reniere’s personal harem. In order to ensure their silence, these select female members – affectionately referred to as “slaves” – were allegedly coerced into providing a written confessional and nude photos of themselves in the event that they should ever speak out against Nxivm, all while unaware of the shocking abuse that lay ahead of them.
In spite of the extreme measures Nxivm had allegedly taken in order to ensure that their dirty little secret was safely locked behind the walls of these exclusive workshops, five women have come forward to expose the abuse they suffered through Nxivm. One victim claimed during a televised interview with 20/20 that after she and other women had come forward to detail their experiences and had filed for legal action against Nxivm and others involved in the group, they were met with “legal terrorism” in an attempt to both bankrupt them and silence their stories. Journalists helping to expose the group were similarly met by both legal action and had reported being followed by private investigators working for the organization, with Nxivm allegedly going as far as to purchase their garbage in hopes of finding information that could be beneficial in various lawsuits against the whistleblowers.
Since going public with their story, Reniere has denounced the accusations, claiming that the information brought forth by the media had been completely unfounded. In a letter published on Nxivm’s website, Reniere states:
I am deeply saddened by the recent news relating to our organization, a number of key people involved, and past friends.
The picture being painted in the media is not how I know our community and friends to be, nor how I experience it myself. However, as an organization and as individuals, we felt it was imperative that we hire experts to ensure there is no merit to the allegations.
Over the past months, there have been extensive independent investigations performed, by highly qualified individuals, and they have firmly concluded that there is no merit to the allegations that we are abusing, coercing or harming individuals. These allegations are most disturbing to me as non-violence is one of my most important values.
Additionally, I feel it is important to clarify the sorority is not part of NXIVM and that I am not associated with the group. I firmly support one’s right to freedom of expression, so what the sorority or any other social group chooses to do is not our business so long as there is no abuse. Our experts, a forensic psychiatrist of international repute, psychologists and ex-law enforcement, say members of the sorority are thriving, healthy, happy, better off, and haven’t been coerced. Furthermore, the sorority is proud of what they created and want to share their story. I am confident they will be addressing you very soon.
Today marks our first step forward. It is our hope, as much as we might be part of the problem, to a greater extent, we will humbly seek to be part of the solution. Moving forward, we will communicate better. We will inform better.
Raniere fled to Mexico once the allegations against him were made public. Raniere, who had been described as “un-cooperative” with immigration officials, was detained at his Mexican villa in March of 2018, according to the BBC, and was extradited back to the United States in order to face charges based on the findings of the FBI. Raniere is currently being charged with sex trafficking and forced labor through what the FBI has dubbed an “unorthodox pyramid scheme.”