Keith Raniere's charm and apparent brilliance made it easy for people seeking to better their lives to fall under his sway — before finding themselves entangled in a criminal enterprise that enslaved women, survivors of the NXIVM cult say.
“For a brief shining moment, there was a vision of Camelot,” said Barbara Bouchey, a former NXIVM member and longtime girlfriend to Raniere.
Bouchey and others spoke out on their time in the bizarre world of NXIVM in “E! True Hollywood Story: NXIVM Self-Help or Sex Cult,” airing Thursday as part of Oxygen's Cult Week.
NXIVM began as a marketing company also selling self-improvement, and ended in a Brooklyn courtroom last year with founder Raniere convicted on charges of racketeering, sex trafficking, forced labor, and money laundering.
Bouchey met Raniere in 1998 when she was a financial planner and he was selling “executive success programs” promising personal and financial fulfillment, according to the special.
Raniere promised to help people resolve differences and make major changes in their lives, Bouchey said.
“I held onto that vision,” she told producers.
When Raniere — who was accused of branding his initials on women he “owned,” among numerous other offenses — was found guilty, however, Bouchey was outside the courtroom with a different take on her former lover and guru.
“For me, it's a new day to live unencumbered by the threat of what he might do next and the harm he might cause other people,” Bouchey told the Washington Post. “It's been 20 years of my life.”
Raniere built an impressive narrative around himself, according to the special. He boasted of learning to read by age 2 and claimed to be a judo champion and piano prodigy. He also, however, treated girls manipulatively from as early as age 13, according to people interviewed for the special.
These qualities helped Raniere draw in celebrities minor and major and — crucially — a $150 million investment from Claire Bronfman, an heiress to the Seagram's liquor fortune.
Bronfman would later plead guilty to racketeering conspiracy and conspiracy to commit identity fraud for her role in the group that she allegedly helped Raniere run for a time.
TV actress Allison Mack was also sucked into Raniere's cult, and was later accused of helping recruit women, then blackmailing them and keeping them quiet inside the group. She pleaded guilty to racketeering charges last year and cried at her sentencing, acknowledging that she had been fooled by Raniere.
“I believed Keith Raniere's intentions were to help people, and I was wrong,” Mack said in court. “I know I can and will be a better person.”'
Survivors and cult experts have said that Raniere was able to lure so many into NXIVM by force of personality and fear of recrimination, as well as neurolinguistic programming, the New York Times reported.
Raniere built such a mythical narrative around himself with the followers he had that it was easier to convince others to join, one witness testified at the trial.
“By the time you saw him, it was a little bit like you were seeing, you know, some kind of god,” the man said, according to the Times.
Nancy Salzman, a founding member who allegedly aided in blackmailing and programming women, testified during the trial that Raniere had created a “community of people and kind of even an army of people to insulate and protect Keith and his views and legitimize and advocate for the lifestyle that he wanted,” the Times reported.
“You have to understand, I fell in love with the guy,” Bouchey told a Louisiana CrimeCon audience in 2019. “I didn’t know he was the devil.”
For more on NXIVM, watch the “E! True Hollywood Story: NXIVM Self-Help Or Sex Cult?” Thursday, April 23, on Oxygen or at NBC.com. And for more true stories of terrifying cults, don't miss the season premiere of “Deadly Cults” on Sunday, April 26 at 7/6c.
From April 22 to 26, Oxygen takes viewers inside some of the most terrifying cults in history.