It was a company that touted itself as a repository for self-help secrets that could propel people toward success, but in the end it was revealed to be a pyramid scheme that coerced women into sexual slavery and even branded them like cattle.
NXIVM gave personal and professional development seminars to thousands of students, but it was its nefarious inner circle that drew the attention of federal authorities and resulted in several convictions and guilty pleas for top members earlier this year.
Within NXIVM, there was a secret slave-master sisterhood, called ‘DOS” or “The Vow,” where women became branded slaves. There were eight “first-line masters” in that secret society who reportedly directly to NXIVM’s leader Keith Raniere, Lauren Salzman, a former first-line master herself, testified earlier this year. Salzman said she had 22 slaves that reported to her.
It appears that all the slaves were branded with a cauterizing pen, which doctors use for small surgical procedures.
Sarah Edmondson, who spent more than a decade in NXIVM, was one such woman.
“We were told that we’d all be receiving an identical tattoo the size of a dime,” she wrote in her memoir "Scarred." "Instead, we took turns holding each of the other members down on a table as NXIVM’s resident female doctor dragged a red-hot cauterizing pen across the sensitive area just below their bikini line. The women screamed in pain as the smell of burnt flesh filled the air.”
Edmondson said on ABC’s “20/20” that the pain was worse than childbirth and that each branding took about 30 minutes.
While told they were being branded with a Latin symbol, the women were actually branded with the initials KR, for Keith Raniere, who was found guilty earlier this year of sex-trafficking and coercing women into the group.
The branding ceremony, along with other measures, were all designed to prove loyalty to the group and to enforce the pervasive slave-master dynamics of NXIVM.
To join “DOS,” women had to hand over naked photographs of themselves as well as incriminating letters detailing their deepest secrets. One of the women testified during Raniere’s federal trial that she was ordered to write a letter falsely claiming her father sexually abused her in order to give NXIVM “collateral” for possible blackmail, proof of her “lifetime commitment” to the group, the New York Daily News reported. She also claimed that Allison Mack, an actress and former high-ranking member of NXIVM, instructed her to make a sex tape for the same purpose of providing "collateral."
“It was an exercise in trust,” she claimed the “Smallville” actress told her. “No one is going to see any of this.”
Mack pleaded guilty earlier this year to racketeering charges and admitted she manipulated women into becoming sex slaves for Raniere.
Once branded slaves, both metaphorically and literally, the women were kept subservient in a number of ways: They were sometimes locked in cages, forced to take cold showers, and stand barefoot in the snow, according to The Cut. Salzman testified that being locked in a cage for days until surrendering was supposed to be a way for the most committed members to grow.
Salzman, who is also branded with Raniere’s initials, pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges in March. She admitted keeping a slave locked in a room for more than two years.
A new Lifetime movie, “Escaping the NXIVM Cult: A Mother’s Fight to Save Her Daughter,” which will air Saturday night, dramatizes the inner workings of the cult.
“Are you ready for your NXIVM transformation?” one woman asks another in a trailer. "Yes, master,” the other replies.
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