It's easy to scoff at the idea of falling victim to a cult. The people who drank poison at Jonestown or the Manson followers so enraptured by their leader they agreed to murder — it seems incomprehensible somebody would agree to join groups like that. But in the beginning of HBO's new nine-part docuseries "The Vow," viewers learn why NXIVM, a self-help group hiding a sex cult within it, was so beguiling to potential recruits. After all, NXIVM leader Keith Raniere claimed to have helped scores of people unlock their potential, and in one astounding case, seemingly cured a young man of his Tourette Syndrome.
Yes, Raniere purported to cure Marc Elliot of Tourette's, a nervous system disorder that causes uncontrollable tics in the form of movements and noises. As Marc Vicente, an ex-NXIVM member, told docuseries: "Marc Elliot comes into ESP (Executive Success Program) and Marc Elliot has a pretty severe case of Tourette's, and in his first intensive, he’s tic-ing like crazy and saying all kinds of words. [...] It's just a mess."
But after working with Raniere, Elliot is shown speaking clearly and easily in footage obtained by the docuseries. In fact, Elliot now works as a motivational speaker, according to his website. He was even featured in a documentary, "My Tourette's," released in 2018, that focused on how NXIVM helped heal him and he wrote a book about the experience.
So, how did Raniere claim to do it?
Well, as NXIVM co-founder Nancy Salzman explained in "My Tourette's": "We don’t use any drugs. The only thing we use is a talk approach. I listen to where I think their beliefs are limited. And then I look at the stimulus response patterns that they have and I symmetrically disconnect them. "
OK, so what does that really mean?
Well, NXIVM recruited many of its members through its Executive Success Programs, which were personal and professional development courses that focused on overcoming fear and anxiety. These programs lasted several days and cost thousands of dollars, asking participants to indulge in fraternity-like practices such as using special handshakes and wearing color-coded sashes. Students are taught to recognize and overcome their own "limiting beliefs," which block their potential and can often be traced back to childhood traumas or other emotional triggers.
"There is much in the content and format of ESP that is not at all original, and is quite similar to aspects of a number of cults and cult-like organizations with which I am familiar," John Hochman, an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at University of California Los Angeles, concluded after studying ESP in 2003.
When it came to treating Tourette's, a similar method was used.
"Keith found a cure for Tourette's which is a heightened version of what any of us do in ESP," Vicente told "The Vow."
The subject would discuss childhood issues and attempt to find the source of their tics to build "counterimpulses" while working with an unlicensed NXIVM practitioner, sources told Vice in 2018.
As Vice reporter Sarah Berman noted, the practice, which "includes elements of hypnosis, neuro-linguistic programming, Scientology’s Dianetics, and cognitive behavioral therapy," has never been tested in a scientific, peer-reviewed setting.
While Tourette's isn't curable, there are many treatment options available, including speech therapies and behavioral modification programs that have actually been scientifically tested, according to the Tourette Association of America.
Elliot did not respond when Oxygen.com reached out for comment.
However on Elliot's website, he wrote, "Even with the recent events with NXIVM, Marc continues be a proud supporter in their current battle against hate, something Marc has always stood for."
Raniere, the mastermind behind NXIVM, was convicted of racketeering, sex-trafficking, forced labor conspiracy, and wire fraud conspiracy in June 2019 after he was accused of coercing women in the organization into having sex with him; he has yet to be sentenced.
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