I consider myself a slightly skeptical person, but I’ll also try most anything once, and I’m always willing to listen to someone who’s benefited from something. Which is how I ended up being recruited by NXIVM — the organization that’s recently been accused of sex trafficking and forced branding, and resulted in the arrests of founder Keith Raniere and Smallville actress Allison Mack, among others.
I was recruited by a friend; at first, I thought all the people he introduced me to were fairly interesting, and certainly smart. It wasn’t until I read those headlines that I thought, “Holy shit. Perhaps that party was sketchy.”
So how does one actually get recruited by a now-infamous sex cult? For me, it began with a professional development workshop a former job of mine paid for, aimed at “optimizing our potential.” This group had no affiliation with NXIVM, but it opened a gateway into a community of self-improvement aficionados. I went for a pretty standard reason: the free wine and cured meats. But the workshop itself delved deep into our egos, sense of empathy, and mental and behavioral patterns. I even tried a turmeric-oat muffin. This was the stuff of real growth!
After the workshop, a smaller group of us who’d hit it off got in touch and decided to form a book club. This lasted for over two years, and it consisted of people of different ages, races, careers, and nationalities. As it goes, half the time people forgot to read the book. But that didn’t matter. Usually, the conversation just veered off to other topics — from new jobs to painfully atrophying careers, from promising flings to refusing-to-die zombie loves, we became good friends outside of the norms of our everyday lives.
So when I got an email from one member of the group — we’ll call him Michael — about a gathering at his house to introduce us to another personal-growth program, I didn’t think twice about accepting. Michael is incredibly successful with an Important Job™, wildly kind and intelligent, and his apartment is so nice my jaw unhinges from my skull every time I step into it (he has bookshelves with a sliding ladder). My point is, he’s got his shit together more than almost anyone I know. And I’d come to consider him a good friend.
When I arrived, there were about 10 to 15 people clustered in little groups around the fine pottery and photographs Michael had snapped of himself from places around the world. There were a few people from the book club, but most I didn’t know. As I made the rounds of small talk, I learned everyone else was as accomplished as Michael. So I did what one always does at a party where you’re kind of a schlub and everyone else is impressive: I ate stacks upon stacks of salami. By the time we gathered for a presentation, my brain was filled with at least two Riojas and my fingerprints laced with congealed brie. Meaning, I was amenable to most anything.
Michael briefly recapped his experience with Executive Success Programs (ESP) — the flagship series of workshops and community meetings that NXIVM operates, though it apparently offers other seminars, workshops, and pyramid scheme-y things, too. When finished, he introduced Matt, a representative from ESP. Matt began fulsomely.
“What if I told you you could get exactly what you want in life?” He took a beat and surveyed the room. “Our patented technology is designed to help you reveal your full potential — and utilize it.”
Despite the overtures, Matt came across as pragmatic and down to earth. And most of all, he obviously believed in his pitch. I found it endearing.
He shared individual stories of those who’d benefited from the program — most notably, how one of his siblings had cured his speech disorder through ESP, all thanks to Keith Raniere’s technology. He even preemptively addressed criticisms.
“Some people think we’re a pyramid scheme, some people think we’re a cult. But we’re really none of those things. We’ve got CEOs, entrepreneurs, politicians …” and he named some fairly high-profile people that I won’t mention here, because, y’know, sex-trafficking affiliations. (Because he’d mentioned cults, I went home and went way deep into ESP Googleland afterward. There were freaky rumors bubbling up, but nothing like what’s now come to light.)
I immediately noticed how important pedigree seemed to be to this crew. Over and over, they named Harvard Business School and Wharton, Deloitte and McKinsey, Broadway and Hollywood. It put a sour taste in my mouth. But then again, I’d just dunked cornichons into a tangy mustard. So I remained an attentive listener.
That is, until it dawned on me that I’d been there for 45 minutes, and still had zero clue as to what the fuck ESP actually was. When Matt dropped the price point — something like $3,000 for a five-day intensive program or $7,500 for 16 days — the Gouda nearly came back up.
“I’m sorry if I missed this, but can you explain more about what the technology is?” I asked.
“We can’t go into specifics, because our technology is proprietary. Instead, we want to focus on what you’ll gain,” Matt answered.
Sure. But proprietary shmoprietary when we’re talking over $3K. Also, the term “technology” seemed to skew more toward “Sporcle personality quiz” and less toward “code” or “software” or “any actual technology.” When the presentation ended, Matt asked us to come to him and sign up if we were ready.
At that point, two other reps who had been sitting among us made a beeline to those of us who were having any hesitations. A rep cornered me and started interrogating me.
“Look, if it was free, I’d definitely go,” I admitted. “But I just don’t have that kind of money right now.”
“You’re just like me. I totally get it,” he said. “My advice is that you just need to take a leap and invest in yourself. There’s nothing more important.”
This went on back and forth for awhile, until he said, “You know, my sister was really struggling. She has two kids, single mom, woman of color trying to make it out of debt. But she sold her car to take ESP because she valued her own potential. And now she’s getting promotions, and hasn’t looked back.”
It was at this point that some real alarm bells broke through the wine-and-cheese fog. What kind of program would advise someone really struggling with debt to spend thousands on a professional development workshop?
I’m not sure if anyone at the party signed up. I told the reps I’d think about it, and hung around to continue my gluttony until only Michael, the book club friend, and the ESP reps remained. It was then that everyone kind of dropped their hard sells, and we began getting to know each other better. We somehow began talking about Britney Spears and I went on to break down why I believe she is the goddess of our times.
One rep suddenly slammed down her glass with glee and said, “Remember when you asked what ESP does? This. It makes you talk about all aspects of your life the way you’re talking about Britney right now.” They all screamed yes!, and I laughed and felt my cheeks glow pink, and we poured yet another round.
It hit a nerve. It made me feel eager, like there was something more for me, and also some kind of sorrow. What would it be like to boast about all facets of my life — my work, my love life, my projects, my new Spanx — with a such a fire and tenacity that it leaves rooms stunned? I thought about it for weeks. But I never could take the plunge, all praises be to my English-major bank account.
The day I read the New York Times story about the forced branding, I felt my guts seize up in total horror — and I thought of how Michael and those reps must have felt when uncovering the same words. I can’t say for sure that none of them knew. It would shock me to learn they had, but also, what can you really know?
I’ve seen Michael several times since, but I can’t broach the subject. To even skirt near the shame and indignity is too much. What I believe is that these smart, complex people were evangelizing a system from the lower rungs, and it coiled up into something unimaginably ghastly at the epicenter. And I believe it was a mindfuck to discover that they had helped propel such abhorrence.
Though these people did, you know, try to recruit me into a pyramid-scheme-y cult, I fear for the stigma they may face as the truth continues to unfurl. As a society, we tend to commend all the qualities these groups claim to offer — purpose, fulfillment, community — but we then demonize huge swaths of people for having chosen unwisely. My point is not to absolve cults, but to honestly face a painful duality: While cults can be evil, the people within them are human. No one is immune from being swindled. There’s usually a cozy setting and lovely little party to kick things off.
What I learned from my brief, almost foray into sex-culting: Cults aren’t exclusively made up of freaks or damaged, desperate people (though they may leave that way). They consist of relatively normal individuals — and it’s for this reason that they’re so frightening.