Allison Mack and the Story of NXIVM: Inside the Downfall of a Sex Cult That Turned Women Into Recruiters

Former Smallville star Allison Mack was sentenced to three years in prison for her role in a sex-trafficking ring operating behind the cover of Keith Raniere's self-improvement program.

By Natalie Finn Jul 03, 2021 11:00 AMTags
Watch: Allison Mack Sentenced to 3 Years in Prison for Role in NXIVM Case

When Smallville ended after 10 seasons in 2011, Allison Mack found herself a little adrift, having played journalist and town truth-seeker Chloe Sullivan for almost the entirety of her adult life.

"I was 28 and I felt not quite sure where I was going or who I was. I think that was probably the most bumpy transition," Mack told Fine Magazine for its March 2017 issue. Asked how she managed to navigate that change in her life, she said, "I have a wonderful teacher and mentor named Keith Raniere, who really gave me some incredible guidance."

Raniere had suggested she try the stage, and sure enough, she was appearing in a play, Red Velvet, at San Diego's Old Globe Theatre.

"I think everyone needs a mentor," Mack said. "I don't think any of us really know the answers without a little bit of wisdom. If you aren't willing to be humble enough to seek wisdom from other people, I think you're missing a lot of really incredible opportunities to build a certain amount of depth and value in your life that you wouldn't have if you didn't have somebody to help guide you. I chose to have this mentor in my life, and I was talking to him about my struggle, confusion, and not knowing what to do. He said, 'Why don't you take some time and think about? Give yourself some space to figure out who you are now.' So that's what I did."

At the time, maybe, that just sounded like glowing praise. Now, in hindsight... more like indoctrination.

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On June 30, Mack—who pleaded guilty in 2019 to racketeering conspiracy and racketeering acts of state law extortion and forced labor, vowing in a tearful statement to "be a better person as a result of this"—was sentenced to three years in federal prison for her role in a sex-slave ring led by Raniere. Free on a $5 million bond, she had been facing a maximum of 17 years behind bars.

"It is now of paramount importance for me to say, from the bottom of my heart, I am so sorry," Mack wrote in a note include d in her sentencing memo, obtained by E! News. "I threw myself into the teachings of Keith Raniere with everything I had. I believed, whole-heartedly, that his mentorship was leading me to a better, more enlightened version of myself. I devoted my loyalty, my resources, and, ultimately, my life to him. This was the biggest mistake and regret of my life."

Raniere was the leader of what's been widely characterized as a "sex cult," given his Svengali approach that demanded utter devotion from his followers, under the shield of a lucrative, albeit suspect, self-help company called NXIVM that he operated out in the open for decades, backed by deep-pocketed believers and applauded by satisfied customers even as reporters and authorities closed in.

Famous TV & Movie Cults

In June 2019 he was convicted on all counts, including sex trafficking, forced labor conspiracy, wire fraud conspiracy, racketeering and possession of child pornography—and in October he was sentenced to 120 years in prison.

"All these women are throwing their arms about him and kissing him on the lips. Not just a peck but like, slow, long, lingering kisses," Catherine Oxenberg, whose daughter India Oxenberg spent time caught in thrall to Raniere, said on a 2019 E! True Hollywood Story episode about NXIVM. "My husband looked at me and he went, 'Oh, he's having sex with all these women.'"

Catherine's book Captive: A Mother's Crusade to Save Her Daughter from a Terrifying Cult was also fodder for a Lifetime movie starring Peter Facinelli as Raniere and Sara Fletcher as Mack, while HBO's 2020 docu-series The Vow also took a deep dive into what really happened.

Chris Reardon/Lifetime

In a statement read in court Wednesday, Mack said, "I am sorry to those of you that I brought into NXIVM. I am sorry I ever exposed you to the nefarious and emotionally abusive schemes of a twisted man."

India told The Hollywood Reporter in a statement following Mack's sentencing, "I'm still in a state of disbelief, but I trust and honor the judge's decision. I hope that her victims, including myself, feel vindicated and safer, given that she has denounced Keith Raniere. We all need time to process and digest everything. This is a big moment for all of us."

Raniere was arrested in March 2018 near Puerto Vallarta, Mexican and American authorities having tracked him to a $10,000-a-week rented villa inside a luxurious gated community. According to authorities, the women he was living with sped after the agents as they left with him in their car, reluctant to let Raniere—called "The Vanguard" by his acolytes—go.

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According to the federal criminal complaint filed against him, as the leader of the Albany, N.Y.-based NXIVM (pronunced "nexium," like the heartburn medication) since 2003, Raniere "maintained a rotating group of fifteen to twenty women with whom he maintains sexual relationships. These women are not permitted to have sexual relationships with anyone but Raniere or to discuss with others their relationship with Raniere. Some of the Nxivm curriculum included teachings about the need for men to have multiple sexual partners and the need for women to be monogamous."

Within NXIVM was DOS, a "secret society" made up of women who were considered to be struggling in the program and were then tasked with recruiting other women to join. In order to join, potential members had to provide "collateral" in the form of compromising photos or videos, or other information about themselves or family members that they would not want made public should they be inclined to cut ties with DOS (the name derived from a Latin phrase that could translate as "Lord/Master of the Obedient Female Companions" or "The Vow") or refuse sex with Raniere.

"DOS operates as a pyramid with levels of 'slaves' headed by 'masters,'" the charges continued. "Slaves are expected to recruit slaves of their own (thus becoming masters themselves), who in turn owe services not only to their own masters but also to masters over them in the DOS pyramid."

The women were also submitted to a branding ritual, in which a symbol integrating Raniere's initials was seared into their skin near their pubic region.

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And they weren't just used for sex, but for banal errands such as coffee runs, and they'd be asked to perform weird, random challenges, like holding a plank position on demand. Also according to the charges, Raniere would have some women severely cut their caloric intake because he preferred sexual partners who were very thin.

Keith Raniere Conversations Youtube

Overall, under the guise of offering self-help and what amounted to life coaching, Raniere was running an elaborate pyramid scheme in which women paid for his tutelage and could only move up the ladder of personal growth by forking over more cash, with a five-day workshop costing upward of $5,000.

"The Nxivm curriculum taught that women had inherent weaknesses including 'overemotional' natures, an inability to keep promises and embracing the role of victim," the complaint continued, per the Washington Post. "Nxivm operates largely in secrecy. Nxians were often required to sign non-disclosure agreements and to make promises not to reveal certain things about Nxivm's teachings."

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A letter posted on the NXIVM website in late 2017 from Raniere in response to a New York Times investigation and other reports which included interviews with women who said they were branded and subjected to other abusive treatment, read, "I am deeply saddened by the recent news relating to our organization, a number of key people involved, and past friends.

Seth Wenig/AP/Shutterstock

"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."

Raniere also maintained that he wasn't associated with "the sorority," nor was it a part of NXIVM, the umbrella company comprising Executive Success Programs Inc., the professional and personal coaching business he co-founded in 1998 with former nurse, therapist and hypnosis expert Nancy Salzman—the "Prefect" to his "Vanguard," whose upstate New York home was also searched by the FBI after Raniere's arrest.

Keith Ranere Conversations/Youtube

A 2018 statement from NXIVM read: "In response to the allegations against our founder, Keith Raniere, we are currently working with the authorities to demonstrate his innocence and true character. We strongly believe the justice system will prevail in bringing the truth to light. We are saddened by the reports perpetuated by the media and their apparent disregard for 'innocent until proven guilty,' yet we will continue to honor the same principles on which our company was founded. It is during the times of greatest adversity that integrity, humanity and compassion are hardest, and needed most."

Nancy Salzman has since pleaded guilty to racketeering conspiracy and is scheduled to be sentenced July 28.

Jean Baptiste Lacroix/WireImage

Allison Mack was accused of being a DOS recruiter between February 2016 and February 2017, having risen to just below Raniere in the DOS hierarchy.

"As alleged in the indictment, Allison Mack recruited women to join what was purported to be a female mentorship group that was, in fact, created and led by Keith Raniere,"Richard P. Donoghue, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York, said in a statement following her arrest. "The victims were then exploited, both sexually and for their labor, to the defendants' benefit. This Office and our law enforcement partners are committed to prosecuting predators who victimize others through sex trafficking and forced labor."

Added FBI Assistant Director-in-Charge William Sweeney, "Today we announce an additional arrest, and an indictment, in a case that brought to light an inconceivable crime. As this pyramid scheme continues to unravel, we ask anyone who might have been a victim to reach out to us with information that may further our investigation."

A consumer-fraud complaint filed in the summer of 2017 in New York by a former NXIVM member, who was demanding a refund of $9,000 spent on self-improvement programs, wrote in documents obtained by USA Today, "This company is a cult preying on vulnerable men and women who are looking for a credible self help program. Unless forcible confinement, branding, sex with students, and taking people who disagree with the program to court is a bona fide business in New York then I suggest all fees and tuition collected are baseless and fraudulent."

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While the federal complaint stopped short of calling NXIVM a cult, and Raniere and active members denied being a cult, experts on the subject say the organization checked off all the boxes, from its charismatic leader to its focus on separating members from their families and other non-believers.

"In my opinion, NXIVM is one of the most extreme groups I have ever dealt with in the sense of how tightly wound it is around the leader, Keith Raniere," Rick Ross, a cult tracker who at the time was embroiled in year nine of an ongoing legal battle with NXIVM (the company sued him for allegedly exposing too much of its teaching practices while writing about and discussing the program; he eventually won), told Albany's Times-Union. (The newspaper published a four-part series about Raniere and his businesses in 2012 after a year-long investigation and continued to closely follow NXIVM.) Ross likened him to Branch Davidian leader David Koresh.

"Cults come in all forms," Alexandra Stein, author of Terror, Love and Brainwashing and holder of a PhD in the sociology of cults, told Rolling Stone while talking about NXIVM. "Religious, political, self-help, therapy, sports/martial arts, commercial, business. If someone is promising you the world and starting to do [those] other things, beware."

And then there was the preying on vulnerable females.

Ben Mark Holzberg/The CW

After Raniere's arrest, Mack's former Smallville co-star Kristin Kreuk tweeted that she had taken an Executive Success Programs/NXIVM course called an "intensive" to help her combat her shyness, but had left the program five years prior and had had "minimal contact" with anyone else still involved.

"The accusations that I was in the 'inner circle' or recruited women as 'sex slaves' are blatantly false," stated the actress (who was not charged or otherwise implicated in any crime). "During my time I never witnessed any illegal or nefarious activity. I am horrified and disgusted by what has come out about DOS. Thank you to all of the brave women who have come forward to share their stories and expose DOS; I can't imagine how difficult this has been for you. I am deeply disturbed and embarrassed to have been associated with NXIVM. I hope that the investigation leads to justice for all of those affected."

Kreuk went on to star on the CW's Beauty & the Beast and the Canadian legal drama Burden of Truth.

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Authorities said that the FBI had built their case against Raniere with the help of eight female victims following years of media scrutiny and state-level investigations into his former businesses as well as NXIVM.

In 1993 Raniere was sued by the New York Attorney General's Office, which alleged that his multilevel marketing business Consumers' Buyline was a pyramid scheme. He agreed to close the business and pay a $40,000 settlement, but by 2003 had only paid $9,000. Next he started another multilevel marketing company, National Health Network, selling vitamins.

According to Forbes, Raniere met Nancy Salzman in 1997 when she was going through a difficult time and, after a few days of persuasion, she became his business partner. She also loaned his then-girlfriend Toni Natalie $50,000 for National Health Network (which was registered in her name) and became her therapist.

Natalie's eight-year relationship with Raniere ended in 1998 and NHN folded in 1999.

"What he kind of does is he elicits as much information as he can, almost as a friend you're sharing with," Natalie told USA Today in March 2018. "Then he takes those things and he manipulates you with them."

Meanwhile, Raniere went on to start Executive Success Programs with Salzman.

Dave Benett/Getty Images; Mary Altaffer/AP/REX/Shutterstock

In 2003, Forbes reported that Executive Success Program's devotees over the years had included BET co-founder Sheila Johnson; onetime U.S. Surgeon General Antonia C. Novello; Seagram chairman Edgar Bronfman Sr. and his daughters Clare and Sara Bronfman; and former Mexican president Vicente Fox's daughter Ana Cristina Fox.

By then there was already controversy regarding Raniere's practices, questions of whether he was a charlatan cashing in on the (still-ongoing) fulfill-your-potential-for-a-fee fad or was manipulating people in a cult-like fashion for more nefarious reasons.

Forbes featured Raniere on the cover and the story was titled "Cult of Personality."

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"I think it's a cult," Bronfman, who died in 2013, told Forbes. The billionaire said at the time that he hadn't talked to his daughters in months and then-24-year-old Clare Bronfman had loaned $2 million to the group. (Clare denied that. Vanity Fair reported in 2010 that Clare and sister Sara continued to give Raniere millions of dollars for NXIVM, and they were identified as members as recently as 2017).

In the fall of 2017, Catherine Oxenberg told the New York Times that her daughter India had joined the secret society within NXIVM and, though she had lost weight and said she hadn't gotten her period in a year, India defended what she was going through as "a character-building experience."

Meanwhile, Raniere insisted in 2003 that, though he had claimed to have made tens of millions of dollars, he wasn't in it for the money, calling his life "a somewhat church-mouse-type existence," and telling Forbes, somewhat cryptically, "I consider everything payment for what I've done."

Sonia Recchia/WireImage

Canadian actress Sarah Edmondson, once a devoted follower of Raniere, tweeted in support of Kreuk in 2018, writing, "For the record, my dear friend @MsKristinKreuk was never in the inner circle of #NXIVM. She never recruited sex slaves and has been out since 2013 before shit got weird. She is a lovely person who should not be dragged into this mess. Thank you. #Cult #DOS #freedom #TRUTH."

Recalling the branding ritual that new DOS members were required to undergo, Edmondson and others told the New York Times in the fall of 2017 that they were instructed to say, "Master, please brand me, it would be an honor." And then the smell of burning flesh filled the room.

"I wept the whole time," Edmondson recalled. "I disassociated out of my body." The Vancouver native filed a complaint in 2017 with the New York State Department of Health against Dr. Danielle Roberts, the osteopath she says did the branding. She received a letter back from the agency (posted by the Times) informing her they wouldn't be investigating Roberts because the action in question didn't occur "within the doctor-patient relationship," but should be reported to law enforcement; a state police investigator said they wouldn't be pressing charges because the action had been consensual.

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Edmondson told the Times that she had been invited starting in January 2017 by NXIVM teacher (and Nancy daughter) Lauren Salzman, whom she considered a close friend and mentor, to become one of the women who would recruit others to join.

"She made it sound like a bad-ass bitch boot camp," the actress said, claiming that Lauren told her that the proposed group was "kind of strange and top secret and in order for me to tell you about it you need to give me something as collateral to make sure you don't speak about it." It was at Lauren's home in Clifton Park, N.Y., where the branding ceremony took place, Edmondson said.

Lauren, who had been staying in Mexico with Raniere when he was arrested and later testified against him at trial, pleaded guilty to racketeering and racketeering conspiracy in April 2019 and is also due to be sentenced July 28. ("It never occurred to me that I would choose Keith—and Keith would choose Keith," she said in court.)

After the branding, Edmondson and her husband, Anthony Ames, decided they both wanted to leave NXIVM. Later the organization (which tended to suggest that ex-members would say anything to take it down out of spite), filed a complaint against Edmondson and two other women with Vancouver police, accusing them of mischief and other criminal activity. The ladies denied all accusations against them.

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"No one goes in looking to have their personality stripped away," Mark Vicente, a filmmaker and former member who once made a glowing documentary about Raniere (and who first recommended NXIVM to Edmondson), told the New York Times. "You just don't realize what is happening." He followed his wife in leaving after she, as an ex-member, was shunned and then got wind of a secret all-female society.

Edmondson has written her own memoir, Scarred: The True Story of How I Escaped NXIVM, the Cult that Bound My Life, and she told Refinery 29 in 2019 that she was responsible for recruiting at least 2,000 people into the program over the years.

"I have a lot of guilt about the people I brought in, but if there's one thing I can hang my hat on, it's that I never lied," the actress said. "I thought Keith Raniere was the greatest, wisest, most brilliant man on Earth. I had no idea what was going on with the women and everything that came out in the FBI's investigation."

Charley Gallay/Getty Images

Catherine Oxenberg was unrelenting in her quest to get her daughter out of Raniere's clutches, insisting to whomever would listen that she felt India's life was in danger.

"She's one of the kindest people and I believe that her goodness and her kindness are being used against her," Oxenberg said on Today in November 2017. The Dynasty actress turned star of the reality series I Married a Princess unwittingly brought India to an introductory Executive Success Programs session six years beforehand. "I thought it was kind of an innocuous, personal-growth, self-help business-oriented program," she explained. And her daughter loved it, opting to participate in more and more classes.

After her mother talked to the New York Times, India Oxenberg wrote on Facebook on Oct. 19, 2017, "I'm absolutely fine, great actually. I would never put myself or the people I love into any danger." After denying requests for an interview with Raniere or other officials, NXIVM turned away Today's reporting team when they drove to the Albany facility to ask for answers in person, Kelly said.

NBC News was directed to a previous NXIVM statement that the company "firmly opposes and condemns violence, victimhood, dishonor and abuse."

Mother and daughter reunited once Raniere's trial got underway, and Catherine wrote in Captive that she considered it a major step in the right direction when India said she was willing to entertain the idea that she had been manipulated by the people she had trusted. "I'm open to that possibility, Mom," India told her.

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"He was pretending, it seems to me, now that I'm out, to be an ambassador for women," Sarah Edmondson mused to VICE Canada about Raniere in 2017. "An ambassador to help women get over these things so they can be strong. I did ten eight-day trainings. So 80 14-hour days on this particular topic. That's a lot of time. And there was a lot of information plugged in there that I'm just sorting out now, like what do I believe, what do I not believe."

Later on she said, "I felt fear after I was in, after I committed, and when I gave more collateral to commit—that's when I gave a nude photo and video testimonials—trash talking all the important relationships in my life. That's what I did to collateralize. Which, by the way, was nothing compared to what other women gave. I didn't find that out until later. Other women gave full frontal videos of themselves, I wonder where those went. I didn't want my collateral to be released, which is how they kept us quiet."

Edmondson acknowledged that people had told her that she could've just left, but "I just didn't feel like that was an option at the time."

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"Keith made me feel precious to him," Christine Marie, who was a divorced mother of four when she first met Raniere in 1998, told the Albany Times-Union in 2012. "He touched me gently on the side of the face and told me that I was such an innocent, pure soul that I didn't even belong on this planet."

Christine said he hired her to write marketing materials for National Health Network and then for Executive Success Programs.

Then "Keith explained that it might help me if I would be physical with him," Marie told the paper. After they slept together, she said, Raniere "sat me down and told me I was now part of his inner circle and committed for life and I could never be physically involved with another man." He, however, said he was still involved with other women.

"I found it fascinating that these beautiful, smart women knew about each other and didn't seem upset to share Keith," Christine continued. "I thought they were all extraordinary women. Still, it seemed like secret polygamy to me, and I remember feeling sorry for them, too. As I understood it, they had to share the man they loved, they couldn't publicly celebrate their love with a wedding, they couldn't be with any other man, and they had to sacrifice a normal family life for what they believed was a higher cause."

She said that Raniere helped extricate her from a toxic relationship with another man in 2000—a Utah cult leader, according to the Times-Union—and Keith called him "a suppressive parasite who was taking advantage of me, who was attracted to my light and wanted to destroy me while benefiting from my life work. Keith wanted me to understand that I was being exploited by a cult leader who was nothing more than a con artist. He made a lot of sense."

Christine said that, largely because of her children, she ultimately figured out that she shouldn't go from the clutches of one guru type to another, though "Nancy Salzman could not fathom why I would make my family my priority when I was so desperately in need of their thought-reform program. I felt an intense amount of pressure to go. But in the end, I did not go. I did not join NXIVM, and I did not become part of Keith Raniere's inner circle."

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"April of 1999 was the last time I laid eyes on Keith Raniere," his ex-girlfriend Toni Natalie told USA Today in 2018, before Raniere's arrest. "My brother came in and started what he called 'negotiating my release' because having a conversation with Keith that was easy or normal wasn't possible."

Litigation kept them connected. A bankruptcy court judge wrote in a 2009 decision, "This matter smacks of a jilted fellow's attempt at revenge or retaliation against his former girlfriend, with many attempts at tripping her up along the way."

"I live by the premise that it's going to come; it's just when is it going to come," Natalie said. "Because until he's dead or in jail, this is what my life is." She concluded, "The last thing my mother said to me that was clear before she died was: 'Toni, you're not crazy. And don't let them make you think you're crazy, because you're not.'"

Elizabeth Williams via AP, File

In a video since taken down but which was circulating around the time of her arrest, Allison Mack was seen getting emotional in an undated conversation with Raniere. "As individuals we strive to break through a type of existential isolation," he told her. "We want to touch someone, we want to know that other people have souls. We want to experience this. We want to experience connection, things like what we call love and compassion—even something like as I say connection or rapport, some people call it, an energy or whatever." Even when talking to our devices, we imbue them with human characteristics, he said.

Asked why she was getting so emotional, Mack, wiping away tears, said, "I don't know, 'cause it seems like it's a...something that I just...I feel like I want it, authenticity."

Her blog appeared to have been taken down by March 2018, but Mack would regularly link to new posts via Twitter. In a cached post linked to by FoxNews.com, she wrote about what sounded like her discovery of NXIVM after living her life "conflicted."

Mark Lennihan/AP/REX/Shutterstock

"A collective inspiring a community of strong, authentically empowered women to own themselves in a way that has never been seen or understood before?" she wrote. "It sounded like the perfect blend of what I was looking for! So I took the leap and enrolled in a weekend workshop and within the first few hours I knew I had found my people."

"Many years later, the curriculum continues to guide me through the maze of my inner world shining light on the dark corners of my psychodynamic revealing confusions and insecurities that have hindered the expression of the authentic, empowered woman I have always sought to embody. I embrace so much more of myself now and am beginning to understand what it takes to grow into the vision of the woman of our times."

(Originally published April 24, 2018, at 5 a.m. PT)

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