- NXIVM, a sex cult covered up as a multi-level marketing company, employed science-backed psychological methods to manipulate members into sex, branding themselves, and sharing private information.
- According to therapist Kelly Scott, the group approach reinforced manipulative behavior and turned vulnerability into "currency."
- Leader Keith Raniere's "exploration of meaning" method also made people ignore their natural trauma responses.
- Visit Insider's homepage for more stories.
HBO's new docuseries "The Vow" has reignited interest in the alleged sex cult NXIVM, which leader Keith Raniere covered up as a multi-level marketing company billed to help people reach their professional goals.
"The Vow" recounts how Raniere, who was charged with sex trafficking and forced labor in June 2019, and his close circle, pushed science-backed psychological methods to the extreme, under the guise of self-help, in order to manipulate NXIVM followers.
In the most severe cases, women were recruited to NXIVM's secret women-only group "DOS" (Latin for Dominus Obsequious Sororium, or "master over slave"), branded with Raniere's initials, and asked to limit their caloric intake and/or have sex with Raniere. NXIVM also manipulated members into providing "collateral," or private information that could be used as blackmail if they abandoned the organization.
Raniere shaped NXIVM's self-help teachings, which he dubbed the "Executive Success Program" (ESP), around the idea that a person's past experiences affect their current decision-making and how they move through the world. Raniere said people who stuck with these psychological techniques could be relieved of their emotional baggage and think more freely.
In doing this, Raniere abused of a key hallmark of psychotherapy, according to therapist Kelly Scott.
"So much of therapy, at least the way that I practice, is exactly that," Scott told Insider. "It's looking at what brought you into the door for therapy. What's hurting right now? What's the problem? And then panning out and recognizing the cluster the data points create, and understanding the origin of those patterns that are causing so many problems in your life."
Though helpful when practiced in a safe space like a therapist's office, Raniere ultimately used members' self-reflections and vulnerabilities to gaslight and abuse them later.
NXIVM leaders used a classic therapy technique
The most common way NXIVM members would therapize their actions was through an EM, or "exploration of meaning" — a term Raniere created.
During an EM, a member and a high-ranking NXIVM teacher would sit in chairs, facing each other, while a group of other members watched. The member would explain an area of their life they were having trouble in, like feeling anxious about a job interview, and the teacher would ask questions to see if the anxiety was rooted in a specific memory or pattern in their past.
"The Vow" shows footage from some of these sessions, and when Scott watched them, they reminded her of a specific type of therapy called EMDR, or eye movement desensitization and reprocessing.
EMDR involves a person recounting a traumatic event in their life to a therapist so they can better process it and move forward.
Much like Raniere's EM method, EMDR starts with a harmful or negative belief a person has about themselves, like "I'm not worthy of love," and a therapist then helps them pinpoint a specific memory that led to or reinforced that belief. Then, an EMDR patient better understands how their current behaviors are reflections of a belief they were previously taught.
Other members watched EMs to create positive reinforcement and 'fetishize vulnerability'
EMDR is done one-on-one, with a patient speaking confidentially to a therapist in an office.
But with Raniere's EM method, a NXIVM member shared their vulnerable and traumatic past in front of a crowd. When Raniere or another high-ranking member running an EM deemed the member had a breakthrough, the audience clapped and cheered in celebration.
According to Scott, this set-up intentionally creates positive reinforcement, so members want to share even more vulnerable information.
"The group is providing influence and pressure on the person to expose themselves. They're getting positive reinforcement when they do [expose themselves]. People are cheering, people are smiling, people are are reinforcing it," Scott said.
Vulnerability can lead to helpful mental and emotional breakthroughs when expressed in a safe space, but Raniere's methods removed that safe space under the guise of accountability.
NXIVM taught members that if they shared the most fragile parts of themselves with an audience, everyone in that audience could make sure they wouldn't fall back on their previous negative ways of thinking and acting.
In reality, this framework only turned vulnerability into a commodity or "highly valued currency," Scott said.
"I think there is a way that group absolutely fetishizes vulnerability. Actually, the more accurate way of saying that is they fetishize exploitation," she said, adding that the group mentality allowed more and more people to buy into that system.
NXIVM taught members that natural trauma responses were personal faults
In the fourth episode of "The Vow," an anonymous former member dubbed "Jane" who was part of the women-only group DOS, recounted how she had a dissociative response when she had sex with Raniere.
According to Scott, disassociation, or feeling outside of your body during a traumatic event, is a natural way humans protect themselves from physically, mentally, and emotionally scarring events.
Jane said she felt pressured into sex, because Raniere said doing so would help her face her fears and get closer to her goals. But when she said the experience was unhelpful, DOS leaders chalked it up to a mental block she had to work through with more EMs.
"It's a way of dismantling people's self protection. It's wildly manipulative," Scott said.
Although Raniere used psychology-backed methods, he appeared to weaponize them to gaslight members into ignoring their intuitions and bending to his every request.
"The fact [Raniere's method] has some elements of very valid theory, that makes it so dangerous because it's something that feels reasonable on the surface," Scott said.
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