In Depth

What is Nxivm?

Actor Allison Mack jailed for helping sex cult leader Keith Raniere

Smallville star Allison Mack has been sentenced to three years in prison for recruiting women to a sex cult called Nxivm. The US actor was arrested in 2018 after fleeing to Mexico with the group’s notorious leader Keith Raniere, now serving 120 years behind bars for multiple crimes.

In a letter filed to the court before Mack was sentenced, she apologised for exposing her victims to the “nefarious and emotionally abusive schemes of a twisted man” in what was the “biggest mistake and regret of my life”.

Who is Raniere?

Raniere, now 60, was born in Brooklyn and attended the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. A former multivitamin salesman, he founded his Nxivm self-help group and multi-level marketing organisation in 1998.

In October 2003, Forbes ran a cover story on Raniere that was headlined: “The world’s strangest executive coach.” The magazine described how his devoted followers described Raniere as a “soft-spoken, humble genius” whose empowering programme could cure ailments including diabetes and scoliosis.

Keith Raniere

Keith Raniere is serving 120 years in prison

But his detractors “say he runs a cult-like programme aimed at breaking down his subjects psychologically, separating them from their families and inducting them into a bizarre world of messianic pretensions, idiosyncratic language and ritualistic practices”, Forbes reported.

By 2017, following years of growing controversy, former members had asked New York State authorities to investigate Raniere, who fled to Mexico before being arrested and sent back to the US in March 2018. Two years later, he was sentenced to 120 years in prison and also fined $1.75m (£1.25m) after being convicted of charges including racketeering, forced labour, sex trafficking and child abuse images.

How big was Nxivm?

An estimated 16,000 people enrolled in courses offered by Nxivm, but few were aware that the organisation concealed “an internal, cult-like sub-group dedicated to serving the carnal - and now criminal - demands of its founder”, The Guardian reported during Raniere’s trial.

His self-improvement workshops were popular in “Hollywood and business circles”, says The New York Times, but prosecutors revealed that behind the scenes, he was a “puppet master” controlling a “criminal enterprise”. The jury heard how some women were sexually abused and even branded with his initials during bizarre ceremonies, while others were forced to have abortions after being made pregnant by him.

Raniere exerted power over women by demanding that they give him a folder of compromising material - often sexually explicit photographs or detailed written accounts of their sexual fantasies. Victims were then coerced into doing Raniere’s bidding through threats to make this material public.  

Following his conviction by a jury in 2019, district attorney Richard Donoghue said that Raniere had “ruined marriages, fortunes, careers and lives”. The housing development where group members lived with the “modern-day Svengali” was like the set of a “horror movie”, Donoghue added. 

What was Mack’s role?

The secretive inner core of the organisation was called DOS - variously described as standing for Dominus Obsequious Sororium (Latin for “Master of the Obedient Sorority”), or Dominant Over Submissive.

Raniere encouraged several accomplices in this group to recruit their own slaves, with the ultimate goal of satisfying him. As one of these former accomplices, Mack pleaded guilty to charges of racketeering and conspiracy in 2019.

Appearing at Brooklyn Federal Court on Wednesday for sentencing, the 38-year-old appealed for leniency, pointing out that she had cooperated with the authorities against Raniere and admitted her own crimes.

But handing down the prison sentence, US District Judge Nicholas Garaufis said: “You capitalised on your celebrity and these individuals’ eagerness to be close to you, told them you were recruiting them for a ‘women’s empowerment’ sorority, and misrepresented and obscured fundamental facts about the organisation and the conditions of membership.”

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