Photo taken from Sarah Berman's Twitter
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New book provides further insight on NXIVM cult

15 mins read

An investigative journalist has written a book about the NXIVM cult which was founded by Keith Rainiere and his partner Nancy Salzman in 1998.

“Don’t Call It A Cult” was written by former VICE senior editor and Vancouver-based journalist Sarah Berman. According to an article from the Times Union, a newspaper based in Albany, New York, “Don’t Call It A Cult” is told in three parts that chronicle the rise of NXIVM, Rainiere’s strategies to avoid legal repercussions and the investigation that lead to the fall of the cult.

Sara Berman, along with Times Union Reporter Rob Gavin, covered the nearly two-month trial of Keith Raniere in 2019. Rainire was convicted on seven charges, among them sex-trafficking, wire fraud, extortion, racketeering, child pornography possession and forced labor. Known as “Vangaurd” to NXIVM followers, Rainiere is currently serving a 120-year prison sentence. Some of the members of his inner circle are still awaiting sentencing, including “Smallville” Actress Allison Mack.

Both Berman and Gavin spoke about “Don’t Call It A Cult” on an episode of a  “NXIVM on Trial,” a Times Union podcast. During the podcast, Berman explained what drove her to write the book about NXIVM.

“My draw to NXIVM really was sparked to by my realization that I have sort of friends and colleagues who were pretty closely associated, who have taken the class, you know, who maybe had a roommate who moved to Albany or went to highschool with someone like Nicki Clyne who, to this day, remains loyal to Keith Raniere,” Berman said.

Berman elaborated that the motivation to write her book was to solve the riddle of how a cohort of NXIVM’s base, which were mostly progressive, left-leaning, vegan bike riding types, got involved with an organization that got so dark and warped.

In addition, Berman said that the meaning behind the book’s title “Don’t Call It A Cult” has to do with NXIVM’s obscurity,  which was reinforced by several members not thinking that it was a cult. Berman mentioned that she spoke to Canadian actress Sarah Edmondson, who had just escaped NVIXM on October 2017.

She noted that Edmonson was afraid to call NXIVM a cult due to the possibility of facing legal retaliation. Clare Bronfman, one of the members of Rainiere’s inner circle and an heiress to the Seagman Company fortune, had flown to Vancouver to press charges against Edmondson.

Courtesy of Sarah Berman

Berman noted that when making the book, she thought that she needed to write 300 pages to understand what NXIVM looked like from the inside since she and Gavin did quick hits at the trial to get at least five quotes needed to tell the story. However, she explained what was really needed is the reason as to why people joined NXIVM since they wanted to make a difference and help others self-improve. 

“I just thought that needed to be told especially from a journalistic perspective because we have seen some memoirs about this and I do think that is an important perspective as well but to just bring it together and make sure that all the main voices that help expose this story got enough space,” siad Berman.

Gavin brought up the various mediums that shed light on NXVIM including Sarah Edmondson’s book “Scarred: The True Story of How I Escaped NXIVM, The Cult that Shaped my Life,” Toni Natale’s book, “The Program,” and the HBO TV Series “The Vow.”

Gavin also mentioned that Berman’s book was “dedicated to women who change their minds” and “that the book did a great job of giving an outsider’s perspective of someone who was familiar with the case but not directly involved with NXIVM by interviewing many people involved with the cult. Gavin called Berman’s style of writing this story a  “kitchen sink approach.” The Union Times reporter asked Berman about the part in the book where Edmondson pitched the idea of NXIVM to her. 

“So that was so important for me to understand what it looked like from the ground going into it and I didn’;t expect it to come across as so gentle. I expected sort of a hard sell and maybe really intense pressure tactics maybe for her to pounce on my insecurities,” said Berman. 

Beram described the conversation between her and Edmondson as a gentle chat between friends and how it could easily get someone attracted to an organization like NXIVM. Berman explained that during the pitch, Edmondson brought up a blue sky scenario on what would look like if her deficiencies were addressed.

The pitch ended with Edmonson making Berman come up with a number of how much NXIVM would cost her. Berman guessed $10,000 when Edmondson told that it was actually $3,000. 

“I probably wouldn’t have gone just off of that pitch but I could see it. I could see  and feel sort of what that was like and I did sort of come to the conclusion that someone who is prone to fantasy and is moved by visual and kinetic images would sort of be drawn to that . I could totally see how it could sort of get somebody in the door and try something new,” said Berman. 

Bergman touched base on the kitchen sink perspective of the book  by elaborating that it showed that someone like Sarah Edmondson did not know what was totally going on with NXIVM until the trial.due to the obscurity that surrounded the organization and its founder. 

“I hope that more people get more perspective not just on the experiences of people from the inside but also the structure of it. How it works. How the manipulation tactics got someone to change their opinions over a period of years,” Berman stated. 

In addition, Gavin brought up their travel to Knox Woods which was the location of the NXIVM headquarters. Berman described how ostracized Knox Woods was from the outside world. She said that the trip was memorable due to the thunderstorm they went through and joking about Raineire’s claim that he could control the weather. She also described that Knox Woods had “tightly wound” Knox Woods with its “maze of streets” which could make one feel lost. 

Gavin then asked Berman about the letter to Raineire that she added to the appendix of the book. In the letter, Berman wrote “Want to ask questions? Forgive me for cutting to the chase. Many people have put immense faith in your intellect and ability over the years. They have trusted you with their life savings. Their psychological trauma. Their medical decisions. Do you think they were right to place that faith in you? Why or why not?”

Then she wrote the question, “When people say you are the smartest, most ethical man in the world, do you believe them? Why or why not?”  Berman mentioned that she kept coming around to question how much of his own hype did Raineire believe in himself. She said that wrote that letter last summer she did not expect to hear back from Rainiere right away but by the time HBO’s The Vow came out in the fall, the so-called Vanguard seemed to have a jail visit from the HBO team but Berman never received a response.

“Unfortunately, I just haven’t heard back. The last time I sent it again was when he switched legal teams in February, I think it was. He’s got a new team for his appeal. I sent it to his new lawyers just to make sure it was on the record but, still yet to hear a response. I’m not sure what his communication with his legal team is like. We’re still under COVID lock down in a lot of places , especially in prisons it is pretty risky. I have not heard a response yet but you know, I would still absolutely look to publish those results if Keith ever gets back,” said Berman.

The conversation went on to how Raniere was still the same person he was before getting arrested. Gavin noted that what got his attention was when Raineire’s reaction to try to get scrutiny with the judge, it was like seeing the same exact person he saw in testimony 

“I feel like because he still has true believers, he still thinks he has some narrow chance at driving a wedge of doubt into the case, right? He doesn’t have to prove fully that he didn’t do it. He doesn’t have to say’ it’s somebody else I plead the fifth or anything like that,’” said Berman. 

Berman added that Raniere has to create enough doubt which could be his legal team’s strategy. She also noted that the doubt was being created outside the court setting in which there are Rainiere supporters like actress Nicki Clyne who would say that the evidence of Raineire’s crimes were tampered with.

“This battle is being raged mostly  outside of court and it’s trying to sow some doubt in the main witnesses.I can see why that would be a strategy just because there is such a range of beliefs. You have people like Nicki (Clyne) who does not believe she is a victim, and that’s fine. Personally I think she has gone through a gauntlet of things and she can hold those beliefs but her beliefs can’t change the action, the actual events that happened,” said Berman.

When asked by Gavin about how it was like to come from Canada to cover the American law enforcement system, Berman described it as a “speedy education” in which she had to use  PACER much more so when it came to the Raniere case. PACER (Public Access to Court Electronic Records) is a database in which journalists or the public can use to find public records or court documents.

“The high profileness was something you never see in Canada. So having that comerderie between the journalist and as well just being there for six weeks was an unforgettable experience and I really did start to get invested like now I need to get back to New York especially for the sentences we are still waiting on,” said Berman.

Berman talked about the inspiration behind the photo on the cover of “Don’t Call it a Cult.” The cover of the book has a stock photo of a house with a fence which was taken during night time.

“It does represent the ‘late night Albany walk. I describe the houses as sort of cookie-cutter like pieces of a monopoly board game.  And the fact that Keith Rainire was going on long walks in the middle of the night with all of his slaves and his inner circle and that’s sort of the mood the cover is setting,” said Berman. 

Brian of Earth 16

Brian of Earth-16 is a podcaster for the Earth-16 Comics Writer and a contributing writer/journalist for the Daily Planet. You can also hear Brian on the DC Comics Geeks Nation podcast. When not writing, Brian enjoys going to the world of comic books, TV shows, video games, and pro-wrestling. He also loves listening to other podcasts and having a philosophical conversation.

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