In Don’t Call It a Cult: The Shocking Story of Keith Raniere and the Women of Nxivm (Steerforth, Apr.), journalist Berman offers new insights into a sensational case.
Did your interviews with former Nxivm members surprise you?
I was constantly surprised in the beginning. It’s not easy to understand how someone could join a community seeking career mentorship, and then end up writing a letter falsely accusing a parent of sexual abuse to prove she’ll never talk about her secret life as a so-called slave. You can almost get lost in the shock of it. I had to step back and study social influence to get a fuller picture. The truth is we’re all shaped by the people in our immediate circle of friends and family. If five people I trusted were telling me the same thing over and over, there’s a good chance they could convince me to make a major change in my life, whether that was moving to a new city or quitting my job. The same kind of thing happened in Nxivm, except it was a closed and coordinated system of influence led by [convicted cult leader] Keith Raniere.
How can one comprehend the motivations of Raniere’s female enablers?
Nxivm was their whole life. Raniere was their primary source of love and purpose no matter how he treated them. So, the unspoken proposition is that going against any of Raniere’s controls would either invite intense backlash, or they would have to break with the group and leave all hope and purpose behind. It’s a very black-and-white, life-or-death mentality.
How did Raniere manage to fool so many intelligent, respectable people for so long?
Part of it was secrecy—the vast majority of followers didn’t know what was going on behind the scenes. Raniere also had impressive people with deep pockets around him. There’s a tendency, especially among a certain socioeconomic class, to equate status and resources with trustworthiness. Nxivm sought out wealthy and powerful people, but they also sought out people with big dreams and visions for a better world. The classes taught that you can’t fix any problem in the world until you deal with your own psychological imbalances.
What does his ability to do so say about the hunger for self-improvement in the U.S.?
That humans are wired to want to connect with a like-minded community and we prefer not to deal with ambiguity or complex problems. So of course when someone like Raniere comes along and pitches an easy solution to all of life’s problems—all you have to do is take these classes and invite your friends—there’s inevitably going to be an audience for that.