A New York 'self help' club for women allegedly requires naked photos for admission, brands members with a hot iron, and urges them to follow a near-starvation diet

Sarah EdmondsonSarah Edmondson/YouTubeSarah Edmondson.
  • A bombshell report from the New York Times accuses Albany, New York-based group NXIVM of manipulative and abusive tactics.
  • According to The Times, it practices cult-like behaviour including branding some of its members and a hierarchical structure of “masters,” “slaves,” and “Vanguard.”
  • Motivational “self-improvement” programs and products are a $US9.9 billion market, and self-help has a history of veering into the cult realm.

The self-help industry is booming.

Motivational “self-improvement” programs and products including books, speeches and seminars, and self-help organisations are a $US9.9 billion market, according to the newest report from independent research firm Marketdata Enterprises.

One “self-help” organisation, NXIVM, illustrates the slippery slope that comes with placing your hopes for permanent happiness and fulfillment into the hands of a charismatic leader.

Keith Raniere, who the New York Times describes as “a New Age teacher with long hair and a guru-like manner of speaking,” founded NXIVM in 1998. The “self-help” group, based in Albany, New York, with chapters across the country, Canada and Mexico, offers “programs that provide the philosophical and practical foundation necessary to acquire and build the skills for success,” according to NXIVM’s website.

On Tuesday, the New York Times reported that the organisation practices cult-like behaviour including branding some of its members and a hierarchical structure of “masters,” “slaves,” and “Vanguard.”

Canadian actress Sarah Edmondson told the New York Times that she and other female members in their 30s and 40s were recruited by “rock star” member Lauren Salzman to join a “secret sisterhood” within the organisation “created to empower women.”

Here are eight of the wildest details about the secret society from the New York Times report:

  • “The sisterhood would comprise circles, each led by a ‘master’ who would recruit six ‘slaves,’ according to two women. In time, they would recruit slaves of their own.”
  • “In the spring, the sorority grew as women joined different circles. Slaves added compromising collateral every month to Dropbox accounts, and a Google Document was used to list a timetable for recruiting new slaves, several women said.”
  • “To gain admission, they were required to give their recruiter — or ‘master,’ as she was called — naked photographs or other compromising material and were warned that such ‘collateral’ might be publicly released if the group’s existence were disclosed.”
  • “Their ‘master,’ a top Nxivm official named Lauren Salzman, instructed them to say: ‘Master, please brand me, it would be an honour.’

    “A female doctor proceeded to use a cauterizing device to sear a two-inch-square symbol below each woman’s hip, a procedure that took 20 to 30 minutes. For hours, muffled screams and the smell of burning tissue filled the room.”

  • “A copy of a text message Raniere sent to a female follower indicates that he knew women were being branded and that the symbol’s design incorporated his initials.

    “‘Not initially intended as my initials but they rearranged it slightly for tribute,’ Raniere wrote, (‘if it were abraham lincolns or bill gates initials no one would care.)'”

  • “Former members have depicted [Raniere] as a man who manipulated his adherents, had sex with them, and urged women to follow near-starvation diets to achieve the type of physique he found appealing.”
  • “Edmondson and others said that during training, the women were required to send their master texts that read ‘Morning M’ and ‘Night M.’ During drills, a master texted her slaves ‘?’ and they had 60 seconds to reply ‘Ready M.’

    “Trainees who failed had to pay penalties, including fasting, or could face physical punishments, two women said.”

  • “[Nxivm-affiliated physician] Dr. [Brandon] Porter, as part of an ‘experiment,’ showed women graphically violent film clips while a brain-wave machine and video camera recorded their reactions, according to two women who took part.

    “The women said they were not warned that some of the clips were violent, including footage of four women being murdered and dismembered.”

The accounts undoubtedly tick many of those boxes used to determine if an organisation is a cult.

Former Harvard Medical School professor and psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton outlined in his paper “Cult Formation” three primary characteristics most commonly shared by destructive cults:

  1. A charismatic leader, who increasingly becomes an object of worship as the general principles that may have originally sustained the group lose power.
  2. A process of coercive persuasion or thought reform — otherwise known as brainwashing.
  3. Economic, sexual, and other exploitation of group members by the leader and the ruling coterie.

Self-help has a history of veering into the cult realm.

In 2009, self-help speaker James Arthur Ray, who charged his followers $US10,000 to attend a meditation retreat in the desert, asked attendees to shave their heads and huddle within his “sweat lodge” for 36 hours without food or water. Three people died of heatstroke, while 18 others were hospitalized.

Edmondson and other members eventually left the group, despite fears their “collateral” would be used against them. “There is no playbook for leaving a cult,” Edmondson told the New York Times.

Read the full New York Times report »

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