call me Vanguard: Keith Raniere
in the Family
some, it is a useful training program; to others, a cult.
Either way, NXIVM and founder Keith Raniere remain embroiled
was 1991, and Toni Natalie was smoking again. She had thought
that she had kicked the habit, but when her brother fell ill,
she found herself spending all of her time at the hospital.
“It was stressful,” she says. “You know how it is.” When his
girlfriend offered her a cigarette, she took it.
But she wanted to quit. So when Keith Raniere, who claims
to be in the 1989 Guiness Book of World Records for
“highest IQ,” offered to help her, she thought, “Great! The
world’s smartest man wants to help me quit smoking?” Raniere
told her that they would need to go to a quiet place, where
he could talk to her.
we go into his office, and I remember him asking me questions
like, ‘What makes you nervous?’ and ‘What relaxes you?’ Talking
to me; touching my knuckles, using that as trigger points
[for hypnosis]. And I came out of the room, and my husband
says to me, ‘Geez, what were you doing in there all that time?’
And I was like, ‘What do you mean all that time?’ ” She felt
as though she had been alone with Raniere for 15 minutes.
Her husband informed her that, no, she had been gone for almost
two hours and 45 minutes.
guess some people are more susceptible to this stuff than
others,” she says. “I was the prime candidate. And that was
the beginning of the end.”
Raniere had made the news a few years earlier, when, as a
27-year-old state worker, he was accepted into the Mega Society,
an exclusive union of those who possess extraordinarily high
IQs. (Think Mensa on steroids. At the time, there were only
three members worldwide). In a Times Union profile
on Raniere, impressive claims were made: He graduated from
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute with three simultaneous degrees
in math, physics and biology; he was able to spell “homogenized”
by age 2, after seeing the word on a milk carton; and at age
4, he understood quantum physics. The article also stated
that he had won the East Coast judo championship at 12 and
had tied the state record for the 100-yard dash. Plus, he
only needs two to four hours of sleep a night.
When Natalie met Raniere, he owned and operated Consumer’s
Buyline Inc., an outfit he had started a year earlier in Clifton
Park. It was a discount buyers club—members were paid a commission
for enrolling new members—and it brought in a lot of money.
At its height, the company boasted 250,000 distributors nationwide
and 173 local employees. One year, it reported sales topping
days: Keith Raniere with Toni Natalie
and her husband were in their early 30s, living in Rochester,
and had been married for about four years. They had a small,
adopted boy and a nice home. “We were in love,” she says.
“It wasn’t like a Gone With the Wind kind of love.
But we were happy. We were friends.” They had just won the
award for selling the most CBI memberships for the month,
so they traveled to Clifton Park to pick up their prize and
to see the company headquarters. Plus, she adds, they were
curious about Raniere.
I went up to Clifton Park for the first time,” Natalie recalls,
“Pam Cafritz was running around in the background going, ‘Is
she Family? Is she Family? She looks like Family.
Is she Family?’ ”
I remember Keith saying, ‘Yes, she’s Family.’ ”
Natalie had no idea what Cafritz, an associate of Raniere’s,
had meant; she just took it as the friendly enthusiasm of
Pam said, ‘Is she The One?’ ” Natalie recalls.
Keith said, ‘She could be.’ ”
Within a year, Natalie had left her husband and moved to Clifton
Park to be with Raniere.
By the mid ’90s, CBI had collapsed under the weight of 25
state and federal investigations. Attorneys general and others
alleged that the company was an illegal pyramid. Raniere settled
with New York state for around $50,000, but denied that he
had been running a Ponzi scheme.
With CBI in ruins, Raniere moved on to his next venture: Executive
Success Programs. He established the “human potential training”
business in 1998 after meeting former nurse and noted hypnotist-therapist
Nancy Salzman. Salzman had been working as a family therapist
for years, and she boasted a reputation as a skillful practitioner
of “neuro-linguistic programming” and Ericksonian hypnotherapy.
Milton Erickson, who created this specialized form of hypnosis,
was an American psychiatrist whose work included the exploration
of hypnosis-inducing handshakes and the use of shock to eliminate
phobias. Erickson is also noted for his work in neuro-linguistic
programming, the controversial study of body-language cues
and language patterns.
Salzman became the public face and president of ESP and Raniere
became her “mentor.”
It was around this time that Raniere began to call himself
“Vanguard,” Natalie says. “He was trying to find the right
terminology for himself. Vanguard—creator of a movement.”
According to ESP’s Web site, they have “created international
coaching standards that allow for accurate, consistent measurement
of human psychodynamic performance. All ESP programs maintain
standards of excellence and impart a unique, patent-pending
technology called Rational Inquiry™ that enhances human performance
in virtually every field of human endeavor.”
ESP, or NXIVM (nex-ee-um) as it is more commonly known, is
a growing and outwardly successful organization. Its classes
are offered in Albany, Saratoga Springs, New York City, Washington
state, Alaska and Mexico. Its seminars have drawn high-powered
followers and supporters, including former U.S. Surgeon Gen.
Antonia Novello; Sheila Johnson of Black Entertainment Television;
relatives of two former Mexican presidents; Clare and Sara
Bronfman, the daughters of billionaire Seagram’s heir Edgar
Bronfman Sr.; and on and on.
A 2003 Forbes article, “Cult of Personality,” reported
that NXIVM earned $4 million yearly at the time. In a July
2006 follow-up, the magazine alleged that Salzman now lives
in Sara Bronfman’s $6 million Manhattan apartment, with unlimited
access to the Bronfman jet. Former NXIVM insiders claim to
have witnessed the gifting of a $20-million “tribute” from
the Bronfman daughters to Raniere at his 2004 weeklong birthday
celebration, “Vanguard Week.”
for Raniere’s birthday party: Toni Natalie and Nancy Salzman
along with its popularity and successes, NXIVM has drawn vocal
opponents who allege that its training sessions are manipulative
and destructive, exacting a cultlike devotion from students.
And Raniere, they claim, is the classic example of a cult
leader, who surrounds himself with fiercely devoted (and mostly
has always had women in front of him,” Natalie says. “That
is what he does. He takes vulnerable women, and he very easily
becomes everything they need or want.”
NXIVM’s goals, as stated on its Web site, are ambitious: “To
help transform and, ultimately, be an expression of the noble
civilization of humans.” This includes the construction of
training facilities or NXIVMs. One possible facility was proposed
for southern Saratoga County. The two-story building would
have been 67,000 square feet and would have included a physical-therapy
center and day care, but residents resisted construction,
and in 2003, the plan was nixed.
Undeterred, NXIVM and its members continue to grow their real-estate
holdings and own at least 12 properties in the Capital Region.
These include single-family homes, condominiums and commercial
property, the organization’s training facilities on New Karner
Road in Latham, and Romano’s Family Restaurant on Route 9.
ultimate goal has always been,” Natalie says, “to have his
own commerce, his own language, his own people where he is
the king. . . . What he is doing is creating his own world
in Clifton Park. . . . These people believe he is God. He
believes he’s God.”
There are two courses of study offered through NXIVM. One,
called Ethos, is relatively casual. A participant can attend
any number of training sessions, offered regularly throughout
the week. The classes last only a couple of hours, and focus
on “emotional training.” Susan Miller, CEO of Goold Orchards,
attended nearly a dozen Ethos sessions. The program, she says,
was good for her.
was a difficult time for me. My mom had passed away,” she
says. “I had good changes.” But she resisted taking the other
course of study offered: Intensives.
make a lot of pitches for it. And they charge a lot of money
for that program. My gut kept telling me that [Intensives]
were not the thing for me to take. I went to a sales pitch
one time . . . and I never went back. It just didn’t make
Intensive Training is offered in five-day and 16-day sessions.
The courses can last up to 14 hours straight. Some former
students, or Espians, have claimed that during these sessions,
room temperatures are kept uncomfortably high, the food served
either lacks the necessary protein to maintain strength or
is served irregularly or not at all, and that a large number
of coaches are present, creating an atmosphere of physical
intimidation. The stress involved, they add, can be unbearable.
Kristin Marie Snyder was taking her second, 16-day Intensive
in Alaska when she apparently suffered a complete psychological
breakdown. Alaskan authorities suspect that Snyder, an seemingly
successful young professional, drowned herself by canoeing
out into the middle of Resurrection Bay and capsizing. She
had been involved with NXIVM for four months.
Her suicide note, as reported in Times Union on Feb.
1, 2004, read: “I attended a course called Executive Success
Programs . . . based out of Anchorage, AK, and Albany, NY.
I was brainwashed and my emotional center of the brain was
killed/turned off. I still have feeling in my external skin,
but my internal organs are rotting. . . . I am sorry life,
I didn’t know I was already dead. May we persist into the
future.” Her parents claimed in the article that Snyder had
become convinced that she had been responsible for the Columbia
I read her suicide letter,” Natalie says, “I couldn’t believe
Keith was doing this to other people. I only thought he was
doing this to me.” As a result of therapy sessions with Raniere
and Salzman, Natalie says that she became convinced that she
had been responsible for the Nazi Holocaust.
One time, Natalie claims, a group of Espians cornered her
in her office. A man in the group said to her, “Close your
eyes. Close your eyes and hold out your hands.” She did as
she was told and held out her hands, in which he placed a
I said, ‘What’s this?’ ”
Natalie says that the man replied: “ ‘You should know, because
that’s the knife you killed me with.’ ”
The pressure NXIVM places on its students to recruit others
for Intensives is unremitting, says former Espian Maria (not
her real name; she asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation).
From a prominent Mexican family, she was 27 years old and
studying for her master’s degree in New York City when her
brother recruited her.
first thing they tell you,” Maria says, “is [that] if you
want to become more involved with the organization, you have
to bring two people for the next Intensive. So my brother
brought my mother and myself.”
In Intensives, she says, Espians are introduced to the “Matrix,”
NXIVM’s ideology. And to learn the “Matrix,” sections of material
called “modules” are explored. “Every ‘module’ together completes
the ‘Matrix.’ Everything links to each other,” she says. “The
‘Matrix’ is very impermeable. It is a whole different way
to see the world.”
Each “module” touches on a basic element of the human condition,
and has a name such as “Money,” “Trust,” or “The Fall.”
To understand “The Fall,” one must understand “suppressives.”
When a person is a destructive force in the world, Maria says,
such as a serial killer, a terrorist, or a critic of NXIVM,
when they exhibit “suppressive” traits, when they “destruct
value,” they are referred to as “suppressives.” And just as
Lucifer took a fall in Paradise Lost (an oft-referenced
text in NXIVM circles), Espians are taught that “suppressives”
are capable of taking “The Fall.” Once they have, it is taught
that they have developed an “anticonscience”—good feels bad
to them and bad feels good.
It was in the teachings about “suppressives” and “The Fall”
that Maria began to feel that NXIVM was warning: You cannot
leave, you cannot criticize or question the organization.
NXIVM has a strict hierarchy with Raniere (aka “Vanguard”)
at the top. Directly beneath him is Salzman, who insists that
students refer to her as “Prefect.” Students are expected
to bow to Vanguard and Prefect. Sashes are worn to determine
an Espian’s level.
start with a white sash when you are a student,” Maria says.
“Then you get a yellow sash when you coach. Then you get stripes.
Then you get the orange sash. Nancy had a gold sash.”
The higher in the hierarchy, the closer an Espian is to “integration,”
akin to being enlightened, perfect: Thoughts flow together
flawlessly, Maria says, “like a plate without any cracks.”
Salzman is close to integration, she says, and Raniere is
He is treated, she says, “like a Buddha or a Christ.”
After being taught the module’s material, the students break
up into groups. Espians from every rank sit together and discuss
the lesson. “When you are in the group,” Maria says, “you
will be asked questions like: ‘Is suicide good?’ ‘Is suicide
A student might answer, “ ‘I think it is bad, because you
are being a coward.’ ” To which a coach might reply: “ ‘I
think suicide is not that bad. Because, if you are a bad person,
if you are not ‘constructing value,’ if you are ‘destructing
value,’ then you should not have a place in the world, and
you should be happy to kill yourself.’ ” In this way, she
says, a student’s belief system is constantly undermined.
Doubt is cast upon opinions, and beliefs are systematically
One technique NXIVM employs is called “Exploration of Meaning,”
Maria explains the process as she remembers it: A problem
or “issue” is identified in the student. The coach, or a coach
in training, questions the meaning of the “issue,” leading
the student along a seemingly logical path with predetermined
questions to the root of that problem. And when a student
can relate the problem’s manifest to the problem’s root, there
is an “aha” moment. The student has had an “integration.”
And the more “integrated” you are, the more you are living
according to NXIVM’s “Matrix.”
is mathematical technology,” Maria says. “It is like a mathematical
equation. And you end up at zero every time. And once you
are in zero, they give you the answers.” Even though the Espian
feels each discovery is a product of their own soul searching,
she adds, they are actually being programmed.
fascinating. Can you imagine how brilliant this guy [Raniere]
is?” she asks. “He really is a genius.”
After training with NXIVM for six months, Maria suffered a
psychotic episode that she attributed to extreme stress. She
began hallucinating and had to be taken to the hospital.
was in the moment before . . . I went into my psychotic break,”
she says. “I felt that I had to decide between my boyfriend
and my life, and Keith. And that’s when I broke. It’s the
devotion to him; you have to give your life to him. I didn’t
want to lose my boyfriend, and I didn’t want to lose my life—he
[Raniere] wants to have the control of your life.”
Maria spent the next two years in treatment, taking antipsychotic
and antidepressant medications. She still gets nervous talking
about NXIVM and says that former Espians like herself are
afraid to speak out because they know how “suppressives” are
One such “suppressive” is Rick Ross, a New Jersey-based cult-
intervention specialist who has been involved in lawsuits
with NXIVM for the past three years. The controversial anti-cult
lecturer and “deprogrammer” first won the animosity of NXIVM
by distributing the group’s copyrighted material to mental-health
experts for analysis and then posting their findings on his
Web site, RickRoss.com. NXIVM sued him, seeking damages of
nearly $10 million, and asked the courts to force Ross to
remove the critical material. So far, the courts have upheld
Ross’ right to publish the reports.
Lawsuits are nothing new for Ross. At one point, he says,
he was being sued by three groups simultaneously: the Gentle
Wind Project of Maine, Land Mark Education, and NXIVM.
used to slap suits,” he says. “This is nothing new to me.
. . . I regard it as part of my work. If you are not being
sued or threatened on a regular basis in my line of work,
it would give you pause to wonder if your work is meaningful.”
However, he says, he did not suspect the lengths NXIVM seemingly
will go to silence its critics.
Rifling through his bank statements from September and October
2004, Ross gets lost in the pile of papers: “Debits, debits,
where are deposits?”
there it is,” he says to himself.
He is frustrated.
don’t do my own books.”
Ross is on the phone with a reporter, attempting to confirm
information in a document that he claims he has never seen.
The reporter is holding a copy of the nine-page report, including
a cover page and a page that warns of the document’s strict
confidentiality. It appears to have been prepared on Nov.
23, 2004, for the O’Hara Group & Associates LLC, an Albany-based
consulting firm that allegedly was working for NXIVM at the
time. The report appears to be the work of a New York-based
industrial-espionage firm Interfor Inc. (The document was
given to Metroland by a former NXIVM insider.)
The document bears the title “Status Report,” under which
Rick Ross’ name is printed. It contains sections such as “Criminal
Record” and “Communications.” It appears to be the result
of an effort by Interfor to collect personal and business
information on Ross. And according to the NXIVM insider, Raniere
ordered the gathering of information not only on Ross, but
on Toni Natalie as well.
Interfor’s president, Juval Aviv, worked for years as a counterterrorism
consultant with the FBI. Before becoming a regular fixture
on Fox News, Aviv claims that he was a member of the Israeli
intelligence outfit Mossad. Aviv is the author of The Complete
Terrorism Survival Guide: How to Travel, Work and Live in
Safety and the fictional thriller Max. Steven Spielberg’s
Munich is based on a Mossad operation in which Aviv
Ross finds his October 2004 bank statements.
me a deposit,” he says.
The section in the document titled Financial Information lists
14 transactions, debits and credits. The entry from Oct. 12,
2004, is read to Ross. It is correct.
he says, “they need to be arrested. They have penetrated into
my checking account.”
else?” he asks. Another deposit is confirmed, and a debit
as well. The report, it appears, contains his private banking
Aviv,” Ross says, “had better get a good lawyer.”
This is not the first time Ross has heard of Interfor or Juval
Aviv. He says Interfor contacted him in November 2004 (apparently
at the same time the firm was mining information on him) to
retain his services.
Ross recounts his experience with Interfor: He was told that
an old friend of Aviv’s, a woman calling herself Susan L.
Zuckerman, was seeking help in extracting her daughter, “Judy,”
from NXIVM, and they needed Ross’ help. Interfor even cut
him a check for $2,500 in November 2004 from its corporate
account, stating that it was a retainer payment from Zuckerman.
He met with Aviv, his assistant Anna Moody, and the woman
who presented herself as Zuckerman at Interfor’s office. There,
he says, they hatched a plan to get Ross on a cruise ship
with “Judy Zuckerman” so that he could confront her and work
to deprogram her.
wanted to know everything that I knew about NXIVM,” he says.
“They asked me question after question. What did I really
think of Keith Raniere? Did I think he was a cult leader?
What did I think of their process of Intensives and seminars?
How many complaints have I received [about NXIVM]?”
According to a NXIVM insider, the plan to get Ross on a crusie
ship was a sting; the concerned-mother scenario was invented.
And the role of daughter “Judy” was going to be performed
by one of Raniere’s closest associates, Kristin Keeffe. Perhaps,
the insider says, they thought they could convert Ross.
The plan fell apart after Ross made it clear to Interfor that
he would not be alone with the “Judy,” that someone would
have to be in the room with them, he says. That’s his policy.
Shortly after that, he was told that Susan Zuckerman had changed
her mind. He was given no further explanation.
their goal was, ultimately, in the deception, I don’t know,”
Ross says. But the scenarios are chilling. What could they
have had in mind in going to such lengths to get him alone
on a cruise ship with a member of NXIVM’s inner circle?
Dr. Carlos Rueda, chairman of the Department of Psychiatry
at Our Lady of Mercy Hospital in the Bronx, says that he,
too, was contacted by someone, within the past few months,
claiming to represent Interfor. They said they needed his
advice: The daughter of a rich Mexican family had become involved
in NXIVM, and she needed therapy.
sounded very credible,” Rueda says. “They sounded very corporate.”
After a couple of calls, he stopped hearing from them.
Rueda joined the chorus of NXIVM’s critics after treating
three former Espians who, he says, had “decompensated,” or
developed psychiatric illnesses.
Their ailments, he says, can be linked to NXIVM’s training,
which places tremendous psychological stress on its students.
this can be a devastating and long-term situation,” he says.
“Patients may continue to have episodes of psychosis or depression”
far beyond the initial onset of the illness.
What disturbs Rueda most about NXIVM is its seeming lack of
interest in the welfare of its students. He worries that the
training seminars are just a way to make money, with no concern
for the psychological damage they level. This, he says, can
be seen in how the organization treats students who suffer
dump you as soon as they see that you are decompensating,’
he says. “They say that you are ‘weak.’ ”
Representatives of NXIVM and Interfor did not agree to be
interviewed in time for this story.
you ask, ‘Why would a sane person put up with this?’ ” Toni
Natalie says. “You are so controlled by these people, when
you are involved with them, you don’t associate with anybody
other than the ‘Family.’ You don’t talk to anyone other than
the ‘Family.’ It is a complete disassociation from everyone—your
family, your husband, even your children if they get in the
It was 1998, and after more than six years with Raniere, Toni
Natalie wanted out. She was taking the first NXIVM course
when she had her own “aha” moment, realizing, she says, just
how manipulated she had been by Raniere and Salzman.
I had been their Guinea pig, she says. As I was
taking the course, I was seeing myself in all of my sessions
with Nancy. I had had hundreds and hundreds of [therapy] sessions
with Nancy and Keith. They had used those sessions,
she believes, to experiment on her.
was scary as hell,” she says. “I can’t tell you how frightening
After almost a year of working to divest herself emotionally
and psychologically from Raniere and the Family, the day came
when she finally snapped. It was over, of all things, a simple
was home sleeping while I was working, which was normal,”
she says. “I mean, this bullshit that Keith never sleeps—Keith
sleeps all day long. He sleeps all day long.”
She had asked Raniere to dry some clothes that were in the
wash, pointing out to him a specific shirt that should not
be dried because it would shrink.
came home, and he had put the shirt in the dryer. I said to
him, ‘I asked you not to do this.’ And he starts screaming
at me, ‘You’re stupid! How dare you tell me I don’t know what
I heard. I have perfect retention. I have a 240 IQ.’ And he
is screaming in my face: ‘Tell me that you are wrong! Say
that you are wrong!’ ”
He can’t stand being told that he is wrong, she says.
I wouldn’t do it. He told me if I didn’t say that I was wrong
. . . he would go. And that was it. I was like, ‘I’m done.’
And that’s when the torture from the girls started.”
Raniere, she says, was far from done with her.
forget,” she says sarcastically, “I am ‘The One.’ I was supposed
to bear the child that was going to change the world.”
Raniere has in the past denied this allegation, saying that
it is “not rational.” Natalie insists that it is true. He
was convinced that she was to have his child, she says. He
even had members of the Family convinced, she says, despite
the fact that Raniere knew that she is unable to have children.
He wrote her letters, she says, that are by turns admonishing
and pleading. Other members of the Family wrote her letters,
as well, on Raniere’s behalf. They were convinced that she
absolutely had to return and have his child.
I didn’t return to him and bear this child, horrible things
were going to happen,” she adds. “So I am responsible for
Kristin Keeffe came to her house once, she says, with her
a bouquet of flowers and a candy box with the image of a mother
and baby on it. She was crying, saying, “ ‘I had a vision
that you changed your mind,’ ” Natalie says. “ ‘And you are
coming back to us. And you are going to have the baby. I am
so happy that you changed your mind and you are going to have
the baby.’ ”
Natalie took the flowers and candies to Lawrence LaBelle,
a judge in Saratoga at the time. LaBelle remembers the situation
vividly. Natalie, he says, had gotten herself caught up with
a “very, very unusual group. . . . It’s a cult, I think, a
very, very bad cult.”
He can’t believe Natalie is talking to reporters. Why, he
asks, would she want to dredge up that misery?
do everything they can to destroy your life, to keep you quiet,”
she says. “Especially me, because I know so much about them.”
Five years ago, Natalie was diagnosed with post-traumatic
stress disorder, she says, because of what she was put through.
know what was done to me,” she continues. “I know what was
done to my family. I know what they are doing to other families.
I know how they mind-fuck people. I know how dangerous they
are. I know how dangerous Nancy Salzman is, and Keith Raniere.
They are very, very dangerous, scary people.”
It has taken her six years of therapy, she says, to be able
to talk at length about her experiences with Raniere. She
still lives in fear, and she says, rarely leaves the house
scary part of the organization,” Natalie says, “is that they
have a philosophy, his philosophy . . . called ‘right action’
or ‘wrong action.’ And if he believes that something is ‘right
action’ . . . it is OK to do whatever it takes. If you had
to kill somebody, and it is for the betterment of the Family,
it would be OK.”