by SHIRA WEISS || Not many women can say they were the live-in love of a cult leader for eight years. Certainly not a charismatic leader who began a multilevel marketing company that would give rise to an unexpected subsidiary, a sexual slavery sorority fronting as an exclusive women’s empowerment group. Toni Natalie is unique in that sense. She is the ex-girlfriend of NXIVM’s Keith Raniere. Pronounced like “the purple pill” for heartburn, NXIVM (Nexium) began as an Albany, New York based company devoted to professional and personal development. In recent years, the group offered courses similar to what one can expect at the Scientology Center in Los Angeles. It is alleged that Richard Branson was among the celebrities to take some of those courses. At its outset in the early 1990s, the group was called Consumers Buyline – offering discounts on goods and services for paying members. Similar to an MLM like Amway, Consumers Buyline members received commission for amassing new members.
Natalie says the name of the group would keep changing in an effort to throw off the media.
We now know that the group gradually transformed and evolved through Raniere’s mind-control. Eventually, it became a type of cult with a sexual trafficking component. While South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson maintains a commitment to cracking down on sex trafficking, the New York state based NXIVM is making national headlines – particularly for its own sex trafficking ring. Raniere was finally taken into custody last month after the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) began to focus on the charismatic leader’s horrifying tactics which included a branding ceremony as well as brainwashing and starving women.
Raniere’s arrest was swiftly followed by another shocking one, that of doe-eyed Smallville actress Allison Mack who was allegedly tasked with selecting female recruits for NXIVM’s DOS division – or “dominus obsequious sororium,” which is Latin for the “master over the slave women.”
DOS’s initiation ritual is said to have included a collection of personal items to establish “collateral” and to ensure members’ strict allegiance to the group, as well as secrecy about what transpires within.
The women of NXIVM were said to have been groomed for Raniere, referred to as “Vanguard” by worshipful members, to perform menial tasks as well as become his devoted sexual slave. Natalie notes ironically that Vanguard was actually the name of Keith Raniere’s favorite video game, one they had in their basement when they lived together.
When Natalie first met Raniere in the early 1990s, she was hesitant about getting involved with another MLM company following a prior negative experience with one that went bust. However, her husband convinced her that Keith Raniere was a genius with a 240 IQ and this time things would be different.
“It was a calling card that stands out,” Natalie told me about the much buzzed about IQ score. Only later would she hear that the method of how Raniere had obtained that score was dubious. She would also learn that Raniere had maintained a notably low grade point average in school.
“We’re so used to information at your fingertips with the Internet today,” Natalie reflects, “but back then in the early 90s, you asked the people in the room what he was like … They would say he was a triple-degree graduate, a genius who was very gentle looking with blue eyes and rosy cheeks. He looked like a geek. I think of Harry Potter, which is why I’ve never watched a Harry Potter film.”
Raniere came to Rochester to lead a meeting and that’s where Natalie met him that first time.
“He was very nice,” she said. “I listened to his pitch and asked why, with his intellect, he wasn’t curing cancer or doing something to make a difference in the world. He said ‘I’m going to do all those things. This is my platform, why don’t you come along?’”
Natalie adds that generally he “drew really great people” and she was impressed by the other members. “At that point, the premise of the company was: if 1,000 people buy a television, then the price is different than if a single person buys a television. The concept was similar to what BJ’s and Sam’s Club is now. Today I know there’s not a legitimate bone in that man’s body. There was not one idea he didn’t steal from somebody else. The earnings were pretty substantial though at the time and once I became a part of the business, we traveled all over the United States for meetings.”
In the early days of her business involvements, Natalie was in charge of marketing a skincare division of the company with quality products developed by a holistic wellness and beauty guru.
“It was very successful,” she recalls, “Later on when Keith was asked by federal agencies to make changes to Consumers Buyline, he refused and the company crumbled as quickly as it had taken off. What happens with Keith is that it’s like he tries on a new, different skin. In the early days, he was this boy genius and would continually revamp what the business was and come up with a new way to position it. What he was apparently doing in the background was grooming underage girls. When the company evolved into a different company, he was grooming new girls.” Natalie would go on to start a health food business with Raniere and this company was called National Health Network. The Consumers Buyline moniker had met its demise, having ultimately qualified as a shady pyramid scheme with those federal agencies.
Oddly, back when Natalie and her former husband met Raniere, it was his high IQ score that was the selling point to convince the couple and many others that Raniere would have the answers. This was despite his characteristically murky, vague, esoteric and new-age speak.
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Natalie said Raniere’s ability to hypnotize was magical. After he spotted her smoking a cigarette in their initial meeting, he offered to rid her of the nicotine addiction. She then spent two hours with him that felt like fifteen minutes and never touched a cigarette again. She jokes that that was the one good thing to come from Raniere who would ruin her life over the next two decades (following their eventual breakup) through “terrorism by litigation.”
Plagued by marital doubts and insecurities about the dyslexia that prevented her from finishing high school, Raniere would counsel Natalie in those early days, always reminding her of how smart he was. Ultimately, he was able to convince her that her nanny was involved with her husband. “I now know that was not true,” she reflects.
She and Raniere got closer. Without fully realizing it, Natalie was in the process of being groomed for him like the many young woman who would be groomed in the years to come. Years later, she would realize that the female colleagues he professed loyalty to were likely also bedmates. “He craftily positioned Pam (Cafrtiz, who was later alleged to be second-in-command of the sex ring in its early days. She met an untimely demise from cancer) as ‘special. ‘He knew I had a sister who passed away who was mentally retarded – which is what they called it at that time.” Another of Raniere’s notorious tactics was starving the women and Natalie recalls that the “spacey” Cafrtiz was quite emaciated. She says that in addition to encouraging starvation, Raniere forced Cafrtiz to run.
“Being able to explain away these women and their relationships to him was plausible to me then,” she said. “When I started to take the job and our own relationship developed, I thought I had found the dream job with the man that would be in my future. I had no formal education. I’m dyslexic and I once had a teacher tell me it was a good thing I worked hard and was pretty. I shared these things with Keith. He knows your weak spots and he uses them.”
Raniere insisted that Natalie keep their relationship secret, claiming that because she had no formal education, critics would surmise she had obtained her job by sleeping with the boss. Over time, Natalie became increasingly uncomfortable with the arrangement and with Raniere’s volatile side (she recalls one extreme blowup in response to asking why he had placed her sweater in the drier) and forcefulness as well as his questionable fidelity. Their relationship did improve for a time when he acted more like a “traditional” boyfriend and helped with raising her son.
Of that time period, she says: “He improved the way he acted and was more traditional in a sense because I said that in order to be with me, he needed to be normal. We would go to weddings together, go over to my mother’s house for dinner…”
They bought a house in her name, but the honeymoon phase didn’t last long.
It is often advised that bedfellows avoid becoming business partners. In the case of the manipulative, mind-controlling Raniere and the insecure Natalie – who had been molested years before – this arrangement would prove disastrous. Natalie believed that Raniere was focused on professional development and self-actualization and that his high intellect would lead to great changes. Only later on would she fully acknowledge his alone time with young women as suspect. As their relationship became tenuous, Natalie resisted intimacy and Raniere began to rape her while making justifications for the assault. At this point, she sent her son to live with his father. When the breakup eventually happened, it was far from the end. Raniere would send his associates to ransack Natalie’s home, break into her mailbox and cancel her credit cards, all tactics to ensure she felt threatened and appear as if she was going mad.
Having read L. Ron Hubbard’s Dianetics, he wrote Natalie letters calling her a “suppressive” and also quoted Paradise Lost. “There are so many parallels to Scientology,” Natalie confirms.
Raniere and his associates began to devise ways to bring her to court repeatedly over the ensuing years, slapping her with bogus lawsuits and making outrageous claims. He had acquired the help of the group’s new hands-on financial backers, Seagram heiresses Sara Bronfman and Clare Bronfman. One judge who ruled in Natalie’s favor compared Raniere to a mad, scorned lover.
As for the DOS division, Natalie says: “I think that in the background, Keith was always developing that sexual group of women to see how far he could push that.” Between Raniere and Nancy Salzman, the group’s cofounder, she says, they had the amazing ability to manipulate people that they turned into ESP (the Executive Success Program, another moniker and the one to precede NXIVM).
“Back when Keith and my relationship was breaking down, Nancy convinced me that the reason he and I were having problems was because I was molested as a child,” Natalie explained. “She said she was going to help me work though those issues and we would have sessions. What they turned out to be in my opinion were the basic modules for ESP (which would later morph into NXIVM and DOS). So I was the guinea pig. They would just change the name so when the media caught up with one, there would be another.”
When asked if Raniere’s tactics with her involved starvation, Natalie responded: “No, he didn’t try and starve me, but I was thin. We were, or so I thought, vegetarians. I’ve since heard he was eating meat but everything about him is a lie. This snake has more than two heads and so far they have only taken off two. To stop this criminal enterprise, they have to arrest the other people at the top. In my opinion they all need to go to jail before anyone is really safe.”
NXIVM’s “branding ceremony” and other graphic details of its initiation rituals seem to underscore Natalie’s safety concerns.
“When I first heard about DOS, the sexual slavery and the branding ceremony, I thought that even for Keith it sounded crazy.” she said.
According to reports from former NXIVM members, the women in DOS are branded with Raniere’s initials in their pubic region. This is part of the initiation to the sexual dominance subsidiary. It is also alleged that while they are branded, another woman holds them down and even wilder anecdotes have been documented by former members.
“We all now know it is very much true,” Natalie said. “When you’re allowed to get away with what he’s gotten away with, in order to get that rise, you have to kick it up a notch. ‘What’s the next thing I can get people to do?’ Sleep deprivation, strict diets…those were all the methods he started years ago. He just amplified it. Same playbook, different players. And once he and Nancy got the Bronfman money behind the group, they really amplified it.”
Notoriously litigious with his foes including members of the press, Raniere – with the help of the Bronfman sisters – repeatedly found ways to bring Natalie to court. Her brother attempted to intervene in order to “negotiate her release” and her mother would later incur the legal wrath of the group. Her brother would meet a tragic end – “suicide” according to the autopsy. Natalie is still skeptical about suicide being the actual cause of death after her brother’s years of battling the group.
“The last time I saw Keith in person, he said he would either see me next dead or in prison.” she said.
Ironically, it was Raniere in captivity that Natalie would see years later on TV.
“Even in the courtroom after his recent arrest, he didn’t look like he was rattled at all,” she remarked, noting that he could be the most patient person while waiting for what he desired.
With the arrest of Smallville actress Allison Mack, who allegedly recruited young women for DOS and was most recently second-in-command to Raniere for that subsidiary, Natalie expresses a compassion for brainwashed individuals having to answer to the legal system. Over her years with NXIVM, Mack reached out to fellow celebrities including actress Emma Watson and singer Kelly Clarkson, alluding to a secretive, exclusive female empowerment society. It has also been reported that she attended auditions to solicit potential recruits. Natalie describes the group’s outrageous evolution, from Consumers Buyline to NXIVM with DOS, as a “slow drip” and Raniere as someone who got drunk on power and his grandiose sense of self.
On Tuesday, Mack was released on $5 million bail and it was widely reported that prosecutors would likely be working on a plea deal. This news is consolation to Natalie who hopes that Mack can be rehabilitated and de-programmed from the cult mentality. Another famous member of NXIVM is India Oxenberg and Natalie expresses the same hopes for her. India’s mother, Dynasty actress Catherine Oxenberg is tirelessly committed to getting her daughter safely away from NXIVM and DOS, has alerted authorities, consulted with mental health professionals and spoken out in the media. India is reported to be in New York City, but her mother is still waiting for her return.
Natalie says she’s committed to using her experience as a cautionary tale. She is in the process of writing a book to document her story and plans to also introduce a podcast.
“People need to know that no one joins a cult thinking they’re joining a cult,” she emphasizes, “They are attracted to a movement and want to become part of that movement to achieve positive results and change their lives for the better. It’s important to recognize the warning signs and not mistakenly hold someone in such high regard – as NXIVM members did with Keith Raniere.”
According to The (Charleston, S.C.) Post and Courier: “At the end of 2017, there were 72 human trafficking cases pending in South Carolina state courts after 18 cases were closed over the course of the year.” Since NXIVM is secretive about who members are (those not in the public eye are largely unknown), it is impossible to say if there is a South Carolina contingent or how many of its members hail from this region. Nevertheless, it is still a frightening reality that sex trafficking in the U.S. was packaged in a way that would be enticing to a Hollywood celebrity like Mack.
That fact only further lends credence to Attorney General Wilson’s mission to crack down on this problem, a national one that can be presented through many guises – as those once captivated by Raniere can confirm.
Shira Hirschman Weiss is a New Jersey based correspondent who grew up in the New York area right outside of Manhattan. She is a former contributor to the Huffington Post and a freelance writer who has covered a wide variety of topics ranging from technology and religion to reality TV and entertainment. You can see some of her recent musings on her personal website ShirasGotTheScoop.com..
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