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The Exhausted Woman
with Christine Hammond, MS, LMHC

The Portrait of a Cult: NXIVM

The self-help organization called NXIVM was founded by Keith Raniere who was found guilty of numerous charges including racketeering, racketeering conspiracy, wire fraud conspiracy, forced labor conspiracy, sex trafficking, sex trafficking conspiracy and attempted sex trafficking. NIXIVM was a front for the secret DOS organization in which women were slaves, branded with Keith’s initials, and told to make self-incriminating videos.

These women were professionals with well-named leaders including a nurse, actresses, and an heiress. Several interviews with these former members show the women to be intelligent, well-spoken, and aware of what they consented to. Yet, they fell prey to a leader who was controlling, manipulative, demanding, dysfunctional, and extremely dangerous.

Members would pay thousands of dollars to participate in all day and/or weekly seminars designed to help a person find happiness. Then a select group of individuals was invited to participate in higher-level activities which included recruiting new members and has been referred to as a cult. After a while, yet another group was selected to participate in a secret sorority known as DOS. This group branded the women with Keith’s initials on their bikini line during a secret ceremony, encouraged them to seduce Keith, and submit nude photos of themselves.

How can this happen? The same method a sex offender uses to entice their victim is utilized; it is called grooming.  Potential victims are screened to ensure that they will maintain confidence and keep secrets, are willing to put aside their own judgment in favor of another person, and are willing to submit to activities that they normally would not do. Instead of this occurring on a small individual scale, this was an entire cultish organizational structure.

Cults are dangerous. On the surface, the organization appears to be benign but the deeper a person gets within the group, the more unsafe it becomes. Using  Steven Hassan’s BITE Model as a guideline for identifying a cult, below are a summary of the characteristics. BITE stands for behavior control, information control, thought control, and emotional control.

Behavior Control

  • Everything including where, how, and whom a person lives is dictated. This includes isolating them from family and friends outside of the organization, restricting leisure activities, sexual demands or restrictions, and controlling hair, clothing, sleep, diet, and finances.
  • Permission from the group is required for major decisions. There is a group indoctrination process which includes ritualistic behavior. Individualism is discouraged and group-think is encouraged. Strict rules and regulations demand adherence with rewards for those who do obey and stiff punishments for those who don’t.
  • Superiors are informed of members thoughts, feelings, and activities. Dependency and obedience of superiors are encouraged and reinforced with corporal punishment. Any questioning of authority is deemed as a threat to the group. Threats of harm to the member, their family and/or friends are not uncommon.

Information Control

  • Members are told to be dichotomous using the organization as their primary and good source of information and view outside sources as bad. They are discouraged from using the internet, watching TV, listening to critics, and talking to former members. Their cell phone may be monitored and tracked. Information from the organization is deliberately withheld, distorted, twisted, and is deceptive.
  • Members are encouraged and rewarded for spying on other members. There is a buddy system that is put in place to keep each member accountable to the group. Any deviant thoughts, feelings, and actions are reported to the leadership. Members are encouraged to “confess” their sins to the leadership even when they have not done anything wrong.
  • Information is not freely accessible, and the leadership decides who, how, and when it is distributed. Different levels of the organization have more or less information. Propaganda is utilized to blind members and often information outside of the organization is taken out of context and twisted to mean something else.

Thought Control

  • Dichotomous thinking is encouraged as members are taught that the group’s doctrine is true, and all others are false. Dysfunctional black and white thinking is also encouraged as well as positivity but only as it pertains favorably to the group. There is a us verses them mentality. New group-speak and cliched buzz words are utilized to stop critical thinking and reduce complex concepts.
  • Hypnotic techniques are sometimes used to alter mental states, instill false memories, undermine critical thinking, and manipulate behavior. Rationalization, justification, chanting, denial, meditating, praying, singing, or humming are all used to limit critical thinking and reality testing. There is a rejection of constructive criticism, analysis, or thinking outside of the group mentality. Members are encouraged to change their name and identity to conform within the group.
  • Any alternative belief system is labeled as illegitimate, evil, or is dismissed. Members are forbidden to ask questions about leadership, doctrine, or policies.

Emotional Control

  • Emotions are divided into good and bad categories. Any bad emotions such as anger, doubt, or fear are encouraged to be stopped or blocked. There is love bombing: praise one minute when performing and then rejection the next when inadequate. Happiness can only be found within the group.
  • Guilt-tripping is a common abusive tactic within the group. Members are taught that they are not living up to their potential, their family is deficient, their past is suspect, their affiliations are unwise, their thoughts and feelings are selfish, their social background is inadequate, and their problems are all their fault. Guilt is directed downward in the organization not upwards. Sometimes there is public confession and humiliation.
  • Fear of getting kicked out of the group, thinking independently, being rejected by the group members, listening to the outside world, or losing approval from the leadership is instilled through threats and demonstrations of consequences of former members. The fear is so strong that it becomes a phobia with anxiety and/or panic attacks. Anyone who leaves the group is weak, undisciplined, worldly, seduced by others, shunned, face incurable diseases, accidents, suicide, insanity, or demonic possession.

If you or someone you know is involved in a cult, see professional help immediately. Every minute a person remains within the organization makes it that much harder to leave. The abusive tactics utilized by cults cause psychological damage including complex PTSD, anxiety, depression, self-harming behavior, addiction, and even suicide. It is never too late to get out.

The Portrait of a Cult: NXIVM

 


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APA Reference
Hammond, C. (2019). The Portrait of a Cult: NXIVM. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 18, 2019, from https://pro.psychcentral.com/exhausted-woman/2019/06/the-portrait-of-a-cult-nxivm/