Oct. 13, 2006
Keith Raniere: NXIVM CULT LEADER
Keith Raniere’s devoted followers say he is one of the smartest and most ethical people alive. They describe him as a soft-spoken, humble genius who can diagnose societal ills with remarkable clarity. They say his teachings as an inspirational executive coach can empower some of the most successful people in the world to attain ever higher levels of status and money. Why, his program can even cure ailments like diabetes and scoliosis.
Some 3,700 people have flocked to Raniere, 43, and Executive Success Programs, the business he created in 1998. Prompted by a potent word-of-mouth network, they include Sheila Johnson, cofounder of Black Entertainment Television; Antonia C. Novello, a former U.S. surgeon general; Stephen Cooper, acting chief executive of Enron; the Seagram fortune’s Edgar Bronfman Sr. and two of his daughters; and Ana Cristina Fox, daughter of the Mexican president. Raniere’s disciples say his methods sharpen their focus and give them keener insight into the motivations of others. “It’s like a practical M.B.A.,” says one follower, Emiliano Salinas, son of a former president of Mexico.
Raniere, who has no M.B.A., has shrewdly cashed in on the high-profit fad of executive coaching, a booming multibillion-dollar market. It includes established firms and renowned individuals who promise–for a fee–to help people become better executives, improve productivity and navigate office politics. Well-known trainers like Marshall Goldsmith, professor Vijay Govindarajan of Dartmouth and Richard Leider charge from $25,000 a day to $100,000 for a half dozen sessions spread over 18 months. They teach executives how to change their “negative behaviors,” to find what drives them and to divine the right goals.
But some people see a darker and more manipulative side to Keith Raniere. Detractors say he runs a cult-like program aimed at breaking down his subjects psychologically, separating them from their families and inducting them into a bizarre world of messianic pretensions, idiosyncratic language and ritualistic practices. “I think it’s a cult,” says Bronfman. Though he once took a course and endorsed the program, he hasn’t talked to his daughters in months and has grown troubled over the long hours and emotional and financial investment they have been devoting to Raniere’s group. One daughter, Clare, 24, has lent the program $2 million, at 2.5% interest, the senior Bronfman says (she denies this).
Raniere says there’s nothing in his operation that makes it a cult, and indeed, many enrollees see Executive Success as a good coaching program and nothing more. Enron’s Stephen Cooper puts himself in this category. Yet Raniere is an unlikely mentor to the wealthy and well-connected. A decade ago he ran an alleged pyramid scheme that collapsed after signing up at least 250,000 customers and bringing in more than $33 million in a year. In January a federal judge ruled in favor of an ex-girlfriend who was in a bitter legal fight with Raniere, citing “a jilted fellow’s attempt at revenge” and finding that Raniere had harassed her, disrupted her business and manipulated her into giving up her 10-year-old son to the boy’s father. The woman, Toni F. Natalie, tells Forbes that she believes Raniere brainwashed her, telling her she was put on Earth to carry his baby–the baby who would alter the course of history. Raniere calls this claim “ridiculous and not rational.”
These days Raniere prefers to be called “Vanguard” by his followers. (His business partner, Nancy Salzman, 49, a former nurse and therapist and the public face of Executive Success, calls herself “Prefect.”) Raniere’s long, brown hair and beard make him look a little like Jesus, and his thoughtful demeanor could let him pass for a philosophy professor–or maybe a slacker poet. He has no driver’s license, relying on friends for rides and walking up to 12 miles a day. He says he has no bank account and that he forgoes any salary from the $4 million-a-year coaching program he created: “I consider everything payment for what I’ve done.” Though he co-owns a small house near Albany, N.Y. with a female friend, he spends most nights at one or another of three friends’ homes. He claims not to own a bed. “I live,” he says with a disarmingly warm smile, “a somewhat church-mouse-type existence.”
His teachings are mysterious, filled with self-serving and impenetrable jargon about ethics and values, and defined by a blind-ambition ethos akin to that of the driven characters in an Ayn Rand novel. His shtick: Make your own self-interest paramount, don’t be motivated by what other people want and avoid “parasites” (his label for people who need help); only by doing this can you be true to yourself and truly “ethical.” The flip side, of course, is that this worldview discredits virtues like charity, teamwork and compassion–but maybe we just don’t get it.
Executive Success resembles motivational groups such as the Landmark Forum, the Sterling Institute of Relationship and Lifespring. It also is reminiscent of the “human potential” training of the 1970s, with a few Scientology-like elements and parallels to EST, the much-criticized groupthink program founded by Werner Erhard. Unlike EST, which famously discouraged students from using the bathroom during sessions, Executive Success offers plenty of breaks. Students pay up to $10,000 for five days of lectures and intense emotional probing in daily 13-hour cram sessions. They remove their shoes for class, learn obscure handshakes and wear patented colored sashes in dozens of different variations that signify rank in the organization. When a higher-ranking student enters the room they must stand to show respect. They are taught to bow to one another and to “Vanguard.” When he makes a rare appearance, Elvis-like, students rush up to him. Some ex-clients say they have seen him greet each woman with a kiss on the mouth, although Raniere denies this.
Once a day the attendees recite a 12-point mission statement written by Raniere. (Sample: “There are no ultimate victims; therefore, I will not choose to be a victim.”) It is apocalyptic in tone, with the occasional grammatical error–his genius notwithstanding. The world is full of people who try to “destroy each other, steal from each other, down each other or rejoice at another’s demise.” Thus, he writes, “it is essential for the survival of humankind” that the world’s wealth and resources be controlled by “successful, ethical people”–i.e., those trained at Executive Success.
It is quite a sales job, one that comes naturally to this corporate Svengali. Born in Brooklyn and bred in the suburbs, Raniere has a flair for promotion, like his adman father. An old bio labels Keith “one of the top three problem solvers in the world.” His current Web site quotes Albert Schweitzer, Margaret Mead–and himself. “Humans can be noble. The question is: Will we put forth what is necessary?” he writes, concluding that his program “represents the change humanity needs in order to alter the course of history.”
Raniere claims he spoke in full sentences when he was a 1-year-old, taught himself high school math in 19 hours when he was 12 and, by 13, had learned three years of college math and several computer languages. As a boy he read an Isaac Asimov sci-fi novel about a brilliant scientist who knew his galaxy was in irremediable decline and had reduced all human behavior to elegant mathematical equations. It inspired Raniere later to try to do the same. After graduating from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y. in 1982, with majors in physics, math and biology, he went to work in computer programming and consulting.
On the job he began to nurture his notion of unalloyed self-interest as the path to ethical behavior. He felt employees too often took jobs they didn’t like and made decisions they didn’t believe in. A more ethical world, he reasoned, would consist of people who understood their goals and pursued them. Raniere says he found inspiration in Rand’s books. The protagonists in Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead are über-individualists, aggressive and ruthless.
In 1990 Raniere decided to apply his theory to his new business, Consumers’ Buyline, a multilevel marketing program near Albany that promised lucrative commissions to old customers for recruiting new ones. He barnstormed the nation promoting discounts on groceries, dishwashers and even hotel stays, stoking crowds of a thousand pumped-up and profit-hungry people. “He was like a mythological figure–the guy with the 240 IQ was coming to town,” says Robert Bremner, a former distributor for the outfit.
Raniere says by the end of 1993 he had sold $1 billion in goods and services, employed 80 people and had a quarter-million believers paying him $19 a month to hawk his goods. He claims he was worth $50 million. Yet he appeared to carry no money, says Bremner, adding that Raniere seemed to sleep all day, rolled into his office around 10 p.m. and sometimes held meetings at 1 a.m. Business flagged, debt ballooned and customers complained. Regulators in 20 states began to investigate. In 1993 the New York attorney general filed a civil suit alleging Consumers’ Buyline was a pyramid scheme. Without admitting wrongdoing, Raniere settled for $40,000, of which he has paid only $9,000. He says he can’t pay the rest, though he also says his ample finances let him live on savings.
A year later Raniere created another multilevel outfit, National Health Network, which sold vitamins. He and his then-girlfriend, Toni Natalie, set up a health food shop in Clifton Park, N.Y. One day in 1997 Raniere met the woman who would become his business partner, Nancy Salzman. She is a nurse and therapist who has studied hypnosis and neurolinguistic programming, by which therapists examine and mimic a person’s language and speech patterns to alter behavior. (Raniere has studied this, too.)
Salzman had just gone through a tough time. She found Raniere to be riveting. He became her spiritual guide, and she became his most ardent follower. “There is probably no discovery since writing as important for humankind as Mr. Raniere’s technology,” she once wrote in a brochure. She ended up treating Raniere’s girlfriend, Toni Natalie, with therapy and lending her $50,000 for the health food business. When it flopped in 1999, a bitter battle ensued in U.S. bankruptcy court in Albany. Raniere sided with Salzman. Natalie moved away. Court records show Raniere sent Natalie verses from Paradise Lost, annotated (“Commits to evil for protection–stupid/weak.”). He drew a diagram that plotted her life and said she was in danger of careening down a “pride barrier” to a “dream death line.”
Raniere and Salzman don’t directly deny the assertions, but they say Natalie may have altered court documents–a charge Natalie says is outrageous. In January a U.S. judge said he found it “disturbing” to hear testimony that Raniere had had police sent to Natalie’s mother’s house and had made repeated threats to her and her family. Raniere has appealed several times, driving Natalie to the brink of a breakdown. “I can’t think. I can’t work. I can’t pay my bills,” she says.
In 1998 Salzman incorporated in Delaware the company that launched Executive Success Programs and applied for patents on Raniere’s behavior-modification “technology.” She and “Vanguard” agreed that he would get a share of the profits at some point. The company is now also known as Nxivm. Classes now are offered in Albany, Manhattan, Seattle, Boston and several cities in Mexico, with plans to expand. In August, in a squat, brown office complex near the Albany airport, 50 entrepreneurs and bankers sat on overstuffed couches, earnestly discussing words like “value” and “ethics.” Days begin at 8 a.m. with the “ESP handclap,” akin to using a gavel to open a court hearing. Students then go through sessions on “Money,” “Face of the Universe,” “Control, Freedom & Surrender” and more. They learn baffling and solipsistic jargon: “Parasites” are people who suffer, creating problems where none exist and craving attention. “Suppressives” see good but want to destroy it. Thus, a person who criticizes Executive Success is showing suppressive behavior.
In “Money,” students are taught that every dollar spent represents a portion of effort, and that “Vanguard identified the concept of giving and taking with integrity.” Coaches urge students to take each session several times at a cost of several thousand dollars–and to think of each dollar spent as a worthwhile representation of that effort. In a core piece of the program, known as “exploration of meaning,” teachers plumb students’ beliefs and backgrounds, looking for emotional buttons. People are encouraged to reveal a negative habit, describe how it benefits survival and pledge to replace it with a new one.
Confidentiality is sacrosanct. Students must sign a nondisclosure agreement and vow never to talk about what they learn. If they violate it, they are “compromising inner honesty and integrity.” In August Raniere sued a woman for, the suit claimed, divulging information. When a Forbes reporter asked to audit a session, the group’s lawyer presented a three-page confidentiality agreement forbidding the magazine to write about virtually anything seen or heard at the event. The reporter declined (and later was allowed to make a brief visit to the Albany site).
It is all too intense for some. After sleepless nights and 17-hour days of workshops, a 28-year-old woman from a prominent Mexican family says she began to have hallucinations and had a mental breakdown at her hotel near Albany. She went to a hospital and required psychiatric treatment. Her psychiatrist, Carlos Rueda, says in the last three years he has treated two others who have taken the class; one had a psychotic episode.
Stephanie Franco, a New Jersey social worker, spent $2,160 plus expenses for a five-day class in Albany at the suggestion of her half-brother, an executive at a family apparel company (Lollytogs and other brands). Other relatives joined, but Franco became concerned about the group’s rituals and its emphasis on recruitment. The family hired Rick A. Ross, a Jersey City, N.J. specialist in cults, to intervene, to no avail. He put information about the organization on his Web site–and promptly got sued by Raniere and Salzman, who accuse him of copyright violations. In September an Albany federal judge denied the organization’s initial request that Ross remove the information.
The family also hired John Hochman, a forensic psychiatrist who teaches at UCLA, who pored over the Executive Success manual and describes it thusly: “It is a kingdom of sorts, ruled by a Vanguard, who writes his own dictionary of the English language, has his own moral code and the ability to generate taxes on subjects by having them participate in his seminars. It is a kingdom with no physical borders, but with psychological borders–influencing how his subjects spend their time, socialize, and think.” In the lawsuit Raniere and Salzman made similar claims regarding alleged copyright violations against Hochman, as well as against Stephanie Franco.
Raniere and Salzman say they are careful to avoid accepting troubled students. In their world, those who question Raniere’s views simply don’t get it. He speaks slowly and methodically, with digression upon digression, using words he has defined for himself and then pausing to explain each term. You might think it pure genius. Or maybe horse manure.
Still, many disciples swear by Vanguard. Several students have achieved a high enough rank to qualify for a 20% commission on their new recruits. But most students are in it for the coaching. Sara Bronfman, Edgar Sr.’s 26-year-old daughter, says she started taking classes at the end of 2002 after her marriage fell apart. She was living in Belgium and heard about the class from a family friend. She marveled at how much Raniere was able to teach her. Sara has since been promoted to the rank of coach; she now works full time for Executive Success.
Sara and other devotees are talking about erecting centers in Australia and elsewhere. Raniere has lined up private investors to pay for a $15 million, 75,000-square-foot building near Albany. As originally designed, the building was to emerge from a stone foundation under a six-sided, glass roof. It is meant to be a tribute to civilization–another step in the mission to spread Vanguard’s gospel around the world. “I don’t know how much you know about my family,” Sara Bronfman says, admiring the silky cloth around her chest, “but, coming from a family where I’ve never had to earn anything before in my life, [it] was a very, very moving experience for me to be awarded this yellow sash. It was the first thing that I had earned on just my merits.”
fail yet again
On November 30th NXIVM (pronounced nexium like the purple antacid pill), the brainchild of failed multi-level marketing guru Keith Raniere (photo right), experienced yet another legal defeat in its ongoing effort to end criticism of the company on the Internet.
In a federal court order handed down by New Jersey Judge Dennis Cavanaugh a motion filed by NXIVM to reinstate causes of action previously dismissed in June of 2007 has been denied. This included an effort to reinstate claims of “product disparagement” and “tortious interference” in a long-standing lawsuit filed against the Ross Institute of New Jersey (sponsor of CultNews).
Cavanaugh ruled that critical articles written by psychiatrist John Hochman and psychologist Paul Martin within the Ross Institute Internet Archives are “protected statements of opinion which cannot be the basis for legal claims of disparagement or tortious interference.”
Read the reports:
“A Forensic Psychiatrist Evaluates ESP”
“A Critical Analysis of Executive Success Programs Inc.”
“Robert Jay Lifton’s eight criteria of thought reform as applied to the Executive Success Programs”
NXIVM attempted to have a statement recently extracted from Hochman as part of a settlement considered “new evidence” in support of a hoped for reversal by Judge Cavanaugh of his previous ruling.
However, the judge said that the psychiatrist’s statement “does not contain any new evidence” nor “any new information.”
Cavanaugh pointed out that the “case was originally filed in August 2003; and resolution has been delayed by repeated changes in counsel and failures [by NXIVM] to provide discovery which have led to monetary sanctions” against the company.
Summing it up the New Jersey federal court ruled, “Granting leave to amend imposes undue delay and unfair prejudice on the non-moving party and permits amendment where the Court determined such claims are futile. Therefore, leave to amend to re-plead the…claim[s] is denied.”
This means that NXIVM and Raniere, known as “Vanguard” amongst his devoted followers, only have very tenuous copyright and trade secret claims left to litigate.
For those that have not followed the long story of NXIVM’s lawsuit filed against the Ross Institute, Keith Raniere has made copyright and trade secret claims similar to those frequently used by Scientology. That is, Raniere maintains that quoting his written teachings for the purpose of criticism is somehow a violation of copyright and trade secret protection.
However, The United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in New York City previously handed down its definitive opinion some time ago (NXIVM Corp v. The Ross Institute — Docket No. 03-7952), regarding an injunction request made by NXIVM to remove the reports from the Internet based upon such copyright claims.
The court said, “We agree…that the website’s use of quotation from the manual to support their critical analyses of the seminars…[was used] for the purpose of ‘criticism, comment scholarship, or research.’
The court also noted that NXIVM’s claim that the doctors had unlawfully copied “‘the heart of their ’services’” within the reports was meaningless, because “such services…are not copyrightable expression.”
The decision read, “in order to do the research and analysis necessary to support their critical commentary, it was reasonably necessary for defendants to quote liberally from NXIVM’s manual.”
The court also said that use of a group’s material “might well harm, or even destroy, the market for the original,” but that this “is of no concern to us so long as the harm stems from the force of the criticism offered.”
Judge Dennis Jacobs summed it up succinctly, “Ross and his co-defendants quoted from NXIVM’s manual to show that it is the pretentious nonsense of a cult…Certainly, no critic should need an author’s permission to make such criticism…”
A NXIVM effort to appeal the Second Circuit decision to the United States Supreme Court also failed.
What will Keith Raniere (photo left) do now?
The situation does appear to be getting increasingly hopeless for the purported “cult” leader.
As the Second Circuit prophetically predicted years ago; “Plaintiffs are not likely to succeed.”
Nevertheless Keith Raniere through NXIVM has spent millions of dollars on legal bills hoping that his lawyers could somehow transform frivolous empty claims into substance.
Meanwhile the Ross Institute has been generously represented pro bono by attorneys and public advocacy groups dedicated to protecting freedom of speech as provided for by the First Amendment.
What Raniere foolishly chose to ignore is that included within the world of ideas and free expression is the implicit freedom to criticize what others create. Apparently, despite his vaunted “genius,” Vanguard couldn’t comprehend this simple truth.
Now other than a pitiful settlement from a beleaguered psychiatrist weary of the litigation, Raniere has little to show for his years spent in the courts. Instead, all his legal wrangling has actually achieved is to expose NXIVM to increased scrutiny, which has reportedly caused significant defections.
Sources have told CultNews that NXIVM keeps shrinking, as more and more of its devotees have decided to leave.
Today the company seems to depend largely on the continuing generosity of its few remaining wealthy patrons.
A Critical Analysis of the Executive Success Programs Inc.
February 12, 2003
By Paul Martin, Ph.D.
Director of Wellspring Retreat
Note: Wellspring Retreat & Resource Center is a licensed residential treatment facility that provides a program of counseling and instruction to victims of cultic abuse, religious abuse and/or thought reform.
Executive Success Programs Inc. by Keith Raniere is a series of high intensity high demand work shops that are designed to "actualize human potential"1 A selection of promotional material dated 1/30/2001, entitled "Executive Success Programs. Inc, (ESP)" reads, "Our School is designed to change the way people think, make decisions, react, and perform in various [areas?] of life.......All of ESP's programs are designed to help individuals develop the emotional and intellectual skills necessary to reach their maximum potential in all areas of life. Rational Inquiry is a science based on the belief that the more consistent a person is in their thinking, the more successful the individual will be."
In the same promotional sheet, there is a paragraph entitled "Why should I so this?" - meaning why should a person take ESP? Raniere writes, "All adults have disintegrations because when we were children learning to be adults and learning about the world our perspective was based on the perception, intellect, and wisdom of a small child. These lessons become the foundation of our whole adult reality. There has never been vehicle in our society that allowed us to go through and re-examine these beliefs and re-incorporate them now from an adult perspective.....until now. Rational Inquiry is that vehicle. It is the systematic introspective science that provides us with the necessary tools for human transformation."
A key motto of ESP is "We Teach everything nobody else teaches..." and everything they do2 ESP claims that students will reach "their full potential" with the program.3 Raniere claims to have devised a "radical new technology to create an unprecedented success program. It is a total personal and professional development system."4
ESP can be further defined by looking at the 12 Point Mission Statement of ESP.5The first point is, "Success is an internal state of clear, honest knowledge of what I am - my value in the world and my responsibility for the way I react to all things." The second point is, "There are no ultimate victims, therefore, I will not choose to be a victim." The information gleaned from ESP seminars is to be kept confidential. There is a pledge to purge oneself of all parasite and envy based habits. There is a pledge to control as much of the money of the world as possible within each student's success plan. In fact, it is essential for the survival of the world for as much money of the world to be controlled by ethical people - by implication, graduates of ESP. The mission statement says, "A world of successful people will be people a better world indeed a world devoid of hunger, theft, dishonesty, envy and insecurity. People will no longer try to destroy each other steal from each other down each other or rejoice at another's demise. Success ethics and integrity are co-inspirational. I pledge to share and enroll people in ESP and its mission for myself and to help make the world a better place to live."6
In a workshop session called "Mission," the reader is further enlightened as to the purposes of ESP.
How does understanding ESP'S integrated matrix help us determine destructive patterns of human behavior and give us clues as to what is to come? We are now at the highest level of technological advancement in human history. The lifestyle current technology affords us has never existed before on the planet. Human civilization has had rises and falls for centuries; yet, it is our belief humanity cannot survive another fall. All members of the human team must understand the historic reasons behind this tendency so we can change it and survive. We believe this is the ultimate cause because it means our existence and all other causes and our existence depend on this knowledge. The Mission of ESP is to develop an integrated ethical framework of human experience to stop the destruction of value in the world and move humanity forward. This practice session explains ESP's mission and gives students a clear knowledge of how and why to act to change historic trends.7
ESP Training is offered through workshops called "Intensives."8 The term "Intensive" is fairly common in the human potential movement to describe their training courses. ESP Intensives are offered as a three day or weekend, 5-Day, or 16-Day Intensive. The 16-Day course starts at 8 am to 9 pm daily with lunch and dinner breaks and breaks. Tuition cost is $7500.00 or $6000.00 if paid two weeks in advance. Full tuition must be paid first day of class.
The 5-Day Intensive. Cost is $2700.00. Pre-registration discount is $2160.00. Full amount must be paid two weeks before class resumes. Class hours are the same as those for the 16-Day Intensive.
The 3-Day Intensive: Friday 4-10, Saturday, 8 AM to 9 PM, Sunday 9 AM to 6 PM. Tuition $1200.00. Full tuition must be paid two weeks before Intensive starts.
There is also an Ethos Training for Coaches and Coach Apprentices. This program appears to be offered beyond the 16 day intensives. There are several levels of lengths of enrollment and the cost varies according to time of enrollment from 3 to 12 months and from $800 to $1800. There is a full refund guarantee for those signing up for the one year Ethos program if students are not satisfied.
Students also are required to wear sashes which signify rank. A white sash reflects student status, stripes reflect levels of certification and practice. Yellow sashes are worn by an Apprentice Coach/Coach. Having one stripe signifies a true coach. Two or Three Stripes indicate more advanced and experienced coaches. Three stripes is an active contributor. Four stripes indicates "Full Integration facilitated." Orange Sash: Apprentice Proctor/Proctor. Coach Certification II. Orange Sash is the highest sash rank. 9
ESP Intensives then lay out the mechanics of how the student is to achieve all the success promised by ESP. This process is accomplished through a series of topics presented during the "Intensive" sessions. Raniere places great emphasis on the psychological concept of projection. However, according to ESP "until now there has never been a concise explanation of how this complex process works."10 The Intensive includes the three stages of human evolution in which, according to Raniere, human beings are born parasitic, unable to take care of themselves, they depend on others for their very survival." As adults parasite strategies, "keep people dependent on others and lower self esteem."11 Many examples of parasite behavior are presented, such as complaining about pain and suffering, saying, "I'm hungry," "I know I promised but I had no idea how hard or painful this was going to be." The point here according to ESP is that parasites try to avoid responsibility simply because they tried so hard.12
The program spells out a new version of "Good and Bad." Here is a sampling from the workshop
When we were little children, we learned "bad" when someone yelled "No!" or "That's bad. Stop!" We learned "good" when we were rewarded in some way. This sort of learning is inconsistent and limiting - because in order to have a full understanding of each concept, we would have to examine every example of good and every example of bad. This practice session affords you the opportunity to re-evaluate your definitions of these vital concepts to form a solid foundation for the future.13
In the course of the program normal terms such as good and bad are redefined. Good becomes pro survival, and bad counter survival or destructive of value. Rules according to ESP are fear based and ethics are internalized.
ESP then adds the element of a motivational track where students are taught and practice certain motivational states such as "Toward" which is patterns that "focus directly on goals and objectives. When people are utilizing toward patterns, their effort and attention moves them to have, get, obtain and achieve something asa result of desire."14
Other concepts covered in the motivation section include, "Away From," patterns that "focus directly on circumstances to avoid....."; "trigger," " a stimulus response mechanism.....used to bring back the emotional state.....the motivational state at will."15
ESP makes some bold and unique claims about what it wants to accomplish and what it is. In summary the following list presents many of the salient points of the ESP program.
- It is designed to "help individuals develop the emotional and intellectual skills necessary to reach their maximum potential in all areas of life."16
- ESP is a "science based on the belief that the more consistent a person is in their thinking, the more successful the individual will be."17
- "All adults have disintegrations because when we were children learning to be adults and learning about the world our perspective was based on the perception, intellect, and wisdom of a small child."18
- "There has never been a vehicle in our society that allowed us to go through and re-examine these beliefs and re-incorporate them now from an adult perspective - until now. Rational Inquiry is that vehicle. It is the systematic introspective science that provides us with the necessary tools for human transformation"19
- "There are no ultimate victims."20
- "The information gleaned from ESP Seminars is to be kept confidential."21
- "There is a pledge to control as much of the money of the world as possible within each student's success plan. In fact it is essential for the survival of the world for as much money of th world to be controlled by ethical people."22
- "It is our belief that humanity cannot survive another fall. All members of the human team must understand the historic reasons behind this tendency so we can change it and survive. We believe this is the ultimate cause because it means our existence and all other causes and our existence depend on this knowledge. The Mission of ESP is to develop an integrated ethical framework of human experience to stop the destruction of value in the world and move humanity forward. This practice session explains ESP's mission and gives students a clear knowledge of how and why to act and to change historic trends." 23
The first point of analysis deals with a claim that ESP will provide the tools, or training that will help people reach their maximum potential in all areas if life. What does this mean? What is maximum potential? Are There scientific measures for maximum potential? Does "all areas of life" extend to health benefits? Would those taking the training have less cancer, less heart disease? Do ESP graduates have better marriages, happier children? The point is that the use of the phrase "all areas of life" and "maximum potential" appear promising but the phrases demand defining, otherwise they are phrases without practical, concrete application.
Further, how does Raniere know? What evidence has he provided? Having hotel conference rooms filled with happy attendee is not "proof" that the program has achieved maximum potential in all areas of life. It may be proof that there are people in the room. Some may be happy to be there, some may want to leave, some may have benefitted in some areas of their lives, some may have seen decline in aspects in other areas of their lives. The point is that the area is open to empirical investigation, but there are no independent studies demonstrating that ESP can support these claims.
The second point is the claim that ESP is a science. Raniere says it is, but that does not make it so. Science must meet certain requirements. There is nothing in the published scientific literature about ESP nor has an exhaustive search of the psychological literature base shown any publications by Keith Raniere.24
The third area for analysis concerns the fact that adults have perceptual distortions, "disintegrations" developed from childhood. He too was a child and was likewise a casualty of perceptual distortions. This presents a problem for Raniere. How did he overcome these distortions? By what measure would one judge that Raniere is free of the distortions? How did Raniere know there were distortions? How does Raniere know that every child suffers from these distortions? Did he do a study of every child on earth? Such a study is clearly impossible. Therefore, how does he know this truth? Unfortunately, the workshop participant appears to have to accept these claims by faith. But this faith is a far cry from the scientific claims of ESP that Raniere asserts.
The fourth area is an extension of the third, namely, that not only do all humans have distortions or disintegrations but no one has ever developed a mechanism to examine these disintegrations and correct them. Again, the attendee must rely on Raniere's word alone. Of course, one must assume the truth of the disintegrations to then assume that Raniere has also scanned all the "vehicles in our society" to see if any one group, individual or system has re-examined the faulty beliefs or disintegrations held by the world's masses. Raniere apparently has provided no evidence that he has done such an analysis. And if he has it would be a monumental undertaking.
Number five, maintains that "There are no ultimate victims." What does this mean? How far do we take human responsibility? Is a raped woman somewhat responsible for her rape? Is a battered wife somewhat responsible for her battering? Is an employee subject to a mean, dishonest, boss somehow not a victim? Are slaves in some manner not victims? Are those hit and hopelessly crippled by a drunk driver not victims? Are those accidently paralyzed by the slip of a surgeon's knife not victims? What does Raniere have to say to this? The normal definition of victim, according to the Oxford Dictionary of the English Language, is "a person harmed, injured, or killed as a result of a crime or accident. 2. A person who is tricked or duped." Common observation teaches that there are victims. ESP appears to make victimhood seem as unnatural as sensing the brisk chill on one's cheeks on the morning of the first autumn frost.
The sixth area of analysis concerns the need to keep the ESP material confidential, and by extension invite people to attend to ESP Intensives where they pay to receive this information. Certainly, Mr. Raniere has intellectual property rights if he so desires. Most of his material has a patent pending and copyright on the bottom of the printed materials. He certainly has the right for his students not to distribute the material, copy it, or sell it. But the ESP Mission Statement says,
"The methods and information I learn in ESP are for my use only. I will not speak of them, or in any way give others knowledge of them, outside ESP. Part of the condition of being accepted into ESP is to keep all its information confidential. If I violate this I am breaking a promise and breaching my contract, but more importantly I am compromising my inner honesty and integrity."
This segment of the Mission segment appears to stretch beyond the intent of what might be covered by copyright and intellectual property rights. The confidentiality issue seems to approach a gag order. Why? What is the harm in some general discussion about your workshop. In fact, what would be the harm if you have invested so much time in these Intensives and share some general observations about them with your wife, mother, or boss? The prohibition on sharing may serve as a wedge between those who have taken the courses and those who have not. This confidentiality issue may put pressure on people to enroll loved ones just so they can talk again. Perhaps the actual answer is not as important as the question "Why? Why is it necessary?" It would seem that some of the pressure on the copyright issue would be taken off if Raniere published some tapes, wrote a few articles, or wrote a book. Then people could blab all they wanted about his book, the tapes, articles, etc. And it would answer the nagging question "Why?" But if Raniere isn't interested is selling tapes, then there may be a problem elsewhere.
Number seven is simply breathtaking, that ESP graduates need to make as much money as possible and control as much money as possible in order to save the world from destruction. A modest proposal, and a humble one as well! History has shown that the ethic of seeking wealth is a risky one at best, especially one that tells us to control as much as possible, as much of the wealth in the world! Power corrupts! Wealth also tends to corrupt. How did Raniere, a la "Vanguard," divine such truth? On face value any proposal that suggests that a group of graduates from a human potential seminar should control as much money, wealth, and resources of the world as possible in order to save the world seems to come leaping out of the pages of a James Bond novel! Here Bond is summoned by M and a file is given to him about a madman - a Keith Raniere who has trained over 400,000 followers who are now rapidly accumulating most of the world's wealth. ESP followers have plans on "controlling as much of the wealth, money and resources of the world as possible." I am sure someone of importance will look at Raniere. His claims are not benign. Either they must be taken seriously, that is he has developed a science and therefore he must come up with the corresponding proof. So far he has not. Or he is the leader of one of the largest human potential growth enterprises, devoid of scientific proof. If his claims are bogus then it is likely that he is a person with a serious mental problem and/or a con man with very grand and perhaps not so benevolent schemes.
Number eight continues with the seventh theme, "It is our belief that humanity cannot survive another fall. All members of the human team must understand the historic reasons behind this tendency so we can change it and survive. We believe this is the ultimate cause because it means our existence and all other causes and our existence depend on this knowledge. The Mission of ESP is to develop an integrated ethical framework of human experience to stop the destruction of value in the world and move humanity forward. This practice session explains ESP's mission and gives students a clear knowledge of how and why to act and to change historic trends."25
The same arguments and analysis applied to number seven applies to number eight. However, not only is ESP interested in wealth and power, the knowledge that ESP possesses is essential for the survival of humanity! What Moses and all true prophets throughout the ages of human history could not do, Raniere claims he can do. It now it appears that Raniere has developed an ethical framework "to stop the destruction of value in the world and move humanity forward." This appears nothing short of a religion, a system that has answers to the problems of life.
Some meta analysis is in order. The Mission and the other promotional material that I have cited from ESP bear two similarities to other types of groups. First, Dr. Robert J. Lifton describes a concept he calls "sacred science". ESP is portrays the characteristics of the "sacred science" in the following ways.26
First there is the "ultimate moral vision for the ordering of human existence." Then, there seems to be little room for questioning of basic assumptions. Raniere cleverly redefines "cult" in an attempt to deflect questions about his organization. Next there is a demand in sacred science for a "reverence for the originators of the Word." A comparison with the readings of ESP can clearly see the emphasis paid on "Tribute" and especially tribute to "vanguard." Sacred science makes the claim of airtight scientific precision, and ESP also makes the claim that it too is scientific. Here we have with ESP the idea that Raniere's moral vision can be true for all men for all times, a true sacred science that, according to Raniere, is a scientific discovery.
The similarities between ESP and a sacred science continue to the individual level. There is the promise of personal growth and success. Again, the possibility for genuine insight and inner discovery is held out to the seeker. And this experience of genuine inner transformation clouds the reality that the overarching truth of the movement is not based on some logic and science that is going to change the course of history. ESP has created a system so broad that within the system there is no thought or area that cannot be adequately covered by some principle. And that is exactly like a sacred science, "there is no thought or action which cannot be related to it."27
The teaching and practices of the workshop contain elements that correspond to the eight themes of thought reform as described by Lifton, of which the "sacred science" is just one. The materials from several Intensives were examined, including those from 1/30/2001, 12/2000, 1/2001, 2/2001, 4/2001, 5/2001, 6/2001 and 7/20001. The specific examples are individually referenced.
So far we have presented evidence showing that ESP has characteristics that are consistent with the themes of thought reform. What then are some of the consequences of those subject to thought reform programs? Lifton observed certain clinical symptoms in the subjects he studied. For example: borderline psychotic state, split identity, fear (p. 33), confusion (p. 34), feeling neglected, hostile, suspicious, critical, lonely, missing communism - yet terrible ambivalence about it (pp. 35,36), lifestyle changes (p. 39). Other symptoms include inability to distinguish the real from the unreal (p. 45), an attack on one's sense of inner identity, a confession process of expelling the old self and allowing the group to re-educate the person.(pp. 67,68). In such environments people become guilty, they feel they must change, they must confess, betray self and/or others. Then comes as sense of fear, a near total difference between the new environment and the old once known. There is then a fear of annihilation. One's only relief besides psychosis, suicide, or death is to merge with the movement and thus experience the "new birth." He then also experiences leniency, and then the student becomes a willing participant in his or her own thought reform(pp.70-73). However, the new self which was spawned by conspiracy and guilt continues to permeate the victim of thought reform (pp. 78-81).There are also great problems with trust (p. 85).
Those who express thought reform cliches may reflect an inner brittleness about their true inner conversion (p. 118). Often there is ambivalence about confession, about the horrors of the group. They may shock others and say something to the effect that things in the group were, "perfectly well," they may say little to parents and talk about it at length to old friends (p. 125). Guilt can be overwhelming and irrational - guilt about still holding good thoughts about the group, and guilt towards those who arranged their release (p. 126).
Even among apparent resisters there had been penetration into the theological structures of, for example, a priest (p. 126). Thought reform succeeded in eliciting incriminating confessions from all Westerners whom Lifton interviewed (p. 150). Resisters though suffered fear, confusion, and agitation (p. 175). Some felt shame for the perceived moral failures in cooperating with communists while under their mental sway (p. 186). Certain aspects of the movement are retained while the movement as a whole is rejected (p. 195). In time even the flaws of the remaining portion, i.e., criticism and self criticism, are rejected (p. 195).
The long term task for recovery was to regain the self overcome with guilt, in a word "the restoration of integrity"(p. 223).
As Lifton noted, for those Westerners imprisoned and subjected to thought reform programs only one or possibly two from fewer than a hundred were transformed into genuine communists (p. 237). But knowing the enduring effects of thought reform is perhaps the most essential aspect in understanding thought reform.
"Despite the years that had passed since their imprisonment, these men and women were still grappling with the powerful emotions and ideas implanted by the Chinese Communists. Most had succeeded in neutralizing them; but the implant had been compelling enough to defy easy excision. For once a man has been put through prison thought reform, he never completely casts off its picture of the world and of himself" (p. 237).
"Four years after the experience my subjects still bore marks of both fear and relief" (p. 238)
Yet undergoing such an ordeal can be "therapeutic," there are reports of becoming "emotionally strengthened," and becoming more sensitive to one's own and others' inner feelings, and "more flexible and confident in human relationships"(p. 238).
Of those in the revolutionary colleges, where there was no physical imprisonment, symptoms were also present. There were first-hand reports of some becoming psychotic, at least one third of the students were observed to show signs of "fatigue, insomnia, loss of appetite, vague aches and pains, upper respiratory or gastrointestinal symptoms" (p. 266). Common symptoms included fear, guilt, hate, inability to maintain emotional control regarding feelings relating to communism, and nightmares (pp. 289-299).
A profound sense of "anomie with profound personal and social and social dislocation and unrelatedness" is perhaps the hallmark of all thought reform victims (p. 309).
Clearly, the thought reform experience is not benign. However, in saying this it would be erroneous to conclude all participants are harmed equally. Before leaving Lifton, it is important to note his observation made in the preface to the 1989 edition to his Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism. There he commented how the advent of communism had been superseded by a "worldwide epidemic of political and religious fundamentalism.....these latter groups are often referred to as cults." Lifton went on to define cults as groups with charismatic leadership, and having patterns of thought reform as described in his book.
Oct. 1, 2007
Monday October 1, 2007
October 1, 2007 — His followers bow in his presence and call him “Vanguard.”
His detractors square off with him in court and call him a manipulative “brainwasher” who wrecks lives with his “extremely dangerous,” “cult-like” group.
Keith Raniere, leader of an Albany-based organization called NXIVM (pronounced nex-e-um), has built a lucrative empire with his Executive Success Programs.
NXIVM, run by Raniere, 47, and President Nancy Salzman, a 52-year-old registered nurse, claims to pull in at least $4 million a year. Big-name devotees like Seagram heiresses Clare and Sara Bronfman back Raniere – and “The Family,” as insiders call the group – despite his checkered past.
In the 1990s, the Brooklyn-born Raniere, son of New York adman and fund-raiser James Raniere, shuttered a multimillion-dollar marketing firm after authorities in several states alleged that it was an illegal pyramid scheme.
Today, devotees shell out as much as $7,500 to attend NXIVM’s 16-day motivational seminars, called “intensives,” where they are coached using Raniere’s patented behavior-modification “technology.”
Members, or “ESPians,” also bow to Salzman, called “Prefect,” and refer to nonbelievers to as “parasites” or “suppressives.”
Some who have left have turned against NXIVM and divulged its “secret” policies – only to find themselves mired in years of litigation with Raniere and Salzman.
In published accounts, ex-members and mental-health professionals call NXIVM a “cult-like” group that uses sensory deprivation, “brainwashing” and other mind-bending tactics – sometimes to the point of psychological breakdowns.