Editor’s Note: The following report contains sexually explicit and disturbing testimony.
On most mornings, Sylvie says, she would send a text message and nude photo of herself to Keith Raniere.
“Good morning, Grandmaster,” Sylvie says she wrote Keith Raniere, adding purple heart emojis, multiple times over several years.
It was, she testified in Brooklyn federal court this week, something she believed she was required to do for Raniere, the founder of Nxivm currently on trial on racketeering and sex trafficking charges, among others.
Sylvie, 32, was identified only by her first name as she testified against Raniere because prosecutors say she is one of his victims.
Raniere was the founder and revered leader Nxivm, an organization that sold self-improvement classes to thousands of people all over the world. Sylvie entered Raniere’s world by taking several of those classes to try to improve a professional horse-riding career.
Prosecutors say that within Nxivm was a secret society called DOS that Raniere headed. It consisted only of women who were either “slaves” or “masters.” Some of the women were instructed to seduce and have sex with Raniere, prosecutors say.
‘I Had to Do Whatever She Said’
Raniere’s trial opened this week. He has pleaded not guilty to all charges. If convicted, he could face life in prison.
The case has made headlines for months, with TV actress Allison Mack pleading guilty to racketeering conspiracy and racketeering related to her role in the organization. Two other women, including a Seagram’s heiress, also pleaded guilty.
The trial’s first days presented salacious details of alleged behavior.
In court Wednesday, Sylvie testified that she believed she was instructed to send nude photos to Raniere after she became a DOS slave. She said she was recruited by a woman named Monica, whom she met through Nxivm classes and trusted.
Sylvie testified that in 2015, Monica said she had a “special project” that would help Sylvie improve herself. Sylvie had to give Monica damaging information about herself, or “collateral,” to hear details, Sylvie continued. Sylvie had just married John, also a Nxivm member, a few weeks before Monica approached her, and was told by Raniere not to have sex with him for two years to develop their relationship first.
“She told me she was my master and I had to do whatever she said,” Sylvie said. “And she had my collateral.”
The “collateral” was a letter written to Sylvie’s parents confessing she was a prostitute, with a photo enclosed. The letter was in an addressed envelope. She wrote the letter, but its contents were not true. The threat of its release haunted Sylvie, she said.
Requests of seduction, graphic photos
Sylvie testified that Monica told her to run errands for her and would text her randomly for “readiness drills,” requiring Sylvie to respond instantly at any hour of the night. She eventually told Sylvie to seduce Raniere. As Sylvie began sending him flirtatious messages, Raniere soon asked her to send pictures, instructing her to send graphic photos of her vagina. Soon, Monica asked Sylvie to meet Raniere at his home.
“She said that I needed to ask him to take my picture and that to go along with whatever else was going to happen in that meeting, but she didn’t tell me what,” Sylvie testified.
Once inside his home, Sylvie testified that Raniere told her to get undressed and lie on a bed. He then began to perform oral sex on her.
“I just remember I felt like it was going on for a really long time and … I started to think, like, ‘When is this going to end?’” Sylvie said, adding that she started making sounds to let him think she’d finished. “I was doing anything to make it stop, basically.”
“Did you want to be participating in that,” Assistant US Attorney Moira Penza asked.
“No,” Sylvie replied.
“Why did you do it?” Penza asked.
“I understood that that was a command from my master and that that was part of my role as a slave in order to do what I was supposed to do without getting in trouble,” Sylvie testified.
After Raniere was done, he got next to her on the bed and told her that she was brave and special.
“He also told me that he was my grandmaster now,” Sylvie testified.
She added that she had no idea the project she’d been invited to be a part of would include this.
A Nxivm member for 13 years
Sylvie said she was a member of Nxivm for 13 years, and continued to send messages to Raniere, even asking to meet with him.
Raniere’s attorney Marc Agnifilo asked why she continued to communicate with Raniere and stay in Nxivm if she didn’t want to, despite never having her collateral released. Sylvie said the Nxivm programs had impacted her thinking by teaching her not to trust her instincts.
One video of Nxivm teachings shown in court featured one of Raniere’s co-defendants, Nancy Salzman, who pleaded guilty to racketeering charges. Salzman served as CEO, transcribing Raniere’s thoughts into lessons. In one lesson she discusses sexual abuse determined by the age of consent, which she says is 17 in some places and 12 in others.
“Often when you counsel people who are children of what you might call abuse, some little children are perfectly happy with it until they find out what happens later in life,” Salzman says, on camera. “They didn’t know anything about it was bad, later they grow up and they found out that it was actually something that was bad, in that case is it more society that’s abusing them?”
After lessons like these, Sylvie said she felt she couldn’t trust herself to understand if something that happened was right or wrong.
“I think I’m still trying to, like, recover my brain from the experience because it was so many years for me, from when I was 18, of being in a really specific way of thinking,” she testified.
How members were allegedly pulled in
When Mark Vicente, 53, took his first Nxivm class, he, like others, was there to learn how to be more successful. The classes were, after all, done through the Nxivm company “Executive Success Programs.”
When Vicente and other students come to one of Nxivm’s centers, they were greeted by framed photos of Salzman, known as “Prefect,” and Raniere, who was called “Vanguard.”
“There was nothing above Vanguard,” Vicente testified on Thursday.
What sold Vicente, a college-educated filmmaker, was something called an “exploration of meaning.” A high-ranking member discussed a student’s biggest fears in a conversation so in-depth that, Vicente said, one would enter a child-like state, like a trance. His session cleared his feelings of claustrophobia while stuck in traffic jams.
“I had never seen anything that was that effective,” he said. “I was blown away.”
Some walls were lined with brightly colored sashes signifying ranks based on number of classes taken and students recruited.
The first few days of intensive classes were about redefining ideas, he said – like external problems are actually just you causing your own reaction. Students were taught to minimize their emotions and instincts and instead trust their intellect. Instructors brought up the word cult saying, “it doesn’t exist.”
“If one had any issues with it, it was pointed back at you. All these things, I felt like, became a trap,” he said. “One couldn’t question the higher ranks. If you questioned, you were clearly a suppressive person.”
Vicente instantly began to question the motives of the lessons. When he raised his concerns to Salzman, he said, she told him he couldn’t accept that there was “so much goodness” in the world.
‘It’s a fraud. It’s a lie.’
The courses could cost as much as $7,500 for 16 days. Each day could be 12 hours long, which Vicente said was exhausting and disorienting. Each time students took a class, they were asked to fill out a psychological survey, a non-disclosure agreement and a questionnaire asking for deeply personal information. Vicente said he has no idea where that information is now.
“I feel bamboozled. I feel fooled. I feel that so much about myself was collected,” Vicente said. “I feel exceedingly vulnerable.”
At the beginning of sessions, students and instructors would put on their sashes and gather into a huddle, proclaiming, “We are committed to our success,” Vicente said. Then, they would read Raniere’s 12-point mission statement.
A prosecutor asked Vicente to read the statement. The second line states: “There are no ultimate victims; therefore, I will not choose to be a victim.”
Vicente broke down crying on the witness stand.
“It’s a fraud. It’s a lie,” he said. “It’s this well-intended veneer that covers horrible, incredible evil.”
The trial resumes Monday.