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Don’t Call it a Cult: The Shocking Story of Keith Raniere and the Women of NXIVM

By Sarah Berman

As the trial of NXIVM mastermind Keith Raniere proves, the line between self-help and cult-hood can be a tricky one to parse, as well as a scary one to contend with if left unchecked. In her book Don’t Call it a Cult: The Shocking Story of Keith Raniere and the Women of NXIVM, investigative journalist Sarah Berman shares her experience tracking the pyramid-scheme-executive-turned-cult-leader from the origins of his Amway distribution scam in the 1980s all the way through his conviction for racketeering and human trafficking crimes in 2019.

While NXIVM’s self-proclaimed mission of women’s empowerment might have seemed benign at its onset, the laundry list of financial and sexual crimes it had perpetrated by the time it was dismantled several decades later was extensive. Still, the fact that Raniere’s organization managed to evade detection and prosecution for as long as it did speaks to the fact that as a society we lack legal vocabulary around cults and abuse.

“The testimony was a lot to take in. It spanned decades and international borders. There was striving and aspiration as well as starvation and deprivation. On the way out of the courtroom I heard more than one observer say they sensed an acute injustice, but didn’t know what to name it. Raniere’s actions sounded bad – like torture, even – but didn’t easily fit between lines drawn by a legal system that disproportionately polices street crime and marginalized groups.”

— Sarah Berman, author of Don’t Call it a Cult

Her engrossing narrative style humanizes the victims in a way not fully realized during the trial itself, and most certainly not allowed during their involvement in NXIVM. She skillfully incorporates personal testimonies from the women targeted by Raniere, probing issues of power, consent and agency on an individual level while also zooming out to investigate the nature and dynamics of what we call cults as a whole.

Readers are quickly led to realize that the question of what constitutes a cult is much more complex than pop culture would have us believe. Berman draws her own carefully considered conclusions by staying true to the investigation, while also honoring authentic motivations towards self-improvement in those who seek out alternative spiritual and religious communities.

The point at which the exploration of alternative lifestyles turns to brainwashing and abuse is a difficult one to narrate, much less prosecute. Yet Berman does so with the keen eye of an investigative reporter mixed with the sympathetic voice of an onlooker who wants to see justice for exploited women everywhere.

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