Beyond the lurid details of the Nxivm case is a story of a bright, beloved young woman in Hollywood who became enthralled by the teachings of a twisted leader. Corina Knoll of The New York Times reports.
Six years ago, Allison Mack sat on a purple rug filming a segment for her YouTube channel. Bubbly and earnest, she answered fans' questions with delight.
The "most awesomest" gift she's ever received? A colourful scarf knitted by a friend. "But really it's a hug made out of yarn," Mack said.
As charming and innocuous as she appeared, Mack was entranced by an organisation called Nxivm, that promoted itself as a mentorship programme but was on the brink of devolving into a sex cult. Mack herself would later be accused of recruiting women as "slaves" for the group, Nxivm, branding them and demanding "collateral" of explicit photos and videos.
In April, the 36-year-old actress pleaded guilty to racketeering and racketeering conspiracy. She faces up to 20 years in prison, and may be called as a witness in the coming weeks in the trial of Nxivm's leader, Keith Raniere.
Four other women have also pleaded guilty, and trial testimony has begun to reveal details about Nxivm's dark inner workings.
Beyond the lurid details of the case is a story of a bright, beloved young woman in Hollywood who longed for enlightenment but instead became enthralled by the teachings of a twisted leader.
"I joined Nxivm first to find purpose," she said between sobs during last month's plea hearing in Brooklyn federal court. "I was lost and I wanted to find a place, a community in which I would feel comfortable."
She said she was "truly very sorry," and took responsibility for her actions.
Mack declined to be interviewed while the trial is proceeding, but interviews with former Nxivm members and those who knew her before she joined the organisation outlined her journey from Teen Choice Award winner to convicted member of an apparent sex cult.
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Mack was 18 when she was cast as Clark Kent's sidekick, Chloe Sullivan, on Smallville, an addictive TV series about young Superman that ran for 10 seasons.
By then she had been acting for more than a decade, appearing in dozens of television movies and shows, plus a role in the direct-to-video Honey, We Shrunk Ourselves.
"She was just this great kid who seemed happy, mature for her age and very responsible," said her childhood manager, Diane Hardin.
As she moved into her teens, Mack was poised but lacked sophistication, needing help with her makeup and style, recalled her former agent, Judy Savage.
"If you saw her, she was kind of an ordinary-looking girl — wasn't gorgeous or sexy — but could make herself into anything on screen, and you would be really surprised at her work," she said.
After high school, Mack moved from her family's home in Los Alamitos, California, to North Hollywood and had a group of industry friends. She was particularly close to Christine Lakin of Step by Step, who recalled a girl who was "hilarious and up for anything."
But Lakin and others said Mack, the middle of three children, also had a touch of naiveté.
"The only thing I can think of is she so badly wanted to connect to something that she didn't see the rational side of things," Lakin said. "The person that I knew way back when was very curious about the world and relationships. I think she was just constantly searching for something that was missing in her life."
On Smallville, Chloe was the clever-but-grating best friend next to the ethereal dream girl, Lana Lang, played by Kristin Kreuk. Fans were cruel when contrasting the two young women's looks, and it was not lost on Mack, who was sensitive to criticism.
Despite the public pitting the two against each other, Mack and Kreuk bonded quickly. It was Kreuk who brought Mack to her first meeting of Jness, a women's group under the umbrella of Nxivm (pronounced Nex-ee-um), in 2006.
The weekend seminar was held in a Vancouver, British Columbia, hotel where Mack seemed to bask in the attention from Nancy Salzman, who co-founded Nxivm with Raniere. Salzman was teaching a workshop and spoke about how men are genetically polyamorous, said Susan Dones, the owner of a Nxivm centre who was there that day, though she had begun to question Raniere's motives.
By the end of the seminar, Mack had grown close to Salzman and her daughter, Lauren, and was excited when Sara Bronfman, an heir to the Seagram's liquor fortune, offered her a ride on her private jet to meet Raniere in Albany, New York.
Dones, who left the group in 2009, recalled thinking, "Oh my God, they've gotten their claws into her."
Nxivm courses were said to help eliminate psychological and emotional barriers, and Mack saw them as a way to enhance her relationships and acting abilities, said Barbara Bouchey, a former girlfriend of Raniere's who served on Nxivm's executive board before leaving in 2009.
She was also eager to help and soon hosted, along with Kreuk, a Nxivm a cappella concert, said Frank Parlato, a former publicist for the organization. Parlato, who now runs several websites devoted to exposing Nxivm's underbelly, was struck by Mack's near-religious fervour for the organisation.
Mack tended to throw herself wholeheartedly into experiences, a habit she said she developed at a young age when she watched her mother battle and beat cancer.
"I am insatiable. Greedy, in a way. I live with voracity and intensity ... voracitensity," she wrote on her now defunct website.
By 2007, she was insisting that anyone she hired enrol in Nxivm classes, wanting to make sure her team had the same ethical foundation. She also turned increasingly inward, obsessing over defects in her character, said a woman who worked for Mack for eight years who asked not to be named for fear of being contacted by current Nxivm members.
"One of the insidious things that the cult does is it breaks everyone down where you're only focused on your flaws," said the employee, who left Nxivm around 2013.
Mack also began to lose friends.
Among them was Frank Martorana, a confidant for years.
"She just went from being an amazing, wonderful friend to being someone who was brainwashed, and I didn't know how to get her back," Martorana said.
The friendship deteriorated when Mack invited him to a Nxivm recruiting event at a Los Angeles mansion overlooking the ocean.
"It was honestly the most pressure I've ever felt in my life," Martorana said. "I could see how she could get lost in that current."
After Smallville ended in 2011, Mack moved to Brooklyn, where she packed her apartment with paintings and books and listened to jazz. She yearned to reinvent herself.
She bought a home in Clifton Park, New York, a suburban upstate town where many Nxivm members had flocked, including Raniere, who was referred to as "Vanguard." Members took walks around the neighbourhood and met up for late-night volleyball matches. Mack joined their a cappella group, Simply Human.
Around 2013, Kreuk left Nxivm and maintained only "minimum contact" with those still involved, according to a statement she posted last year on Twitter. Her manager did not respond to requests for comment.
But Mack ventured even deeper into the organisation's philosophies. In 2014, she was helping to start a media website for Nxivm that promised to strip news of its spin.
A year later, prosecutors said, a secret society formed within Nxivm called DOS — an acronym for a Latin phrase meaning "Lord/Master of the Obedient Female Companions" — where women were "slaves" overseen by "masters" and ordered to have sexual relations with Raniere.
Mack is said by prosecutors to have targeted vulnerable women under the guise of female empowerment, starving them until they fit Raniere's sexual ideal and threatening them with the release of collected "collateral."
Although Mack married Nicki Clyne, a fellow Nxivm member and actress who appeared in Battlestar Galactica, in 2017, she appeared to be infatuated and romantically involved with Raniere, former members of the organisation said.
But Raniere, who is on trial on charges including sex trafficking and coercing an underage girl to engage in sexually explicit conduct, now stands alone.
When Mack appeared in court in April to plead guilty, her small voice wobbled as she spoke. She apologised. She wept.
"I believed that Keith Raniere's intentions were to help people, and that my adherence to his system of beliefs would help empower others and help them," she said. "I was wrong."
Written by: Corina Knoll
© 2019 THE NEW YORK TIMES