A witness at the trial of Keith Raniere, Nxivm's leader, described being branded and the harsh punishments meted out to women for failing to follow orders. Colin Moynihan of The New York Times reports.
The branding ceremony took place in 2017 inside a house near Albany, where female members of the cult Nxivm held an initiation for the newest member of an ultra secret sect.
That member, Lauren Salzman, testified Monday that she knelt and said, "Master, please brand me, it would be an honour, an honour I want to wear for the rest of my life." Then she was held down on a massage table as someone used a cauterising pen to etch the initials of Keith Raniere, Nxivm's leader, into an area near her hip.
"It was the most painful thing I have ever experienced," Salzman said during her second day of testimony in Raniere's sex trafficking and racketeering trial.
Salzman also testified Monday about how women who joined the clandestine sect, called The Vow or DOS, made secret commitments to become lifelong "slaves" to Raniere.
Those women, who referred to Raniere as "master" or "grandmaster," were subjected to sadistic punishments that included being whipped with a leather strap, she said.
They communicated using encrypted phone applications, executed tasks and drills designed by him and accepted the harsh discipline if they were deemed to have failed at their duties.
Those punishments could include being forced to hold painful poses, stand barefoot in the snow, take cold showers and whip each other on the "bare butt" with the strap, Salzman said. She recalled that Raniere once called during the beatings to tell the women to make sure that they snapped their wrists in a particular way to inflict maximum pain.
"These things started to become scary," she said. "I was concerned about failing."
Salzman, whose mother co-founded the group, offered an insider's description of the mechanisms Raniere and his most loyal followers used to humiliate and subjugate women, many of whom, according to prosecutors, were coerced into sexual relationships with him.
Raniere, 58, co-founded Nxivm (pronounced Nex-ee-um) with Nancy Salzman as a self-help organisation in the 1990s. About 16,000 people took Nxivm courses, with some paying tens of thousands of dollars.
He has been indicted on charges including racketeering conspiracy, extortion, forced labor and sex trafficking. Over the last several weeks, five women who were charged with him, including Nancy and Lauren Salzman, have pleaded guilty.
In her testimony, which began Friday, Salzman, 42, has described the inner workings of DOS, which involved participants who were referred to as "masters" and "slaves" and who received brands of Raniere's initials.
She said the group used brands because of their permanence; unlike tattoos they cannot be removed. "The idea of the brand was to memorialise on our body the promise we made," she said.
Salzman was a "first-line master," or high-ranking member of DOS, which was said to stand for a Latin phrase meaning "Lord/Master of the Obedient Female Companions," allowing her to provide a broad and detailed view of how the group was structured to create a pool of women who would blindly follow orders and submit to Raniere's control.
The overriding emphasis of the group, she said, was to venerate Raniere and to foster an atmosphere of "total obedience and secrecy."
Raniere recruited the eight first-line masters into the group and considered them his slaves, Salzman testified. Each of the eight recruited their own slaves, in separate groups called lineages, and those slaves in turn recruited yet others.
In all, she said there were four levels of slaves in the pyramid, each reporting to their master on the level above them, and all ultimately accountable to Raniere, the grandmaster.
Recruits went through five stages, starting as a "prospect," submitting embarrassing personal material known as collateral to prove their commitment. After joining the group, they provided still more information or material to become "fully collateralized," meaning they could be blackmailed.
One member of the group, Rosa Laura Junco, bought a "sorority house" for the first-line members in the town of Waterford, New York, near Albany. There, they held frequent meetings, disrobing to take naked group pictures to send to Raniere, Salzman said.
There were plans to build a "dungeon" in the basement, she said. That room was to include a cage in which someone who was willing to "surrender," in the interest of personal growth, might be locked for hours or days or longer, Salzman said.
The DOS members communicated using encrypted programs like Telegram and Signal, Salzman said. The group was so secret that its members' identities were not always known to one another.
Raniere subjected the members to "readiness drills" in which he sent text messages at unexpected moments that every member of the group had to respond to within a short period of time.
The aim of the drills, Salzman said, was to reinforce the idea that responding to a master was the most important part of any slave's life.
One of Salzman's specific tasks was to edit Raniere's teachings and thoughts about DOS into a book that was to serve as a sort of master text and manifesto.
Prosecutors projected onto a screen excerpts from the manuscript, which urged readers to "contemplate why your master is better than all other people."
"The best slave derives the highest pleasure from being her master's ultimate tool," one passage read. "You surrender your life, mind, body for unconditional use."
Salzman said recruitment of additional members into DOS, particularly those who might be powerful or influential, was among Raniere's highest priorities.
"I think he envisioned that there would be thousands or millions of people in it," she said, adding, "We might be able to have a candidate, a DOS candidate, for political office."
Salzman said 22 slaves answered to her. She testified that she persuaded one woman to sign over property, including bank accounts and a Toyota Prius.
Eventually it was time for several of Salzman's slaves to be branded. She testified that she invited the women, who had never met, to her house for a ritual that required them to strip naked, then sit blindfolded in a circle, before having Raniere's initials burned onto their skin.
The first woman who was branded with the cauterising pen did not appear to enjoy the experience, Salzman said.
"She was screaming and squealing and it looked horrendous," she testified. "It scared the other girls."