SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
The group NXIVM says its mission is to, quote, "raise human awareness and celebrate what it means to be human." Based in Albany, it's attracted wealthy clients over the years and promised personal and professional development. But federal prosecutors say the group is a criminal enterprise. Several members have been charged with sex trafficking, racketeering and other crimes. And this includes the group's leader, Keith Raniere, and Allison Mack, the actress.
Last week, four more women were charged, including an heiress to the Seagram's liquor fortune. For more about NXIVM, we're going to turn to Vanessa Grigoriadis. She's been reporting on the group for The New York Times Magazine. Ms. Grigoriadis, thanks so much for being with us.
VANESSA GRIGORIADIS: Thanks for having me.
SIMON: So what do they promise? What's so alluring?
GRIGORIADIS: Well, NXIVM, on the face of it, is one of these intensive therapy outfits that offers courses that maybe last a weekend or several days, 12 hours a day. Very wealthy people were involved in this, right? You could spend $200,000, $300,000 on their classes no problem. They claimed that they could help people overcome childhood trauma, a divorce, by integrating - is what they called it - those experiences into their lives. And they were using kind of a form of hypnosis to help people see their way through these terrible events in their lives. And it worked for a lot of people by many accounts.
SIMON: Yeah, and, I mean, it's tempting to see if there are any illusions, I guess, both with est and, let's say, even Scientology. Do you see any?
GRIGORIADIS: I think this is squarely in that tradition of self-help, and certainly, there is a secret side to it, much like Scientology, where we are now learning that there were some things going on in this group that were extremely unsavory.
SIMON: Like what, according to the federal prosecutors in your own reporting?
GRIGORIADIS: Well, you know, it's clear that the group was demanding fealty not only to the ideas that they had but also to the leader, Keith Raniere, middle-aged guy, lived in New York all his life. They called him Vanguard, and they believed he was some sort of evolved being. So behind the scenes, there was also a lot of - you know, he had many, many girlfriends. And in the last couple of years, he was using some of the women in the group to bring other women to his bed with what we think are pretty coercive tactics.
SIMON: What's a coercive tactic?
GRIGORIADIS: The women claimed to other women that they could kind of move more quickly down their personal growth path if they joined this women's-only international self-help group. There was a man who was involved in this group, and it was the leader, Keith, who knew much of what was going on. He was in at least one case, if not more. Those women were coming to his bed, and he was then seducing them. Additionally, of course, The New York Times broke the news that they were branded with a symbol that looks kind of like a hieroglyph. Indeed, they actually were his initials K and R. And the women were not told that.
SIMON: How does this boorish and reprehensible behavior become sex trafficking or a sex cult?
GRIGORIADIS: You know, the argument that the prosecutors are making is that there was, you know, coercive sex here that some of the women were actually acting - or specifically Allison Mack, this actress, she was coercing women into having sex with him and that she was indeed kind of a madam where she was bringing in these women, and she was also getting some sort of financial benefit within the group from Keith himself.
SIMON: So financial reward for sexual favors.
GRIGORIADIS: Financial reward for sexual favors - exactly.
SIMON: Even after these charges, is the group still operating?
GRIGORIADIS: Well, they've closed down all of their classes. You cannot go to them anymore and try to work out your problems. But even after the news came out at The New York Times about women being branded, at least a hundred members stayed with the group. They think that they have not done anything wrong, and they believe that they'll be vindicated.
SIMON: Vanessa Grigoriadis, a contributing writer for The New York Times Sunday magazine, thanks so much for being with us.
GRIGORIADIS: Thank you, Scott.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.