In “Don’t Call it a Cult,” Vancouver-based investigative journalist Sarah Berman tells the story of the bizarre cult known as NXIVM. Founded by longtime pyramid scheme mastermind Keith Raniere in 1998 who referred to himself in the group as the “Vanguard,” the group roped in many rich and prominent individuals from socialities Buffy and William Cafritz, actress Nicki Clyne, and Clare Bronfman, heir to the Seagram fortune who enabled and funded the cult.
Raniere was sentenced last year to 120 years in prison for sex trafficking, racketeering, and forced labor and Berman’s book tells the story of the group through Raniere’s trial. Many of the women in NXIVM found themselves blackmailed and literally branded with Raniere’s initials on their bodies, near-starved, and enslaved. Raniere built a wall of silence and went after enemies and whistleblowers until the very end, and convinced his members that they had joined an “executive coaching” group rather than a dangerous and exploitative cult.
Raniere does not just tell the story of NXIVM. She seeks to define what a cult is beyond the colloquial understanding of the term, and focuses on “trying to separate what this concept that we have of what a cult is, and what the actual harms are.”
Berman also tells the story of NXIVM from the perspective of members on the inside, and how such horrific abuses were initially seen as mentorship and protection. It is a highly readable investigative work that explores the vexxing topic of how such an organization was able to avoid prosecution for decades and should serve as essential reading to anyone interested in cults and how they come to be.