Keith Raniere, former leader of a “self-improvement” company called NXIVM and unwilling star of the new HBO series The Vow, demonstrates the creepy allure I’ve observed in other cult leaders.
At first glance, this schlumpy guy with a penchant for V-necks doesn’t look like your average seducer, but after watching the first two episodes of The Vow, I get it. Seeing this guy in action, and listening to the testimonial of his most gullible mark (also named Mark), a clear picture of Raniere’s mind-fuckery emerges.
The boyish manner, the weird fashion statements, and volley-ball obsession are part of his quirky charm. His claim to be child concert piano prodigy (the video of him plunking out a very basic Moonlight Sonata while other ooh and ah is particularly amusing) and a math genius with the “highest I.Q. ever recorded” help to secure his status as Vanguard of NXIVM.
In other words, he’s special, the guy with all the answers for people searching for meaning in their lives. But not everyone is so easily fooled. Watching Mark’s beautiful and sensitive wife trusting her gut and pulling away from the cult even while her husband, who thinks he’s found his soulmate in Raniere, digs in his heels is truly riveting.
In the course of my Wikipedia search, I noticed Raniere is a Virgo, which ups the creep factor a bit. Having a female Zodiac sign gives the Virgo male an extra dose of mystery. Like Mercury, you can never pin them down. “Try to catch me between sets at volley-ball tonight.” They appear boyish and oddly asexual. But behind the scenes, it’s a different story.
If you haven’t been following the case, Raniere was convicted of a slew of criminal charges. One of the most shocking revelations to emerge was his secret society of chosen women in the group who were required to be branded with his initials. The particulars of those events are quite nauseating. When it really gets down to it, for all of the bells, whistles, sashes, and Dalai Lama blessings, Keith Raniere appeared to only be about satisfying his own ego and sexual proclivities under the guise of enlightenment. Pretty basic stuff.
The closest thing I ever came to being in a cult was when I spent four weeks studying Shakespeare in the beautiful Berkshires. I recall that Werner Erhard, the founder of EST and also a Virgo, was somehow involved in the organization’s start. I don’t know if it’s a coincidence, but some of the exercises we were required to do had an EST vibe to them, including not allowing us to use the bathroom during a three-hour movement class. I wasn’t having any of it. I rebelled early and kept up the rebellion throughout the training duration, despite the cold shoulders from my peers who seemed all too willing to drink the Kool-Aid. The view out my dorm window reassuring me my car was still in the parking lot, and I could leave at any time helped me get through it. The experience stuck with me through. I even parodied it in one of the episodes of my web series, Gemini Rising.
Cult leaders won’t fool everyone, but they always seem to find their marks, the people who want to believe someone outside of themselves has the answers. It can, and has, led to tragedies. Here’s my recent discussion of a true crime story that happened near my home in late 1970s. Bill Bradfield, with his own creepy “Vanguard” Jay Smith, only held sway over a few willing victims, but the results were deadly. I wonder if Bradfield was a Virgo.