This interest in a cappella was almost certainly, in retrospect, an attempt to recruit and groom folks from the a cappella community. The types of people who were interested and actively participating in a cappella singing competitions and workshops were based around elite universities and full of young, slightly nerdy musical theater types who would be a fertile hunting ground for a cult like NXIVM that specialized in charming wealthy philanthropists, scions of blue blood families, and seekers from groups like the acting and yoga communities.
NXIVM hastily undertook an effort in 2007 to organize an a cappella festival or workshop called A Cappella Innovations, a once again perfectly on-the-nose marketing name for a group that saw itself as the only hope for mankind, like a more woo version of Scientology.
This first festival was entirely funded by the coffers of NXIVM, which paid for accommodations, travel expenses and the venue. With its seemingly unlimited resources and connections to the entertainment and business worlds through actor devotees like Smallville’s Allison Mack and Kristin Kreuk and Battlestar Gallactica’s Nicki Clyne, and, on the business side, the heiress sisters Sara and Clare Bronfman, the group was able to gather together many prominent a cappella groups and coaches for their summit.
The first iteration of A Cappella Innovations seemed to be a fairly innocuous affair, and there was just a little burbling of gossip that was shared on the largest message board for a cappella enthusiasts, RARB/CASA. RARB is the Recorded A Cappella Review Board which is a group that reviews a cappella music and gives feedback to singers, and CASA is the Contemporary A Cappella Society which is an organization founded by Deke Sharon, an influential member of the community, that gives out awards and hosts education events related to a cappella singing.
These two organizations are the main infrastructure of the a cappella community and the message board associated with them is one of the main hubs for conversation and communication about organized a cappella events. The first A Cappella Innovations gathering was unremarkable in that it was like many other a cappella events with judging panels and breakout groups that gave singing groups feedback on their singing and performances and then hosted a concert at the end of the event to showcase the talent on hand.
In 2008, a second iteration of A Cappella Innovations was once again hastily assembled, but this time NXIVM would go much harder in the paint with their charm offensive and recruiting effort. The first post in the thread on the RARB/CASA forums detailing the experiences of people at the A Cappella Innovations festival was made on Saturday April 5th, 2008 while the festival was still underway.
The thread, simply titled “A Cappella Innovations” was made by an anonymous poster with the screen name “Innovations Participants” who described themselves in their opening post as “a member of a collegiate a cappella group”.
Groups were customarily formed at colleges with names like The Georgetown Chimes from Georgetown University or The Crosbys from Binghamton University and these groups, some with histories dating back to the early 20th century like The Whiffenpoofs of Yale who were founded in 1909, feature the best a cappella singers typically from the upperclassmen at the university and like college football programs or debate societies carry reputations, tradition and social hierarchies like any other prominent, school-sponsored extracurricular activity.
The first post by Innovations Participants had links to articles on cultnews.com, Forbes, and cult deprogramming expert Rick Alan Ross’ website that were critical of the group NXIVM. The anonymous poster pointed out issues with the 2008 version of A Cappella Innovations including that the festival workshops and activities made frequent reference to Keith Raniere’s Rational Inquiry, which was described as a “patent-pending technology”, that attendees were asked for intrusive amounts of personal information like social security numbers, home addresses and other contact information, the “constant surveillance” of attendees, and that the feedback and tone of the conference, instead of focusing on notes from judges and other singers on vocal performance, focused on “existential topics”.
This first salvo from the a cappella community was vague in areas and not as cutting as some of the commentary to come, but it raised a red flag right in the middle of the festival and based on the chatty and tight-knit aspects of the community it was sure to kick up a conversation.
The thread, which runs to 14 pages and 204 posts, many of them thousands of words long, is a geyser of material and insight into the inner-workings of the NXIVM cult, which has spectacularly exploded over the last couple of years with leader Keith Raniere and many of his inner circle now sitting in prison or home confinement for long sentences for a range of crimes including sex trafficking and racketeering.
Almost all of Keith’s most dedicated supporters along with Keith himself posted on the thread.
Keith was defended by Seagram’s liquor heiress Clare Bronfman on page 5 of the thread as “one of the top 3 problem solvers in the world” and “in the Guinness Book under highest IQ, 1989”.
The RARB/CASA thread was recently unearthed and came to my attention on Reddit in the r/NXIVMcase subreddit and was initially remarked upon by posters because of filmmaker Mark Vicente’s batshit crazy defense of Keith in the thread.
Vicente is a topic of much conversation on Reddit and elsewhere because he is one of the main players in the HBO documentary series “The Vow” which depicts Vicente and his wife Bonnie Piesse’s exit from the NXIVM group.
NXIVM case obsessives follow the case on social media and through documentary series like “The Vow” and the recent Starz documentary series “Seduced: Inside the NXIVM Cult”, and on websites dedicated to covering NXIVM like the Frank Report.
Among them (and I would include myself in this cohort) Vicente is especially interesting because his version of events, which is reflected in “The Vow”, features much of his insider footage of the cult in action, and seems to portray him as someone who was both a victim and enabler of Keith. This characterization is heavily contrasted with Mark’s depiction in “Seduced”, the project featuring India Oxenberg, another child of celebrity and literal member of the royal family as the granddaughter of Princess Elizabeth of Yugoslavia, who was also in the Raniere inner-circle but left after Mark but was at one point talked out of leaving by Vicente.
Vicente’s defense is notable for referencing his childhood in apartheid South Africa and from his experience there creating an analogy to the control and censorship of information in an apartheid regime and the control and censorship of information about NXIVM.
Vicente then goes on a lengthy tangent about what exactly a cult is followed by a very familiar defense of the world’s most “ethical” man Keith Raniere. This entry is also notable in that it was so beyond the pale that no one else in the thread appeared to address it. In a conversation where opposing parties would often quote and reply line-by-line to each other, the fact that Mark Vicente’s post, which was over 1600 words, was just left alone like a fishy bag at the airport was remarkable to me and others in discussing the thread when it was dug up and posted on Reddit.
Information sources like this thread from 2008 are rare and this one in particular came off to me almost like the bug sealed in a chunk of amber from Jurassic Park. An unlikely confluence of events had to come off for this piece of the cult’s DNA to be frozen in time and preserved for future generations.
The thread itself can only be viewed through the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine and so embedded images are often missing, links are ancient and outdated, and the formatting of the text is at times wonky. If this series of events, the rise and fall of the A Cappella Innovations festival, were to happen today in some alternate universe, the gossip and debate about it would be dispersed across half-a-dozen social media threads in individual participant’s feeds and slanted to fit each one of a hundred different narratives. And if someone were to try and suss out what happened a dozen years later, it would be almost impossible to reconstruct it.
Sure, there are still many users of forums, but these kinds of community engagement tools are much less vital than they were at the end of the pre-smartphone era in 2008.
If this story has a hero, it would be community leader Deke Sharon. Sharon is referred to by some as “the father of contemporary a cappella” and is a renowned producer and coach who works with the elite of the a cappella world and has been integral in setting up and participating in reputable a cappella events like SoJam and the Harmony Sweepstakes festival.
While Deke wasn’t at the 2008 A Cappella Innovations festival and in fact was instead on vacation in Hawaii, he joined the thread starting on page 3 and made a reasonable and well balanced call for members of NXIVM to engage with the community to answer questions.
Deke had participated in the first version of A Cappella Innovations in 2007 where the cult recruitment tactics were not present or weren’t remarked upon in nearly the depth as the 2008 version. Deke and others on the board knew that NXIVM members had previously engaged and had accounts on the RARB/CASA forum and so would be likely to respond especially given how much time, effort and financial resources they had pumped into the festival.
In fact, the “free lunch” aspect of the festival lingered in the minds of many in the a cappella community who attended A Cappella Innovations because Keith and NXIVM were paying for everything and other a cappella festivals and events were most certainly not free and all-inclusive. While some members of the message board and supporters of NXIVM tried to make an analogy to NXIVM sponsoring the event and another corporate entity like Pepsi sponsoring a concert series, this fig leaf did not hold for long as people pointed out that Pepsi got free advertising and good PR out of its investment while NXIVM was not even officially linked to the event and there was much more of a bait-and-switch aspect to A Cappella Innovations which started with a light touch and no pitch at the first event and then started love bombing and being overly solicitous and invasive at the second as is the pattern of many high control groups like Scientology or a multi-level marketing scheme.
A few posts later on page 3 Allison Mack responded, being the first of the prominent NXIVM members to enter the fray. Mack’s post is a master class in DARVO, or “Deny, Attack, and Reverse Victim and Offender”, the typical “offensive is the best defense” strategy of cults like NXIVM. This frame of viewing Mack’s screed was spelled out to other subreddit frequenters by Reddit user HehTheUrr “Jesus, I’m only 5 pages in and this is a rollercoaster ride. Allison Mack coming in with the DARVO on page 3 and Clare on page 5 with the word-for-word propaganda that they all spouted about Keith is amazing to see.”
Mack’s post was classic NXIVM in its self-importance and new age doublespeak. Mack introduces herself and, as per the Raniere playbook, establishes her credentials and how amazing she is before launching into her counter attack.
“I am somewhat of a celebrity having over 6 million viewers per week” Mack boasted, no doubt referencing her having a role on Smallville. Notice the not-so-subtle framing of “her” having six million viewers per week despite the show not being about her with Mack merely part of an ensemble and not even the lead.
Mack says that the attacks on NXIVM and her group 10C have all been coming from a specific place, i.e. detractors who have targeted the group for their own evil motives. This a cappella festival had at least one important function for the NXIVM cult that can be confirmed based on the group’s own statements and that is it was a sort of unveiling party for Mack’s new company 10C, a corporate-ese abbreviation for “The Emperor wears No Clothes” which was ostensibly a women’s empowerment group and a precursor to DOS, the much more intense version of an internal NXIVM women’s group that was involved in branding women’s flesh and out of which the seeds of the cult’s demise were sowed.
Mack then goes on to describe in her post how she and Nicki Clyne were cornered by a group of six hostile men who were festival participants at an after-party that Mack was hosting on behalf of her new 10C group. Mack describes these men firing a volley of questions at her about the NXIVM cult and their intentions and characterizes these men as invading her physical space and conducting a “witch hunt”. Mack then ends by saying that she is sad that the event was marred with this confrontation but that she is leaving the experience “cautiously optimistic”. Mack closes ominously “That being said, I look forward to witnessing the way all of this is handled because I can promise that you are not making any fans with this behavior.”
On page 9 of the thread, the Vanguard himself, Keith Raniere, checks in and begins to pour out his peculiar brand of weirdo circular logic and long-winded nothingness. Keith writes like I did in college when I needed to fill pages and I hadn’t researched the topic. The only difference is he had more tricks up his sleeve as if he had sat in a room and written reams of material in this vein and had a captive audience of devotees under his spell to react to the material, and through a simple form of something like A and B testing he held onto the flourishes and motte and bailey tactics that were the most effective at winnowing his target’s ability to reason against his mind virus.
On and on Keith went talking about “data”, the group’s buzz word for information. When confronted about adverse court rulings that other members of the cult and Keith couldn’t lie their way out of because of legal documents available online, for example, Keith responded thusly: “With respect to legal cases: There is a substantial difference between settling a case with the judge’s subsequent order and a case that goes to trial. Lauren is correct with her representations but to understand them fully one needs more distinctions and data.”
And then to respond to one of the main underlying questions, which was somewhere along the lines of “why would NXIVM invest ungodly resources into this festival with nothing to show for it in return, especially given that the sponsorship was not disclosed or advertised in advance”, Keith responded with a classic of Vanguardian bullshit replete with goofy asides and dodging, overheated self-importance and redirection. “With respect to a product such as Red Bull, I believe in free enterprise and shameless plugs (I just typed pugs!) Nxivm is different. Nxivm is a method to inspire humanity and its primary objective is not to earn money for the owners. In this way, Nxivm and a cappella are sisters—both derive from the same thing. Products like Red Bull provide a value for the purpose of earning money for the owners, this is different.”
Although Keith’s post reached nearly 900 words, in essence the rest of his reply dealt with the classifications of cults and the bias of the media towards NXIVM. This next quote is unadulterated cult-ese with its false equivalencies and logical fallacies garnished to look like a substantial argument. “I’ve always found it suspicious when nobody says anything good about something except for the something itself (say that 5 times fast)—except I view it the opposite way from most: even Charles Manson has others claiming he is good. If there is no good, I start to think of censorship and bias.”
Keith also loves using the clickbait sort of adjectives like “surprising” and making assertions that something will indeed be surprising and somehow revelatory with no follow-up or “data” to support his statements. Keith ended his first post with “But it is so much more important if you come to your own conclusions than if I argue with you about them. You may find the smoke comes from a surprising source.” What surprising source the adverse information was coming from was never revealed.
On page 11 of the thread after posting a few more times, Keith hid the ball again with his use of the “surprising” adjective with, of course, zero follow-up. Another one of the main questions of the a cappella community was why NXIVM hadn’t been more up front about their sponsorship and involvement in the event especially considering that it appeared by attempting to collect very sensitive personal information like social security numbers and home addresses that NXIVM was grooming or recruiting members of the a cappella community.
Keith responded: “It is a very important ethical question: under what conditions should people who share in a given activity disclose this to others. If you examine this generalized situation and apply such a study to the current situation (as we have) you may get some surprising results.”
Towards the end of the exchange, Lauren Salzman, another high ranking member of NXIVM, exhibited more classic hallmarks of the group’s rhetoric.
Many of the NXIVM members would post long lists or bullet points that attempted to summarize or restate other’s arguments or sentiments and these lists subtly altered the most damaging points or omitted the unanswerable ones. Lauren listed out the issues as she saw them and then suggested that Deke or someone else from the community should come out to NXIVM’s headquarters and observe and interact with Keith to get more “data” on the situation.
Deke, wisely, demurred. Lauren and others also attempted to get Deke or other leaders of the community to reply in kind with lists of the “data” they would need to be able to trust Keith and NXIVM. Finally, Lauren ended her post with yet another characteristic list combined with an ultimatum.
Previously in the thread, Clare Bronfman had issued an ultimatum for the a cappella community to apologize via email to her within three days for some alleged damage and desecration of a hotel room. I haven’t broached this topic in this essay because it is already so involved, but there were allegations of a group of a cappella students trashing and throwing feces and urine all over a hotel room. It seems like, based on other references in the thread, that there may have been some truth to these allegations and you can believe that NXIVM and its members attempted to use this incident to derail and undermine the complaints in the thread.
Lauren’s ultimatum listed three bullet points:
“I see only three ways for you to address Keith’s offer:
1. Accepting his offer and, after evaluation, being satisfied with the process and findings, which would change everything
2. Accepting his offer and, after evaluation, being dissatisfied—but at least your dissatisfaction would be informed and definitive
3. You decline his offer and choose to not put forth the effort to evaluate, which will cast these proceedings in a very different “
Deke Sharon closed out the thread by once again reinforcing his points about his intuitive and factual basis for having suspicions about NXIVM’s entrance into the a cappella community and said in essence that he would no longer attend future versions of A Cappella Innovations although he allowed that others may want to take advantage of the free festivals in the future.
Deke emphasized that he couldn’t in good conscience lend his imprimatur to such an event because of the unknown motives of NXIVM and the litigiousness and negative press surrounding the group. Earlier in the thread, Keith had said that NXIVM’s Executive Success Program, it’s flagship seminars or, in cult speak “intensives”, brought in somewhere around $3-4 million dollars per year. Keith also revealed that the group spent a roughly equivalent amount each year on legal fees alone.
This was remarked on with great surprise and incredulity by Deke and others. Any group that spends its entire income on legal fees is a very sick enterprise and this and many other nuggets of creepiness dot the thread like hunks of gold in a virgin creekbed. This thread is the motherload based on Keith and his inner circle candidly defending themselves in a forum that they knew wouldn’t be widely read.
I think that NXIVM learned a hard lesson in their attempt to woo the a cappella community and refined their methods afterward. Even with their money, their minor celebrities, and their charm offensive, they still couldn’t get past the bad press and the aura of their high control group.
Deke’s final words which ended the thread summed up the problems with NXIVM and their approach. “Add to it the history of the leader (Ponzi scheme, problems with DA in several states) and the organization’s ongoing legal troubles (seemingly incessant – $3 million a year in legal bills?!?), this org does not pass the smell test. Sorry.”
For more see
Here are some of the threads:
Raniere 3Bronfman 2