by Paul Serran
I have been doing a series of reviews for the Frank Report on the Special Issue: NXIVM & Scientology, published last June in the International Journal of Coercion, Abuse, and Manipulation.
The subjects tackled in these articles are of paramount importance for the discussion of the issues that the Frank Report was built upon, so, below, you can find links to the previous articles in this series:
* “The Eternal Commitment: Scientology’s Billion-Year Contract“, by Phil Lord.
* “Preventing Predatory Alienation by High-Control Groups”, by Robin Boyle-Laisure.
* “Narcissistic Sexual Predation: Keith Raniere’s Grooming Strategies in NXIVM”, by Susan Raine.
Reinventive Institutions are a feature of societies where conventional social structures are broken. In those groups, “members have come to terms with their own personal decision that, due to their flaws and limitations, they are in need of improvement, of ‘self-actualization'”.
That is the core examination contained in the article: “Reinventing the Self: NXIVM’s Promises, Secrets, and Lies”, by Susan Raine, a Professor from the Department of Sociology, MacEwan University, Canada.
Professor Raine utilizes Susie Scott’s ‘reinventive institution’ thesis, one that was built upon the earlier Erving Goffman’s concept of the ‘total institution’.
Raine attempts to situate NXIVM within this cultural milieu of the reinventive institutions, and examine its “structure, the nature of interpersonal relationships, and the promises that the movement and its founder, Keith Raniere, made”.
From the outset, she reminds us that “reinventive institutions incorporate structures of power that render them far from benign”.
But, her initial point is: before the major DOS controversy, “16,000 people wanted to grow and transform into more competent, happier individuals, not join a sex cult”.
“NXIVM has variously been identified as a cult, a multilevel marketing (MLM) or pyramid scheme, a self-help group, and, more recently, as a criminal enterprise”, the article details. But how would NXIVM compare with ‘total’ or ‘reinventive’ institutions?
A Total Institution is “an insular world, cut off from the rest of society: institutions that ‘are encompassing to a degree discontinuously greater than the ones next in line'”.
A Reinventive Institution, on the other hand, “is founded upon individuals’ voluntary membership as they willingly choose to modify themselves”.
Professor Raine writes about this culture of reinvention where “one must live ‘authentically’ through the process of personal transformation”. But these groups demand “the active involvement of individuals in the creation of their own regimes and adherence to them, as well as the mutual surveillance of members by their peers”. (Italics are mine.)
In Reinventive Institutions, although the ideologies emerge from a leader, sustainable power exists because “members legitimate it amongst themselves in numerous ways”.
“Self-focused, transformative ideologies and practices often require financial (and other) commitments from members”, Raine details, “and many RIs are capitalist ventures that recognize the needs of their consumers, offering services that focus on ‘unlocking potential’ for their clients”.
In other words, Reinventive Institutions can easily morph into pyramid schemes and outright scams designed to fleece the marks.
Besides that, the Professor notes how these groups “can foster forms of control that can result in detrimental consequences instead of, or alongside, the positive ones that they promise”.
The ESP curriculum “proposes to rectify personal, interpersonal, national, and even global issues”, Raine notes that, of course, there’s a catch: “but only if one can commit fully to it (and is able to pay for costly courses)”.
Raine writes about the multi-level marketing nature of the NXIVM program from its inception, “as Nancy Salzman and Keith Raniere required also that new members brought in further new recruits, who, in turn, would do the same—and so on”.
There was a mandatory commitment to secrecy to protect the curriculum of the endless modules and intensives, all made with Raniere’s ‘tech’ to ‘upgrade [one’s] programming’.
It’s also relevant that NXIVM “used the martial- arts practice of acknowledging the sensei — a term that refers to the teacher, master, or one more learned”, she writes. “As such, Nxians had to pay tribute — by bowing — to Raniere, or to a photograph of him when he was not physically present.”
One central piece of the puzzle also does not go by unnoticed by Professor Raine, as she notes that “Raniere likely derived NXIVM from nexum, a Roman word that referred to the practice of ‘debt bondage.'” It is most relevant to know that in this situation, “borrowers promised themselves as collateral should they be unable to repay their loan. Consequently, the debtor would become the loan provider’s slave, working off the debt owed.”
Raine shows how the stripe path created an illusion of progress, but ultimately, “[a]s a pyramid scheme, […] ESP programming always worked for the upper echelons who benefited the most from the labors of others.”
Reinventive Institutions are not always religious, and this type of ‘self-religion’ of NXIVM is not unheard-of. The modus operandi is simple: “Raniere invented new so-called problems to be solved, and then offered the means to do so.”
Once again, in groups like this, it’s not all about the ‘guru’. “The presence of a charismatic leader such as Raniere notwithstanding, members maintain commitment in large part because they have ‘invested a great deal of personal energy, time and money in the process of learning’.
“A key NXIVM goal is to experience integrations,” she writes, adding that these integrations “refer to belief and reality coming together”.
“Senior members of NXIVM discouraged questioning any aspect of the curriculum”, Raine reminds us. “Those who did question were made to feel as if they had a problem, an inner deficiency in NXIVM parlance.”
“In 2006, Raniere founded Jness, a series of for-women-only workshops that ostensibly focused on men and women’s relationships”, the Professor mentions, further noting that the ‘Vanguard’ “embedded his deeply misogynistic beliefs and practices in Jness philosophy — sometimes explicitly so.”
That’s common knowledge for readers of the Frank Report, the way that the deranged content got to the point where “he wrote that rape gives women the ‘freedom’ to achieve orgasm because they are liberated from the issue of whether sex is bad or not.”
The Society of Protectors was touted as “a means for men to develop character and to become more noble, honorable, and capable.”
In SOP there started the idea of the ‘readiness drills’ that could come at any time of the day or night. Also, the men “had to provide collateral—cash up to as much as $1,500 as an assurance to follow through on a promised act. If members failed to do so, then they would lose the money.”
Things fully escalated at the SOP Complete workshops, a “6-day ‘boot camp’ during which the women were subjected to intense physical and emotional experiences and also punishments for perceived infractions”.
“Women had to be completely subservient to men, even when it was detrimental to their well-being, ‘following orders no matter what'”.
From this point on, the ‘reinventive’ experiences culminated in the female sorority turned fire-branding sex-cult DOS.
“DOS was known only to a few Nxians (those who had already joined DOS and those who and been approached to join)”, the Professor writes, “and even within it, Raniere embedded various levels of revelation, secrecy, and lies into its structure.”
She explains that “membership in a secret group alters self-identity to the extent that members achieve an ‘insider status,'”.
“The DOS environment subjected women to several destructive practices, including branding, starvation diets, sexual subservience, physical and psychological punishments, isolation, lies, secrecy, and surveillance, each speaking to the reach of Raniere’s emotional, psychological, and physical control over the women.”
Just imagine how big a hold in the psyche of a 21st-century American woman you’d have to have to be able to say to her that “[y]our sole highest desire must be to further your Master from whom all good things come and are related”.
As it many times happens, the reinventing, at DOS, led to a dark place, as fire-branding “was framed as an initiation into a secret group in which women would allegedly ‘grow in ways [they] can’t even imagine'”.
“Branding is a signifier of property ownership”, the Professor writes, “the origins of which are found in the earliest slave-owning societies, whereby brands denoted the ‘symbolic binding of one person to another.'”
And then, of course, there was the collateral. “The key to collateral was that its value should be so great that the slave would not want to give it up”, Raine writes, adding that Raniere thought that it “should be so distasteful to break… that they’d rather die than break their vow”.
Professor Susan Raine makes a good case of showing how NXIVM displayed characteristics of a Reinventive Institution with some of the more radical incarnations having a touch of Institutions of a totalitarian nature.
She brings this important quote by Goffman: “A basic social arrangement in modern society is that the individual tends to sleep, play, and work in different places, with different co-participants, under different authorities, and without an over-all rational plan.” Think about NXIVM, where there was this gravity pull making so many people live in the same area. “The central feature of total institutions can be described as a breakdown of the barriers ordinarily separating these three spheres of life”.
As for the impact of these institutions in members’ lives, she offers the stark remark that “while members may believe that the changes they have undergone are in their own best interests, their perception of these interests has been skewed”.