Life Reinvented, NXIVM Style – a Study by Susan Raine

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:

* Comparison between NXIVM and Scientology, by Stephen Kent

*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.

In broken societies, many people feel the need to reinvent themselves.

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: a cult, a pyramid scheme, a self-help group, a criminal enterprise.

“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”.

Bowing to the sensei was adapted into NXIVM mythology.

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.”

The debt bondage of Ancient Rome inspired Raniere’s demented ideas.

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.”

Women ’empowering’ in NXIVM led to women’s abuse and totalitarian control.

“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”.



About the author

Paul Serran


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  • Sociologists sure do love their jargon.

    “Professor Raine utilizes Susie Scott’s ‘reinventive institution’ thesis, one that was built upon the earlier Erving Goffman’s concept of the ‘total institution’”

    Most of this is impressive sounding word salad that’s eerily similar to Raniere’s bullshit.

    Making hair-splitting distinctions between a TI and an RI may make the stuff of sleep inducing academic papers, but it’s fundamentally useless. It’s just spinning jargon.

    None of this stuff seems well researched and all of it looks speculative. Like the dubious assertion that “Reinventive Institutions are a feature of societies where conventional social structures are broken.”
    No, they are not. There are examples of these selff-actualization schemes all through history. Many religious, and many not. Plenty of them have been business-based like Raniere’s ESP. His was in fact based on a hodgepodge of ideas “borrowed”from past schemes going back a century or more.

    So unless every era in history is considered one where “conventional social structures are broken”, that thesis is pure BS.

    Look, this isn’t complicated. Raniere was running a scam. Scammers have been doing this forever. They prey on gullible fools, who also have been with us forever. “There’s a sucker born every minute” after all.

    The cure: don’t be a gullible fool. If someone tells you he’s the smartest man on Earth and will fix your life for you if you pay for his $2000 five day course, the man’s a liar. You don’t need to be a college professor to figure that out.

    Vincent Bugliosi, the DA who prosecuted Charles Manson, had a simple explanation for why that madman had followers who would kill for him. It wasn’t that Manson had some diabolical power over people. Rather it was the fault of a few of his followers, just the law of averages. As a drifter hippie guru in hippie California, garrulous Manson encountered a ton of followers. A handful happened to be as homicidal as him. The idea seems convincing to me.

    So keep in mind that the continued existence of scams and cults may well have as much to do with the fools who join them as with the scumbags who set them up.

About the Author

Frank Parlato is an investigative journalist.

His work has been cited in hundreds of news outlets, like The New York Times, The Daily Mail, VICE News, CBS News, Fox News, New York Post, New York Daily News, Oxygen, Rolling Stone, People Magazine, The Sun, The Times of London, CBS Inside Edition, among many others in all five continents.

His work to expose and take down NXIVM is featured in books like “Captive” by Catherine Oxenberg, “Scarred” by Sarah Edmonson, “The Program” by Toni Natalie, and “NXIVM. La Secta Que Sedujo al Poder en México” by Juan Alberto Vasquez.

Parlato has been prominently featured on HBO’s docuseries “The Vow” and was the lead investigator and coordinating producer for Investigation Discovery’s “The Lost Women of NXIVM.” Parlato was also credited in the Starz docuseries "Seduced" for saving 'slave' women from being branded and escaping the sex-slave cult known as DOS.

Additionally, Parlato’s coverage of the group OneTaste, starting in 2018, helped spark an FBI investigation, which led to indictments of two of its leaders in 2023.

Parlato appeared on the Nancy Grace Show, Beyond the Headlines with Gretchen Carlson, Dr. Oz, American Greed, Dateline NBC, and NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt, where Parlato conducted the first-ever interview with Keith Raniere after his arrest. This was ironic, as many credit Parlato as one of the primary architects of his arrest and the cratering of the cult he founded.

Parlato is a consulting producer and appears in TNT's The Heiress and the Sex Cult, which premiered on May 22, 2022. Most recently, he consulted and appeared on Tubi's "Branded and Brainwashed: Inside NXIVM," which aired January, 2023.

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