NXIVM (pronounced “Nexium”) pitched itself as a "professional development program" and promised to help participants overcome their mental blocks, build confidence—and ultimately, become powerful leaders who would change the world for the better.
But a 2017 New York Times Article exposed the truth: NXIVM was in fact a cult that enslaved many of its female members, branding them like cattle with the initials of the group's leader, con man Keith Raniere—aka "Vanguard." Unfortunately, that was only one of NXIVM’s many gruesome practices, which included stalking, rape, and long-term starvation—Raniere preferred his slaves on the skeletal side of thin. Pathologically controlling, he even locked one underaged girl in a tiny room for years, threatening her with deportation and never seeing her family again for daring to date someone who wasn't him.
Each of the five books on this list gives a different perspective on the cult born out of Raniere's warped and twisted mind, but they all make clear why his court conviction and subsequent life sentence of 120 years might seem too short to some people.
Toni Natalie met Keith Raniere in upstate New York in 1991, long before he transformed into Vanguard. At the time, Raniere had just started Consumers Byline, a business later investigated as a pyramid scheme by the state attorney general. Natalie, a high school dropout looking to turn her life around, was excited to work for Raniere, who was once listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as having one of the world’s highest IQs, the validity of which has been heavily disputed. He was also able to cure her lifelong smoking habit—one she’s never picked back up—in a single afternoon using hypnosis techniques that would later be used in NXIVM.
Natalie left her husband and relocated to Albany with her young son to help Raniere build his company as his girlfriend and business partner. But when Natalie witnessed Raniere's darker side and tried to leave, Raniere launched a campaign of harassment, litigationm and stalking that caused her to lose almost everything and everyone she cared about.
Sarah Edmondson’s story in the New York Times article pushed NXIVM into the spotlight and infamously features a harrowing picture of the brand still healing on her groin. When Edmondson attended NXIVM’s Executive Success Program (ESP)—an intensive workshop that promised to help participants remove “blockages" in the way of their success—she was a struggling Vancouver actress fighting for roles and trying to make ends meet. Her memoir details how she began walking “The Striped Path,” quickly rising within the organization's ranks and ultimately co-founding NXIVM’s Canadian branch. But this seeming success ended with her blindfolded, tied to a table and saying “Master, would you brand me? It would be an honor.”
Catherine Oxenberg is both Hollywood royalty and actual royalty. The daughter of Princess Elizabeth of Yugoslavia, Catherine carved out an acting career for herself, most famously on the '80s hit TV show Dynasty. Along with her 19-year-old daughter, India, Catherine attended NXIVM’s ESP course. While the mother and daughter duo signed up for more courses, Catherine quickly became disenchanted with the group. India, on the other hand, grew more dedicated, eventually becoming so attached to the program that she moved across the country to NXIVM's headquarters in Albany, NY.
This story is told from the outside looking in. When rumors about the inner-circle sex cult and branding began to emerge, Catherine vowed to stop at nothing to save her daughter—taking her story to every news outlet that would listen and working with the FBI and district attorney to bring NXIVM down.
India was searching for meaning. A college dropout, India knew she wanted to make a difference, but she wasn’t sure how. She loved baking and cooking and had started a small home-bakery business with a friend. When her mother, actress Catherine Oxenberg, took her to one of NXIVM’s ESP classes—pitched as being for the entrepreneurial minded—India found a place where she felt she finally belonged.
But while Catherine left the group, NXIVM quickly consumed India. She was ordered to move from her home in Los Angeles to Albany, where she was recruited by her friend and actress Allison Mack into DOS (Dominus Obsequious Sororium, or a "secret sisterhood"). This was a secret sorority in the upper levels of NXIVM. India was forced to give collateral to Mack, her new “Master,” that would be released if she ever spoke of the group, and she was assured Raniere was not involved.
Still Learning is a memoir about a woman still processing what happened—how Mack morphed from friend to “master,” and how the group was not about female empowerment at all, but instead about making her Raniere’s sex slave. We also see how India dealt with the conflicting pressures of both the cult's demands and her mother's mission to free her from them.
Related: The Weird and Twisted History of the Blackburn Cult
Don't Call it a Cult
Journalist Sarah Berman writes a comprehensive timeline of NXIVM and its legal battles, incorporating the investigation, interviews and testimony from the court record. While the other memoirs were written before or around the time of the trial, Berman’s true crime book affords readers the distance needed to put together the many pieces of the puzzle, addressing NXIVM's money laundering, the group's international operations and extensive details about Raniere's past. It’s a must read for anyone who’s been following the NXIVM story and ties the whole sordid story together.
Related: 5 Cult Leaders Who Manipulated and Murdered Their Followers