Actress Allison Mack leaves U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York after a bail hearing, April 24, 2018 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
BROOKLYN, New York- She once called him master and Vanguard, but now Smallville actress Allison Mack calls NXIVM “sex cult” leader Keith Raniere her biggest regret.
“I devoted my loyalty, my resources, and, ultimately, my life to him,” Mack wrote in a recent letter addressed to the people she’d harmed while a member of Raniere’s inner circle. “This was the biggest mistake and greatest regret of my life.”
Raniere marketed himself as a genius philosopher and self-help guru. Over 20 years his unconventional self-help programs developed all the hallmarks of a vicious cult. Around 2015 Raniere secretly launched a slavery-themed blackmail scheme called DOS, which required followers like Mack to manipulate their friends into a lifetime vow of obedience. In October Raniere was sentenced to 120 years in prison for a host of crimes including sex trafficking, wire fraud, sexually exploiting a child, and forced labor.
Mack’s letter denouncing Raniere is one of many that a Brooklyn federal judge will consider when sentencing her this week. Her lawyers are asking for zero prison time, but government guidelines suggest a sentence as high as 14 to 17.5 years for Mack’s role defrauding and extorting women into sexual submission to Raniere.
Mack was first indicted for sex trafficking in April 2018, then she pleaded guilty to racketeering and racketeering conspiracy the following year. As part of her plea Mack admitted that she collected damaging secrets, false accusations, naked photos, credit card authorizations, rights to property, and other “collateral” from women seeking to join a secret mentorship program. Mack said she concealed the group’s actual leadership and purpose and leveraged the women’s “collateral” for Raniere’s benefit. She notably did not plead guilty to sex trafficking.
Only a few weeks after her plea, testimony at Raniere’s 2019 trial raised questions about Mack’s level of complicity in Raniere’s pattern of sexual predation. Women who Mack recruited as “slaves” in DOS testified that she became a gaslighting enforcer under Raniere’s direction. Witnesses said Mack instructed them to seduce Raniere and feared their collateral would be released if they didn’t go through with it.
Mack herself was subjected to similar pressures reinforced by life-destroying collateral. But she also knew about Raniere’s lies and behind-the-scenes strategizing, unlike recruits who testified at trial. Former members and critics can’t seem to settle on how much of Mack’s involvement in DOS is a product of her own victimhood in the scheme, and how much is her own criminal abuse.
In the days leading up to her sentencing, Mack’s friends and family have spoken out with letters of support describing what the actor’s descent into cruel obedience looked like from the outside. VICE News has retraced those stories with added insight from former NXIVM insiders to explain why the victim-versus-perpetrator debate has become so heated ahead of Mack’s day in court.
Mack’s mother wrote one of many supportive letters to the judge that will sentence her. She described her daughter as a people person from infancy, beginning modelling at age four and landing her first Disney spot at age 15. Mack easily befriended 40-year-old dolly grips as well as kids her own age, according to friends who knew her. She finished high school through a program designed for kids with film careers.
At age 18 Mack moved from California to Vancouver, B.C., where she joined the cast of a superhero show watched by millions. It was there she became friends with a tight-knit crew of Vancouver actors who were excited about a “goals” program offered by NXIVM. Mack attended her first NXIVM “intensive” on a boat docked in Vancouver’s Coal Harbour in April 2007. She soon started pitching NXIVM to her friends and family, and even convinced her mother to take some classes.
Despite her material successes, friends and family say Mack was remarkably insecure in young adulthood. “She felt empty, like something was missing,” her mom wrote.
At the time Mack’s family and friends didn’t see anything wrong with her involvement in NXIVM. Friends say they initially saw her gain coping skills and new confidence. “I was blown away by the noticeable difference,” one friend wrote in a letter to the judge. “I do not think any of us realized there was a dark turn looming on the horizon.”
Former child actor Chad Krowchuk—Mack’s boyfriend at the time that she started NXIVM classes—saw Mack gain a new personal growth vocabulary and a whole bunch of friends in Albany, New York. “Allison got into the inner circle pretty quick,” Krowchuk told VICE News in 2018. NXIVM coaches taught that relationships are often an emotional “crutch,” and like many other women in the program, Mack chose to leave her relationship with Krowchuk in favor of working on herself.
After Mack’s Smallville contract ended she initially moved from Vancouver to New York to try theatre acting, but ultimately decided to spend more of her time on NXIVM-related projects. “She was encouraged to put her acting career on hold and focus on her personal growth,” her mother recalled.
Women in NXIVM’s Albany community relentlessly tracked their calorie intake as a means of self-improvement, and Mack was no different. “They were all expected to report their activities, goals, weight and diet to select members of the community,” wrote her mother.
By 2012, Mack’s family noticed her health begin to deteriorate. They recalled she was surviving on three to four hours of sleep a night and becoming visibly malnourished. “Her skin had an orange appearance,” her brother wrote. “She was also unhealthily skinny and had bags under her eyes. She looked exhausted.”
Mack was no longer on TV, with Smallville ending in 2011, but within NXIVM she maintained a different kind of celebrity status. “When people in the community learned that I was her mother they would joyfully exclaim that they loved Allison!” her mother wrote. Her Albany home became known as the “Womb,” named for its burgundy color palate and supposedly nurturing atmosphere. (She also kept a similarly-decorated Brooklyn studio just a few blocks away from the courthouse where she’ll face a judge on Wednesday.)
As Mack progressed up NXIVM’s ranks, earning new coloured sashes and stripes, she was pressured to project an image of success and wellbeing. Her family saw her demeanour change. Her brother described a “manufactured enthusiasm” mixed with a “euphoria that can accompany starvation.”
In a 2020 interview India Oxenberg told VICE News that she didn’t know Allison well in her early years taking NXIVM courses. Initially she was friends with Bonnie Piesse and other coaches who later became whistleblowers. It wasn’t until 2015, when Mack approached Oxenberg about a secret women’s mentorship program, that Oxenberg and Mack became close. She didn’t know that Mack had already pledged to give everything she owned including future children to Raniere if Mack ever chose to leave him.
Mack collected secrets, naked photos, property and other “collateral” from women like India to prove their commitment to secrecy. After recruits handed over the potentially life-ruining material, Mack initiated them into a master/slave relationship, which was explained away as a loving guru/teacher mentorship. Oxenberg was required to check in with Allison about her schedule, her calorie intake, her goals and evening plans. Sexual contact with Raniere was framed as an opportunity to work on Oxenberg’s “intimacy” issues.
Oxenberg recalled that failing to follow through on Mack’s directions resulted in escalating “penances” like having to stand outside in the snow at 3 a.m. All members knew that their collateral could be released if they spoke up about their situation.
Another recruit identified in court as Nicole testified that Mack promised to help her make theatre connections in New York City when she first joined DOS. Mack ordered that she stay celibate for several months before telling her to make contact with Raniere. Nicole was later blindfolded, taken to an unknown location, tied to a table and sexually assaulted by another DOS member as part of her initiation. Nicole said she was blackmailed into maintaining an “arranged marriage” with Raniere for several months.
Former members testified about the anguish, terror, trauma and confusion that DOS caused, sometimes over a period of years. “I have carried so much shame about what happened and shame is a powerful thing to keep a person quiet,” Nicole told the judge in 2020.
Letters from Mack’s family confirm she denied any wrongdoing for many months after her arrest. “In her mind she was following Keith’s guidance in helping herself and other woman [sic] to conquer their attachments and limitations,” her mom wrote. “She was angry that she had been singled out for punishment, when many women were equally involved in [DOS].”
Mack’s apology to victims emphasizes her own hurt and shame, and makes little mention of the actions she carried out as a “master” overseeing DOS “slaves.” She apologized for leading people down a “negative path,” lying, and speaking harshly.
“I am so sorry to those of you that I brought into NXIVM,” Mack wrote. “I am sorry I ever exposed you to the nefarious and emotionally abusive schemes of a twisted man. I am sorry that I encouraged you to use your resources to participate in something that was ultimately so ugly.”
Unlike Clare Bronfman, who did not denounce Raniere and included character references from known NXIVM loyalists ahead of her 2020 sentence, Mack has sought out letters from people who knew her before NXIVM. Mack’s lawyers have played up her reconnection with her family, her return to post-secondary education under house arrest, and her involvement in a Christian community as reasons she should serve no prison time.
Victims slated to speak at Mack’s sentencing on Wednesday are expected to push back on those arguments. Some former NXIVM devotees have spoken out against Mack’s rehabilitation narrative, saying her focus on her post-arrest journey is “an insult” to victims.
Prosecutors have asked for leniency because Mack provided key evidence heard at trial. Mack was willing to testify if necessary, and supplied a recording of her and Raniere discussing how branding ceremonies should be carried out. Raniere told Mack the women should ask to be branded before they’re held down so the act doesn’t appear coerced.
“And the person should ask to be branded,” Raniere said in the January 2017 tape. “Should say, please brand me, it would be an honor, or something like that. An honor I want to wear for the rest of my life.” Mack used this exact script at a branding ceremony the following day.
In exchange for this “substantial assistance” prosecutors requested a sentence below the 14-to-17.5 year guideline, but did not give an alternate date range.
Stephen Kent, a University of Alberta researcher who has studied legal outcomes for former cult members, says that “straightening out” from cult influence has historically led to smaller sentences. He predicts that Mack’s cooperation and rehabilitation will not be enough to spare her from serving time.
Mack’s staunchest supporters and most fervent critics seem to agree that she is both a perpetrator and a victim—the debate remains over degrees. Her fate on Wednesday rests on what version of Mack the judge sees: a broken person, a former second-in-command to a trafficker seeking a lighter sentence, or a woman who knows the gravity of her situation taking charge of her own rehabilitation.
Not one to miss an opportunity for personal growth, Mack evoked the language of self help in some of her final words to victims. “I know that coming out the other side, I am a better, kinder woman because of this,” she wrote.
Sarah Berman is the author of ‘Don’t Call It a Cult: The Shocking Story of Keith Raniere and the Women of NXIVM’ which is available here. Follow Sarah on Twitter.