For a man who insisted on being addressed as Vanguard and commanded the psychological and sexual obedience of numerous accomplished women and fealty of men (many of them quite successful), Raniere is one of the least prepossessing cult leaders in history. He is a short, doughy dweeb in owlish glasses and schlumpy clothes who wore a headband and nerdy knee pads to play in Nxivm’s nightly volleyball games in Clinton Park, New York, the cult’s headquarters.
Unfortunately, there are often fine lines between effective therapies, quick but poisonous “cures,” and cults. The most abusive therapists and practices can be temporarily liberating for many; Nxivm’s programs surely work for some of the people some of the time. Raniere, however, hardly needed to calibrate his assaults on his disciples’ psyches; there was no punishment some of them would not accept.
None of them could have been surprised when Raniere rose in court not just to say that he hadn’t committed any crimes, but that some of the victims were lying. In a parody of the empathy he has surely never felt, he said he was remorseful, said his fate is “all my doing” and uttered a line to his victims I found chilling: “Even if you’re lying, I’m sorry.”
The world will never run out of sociopaths. They are humanity’s sickest joke. They are all around us, and the truth about the brightest ones is frightening. It’s as if they wear special infrared glasses that detect other people’s vulnerabilities and insecurities. Then, armed, as in Raniere’s case, with a gift for gab, a corrupt intellect, and a benign, caring demeanor, they kill their prey slowly, using a lethal mix of shaming, flattery, and blackmail. Their victims are often half-dead before feeling the slightest discomfort.
‘You’re a lascivious little toddler,” Vicente said, alluding to Raniere’s compulsive sexuality and childish need for adoration. “Watching our happiness waste away was your true joy.”
Yet, at a critical juncture in their lives, all of these people eagerly bartered their independence, their sanity, their health and their bank accounts for the approval of a John Milton-quoting Pyramid-schemer — one whose theories, pronouncements, and promises of self-actualization and world change were largely derivative when they weren’t pure drivel. In “The Vow,” which relies heavily on footage Vicente shot inside Nxivm, I watched in amazement as Raniere seduced the newly recruited TV star Allison Mack with a ridiculous riff on art and joy that she swallowed whole. Besotted by his nonsense, and his subsequent hugs and kisses, she eventually became one of his concubines and according to prosecutors, his chief procurer of women for sex and branding.
Daniela, like the others, has awakened from her nightmare. “You’re nothing special,” she said to Raniere, looking at him across the courtroom. “You’re just the criminal du jour. Weak, pathetic. There’s only one question: How does one fall prey? We must teach our children about people like you. Not you, just people like you.”
But how do we protect our children, ourselves, and our society from the modern plague of sociopaths — the Bernie Madoffs, Harvey Weinsteins, Jeffrey Epsteins and Keith Ranieres? There is no vaccine, no early intervention, for this plague, the all-too-human infatuation with “geniuses” who, behind their simulated emotions, possess neither conscience nor empathy. Who, behind their convincing patter, turn out to be sexual predators, skilled manipulators, effortless pathological liars, and lack any capacity to take personal responsibility?
After all, some day one of these guys might even run for President.