In 2017, The New York Times lifted the lid on NXIVM (pronounced Nex-e-um), a self-help organization based in Albany with chapters throughout North America. Some of the participants, all women in their 30s and 40s, were part of an exclusive subgroup that required an invitation and initiation, including getting a small tattoo. Each woman in the subgroup, called DOS, was branded with the initials of Keith Raniere, the group’s leader. They were kept in line by blackmail and forced to have sex with Raniere, who was known to all NXIVM members as "Vanguard.”
Now, the secretive "sex cult" has hit the news again with the true crime docuseries The Vow, which premiered on HBO on August 23. Several former members appear in the series, as well as Dynasty actor Catherine Oxenberg, who fought to rescue her daughter from NXIVM’s clutches. Described by The Guardian as “a searing portrait of gaslighting and abuse,” the show includes footage of the 59-year-old Raniere, who was convicted for racketeering and sex trafficking in 2019. In a New York court, a jury found that Raniere used blackmail and starvation to force women into becoming “first-line slaves.” He’s due to be sentenced on October 27.
Raniere's second-in-command—Smallville actress Allison Mack—recruited women to the group and eventually admitted to extortion and forced labor. According to prosecutors, Mack starved women until they fit her co-defendant’s sexual ideal “under the guise of female empowerment.”
Another actress, Bonnie Piesse, who was also a high-ranking member of NXIVM, is featured in the documentary as one of the group's whistleblowers. Piesse, who's best known for her role in the Star Wars franchise, explained that before leaving the group, she reached out to a former member who had also left NXIVM—that's when she first heard the term "high control group" used to describe NXIVM.
"I don't even remember the rest of the sentence," Piesse said. "But when I heard 'high control group,' I didn't know what it was, but it just doesn't sound very good." The documentary goes on to show a quick Google search of the term and highlights some warning signs associated with high control groups, including "manipulation and deprivation of sleep," and "financial exploitation, manipulation, or dependence."
There’s no real agreed upon definition of “high control group" among experts, Florida-based board-certified psychiatrist Sean Paul, MD, tells Health. But in general, it’s a family, relationship, or social group in which the members are strongly influenced by the suggestions of the group leader or group as a whole.
California-based board certified psychiatrist Julian Lagoy, MD, describes it as a religious or spiritual movement/group with a modern origin that is loosely derived from, but not an integral part of, a dominant religion in today's society. “In popular culture, they are referred to as religious cults and they have a negative reputation in Western society,” Dr. Lagoy tells Health.
The group leaders of these high control groups typically urge their members to cut ties with their family and friends, and donate a lot of their time and money to the group and its mission, Dr. Lagoy says. But the people inside the group don't necessarily identify it as high control—rather, people outside the group typically identify it as such. “If people outside the group are noticing changes in the group members’ decisions, behavior, mood, and habits that concern them, then that is a sign that it is a high control group,” Dr. Paul says.
It may be difficult for many to understand why people join these high control groups, but the experts believe it boils down to a basic human need to feel part of something and to “fit in.” “People join these groups because they want to feel important and part of a strong community,” Dr. Lagoy says. “It’s human nature to want to be important and have a purpose in life, and many people join a high control group with the hope of obtaining that.” Of course, many people also join these groups because they like its purpose or “mission.” But typically, it’s not what it says on the tin. Women recruited to NXIVM expected a “self-development program”—not blackmail, mutilation, and starvation.
Experts warn that the negative effects of a high control group are serious and far-reaching. “These include being isolated from family and friends and subsequently suffering from a mental illness such as depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), or anxiety,” Dr. Lagoy says. “The risk of suicide and substance use is also increased, especially after someone leaves the group—it’s at this point that they are most likely to feel guilt and shame.”
Leaving a high control group isn’t easy, but it's not impossible. “It’s hard to see it for what it is when you are deeply enmeshed in it daily,” Dr. Paul adds. “It helps to take some time away to gain some perspective.” According to Dr. Lagoy’s the best way to disconnect from one of these groups is to try to reconnect with family and loved ones that were close to you before you joined. “They will be the ones who will support you most after you leave the group,” he says. He also recommends staying away from other members of the group, who will likely be very negative and try to make you feel guilt and shame for leaving.
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