Many cult groups have extensive physical control mechanisms to keep members in line. Scientology, for example, keeps Sea Org staff from defecting by housing them in apartment buildings where the spikes on top of the fence, the surveillance cameras and the motion detectors all point inwards. But physical control to ensure loyalty is an expensive proposition and not all cultic groups can afford to do it. Scientology has had the cash, the free labor pool, the isolated facilities, and lots of time to perfect control of the physical environment.
Nirvana, from the standpoint of cult management, is to perfect the trick of getting people to imprison themselves in the cult mentally, where they become the most effective policeman to ferret out and shut down dissenting thoughts. Here, we look at a case study of how Nancy Salzman, the #2 in the Nxivm cult, used a story about the 9/11 terrorist attacks to not only keep herself on Nxivm’s path, but to serve as a lesson to push others to do the same.
The original article was published in July on Frank Report, the leading critical voice against Nxivm. It’s not entirely clear whether this story actually happened or whether it’s an apocryphal rumor that spread through Nxivm’s ranks. Frank Report stories span a mix from serious investigative journalism to trolling remaining Nxivm members to publishing speculative and opinion pieces, so it can sometimes be challenging for people who were never involved with Nxivm to validate a story as fact. In our view, however, it doesn’t really matter whether this vignette is an accurate recollection of actual events — its value is the illustration of a control mechanism that could be built around an almost infinite number of similar ideas.
Here’s an abridged version of the original Frank Report article:
Salzman once said she caused 9/11
It seems that Prefect [Salzman’s code name] once told a NXIVM member a few years back that she, Nancy Salzman, was responsible for the destruction of the World Trade Towers on 9/11/2001.
Nancy explained — when told about Keith and how great he was – that she should help him in his quest to save the world, she hesitated – at first. She wanted more proof. She wanted to examine his motives better. She finally came round – and chose to follow the great Raniere – but the point was – she waited. She hesitated. She had been at first a Doubting Thomas – just as this NXIVM member was now doing with Nancy.
Sure, the delay in following Keith was not great – as measured in time – it was just a few weeks or a month that she, Nancy, held off trusting the man who wished to create a more noble civilization. But – and this is crucial – she hesitated – and she who hesitates – sometimes even for a second – is lost. Or in this case – some 3,000 people were lost.
But really, how was 9-11 her fault? the NXIVM member asked. Nancy joined Raniere in 1998 — 9/11 happened in 2001.
Nancy explained that Keith Raniere’s ‘tech’ was so great and powerful that, had she not procrastinated that few weeks in 1998 – and got right on board, learning and teaching the tech – the world would have changed – oh, so, subtly – but it would have changed enough that 9-11 would have been avoided.
She missed saving that tragedy from occurring by just a matter of moments, she said and because she was candid and honest – she admitted to the NXIVM member – alas – 9/11 was her fault.
If we look at the story so far, there’s a somewhat familiar idea at the bottom of this, in the idea that a small change today can ultimate cause major change over time. Many of us have heard of one of the fundamental ideas of chaos theory, a discipline in physics and mathematics that explains certain types of previously unpredictable phenomena. One bedrock of chaos theory is the “butterfly effect,” the idea that small changes rippled through a system over a long period of time can cause profound alteration to the results. The theory is commonly expressed by a phrase like “a butterfly flapping its wings in Hong Kong can affect the path of a tornado in Kansas.”
Nxivm members, like Scientologists, are often relatively educated and curious about the world, and many have probably heard of the butterfly effect, so the idea that Salzman could have had an effect on 9/11 is at least plausible. Of course, anyone else could have had the same effect, at least under chaos theory, so why might Salzman have imagined her role to be unique?
According to the story, Salzman doesn’t point to any specific action or omission on her part that was essential to bringing about the events of that day, just the idea that if she did anything at all while believing in Raniere’s teachings, that the tragedy would have been avoided. That’s ludicrous.
The explanation for Salzman’s interpretation lies in several general behaviors that cult members often engage in once they’re fully indoctrinated into a group:
- A global sense of responsibility: many cultic groups teach members that they are responsible for everything that happens in their lives, both good and bad. By extension, they’re also responsible for anything that happens in “their” world. Initially, the idea of “taking responsibility” seems helpful, as it encourages you to seek out solutions rather than living life passively. However, in a cultic group, the notion of responsibility quickly becomes twisted into a tool for domination.
- Abnormal shame/guilt is a validation of super powers. If a high-control group is selling some sort of enhanced personal powers, then taking outsized responsibility for world events is a way of validating the results of the group’s self-help “tech.” Scientologists frequently play this game; Nxivm is hardly the only group to do so. Other groups do as well: Transcendental Meditation has claimed that their group meditation influences politicians to bring about world peace. Interestingly, the attempts to justify super powers seem to be more reflected in negative ways (shame, guilt and fear) rather than positive ways (celebrating past results achieved), which seems to be a way to reinforce the need for members to spend more time working for the group and less time out in the world.
- Claims of heightened ethical standards for the group: By “confessing” to responsibility for a highly visible disaster, Salzman is evidencing the group’s claim to a higher moral ground than the rest of society. Like most cults, claiming to have discovered a more advanced system of ethics appeals to new members, who are often looking to find ways to improve the world. But over time, this quickly devolves into a punitive mechanism not unlike Scientology’s “ethics” organization, which terrifies both staff and public alike, causing them to look over their shoulders, afraid of being busted and set on a course of penance that will be either very expensive, humiliating or physically painful.
The article continues:
Now, whether Nancy really believed this [because Keith told her], or whether she was just bullshitting the NXIVM member to try to impress her, or manipulate her into doing something she wanted, is hard to say.
Early in their relationship, Nancy was told by Keith Raniere that she was the reincarnated Adolf Hitler. Hitler caused many people to be killed. Keith told Adolf/Nancy that she was reborn on earth to work off her sins she committed when she was Adolf and she could – if she chose – in this lifetime – to work for the most ethical man who ever lived – Keith Alan Raniere.
It might have made sense to Nancy – for – if she believed she was once the worst human being – Hitler – she was now given a second chance – and what more perfectly cosmic way than to follow the best man ever – Keith Alan Raniere – and yes, she could be spared – Keith told her – of all of her evil deeds when she was ruining the world as Adolf Hitler.
Otherwise, she would be lost and have to pay the karmic price. As proof of how powerful this was – just because she hesitated to follow Keith fast enough – back in 1998 – three years later – the 9-11 attack occurred.
The rounding out of the tale shows several more control mechanisms at work.
- Driving belief in the super powers of the group leader. In this case, Nxivm head Keith Raniere had gotten Salzman and the other followers to believe that he had the power to divine who a member had been in a past life. Raniere told Salzman that she was the reincarnation of Hitler, and she believed him. The fact that Salzman, the #2 in the group, believed this, helps “sell” it to the junior members. After all, if she’s spent years of her life trying to atone for a) being Hitler and b) causing 9/11, then Raniere can’t possibly be making stuff up, can he?
- Positing control over super powers such as reincarnation: Nxivm’s main operation was called “Executive Success Programs.” Sounds innocuous enough, like they do corporate productivity training. But when the group starts to talk about reincarnation and other New Age dogma only to the thoroughly initiated, that’s a marker for cultic behavior. Moving from ordinary sorts of topics to imaginary super powers is one of the hallmarks of “deceptive recruiting” and secret knowledge that cults frequently use — nobody would join if the upper-level doctrine is revealed up front, because it’s so silly and counter to common sense.
But Wait, There’s More…
On September 8, Frank Report revisited the story of Nxivm founder Keith Raniere’s shaming of many high-rank members by telling them they were evil historical figures in past lives. According to the newer article, Raniere told many of his key lieutenants that they were reincarnations of specific Nazi figures, or in one case, that he was the reincarnation of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini. Raniere claimed that he was, on the other hand, a “he was a resistance fighter in his past life – a brave man who fought against Hitler – a heroic man who combated the Nazi terror and was one of the purest, most divine forces of the whole Nazi era.”
This raises several interesting points:
- There was a definite hierarchy of evil in the Nazi figures that Raniere associated with particular members of his group. His #2, Nancy Salzman, was labeled as the reincarnation of Adolf Hitler. Less highly ranked members were given avatars in the Nazi hierarchy roughly corresponding to their level in the Nxivm group. Like many fraudulent reincarnation schemes, people are always told they were someone known to history. Apparently, anonymous 13th century Basque region goat herders are never reincarnated. And of course, reincarnation often smacks of mental illness, rich in comic possibilities: “No, I’m the true reincarnation of Napoleon! You’re just an impostor!”
- There was a definite program, broader than just a discussion with a single member, to shame members and create more urgency for them to use the group’s “ethics” programs to cleanse the past-life stain on their souls. Presumably, this more complex form of repentance yielded more revenue to Nxivm.
- When the leader assigns specific reincarnation targets to specific individuals in the group (rather than people having their own, undirected past-life experiences), it seems a likely marker for cult status, as members would have to suspend disbelief in order to accept whichever historical figure the leader assigns.
- Subtly, the idea that Keith Raniere is the only non-Nazi in the group, instead fighting against the Nazis, is a way of legitimizing his abuse of those he ensnared in this mass past-life delusion. If he’s abusive to you now, it’s just because past life patterns are playing out once again. Believing this would tend to drive members to blame themselves for abusive treatment at Raniere’s hands, rather than to blame him.
Conspiracy Theories and Past Lives as a Cult Control Mechanism
When he reviewed this post, Dr. Jeff Wasel pointed out that conspiracy theories are an effective cult control mechanism, and we have certainly seen that with Scientology, as we explore below. I would suggest that directed past lives experiences are very similar to conspiracy theories as a mechanism for unscrupulous group leaders to extend their influence over members.
This Nxivm story echoes many stories from the life of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, where he wove past lives and conspiracist thinking into mechanisms to control his followers. Of course, the central conspiracy theory in Scientology is the evil “psychs,” the only beings so corrupted that they can’t be redeemed by Scientology “tech.”
Hubbard also used past lives claims to burnish his own credentials, as he did in the “Mission Into Time,” a boat cruise on the rusty flotilla in the 1960s when he sailed to various Mediterranean locales to find the treasure he had buried in his previous lives, stretching back into antiquity. He also claimed to have been the reincarnation of African colonialist Cecil Rhodes, which drove his laughable attempt to try to take over the floundering country of Rhodesia in the 1960s.
Fundamentally, conspiracy theories are addictive. They are supposed to allow people to gain some comfort in the face of a world seemingly beyond their ability to influence or to make sense of. The problem is that a conspiracy that claims high oil prices are due to nefarious oil companies setting prices to screw consumers ends up making people more unsettled. Often, conspiracy believers end up believing in multiple conspiracy theories until they ultimately end up delusional.
So, too, does past life regression imposed by a group leader result in an addictive cycle. We distinguish here between a past life exercise imposed by a group versus someone’s spontaneous dream about being the reincarnation of a historical figure, something everyone has probably done at some point. The latter is interesting, but doesn’t create a burden. On the other hand, a group leader telling you that you have been someone horrible in a past life is usually accompanied by pressure to atone for the sins of someone long gone. But no one could possibly hope to atone for the sins of a Hitler or Mussolini, nor should they.