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Don't Call it a Cult

The Shocking Story of Keith Raniere and the Women of NXIVM

Don't Call it a Cult Buy Now
Format Paperback Ebook Audiobook
ISBN 978-1-58642-275-2 978-1-58642-276-9 978-1-58642-308-7
Published Apr 20, 2021
Imprint Steerforth Press
Biography & Memoir Religion True Crime

As seen in Season Two of the HBO docuseries THE VOW

They draw you in with the promise of empowerment, self-discovery, women helping women. The more secretive those connections are, the more exclusive you feel. Little did you know, you just joined a cult.

Sex trafficking. Self-help coaching. Forced labor. Mentorship. Multi-level marketing. Gaslighting. Investigative journalist Sarah Berman explores the shocking practices of NXIVM, a cult run by Keith Raniere and many enablers. Through the accounts of central NXIVM figures, Berman uncovers how dozens of women seeking creative coaching and networking opportunities instead were blackmailed, literally branded, near-starved, and enslaved. Don’t Call It a Cult is a riveting account of NXIVM’s rise to power, its ability to evade prosecution for decades, and the investigation that finally revealed its dark secrets to the world.


*SHORTLISTED for the 2022 Rakuten Kobo Emerging Writer Prize*

*FINALIST for 2022 Crime Writers of Canada Brass Knuckles Award for Best Nonfiction Crime Book*

*One of's best crime books of 2021.*

...Sarah Berman’s Don’t Call It a Cult is a thoroughly reported work that details a staggering amount of relevant information the TV series left out."

--The Atlantic

This investigative endeavor is riveting from start to finish.”HuffPost

...investigative journalist Berman front-loads her startling, comprehensive exposé on the NXIVM group with key information on how the association became popular yet remained elusive to law enforcement...the author’s engrossing reportage meticulously reveals the tumultuous rise and fall of NXIVM after numerous criminal indictments and prosecutions...File this alongside Lawrence Wright’s Going Clear and Jeff Guinn’s The Road to Jonestown...An incendiary, serpentine report on criminal manipulation of staggering proportions."

--Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

Investigative journalist Berman debuts with the definitive look at the NXIVM cult, which victimized dozens of women for more than a decade ... This deep dive behind the headlines isn’t to be missed."

--Publishers Weekly (starred review)

Berman demonstrates the tactics cults use to manipulate and control without casting judgment or blame on the victims. Truly gripping, this is the definitive book on NXIVM."


Journalist Sarah Berman brings her signature gimlet eye and impeccable reporting to the story of the NXIVM women in Don’t Call It a Cult, a chilling true crime account...Don’t Call It a Cult is the nightmarish, unflinching true story of the women who survived NXIVM—and the women who didn’t."

--Foreword Reviews (starred review)

This is a very thought provoking book about a subject that many may have glanced at the headlines and not known much about. From empowerment to manipulation, it should serve as a warning to be careful about how you trust and with how much."

--The Parkersburg News & Sentinel

A new book reveals the shocking ways that "self-help guru" Keith Raniere trapped women into his sick scheme."

--Eric Spitznagel, The New York Post

An absolute work of art"

--Vancouver is Awesome

This true crime is for readers of stories about cults and anyone looking for a deep dive into the recent news stories regarding NXIVM"


Both captivating and frightening, Don’t Call it a Cult will astonish most readers."

--New York Journal of Books

Vancouver investigative reporter Sarah Berman's nonfiction account, "Don't Call it a Cult," goes deep into the organization, meticulously tracing how it began and how it grew."

--Laurie Hertzel, Minneapolis Star Tribune

Her [Berman’s] engrossing narrative style humanizes the victims in a way not fully realized during the trial itself, and most certainly not allowed during their involvement in NXIVM. She skillfully incorporates personal testimonies from the women targeted by Raniere, probing issues of power, consent and agency on an individual level while also zooming out to investigate the nature and dynamics of what we call cults as a whole.”

--Law & Crime

Don’t Call It A Cult is the most detailed, well-reported, and nuanced look at NXIVM’s history, its supporters, and those left destroyed in its wake. If you want to understand NXIVM—and other groups like it—reading Sarah Berman’s account is essential.”

--Scaachi Koul, bestselling author of One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter

Sarah Berman is absolutely fearless in Don’t Call It a Cult. Her determination to not only tell the difficult, often disturbing story of NXIVM, but tell it right, shines through in every aspect of this gripping book. I simply could not put it down.”

--Alicia Elliott, A Mind Spread Out on the Ground

Berman has crafted a tour-de-force and powerful homage to first-person reportage. A riveting page-turner, Don’t Call It a Cult is a must-read for anyone who is fascinated by the long term effects of cult culture, abuse, and pseudoscience.”

--Lindsay Wong, author of The Woo-Woo

Sarah Berman’s reporting on the inner workings of NXIVM and its secret, coercive ‘women’s group’ fully elucidates how scores of incredibly talented, smart young women fell under the spell of a mousy, volleyball-playing con man. Don’t Call It a Cult is an incisive, empathetic page-turner.”

--andrea bennett, author of Like a Boy But Not a Boy

Don’t Call It A Cult is a thorough and compelling examination of a terrifying organization. Berman understands and brilliantly conveys the complexity of abuse, assault, and the lasting effects of each, and delivers a book that says as much about human nature as it does about NXIVM. Required reading!”

--Anne T. Donahue, author of Nobody Cares

Don’t Call It a Cult explains Raniere’s dark charisma and why so many people were attracted to NXIVM and stayed on, even as the manipulation, exploitation, and abuse got extreme. A thoughtful, deeply reported take on a sensational story, one that I won’t soon forget.”

--Rachel Monroe, author of Savage Appetites

Berman lays bare this longest of cons: lost souls and ambitious young people drawn into NXIVM’s vortex of sexual assault, child exploitation, fraud, manipulation, and blackmail. This too-crazy-for-fiction tale is expertly spooled out with journalistic precision and a screenwriter’s sense of scene and story. I couldn’t put it down.”

--Lorimer Shenher, author of That Lonely Section of Hell and This One Looks Like a Boy


Keith Raniere needed sleep, that much was clear. How much sleep? Well, for decades before his

arrest on March 26, 2018, that was a point of debate. Some thought he slept only one or two hours a

night. But women close to him knew he was more of a day sleeper, and that day in March, in an

upstairs bedroom of a $10,000-a-week vacation rental north of Puerto Vallarta, Raniere was napping.

According to testimony at Raniere’s trial, actors Nicki Clyne and Allison Mack were lounging

outside on a patio overlooking an infinity pool when Mexican federal agents in bulletproof vests

pulled up the cobblestone driveway. Armed with a warrant from the Eastern District of New York for

sex trafficking and forced labour, the officers surrounded the property. Some of them appeared to be

wearing masks and holding machine guns.

It was a big deal for Clyne and Mack—celebrities and recent subjects of relentless online

gossip—to be staying so close to Raniere. Five months earlier, he had been accused in the New York

Times of masterminding a strange blackmail scheme, and allegations that Raniere had sexually abused

young girls were resurfacing online with a vengeance. The US Federal Bureau of Investigations

wasn’t quiet about its interest in NXIVM, the secretive self-help company Raniere had founded in

1998. The feds had left business cards with NXIVM associates in the US and Mexico, asking for

Raniere to get in touch. Despite all this, Clyne and Mack had come to Mexico to show their

commitment to Raniere, a man they’d often called the most ethical man they’d ever met.

Raniere was technically a fugitive, but his hideout in Mexico resembled an expensive

corporate retreat. A team of fixers had been buzzing around him, first in Punta Mita, and now at their

current location, the remote beach town Chacala. Neighbours said they went on long walks, ordered

expensive butter-infused coffees from a tourist bar, and communicated through prepaid disposable


Mack and Clyne had been invited to participate in a “recommitment ceremony.” The plan was

to show loyalty to Raniere in the most vulnerable way possible, which might have included group sex,

had cops not shown up that day. Under her clothes, each actor wore a scar in the shape of Raniere’s

initials, burned into her skin with a cauterizing pen more than a year earlier. It symbolized her lifelong

commitment to obey Raniere’s every request.

Before getting caught up in NXIVM headlines, Clyne was best known for her role as Cally on

the sci-fi hit Battlestar Galactica , while Mack lit up TV screens as Chloe Sullivan, best friend to

Superman in the CW show Smallville . Those roles had become less interesting to the women as they

grew more committed to changing the world with Raniere. Through thousands of hours of coursework

and mentorship, Clyne and Mack had learned to break out of “self-limiting” thoughts. NXIVM

students compared this process to Keanu Reeves taking the red pill in The Matrix ; no aspect of their

lives was exempt from constant study, reflection, and redefinition. Raniere taught that everything was

an opportunity for personal growth—even a face-off with federal agents.

But as police moved inside, at least one of Raniere’s disciples was feeling some doubts.

For Lauren Salzman, the daughter of NXIVM’s president and cofounder Nancy Salzman,

Raniere’s arrest punctured the bubble of secrecy and deception that protected his reputation as

someone of the highest ethical standards. Salzman was in a bedroom with Raniere when cops came

upstairs to take him into custody. As Salzman later recalled at Raniere’s trial, Raniere hid in a walk-in

closet, leaving her to face the police.

“They were banging on the door,” she testified. “The whole time, I was thinking they could

just shoot through the door.”

As the door rattled in its frame, Salzman asked to see a warrant.

“Open the door and I’ll show it to you,” an agent replied.

Salzman didn’t open the door. The cops kicked it open and pinned Salzman to the ground.

With guns pointed at her, she yelped out Raniere’s name. The man known to acolytes as Vanguard,

Master, and Grandmaster was cuffed on the floor and taken downstairs.

For Salzman, Raniere’s arrest left a small but significant crack in the edifice he had built. “I

chose what I believed we had been training for this entire time, which was to choose love over

everything—including the possibility of losing my life,” she later testified. “There was no need to

send me to shield him or negotiate with them; he could have just protected all of us and just gone.”

For months Salzman felt guilty for not doing more to protect Raniere. It would take the better

part of a year for her to realize the flaw she saw in him that day went much deeper.

“It never occurred to me that I would choose Keith, and Keith would choose Keith,” she said.

About the Author

Sarah Berman

Sarah Berman is an investigative journalist based in Vancouver covering crime, drugs, cults, politics, and culture. She is a former senior editor at VICE and past contributor to Adbusters, Maclean’s, The Globe and Mail, the Vancouver Sun and other publications.