In the first witness testimony in the criminal trial of NXIVM founder Keith Raniere, a 32-year-old British woman described in graphic detail how she was manipulated into becoming a “slave” for the suspected sex-cult leader, the New York Times reports.
On Tuesday and Wednesday, a woman identified simply as “Sylvie” took the stand to testify against Raniere, who federal prosecutors say operated a cult in which women were blackmailed and ritually humiliated, and branded with Raniere’s initials. For 13 years, Sylvie was involved with NXIVM: She told jurors Seagram heiress Clare Bronfman brought her into the organization, where she took self-help classes and trained as an athlete; then, a few years after her introduction, a woman named Monica Duran asked her to join DOS, a suspected master-slave subgroup within NXIVM. To prove her dedication, Sylvie says she was coerced into handing over nude photographs and incriminating letters as “collateral.” This, per BuzzFeed News, is when she was told she would became a “slave.”
“I thought I was in the project and the collateral would basically keep my mouth shut about it,” she told jurors. “Now I was Monica’s slave and she was my master.”
Sylvie was the first alleged victim of Raniere’s to testify against him in his long-awaited trial. He has been charged with sex trafficking, sex trafficking conspiracy, racketeering, and conspiracy to commit forced labor since his arrest in March 2018. While five women, including Bronfman and Smallville actress Allison Mack, were also facing charges for their involvement in NXIVM, all women pleaded guilty earlier this year, leaving Raniere to stand trial alone. His lawyers, meanwhile, maintain that he’s a well-intentioned “good man.”
But after handing over the collateral, Sylvie told jurors that Duran ordered her to complete a number of “assignments,” one of the first being to seduce Raniere with explicit photos and sexual texts.
After begging to stop, Sylvie says she was subjected to physical sexual encounters. In one incident in Raniere’s study, in which she recalled a “big white bed that had white dirty sheets on it,” Sylvie said Raniere performed oral sex on her. Afterward, she said he told her that “he was [her] grand master now and that he was a master of Monica.”
Sylvie — who was married at the time — also recalled being forced to pose for Raniere, who took pictures that “mostly featured [her] vagina,” and having to wear a “dog collar” to prove her “life commitment to Monica.”
“At that time, I felt so much shame,” she told jurors on Wednesday. “I felt everything was just lie and secrets and darkness.”
However, by sheer luck, she claims that she managed to dodge the infamous branding ritual. The weekend that she was scheduled to have her skin cauterized with Raniere’s initials, two NXIVM members resigned, and details of horrific physical abuse within the organization surfaced on a blog. “I got freaked out,” Sylvie told jurors on Wednesday. Soon after, the organization started to crumble.
Since Sylvie left the organization a few years ago, she has since moved back to England with her husband, but she says she still struggles to this day to stop feeling “ashamed of [herself]” for getting involved with NXIVM.
“I’m still trying to recover my brain,” she said.