What It Was Like to Date a Cult Leader

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In her new book, The Program, Toni Natalie describes her long and harrowing history with Keith Raniere, now infamous as the leader of NXIVM, a cult organization which engaged in sex trafficking, blackmail, and physical branding of its members, all while claiming to be a self-help group for professional women. Natalie met Raniere well before he went on to establish NXIVM, and, as both his business partner and his girlfriend, saw first-hand how manipulative and power-hungry he could be. She describes herself as Raniere’s “Patient Zero,” a kind of lab rat on whom Raniere developed his coercion techniques. And when she decided to end their relationship, she says, he made her life hell.

The Cut spoke to Natalie about her experiences with the man who would, in June 2019, be convicted of seven charges, including sex trafficking and conspiracy to commit forced labor. Raniere could face life in prison and is expected to be sentenced in early 2020.

I met Keith in the early ’90s, when he was running a company called Consumers Buyline. It was a membership-based organization with Multi-Level Marketing aspects to it, because Keith is, at heart, a frustrated Amway salesman, and it’s always been part of the businesses he ran. But it was a membership-based organization where people saved money on goods and services, and it worked really well, apart from the sociopath who was running it.

The company was extremely successful, and it was mostly men. He wasn’t doing the self-help thing then, so the draw was businesspeople, because the product was good, the membership was good, and with the marketing plan he had developed, people were earning a lot of money. But because Keith can’t leave anything alone, he created enough challenges within the company that 25 state attorneys generals and others came in [alleging he was operating an illegal pyramid scheme]. Consumers Buyline was making a lot of money, and Keith could have complied with different regulatory agencies, but no one tells Keith that he’s wrong, on any level.

That company eventually shut down, and he and I started a company called National Health Network, which sold supplements, and saved people 30–70 percent on their supplements. The concept was great — it had a MLM aspect to it if you chose to be part of it, because that was something Keith insisted upon. But the membership itself was a good idea. But what it didn’t do was make him feel idolized. And then he met Nancy Salzman.

When Keith met Nancy, he saw his next best move. Nancy Salzman presented herself as the No. 2 NLP (neuro-linguistic programming) expert in the world, and she presented herself as a therapist, two things Keith saw the value in. At that point Tony Robbins was coming onto the scene, so Keith knew the power of NLP, but he didn’t have that [Robbins] personality. He’d also taken his first hit from the government, which he later spun as the government going after him because he’s so brilliant. Nancy was brilliant at what she did. She was teaching NLP workshops at ConEdison, American Express — very large corporate clients. When she did a workshop at our company, National Health Network, Keith saw what she could do to quickly engage a group of people, and her ability to hypnotize them.

Soon Keith and Nancy started working together. During that time, I had hundreds of sessions with Nancy. I was molested for years as a young child, and they focused on that pain point as my problem. That was my issue: that was why I wasn’t succeeding in my relationships, that was why I wouldn’t succeed as a parent, or in business. I thought Nancy was going to help me with the problems I was having with my boyfriend, which was Keith, but she said my issues were all related to having been molested as a child, and she could help me with that. I went through a lot of sessions with her trusting that she was a professional and that she was licensed, both things I later found out weren’t true.

Keith and I were having problems at that point. He was getting restless. But we were living together and visiting my family on weekends and living what seemed to be a normal life. My mom used to say that in order for Keith to be with me, he had to be as normal as he could be, because I live a pretty traditional life. Keith morphed into my world for as long as he could until he found his next out, and he couldn’t any longer. And that out became Nancy, and the Executive Success Program, or ESP, which is what they originally called NXIVM. [Nancy Salzman has since pleaded guilty to racketeering conspiracy.]

What they did in creating ESP — what I saw was frightening. I watched people go through sessions and talk about things that should be shared with a professional, not people who aren’t skilled. I didn’t want to have any part of it. Our personal relationship was deteriorating. Part of me was happy Keith had ESP because I thought, Okay, he can go do this, and he’ll leave me alone. But Keith doesn’t take rejection well, so leaving him is not something you do easily. When I tried to break it off, the relationship became physically violent and frightening. I sent my son to live with his father, and my brother came in to, as he put it, “negotiate my release” from Keith.

The thing is, Keith is lazy, so the way he’s been able to succeed and get to where he is having enablers. Not just the women in his inner circle, but people he employed. I started being hit with lawsuits when I left him, and they didn’t end until the day he was arrested. That’s what a cult does: they’ll litigate you into oblivion. If you have the money to finance all this, you don’t care what the outcome is. You just want to destroy the person you want silenced. It’s terrorism by litigation. If the lawsuit doesn’t matter, and you just keep suing, the other person has to respond, and it breaks them.

I became the enemy. Keith created a module he taught to all 14,000 people that came through the program, and in it, I was used as the archetypal Suppressive, which — again, because he’s lazy — is a term he stole from Scientology. He used my name, and talked about me as the suppressive ex-girlfriend. I heard about that from other people. In the trial, one of the witnesses was asked why she stayed, and she said that if she left, she’d be labeled a suppressive. They asked her what that was, and she said a suppressive is a horrible, evil person. He asked if she knew a suppressive, and she said “Yes, I do: Toni Natalie.” She’d never met me.

Honestly, if he’d left me alone, I’d be watching from the sidelines like everyone else. It wasn’t like I wanted this in my life. But every time I thought it was over and I could start my life again, there was another whack.

When you’re in a place where you can’t trust yourself, you don’t know what’s best for you. When you’re involved with someone like Keith, or any large organization like this, you don’t just leave that person. You lose all your friends, you lose your financial well-being, you lose your community, you lose everything. I did try to break it off with him. What happened then was gaslighting. The gaslighting I experienced was so intense that I thought I was losing my mind. He would have people break into my house and unmake my bed, or open my closet doors, or flip over pictures. It happened multiple times, as a way of saying You can’t get away. In the book you’ll see a few of the letters I got from people I thought were my friends, telling me my life is going to be destroyed and my child’s life will be destroyed and my parents and even my dog will die. You’re so thrown off balance that you don’t know the difference between reality and not. A short time ago, these were your friends, and now they’ve completely turned on you.

If it weren’t for my parents, especially my mother, I don’t know how I would have gotten through this. I also had a very diligent neighbor, thank God, who said to me one day, “Toni, is it okay that the woman with long blonde hair comes and takes your mail every day?” She knew Keith had moved out, and something was going on, but she didn’t have all the details. I said, “What are you talking about?” So my mom and I put a camera up in the bedroom window, and what we came to find out is that the reason my phones and electricity were being shut off and my car insurance was canceled was because someone was taking my mail, getting my information, calling those companies and canceling everything. They’d do all these things to keep me off-balance, so Keith could come and tell me all of it would stop if I’d just admit I was wrong, and come back.

I told a friend, if Keith was the only one out there, I wouldn’t be bothering with this, but I heard on the news the other day that loneliness is an epidemic, and for people like Keith, with that mindset, they look at that as an opportunity. These are people who tell you that you have to follow their guidelines, or their belief system. They isolate you from your friends or family. They start with love bombing, so they build you up in order to tear you down to then rebuild you into what they want you to be. Someone who really wants to help you to develop into a more successful person isn’t going to isolate you from your friends and family. Good cult leaders do it slowly. Someone that has the skill set that Keith Raniere had, and Nancy Salzman had, knows to go slowly, look for vulnerability, and draw you in. No one joins a cult. They are indoctrinated.

What It Was Like to Date a Cult Leader