Keith Raniere and Allison Mack | Left screenshot via YouTube. Right picture about Canadian Press.
This article originally appeared VICE Canada,
After more than a month in a court hearing deciding the fate of a suspected "sex cult" leader, the jury did not hear much about brainwashing. But they definitely learned something about gas lighting.
Perhaps best known as the thing Teen Vogue The accused President Donald Trump of doing something to America – intentionally undermining reality – has emerged as a buzzword that has been overused as a synonym for disagreement. But there is no more specific term for the phenomenon of deception and denial that makes one question one's own sense of the world.
Keith Raniere, founder of the self-help company NXIVM, is accused of committing sex trafficking, desecration and other crimes because he has formed a secret group of masters and slaves who have potentially collected perilous "collateral" for members. The testimony of forensic psychologist Dawn Hughes last week gave a partial answer to an open question that was pending for weeks: why did so many women join this elaborate "slave" scheme and why did they turn and care? Best friends in the same terrible situation?
Hughes called the heating of gas, along with threats, isolation, surveillance, subjugation, and economic control, as forms of non-physical force that may deprive someone of their ability to voluntarily consent. With this testimony, the prosecutors seemed to draw a consistent line between the reports of several witnesses who said that Raniere's lies, distortions, and threats shook their sense of reality.
A witness identified only as Daniela, who said that she and her two sisters had sexual relationships with the NXIVM leader in her teens and early 20s, testified that Raniere claimed to have penetrated her during her first sexual encounter when she only knew of her experience oral sex had taken place. "I am very sure of what I felt. I was there, "she told the jury. "It's my body, so confusing information is very confusing."
It is possible that Daniela and Raniere simply have different memories of the same event, but the prosecution is likely to hope the jury will recognize a pattern – this evidence has so far revealed that Raniere has repeatedly invented new circumstances that change women's own experiences and discredit.
Cult expert Steven Hassan of the Freedom of Mind Resource Center said in an interview that gas light is the most prevalent in smaller, personality-based cults and can have lasting psychological effects.
"I get customers who have not been there for 10 years, and who know that they do not want to go back, that the group is wrong, but they still do not trust their critical skills," he said. "Their sense of trust has been so undermined that they need special help to learn how to regain their power. "
The trial was now led by four witnesses who were initiated into a secret group within the NXIVM umbrella organization, which was intended as a mentoring program for women, but was actually launched by Raniere and used the "safeguards" of women to to orchestrate his sexual encounters. Depending on how long they were away from the group, they may still be confused about the gas light, a point the judge emphasized when he broke off the cross-examination against the witness Lauren Salzman, who pleaded guilty to prosecution to have raised.
"This is a broken person, as far as I can tell," Judge Nicholas Garaufi said last month. "Whether she's telling the truth, if the jury believes her, I think it's absolutely necessary that some degree of consideration for someone's condition be taken."
On Monday, a former "slave" identified as Nicole said her own confusion, in the face of mixed messages from her "master" Allison Mack, pleading guilty to having committed a brawl and thug conspiracy. The Smallville The actress wrote that Nicole was "weak, spoiled, eligible" and she loved and missed her in the same email. "It was just very confusing," she said. "It felt like I was missing something."
When Nicole suspected that Raniere knew about the secret women's group, Mack flatly denied it, even though the self-help guru was Mack's "master."
"She said, oh, sweetie, I'm so glad you told me that," Nicole said. "That's not true, that's not what's happening, but that's such a good sign that you can trust me enough to tell me that."
Similar distortions occurred in WhatsApp messages between Raniere and Daniela's younger sister Camila, who, according to the prosecutor, was only 15 years old when she was placed in a sexual relationship with Raniere. In chat conversations, Raniere introduced new spiritual circumstances to make Camila feel as if she was sleeping with another man, and told her that she had ruined her chance to be his "spiritual successor."
"My lineage should not end with my death," Raniere said, adding that he passed on knowledge and "energy" to Camila, which would have allowed him to continue living through them. Since she had sexual contact with someone else, this was not possible.
"I had no idea that this follow-up thing exists at all," Camila wrote in 2014.
In another passage, which was shown in court from 2015, Raniere Camila asked graphic questions about the genitals of his rival, including size, shape, "fluid" consistency and taste. "Did you like his taste better than mine?" He asked.
"I wish I did not have to answer, yes," Camila answered.
"He is smaller and thinner, penis-like?" Writes Raniere back.
"Longer but thinner," Camila replied.
Then Raniere told Camila that she was wrong about her own memory and experience. "I examine the perception," wrote Raniere. "I know that his penis is fully set up at 6.75 and my penis is 7.5, so I'll watch you tilt things."
At first, Camila questioned Ranieres obsession, but the more he claimed to know, the more she seemed to submit to the interrogation. Hassan said that this type of exchange has a cumulative, disorienting effect that makes one goal less dependent on his own conscience.
Camila described her dependence on Raniere as a life-and-death situation: "I feel I've pointed a gun at me and I'm just trying to say what you want to hear so you do not shoot it but I do not know what you want to hear. "
Hassan sees the gaslight as part of an inappropriate playbook that is used by sex merchants, domestic abusers, and cult leaders alike. "I'm confident that in every big cult there are examples where a cult leader says one thing and says the next day he never said that, you invented it," Hassan said.
Sign up for our newsletter to get the most out of VICE every day in your inbox.
Follow Sarah Berman up Twitter.