Don't Call it a Cult

By Sarah Berman. (Steerforth Press, 321 pages, $17.)

The bizarre and dangerous cult known as NXIVM (pronounced "nexium") hit the news in 2018 when its founder, Keith Raniere, was arrested and charged with a multitude of crimes. The news stories focused on the bizarre inner circle of beautiful women who became his "slaves" and were physically branded near the groin with his initials. But Raniere's crimes were much more extensive, ranging from child sexual assault to blackmail.

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. Raniere, a con artist and a sexual predator, started a number of businesses — mostly Ponzi schemes and pyramid schemes — that all failed. Some met the attention of authorities and were shut down. Eventually, he started the NXIVM program of "self improvement" classes in 1998 and began building his empire of money, blackmail and sex.

Berman's book is not salacious, but it is shocking — all the more so that this ordinary looking, bespectacled man could be revered as an infallible near-god by so many. (His followers believed he had the highest IQ ever recorded.)

Following the playbook of Scientology and bankrolled by two sisters who were heirs to the enormous Seagram liquor fortune, Raniere conned, raped, imprisoned, trafficked, bilked and blackmailed people — almost all young women — for nearly two decades, until his empire started to crack. He was sentenced in October 2020 to 120 years in prison. Berman's exposé is a fascinating and chilling read.