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Former member of NXIVM cult tells about 'branding ceremony'

A witness at Keith Raniere's trial described the intense pain of having his initials burned onto her skin, and the "paddling" of members, who were known as slaves.

Lauren Salzman leaves Brooklyn federal court on Jan.

Lauren Salzman leaves Brooklyn federal court on Jan. 28. Photo Credit: AP / Seth Wenig

A former member of a secret master-slave society that was part of the Albany-based group NXIVM gave a first-hand account of her “branding ceremony” in Brooklyn federal court Monday, telling jurors at the trial of guru Keith Raniere she was held on a massage table by other slaves after kneeling for an oath.

“Master, please brand me,” testified “first-line slave” Lauren Salzman. “It would be an honor. An honor I want to wear for the rest of my life.”

Salzman's recollections came on the second day of her testimony. A leader of NXIVM, Salzman described the searing pain of being branded with Raniere’s initials by a cauterizing pen, his plans for an S&M “dungeon,” and abusive rituals like the “paddling” of naked slaves with a leather strap for transgressions.

“Everyone would take the number of whips commensurate with our transgressions,” Salzman said.

Raniere, 58, is accused of turning NXIVM from a self-help group offering personal growth courses into a vehicle for satisfying his sexual needs through the secret “DOS” society. He is charged with conspiracy, racketeering, sex trafficking, and other crimes. Raniere faces up to life in prison, if convicted.

Prosecutors say many of the more than 100 women recruited into the DOS group were informed that it was a NXIVM “sorority,” without being told of Raniere’s role, or that it might lead to sex. They had to post “collateral” — nude pictures, compromising letters, asset liens — to enforce vows of secrecy and obedience.

Salzman, a cooperating witness who pleaded guilty to related charges, said NXIVM’s courses groomed women for the group by teaching that, unlike men, they were used to making excuses to avoid the consequences of their actions, and obedience and punishment could help to deprogram that behavior.

“I thought it was part of learning to be disciplined and aware and build the points of character in ourselves that we had learned we didn’t have and men did have,” she testified.

A former Raniere girlfriend, Salzman was one of eight women who were “first-line” slaves reporting directly to him. She said they met three times a week, sent him a group nude picture, and each was expected to recruit her own “lineage” of slaves, which Raniere hoped would grow the group exponentially.

He believed the secret group might eventually grow to include “thousands, or millions” of women, Salzman said. “We might be able to have a DOS candidate for a political office,” she said.

Salzman told jurors her initiation branding was done by a doctor who was a NXIVM member, using electricity to burn off skin on her hip at the “bikini line,” leaving a scar when the scab fell off.

“It creates a third-degree burn,” she said. “It’s incredibly painful. It’s the most painful thing I’ve ever experienced.”

After joining, she was recruited into activities that ranged from preparing a manual — “You should be like a hungry dog for your master,” said one passage — to so-called “readiness drills,” requiring that the entire master-slave network respond in 60 seconds to a test  message, with failure met by punishments like the paddling.

Her realization that Raniere was having sex with other “first line” masters and that slaves were being ordered to “seduce” him, Saltzman said, made her jealous because of their past romance. But she accepted his denials of sex with the slaves, and rationalized his promiscuity as an effort at helping women.

“I would tell myself it was not about sex, it was about being comfortable with our bodies, it was about vulnerability,” she said.

The paddling and other punishments, she said, were based on NXIVM’s teaching that accountability and pain are part of growth, but when she learned he was outfitting a dungeon with cages and “sex torture” devices, she was less enthusiastic.

Fortunately, she said, the plan was just coming together in 2017 when news about the existence of DOS broke, drowning NXIVM in bad publicity. Equipment orders were canceled “so that it didn’t become public that we had a dungeon,” she said.

Salzman’s testimony is scheduled to resume on Tuesday.

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