For eight years, Raniere and Natalie lived together, with him serving as a father figure of sorts to her young son
At the time, Raniere was being branded by the company as the “smartest man in the world,” a label that stemmed from the results of a take-home IQ test he took in the 1980s that led to him being included in The Guinness Book of World Records (albeit just one Australian edition).
Raniere, she says, made her feel special – but perhaps more importantly, he made her feel smart. She’d left high school to get married for the first time at 17, and she was deeply self-conscious about her lack of formal education. “What Keith was able to do was immediately ascertain your weak points and insecurities,” Natalie says. “And then he takes those insecurities and convinces you he’s helping you with them. But it’s just things he uses to hold you hostage.”
All the while, Raniere was surrounded by a cohort of women who worked for his DilMil es gratis company, including Pam Cafritz, Karen Unterreiner, and Kristin Keeffe. These women, whom Raniere referred to as “the girls,” came from a wide range of backgrounds: Cafritz was the daughter of D.C. Republican socialites, while Keeffe was a former waitress who had met Raniere while waiting tables in Albany. All, however, were united in their fierce devotion to him.
Following the failure of Consumers’ Buyline, Raniere and Natalie opened a health-food store and cafe in upstate New York. It was through this business that Natalie met Salzman, who visited the store to find relief for her chronic constipation (“she was, quite literally, full of shit,” as Natalie puts it). Salzman touted herself as an expert in NLP (neurolinguistic programming), a form of therapy that uses tactics such as body language mirroring and hypnotherapy to help followers overcome personal obstacles. (It has largely been dismissed as pseudoscience.) She offered to give Raniere and Natalie private NLP sessions to help them with their relationship issues, which led to Raniere taking private meetings with Salzman in the back of the health-food store.
At the time she met Raniere, Natalie was 29 and in what she describes as a sexless marriage to her third husband, a tanning-salon owner
The result of their collaboration, Natalie writes, was “like putting two volatile chemicals together in a mad scientist’s lab: The resulting compound was both explosive and dangerous.” Disillusioned by what Natalie viewed as the exploitative NLP method and Raniere’s increasingly arrogant behavior, the two broke up in 1999. Almost immediately, “the girls” jumped into offense mode, urging Natalie to take him back; when that failed, she says, they stole her mail, hacked into her hard drives, and filed multiple lawsuits accusing her of stealing money from Raniere, strategies they would use against Natalie and any other perceived Raniere enemies for almost two decades.
In 2000, Raniere filed a patent for the “rational inquiry method,” which would serve as the basis for ESP. Raniere’s reputation as the “smartest man alive,” combined with Salzman’s credentials as a nurse and NLP expert, allowed the group to rack up many high-profile supporters fairly early on, most notably Clare and Sara Bronfman, the heiresses to the Seagram’s liquor fortune, who would later go on to spend nearly $140 million bankrolling the group’s lawsuits against Natalie and other detractors. The patented ESP “technology” allowed Raniere to “couch” the group’s methods by basing them in “rational thought,” says Josh Bloch, an investigative journalist and host of the CBC podcast Escaping NXIVM: “I could see how that would sound very attractive to someone who might be turned off by flaky or nonscientific messaging.”