PROLOGUE: THE HEARING
Brooklyn, New York, February 28, 2019
When it was renovated in the early 2000s, the Theodore Roosevelt United States Courthouse was fortified to withstand a 9/11-style terrorist attack. This is apparent in every detail. The place—a mammoth 750,000-square-foot complex in downtown Brooklyn, a short walk from the Brooklyn Bridge—looks and feels like a fortress, and that’s what I like most about it: this is the safest of safe spaces.
I arrive early, well before dawn, to make sure I secure my usual seat in the back of the courtroom. My house is in Rochester, five hours away, but I attend all the major hearings related to the NXIVM case. I have to see this thing through to the end.
A year ago, NXIVM was an obscure multilevel marketing company built around executive coaching programs, with little more than a cult following. Then, on March 26, 2018, the arrest happened, and the world learned that “cult following” was not just a clichéd expression. The lurid details from the federal indictment—cult leader, sex trafficking, slave branding—were front-page news, endlessly fascinating. The media had a field day. I spoke to any journalist who asked for an interview, calmly telling the truth, as I’d been doing for years. But it was different this time. In years past, whenever I spoke to the press, the NXIVM people would rebut: “She’s crazy.”
No one thinks I’m crazy anymore.
The same cannot be said for the six defendants in the case. The five women are gaunt, ghostly, gray. An impartial observer might conclude that these are prisoners on a hunger strike. The truth is that the man they call Vanguard wants them to look like anorexics, demands they consume the bare minimum of calories per day. Even now, almost a year after his arrest, they eagerly starve themselves to please their Master. Their hungry devotion led them here, to this courtroom, where they see themselves as martyrs for the cause.
There is the one they call Prefect, Vanguard’s longtime business partner and first acolyte and NXIVM’s president. More meat on her bones than the others, but just as broken. I’ve known her for more than two decades. In fact, I was the one who brought the two of them together, all those years ago. The psychological experiment they did on me back then was the foundation of NXIVM’s Executive Success Programs, or ESP, its self-help curriculum. She was a different person then—brilliant, ambitious, full of life: the very embodiment of executive success. You would never know it to look at her now.
ThePrefect’s daughter is also a defendant. She was still in college when Vanguard first met her, a capable, whip-smart girl with a life of promise ahead of her. In short order, he turned her against her mother and then strung her along for decades with broken promises of a child, a family, a life together. That future did not come to pass, and now she is forty-two, and it never will.
The bookkeeper, Defendant #3, is the picture of defeat. Rail thin, sad-faced, cried out. She is my age or thereabouts but looks much older. Bookkeepers are usually the first to flip in cases like this, to cooperate with prosecutors in exchange for leniency, but I don’t think she has it in her.
Next, we come to the liquor heiress. Not so young anymore, but as naïve as ever. Vanguard bamboozled her and her only slightly less naïve sister, appropriating their renown, exploiting their old-money business contacts, emptying their vast coffers. Everything NXIVM did was underwritten by the heiress. Her family’s vast wealth financed the legal harassment any detractor or defector was subjected to, just as it pays for the attorneys of all six defendants in the courtroom today. But that’s not the half of it. No: Vanguard has drained more than $100 million from the heiresses’ personal trust funds. Lost most of it on catastrophically awful commodities trades, spent the rest. His transgressions are impossible to ignore, writ in red in the family ledgers, the earnings reports, the bottom lines. But the heiress can’t, or won’t, see it. She remains faithful. She has not repudiated her Master. Instead, she’s stood by him, proclaiming his innocence as she proclaims her own. Doubling down, she has retained a fancy new attorney for today’s hearing, a celebrity lawyer from the city of celebrity lawyers, Los Angeles. He doesn’t look particularly impressive to me. Probably he sees her as Vanguard does—with dollar signs in his eyes.
The last of the women, the television actress, is still too thin, but not starving-to-death thin like the others. Some color has returned to her cheeks. But then, she has not spent the winter shoveling snow in Clifton Park, or languishing behind bars at MDC Brooklyn, where the heat is forever on the fritz. She is under house arrest, living with her parents in sunny California, thirty-five miles but light-years away fromHollywood, her former base of operations. She gets to leave the family home to go to church, run errands, take classes. Maybe she’s learned something at school. She seems changed somehow, like a magic spell has worn off. (Waking from a magic spell and asking, “What just happened?” was a weekly occurrence on the television show that made her C-list famous.) She appears awake, alert—and terrified. After all, she was the Vanguard’s “alpha slave.” It was her idea to brand the other slave women, her underlings—or so she claimed to a reporter at The New York Times Magazine. She’s not getting out of this unscathed, and it looks like she knows it.
The sixth defendant, the star attraction, is the last to enter the courtroom. He may not have looked like a cult leader at the time of his arrest, but he’s certainly dressed for the part this morning. He has the Jesus hair down to his shoulders, messily parted down the middle, a tangle of split ends desperately in need of a brush. He’s clean-shaven, but his complexion is red and blotchy. He’s wearing his prison jumpsuit—puke green, not orange, is the new black—over one of those long-sleeve thermal shirts worn by lumberjacks. Perhaps this is to call attention to his complaint that all through what has been a particularly harsh winter, the heat has not been functioning in the prison. And, strangely, he is not wearing his glasses. Another inmate took them, probably, or else they got smashed. Glasses must be hard to keep track of in jail.
The NXIVM Svengali does not so much as glance at his quintet of emaciated Trilbys, his dutiful disciples. Never mind that two of them—the two prettiest—have his initials branded onto their skin, inches from their vaginas: the wraiths do not interest him. He doesn’t make, or even seek, eye contact with any of them, nor they with him. Not Prefect and her daughter, not the bookkeeper, not the heiress and her fancy celebrity lawyer—not even the television actress, one of his lovers du jour, whose capacity for sadism may well match his own. They are all invisible to him, as if they have already withered away to nothing.
Instead, he looks at me. It’s hard without his glasses, but he makes me out, here in the back row, and he squints, and his piercing blue eyes home in hypnotically on mine. There is no remorse there; there is no love—not even the smolder of nostalgia. There is surprise; there is desperation; there is resentment; there is fury.
He wanted so badly for the roles to be reversed, for me to be in a prison jumpsuit and him to be watching quietly from the front of the courtroom. He even predicted it, the last time we were in the same room together, in April of 1999: “The next time I see you, you’ll be dead or in jail.” He spent almost twenty years, and God knows how much liquor-heiress money, working to achieve that outcome. But he failed.
He failed, justice prevailed, and now he’s the one on trial. In the process, he’s dragged down five of the women in his inner circle: his second-in-command, Nancy Salzman, and her dutiful daughter, Lauren; Kathy Russell, the bookkeeper; Clare Bronfman, the liquor heiress and nxivm’s primary source of funding; Allison Mack, the Smallville actress who allegedly procured other women for him. They are all martyrs to the cause, all expendable.
But not me. Not Toni Natalie.
I’m the one who got away.