The wise leader turned out to be a sexual predator.

With long hair and a sage's way of speaking, Keith Raniere looked like a guru who could help women reach their ultimate potential.

His group, NXIVM (pronounced Nex-e-um) presented itself as a self-help organization. Given that “self-improvement” programs are a multi-billion dollar industry, this isn’t that hard to believe.

[Sign outside the NXIVM offices/Times Union]

What is unbelievable, however, is allegations of cult-like behavior, including a hierarchal structure of “masters” and “slaves” that let Raniere sexually abuse women.

According to a harrowing investigative feature from the New York Times, Raniere used NXIVM to recruit women to have sex with him, urge them to follow near-starvation diets to maintain his ideal physique, brand them like cattle, and make it all but impossible to leave.

NXIVM is based out of Albany, NY, with chapters all across North America. Since the 1990’s, tens of thousands of people have enrolled in the company’s courses.

Students are told the seminars can completely transform them — eliminating their psychological and emotional barriers, offering personal and professional development, and helping them find self-fulfillment.

Most students only take one or two classes, lose a chunk of change to listen to the rantings of some inane motivational speaker, and move on with their lives. Others, however, are sucked deeper into the organization.

Ladies, in particular, can be invited to join a secret society. According to actress and former NXIVM member Sarah Edmondson, in order to take part in this sorority, the women are told they need to offer collateral. Nude photos, letters detailing crimes, or evidence of any other damning misdeeds will do. The collateral would later be used to ensure they can’t leave or speak out.

[Sarah Edmondson/Youtube]

Raniere was the commander of this secret faction. He wanted his women to overcome the common weaknesses he saw in them, like being overemotional, failing to follow through on promises and frequently playing the role of the victim. He believed he was making them stronger, and acting as an ambassador for women all over the world.

To achieve the goals Raniere had in mind, the society would use tools of dominance and submission. “Slaves" would have to make lifetime vows of obedience to their “masters.” Eventually, the slaves would be able to recruit more servants of their own.

Before her initiation, Edmondson was told she’d be given a small tattoo. She was told to undress and put on a blindfold. When she took it off, 4 other female “slaves” had joined her there. They were butt naked, too.

A doctor, identified as Dr. Danielle Roberts, entered the room. The women took turns holding one another down. One woman filmed. They were instructed to say: "Master, please brand me, it would be an honor."

The doctor seared the skin below each woman’s hip with a cauterizing tool. The horrifying experience, marked by the sounds of screaming and the overwhelming smell of burning flesh, lasted about 30 minutes per procedure. The branded symbol on each woman’s crotch incorporated Raniere’s initials, “in tribute” to him.

[Keith Raniere/Youtube]

Over the years, terrorized members have made several attempts to report NXIVM’s disturbing practices to the police. On each occasion, authorities have refused to investigate.

However, now that the Times has put the group’s abuses into the spotlight, it seems New York state officials are finally beginning to act. The state now plans to pursue investigations into the allegations made in the Times’ feature.

NXIVM checks off every box necessary to classify the organization as a cult: it has a charismatic leader, who serves as an object of worship; it has a process of drastic thought reform (also known as brainwashing); and it has economic and/or sexual exploitation of group members, as female members are explicitly recruited to have sex with Raniere out of the belief that they can be “healed.”

Of all the cults we’ve seen — Satanic, Ayahuasca, Mormon, or otherwise — this one is far and away the most fucked-up.