On Monday, Smallville actress Allison Mack pleaded guilty to felony charges in relation to her participation in a group called Nxivm, after she allegedly manipulated and blackmailed women into being “sex slaves” for its leader. Nxivm was a group based in Albany, New York, that billed itself as a self-help organization. In late 2017, the leaders of a disturbing inner circle of Nxivm called D.O.S., including Mack, were accused of doing horrible things to its members, including branding them with founder Keith Raniere’s initials and requiring them to starve themselves so they would be “thin enough” to have sex with their fearless leader.

This stuff sounds crazy. It’s hard for anyone on the outside looking in to get any understanding of…

a) why a grown woman (or man) would agree to do any of the above and
b) why a grown woman (or man) would participate in trying to coercing anyone into doing any of the above, and
c) how does an intelligent, successful young woman like Allison Mack go from to character actor to criminal?

How does any 21st century woman get caught up in such a bizarre group? 

People don’t willingly join cults.

They might go to a church service, a spiritual retreat, or a self-improvement seminar. And they go for perfectly understandable reasons; to find a sense of purpose, clarity or belonging. Many cult members start out as perfectly normal members of society who have either experienced a trauma or are in the middle of one. They may or may not be psychologically vulnerable but they are almost always situationally vulnerable, i.e., feeling lonely or isolated, struggling with a normal life change, facing feeling paralyzed or unsure about major life decisions, and reeling from a divorce or work disappointment. 

What the cult victim willingly joins is something wonderful which turns out to be a lie. First, the new recruit is showered with constant affection and validation. She is encouraged to share her most intimate thoughts and greatest fears, which are used to cement a strong emotional bond.   

Then, the “brainwashing” begins. She is told she is part of an elite organization or world-changing movement that others outside the group can’t understand. This serves two purposes; it creates an “us” versus “them” mindset that encourages loyalty and it sets that stage for any criticism of the group to be dismissed as persecution or jealousy. 

She is slowly isolated from friends and family. The unconditional love she initially received gradually gives weigh to attacks on her self-esteem and mental abuse, all in the guise of helping her reach her full potential. New members are also gradually introduced to the idea of doing self-destructive (giving all their possessions to the group, showing their commitment through sex, working extremely long hours with little sleep and no pay) acts, so by the time they’re committing crimes, it doesn’t seem like a big deal. Plus, there’s the ever-looming risk of rejection or punishment for disobedience. The new recruit is like the frog that doesn’t recognize it’s slowly boiling to death in a gradually heated pot until it’s too late. 

You and I might swear that we’d never fall for the coercive tactics destructive cults use, and maybe that’s true. Not everyone does. But the reality is that a lot of smart but unfulfilled people do get lured in with unconditional acceptance and the promise that the group will lead to empowerment, fulfillment or spiritual awakening. 

Cult members are victims of the people who founded such groups and, sadly, some remain victims for their entire lives. Alison Mack was once a victim, too, but, over the past thirteen years in the Nxivm cult, has clearly morphed into a perpetrator.

If the court’s past disdain for “brainwashing” as a mitigating factor in criminal cases is any indication, she will have plenty of time to reflect on her misdeeds behind bars.

As for the rest of us, if there’s any takeaway from this bizarre and tragic case, perhaps it’s a reminder that we all need to be aware of the warning signs of coercive relationships. And, as a mom of two college-bound seniors, it’s also a reminder for me to talk with them about loneliness and alienation and the inevitability of difficult or painful situations. I can’t protect them from these experiences, but I can try to give them the tools to cope with them when they do. Image: Mark Lennihan, AP