Right off the bat I want to say that this isn’t a true crime book about some serial killer from the 1970s that no one remembers. This happened within the last few years. A spree that went from 1996 to 2012 to be exact. Right under all our noses. And you could have been a victim. I could have been. This is a total mindf*ck. One of the smartest killers I’ve ever read about. Which says a lot considering I got a Master’s Degree in Criminal Justice and interview violent felons for a living.
Israel Keyes hunted and hated humans. Former military, Keyes knew how to use weapons and his gigantic body to take an innocent person down. How often do we hear about a serial killer with no MO? Who just killed anyone, and did it for sport. It’s rare. Most serial killers have their targets or fetishes; Son of Sam killed young couples, Ed Kemper killed female college students, the Manson Family killed well-off people in the Hollywood Hills, etc. Keyes, born from holy roller parents and living in Alaska, was more like Richard Ramirez (aka Night Stalker) in that the only prerequisite for being a victim was that you breathed. Keyes murdered just to murder. He killed in Alaska, New Jersey, New York, Washington, Vermont. During the day and at night. Keyes tortured, raped, mutilated, and killed people-men and women- across the United States, and I bet you’ve never heard of him. Right?
If you haven’t heard of Keyes, don’t feel bad…there’s a good reason why. The author of this terrifying account, Maureen Callahan, had to go to court and battle with the feds for information that is usually readily available to investigative journalists. Not only is law enforcement tight lipped about the havoc this monster caused, Keyes himself refused to cooperate unless he was promised his name would be kept out of the news. Because he didn’t want his daughter or family to be traumatized. All of a sudden dude is caring and sentimental. And the feds agree to Keyes’ terms because he promised them he’d help them find the bodies of his victims. The problem here is you never bargain with the bad guy, especially one as calculating as Israel Keyes. Never give them that control. In the interrogations of Keyes that Callahan puts in this book, you can see how he’s toying with law enforcement and how they let him. And I can criticize their techniques because interrogating and interviewing criminals is what I do for a living. These officers were afraid of him. What a mess. He loved it.
So, instead of another documentary about how handsome Ted Bundy was (and btw, he wasn’t, give me a break) or how gross Jeffrey Dahmer’s eating habits were, the powers that be should focus on homicides perpetrated by monsters like Keyes. Like I said, Keyes’ crimes did not happen that long ago, and people like him need to be looked at because the nut used modern technology and the internet to map out his targets. He used the FBI’s own techniques to figure out a way to make it so crimes were either never investigated or discovered. This guy is all the way in remote Alaska with the bears and the eagles, and he’s using the internet to meticulously research towns in states (and counties) thousands of miles away. He knew of communities with little to no police force, every camera placement and angle in town so he could park or stand without being recorded or detected, every way in which he could use natural elements in whatever state he chose to his advantage. This man only got caught because he wanted to get caught. Period.
This is a well written page-turner. Callahan did her research, much to the chagrin of law enforcement. What Keyes did to his victims is downright chilling, shocking, and gruesome. I felt for these victims, and it hurts to know how much they suffered. Worse knowing there are some who will never be found.
If you are interested in true crime, this is a must-read. Prepare to be freaked out.
This piece was inspired by the fact that 710 Indigenous people, mostly girls, were reported missing over the past decade in Wyoming, the same state where Gabby Petito reportedly disappeared. Despite the extent of the issue, missing and murdered Indigenous people get less media coverage. Give them all the same attention so we can curb violence against women and children, and hopefully bring them home.
I’ve read, watched, researched, written reports and studied cults for years. It’s just one of those things that happens when you go to graduate school at John Jay College. Children of God, Manson Family, Branch Davidians, the People’s Temple, Rajneeshpuram. I’ve absorbed it all. And my overall take is this: groupthink can be a hell of a drug.
Over the last year, we’ve been bombarded with the news of NXIVM, a cult that presented itself as a self-help organization. The arrests and convictions of its top players, along with HBO and Hulu documentaries about the cult, have made it an ongoing topic of discussion. Who knew that people needed to be told to be weary of a company that was advertising that it was owned by the “smartest man in the world”, Keith Raniere. Sure, ok. The smartest man in the world doesn’t get caught and find himself in prison for the rest of his miserable life.
Even though there is a lot of material out there about NXIVM, and the secret sex cult society that formed within it called DOS, I decided to read Sarah Berman’s book Don’t Call It A Cult anyway. It was absolutely worth it. What sets Berman’s book apart is that she was never a member of NXIVM, but she interviews many who were. She does impeccable research that explains the rise of Raniere (who has always been problematic because dude is a massive fraud), and his eventual leadership role in company that pushes pseudo-scientific hypnotic bullshit through the abuse of neuro-linguistic programming (NLP). Never mind that the people that were using NLP in NXIVM were in no way qualified to do so. I didn’t know all this until I read this book. Berman also explains how the billionaire Bronfman sisters get involved, along with Nancy Salzman and her daughter Lauren. And then the actors and actresses who seem to all have money to waste on classes that promise to make them into better human beings and artists: ex: Allison Mack, Nicki Clyne. Berman filled in gaps regarding NXIVM’s origins and gives us an idea of how a little Albany based start-up became a criminal enterprise. Before reading this, I had a good idea of what the cult was about. But Berman gives us so much more detail, as painful and upsetting as it is to read.
While Berman states the facts without judgment (A+ journalism), I couldn’t help but feel disgusted by all of the people involved in NXIVM and ESP. And not just Mack, Saltzman, and Raniere. I’m talking about the people who knew this was a cult long before the secret society of DOS was exposed by the New York Times. They knew charging people with the promise of “moving up” through different color sashes was a gimmick. And recruiting more people with the promise of reward was a pyramid scheme. They knew having a weeklong birthday party for Keith Raniere was idol worship. They knew holding twelve hour classes were designed to exhaust people into complacency. And don’t get me started on the classes where the men demeaned the women and the women had to take it or be considered weak. There is a part in the HBO series The Vow where Sarah Edmondson actually says, “ok so what if it’s a cult!” But in Berman’s book, she cautions Berman not to call it a cult (due to legal reasons). Lol, ok let’s not yo-yo. It’s a cult. And you were a participating member.
Speaking of Edmondson, I take issue with the former NXIVM members like her and Mark Vicente who have chased fame their entire lives and are now coming out with books and documentaries about their experience. No. Both of them were high up in NXIVM and made good money off of its grift. Both of them enabled Raniere and protected him. And while spilling the beans was important for Edmondson to do- because it helped to stop this- it’s too little, too late. Exposing it to the NYT and testifying was enough. When you start writing books and doing documentaries as damage control, my spidey senses start tingling. And of course responding to said criticism by saying “how dare you say I’m doing it for fame” is just another manipulative tactic to silence people who see beyond it. No dice. I’m sorry for what you went through, but you knew this organization was garbage from jump. And you knew blackmailing people through collateral was illegal, over the top, and the beginning of the end. That’s why you turned.
And Mark Vicente? He’s referenced in Berman’s book many times. Here’s a person who got out but put his wife through hell first because his power position within NXIVM and friendship with Raniere was more important. After watching The Vow, I couldn’t help but feel like I had just been fucked with by all of them. And maybe it’s because I interview people who lie to me everyday? After doing a little Twitter digging, I see that I’m not alone. Berman references Vicente’s testimony against Raniere, which is quite frankly, the least he could have done.
Which speaks to why Berman’s work here is so important. She sat in the courtroom during Raniere’s trial as a neutral party. She also interviews and gives voice to the women who have been overlooked (such as an actress who lived with Mack who was blindfolded by Raniere, then given oral sex by an unknown person). Berman also documents the testimony of victims who we may never meet. The young girls Raniere raped and forced to have abortions. The poor girl he locked in a room for two years who he used in several ways (in addition to being his sex slave, he used her computer prowess and hacking skills to a spy on perceived enemies). Maybe someday these survivors will speak publicly (like India Oxenburg). When and if they do, their words will carry more weight than the people who had the power to stop this long before humans were being cauterized.
What NXIVM and DOS really boils down to is this: A bunch of wealthy, fake, scarf wearing mean girls competing with one another and a sexually deviant misogynistic monster who capitalized on his freakdom by using the very women who gave him that power. Raniere isn’t the smartest man in the world, but he’s certainly not stupid. But to blame him alone is something no one should and will do, especially in a court of law. And while I use the term “mean girls” when referring to the key players, they are obviously grown women who knew better and still did wrong under the guise of “proving loyalty”. Mack and Saltzman especially tore others down. Both turned into Gollums. And their “precious” was Raniere. And for what? It led to nothing good. Raniere isn’t God. They didn’t become superior beings. No class can teach you to become a better person. That has to come from within. Turns out if you take a walk with Raniere, he’ll only lead you to a prison cell.
If you have an interest in true crime, this is one of the best. Kudos to Sarah Berman. And the way Berman ended the book leads me to believe she’s not done. And until that happens, I’m done reading anything NXIUM. Because I know she’ll be the only one telling the truth.
If you love horror, true crime documentaries, psychological thrillers, or just a good ghost story, Behind the Horror by Lee Mellor is a must-read. Each chapter discusses the real life events that inspired a movie (or group of connected movies such as The Conjuring and Annabelle). Movies that shaped pop culture (Psycho, Jaws), others that have just come out in the past few years and still managed to shock audiences despite the belief in the early 2000’s that everything that could have been done, had been done. The Witch is a perfect example.
Not for the faint of heart, as there is a lot of graphic detail that needed to be told so there’s an understanding of why an even was adapted to the silver screen the way that it was, and all the parts left out to appeal to an audience. If you’re like me: someone who actually works with the people they make movies about but can still enjoy (or pan) a crazy thriller on my off time, you’ll appreciate the research, attention to detail, and the lack of conspiracy ‘takes’ that went into each chapter of this book.
Like they say, if you think you know already, no. You don’t. Too often we hear a vague rumor about a movie being based on something real. Or we see that message flash on the screen before a movie begins that says it’s ‘based on real life events’, but then you find out it really kinda wasn’t and Hollywood still got your hard earned cash. This book gives you the goods, while also pointing out the stories that have since been debunked or seriously embellished by movie studios.
I recommend you read this around Halloween. Perfect to get you freaked out and paranoid in time for the festivities.
Available at your nearest retailer, Amazon or on Audible.