'Turn it off!': Ex-NXIVM member describes Clockwork Orange-style 'fright study'
WARNING: This story contains graphic language and descriptions of extreme violence
NXIVM calls itself a humanitarian community. Experts and critics call it a cult. Uncover: Escaping NXIVM is a CBC investigative podcast series that explores the group, its leader and the experiences of those who left.
- Listen to the podcast at cbc.ca/uncover or on iTunes
Turn it off!
I can't watch this!
Why the f--k are you showing me this?
Those are the words Jennifer Kobelt remembers screaming as she sat in front of a television in a dark, empty former Italian restaurant near Albany, N.Y., wearing a sensor-filled cap, as she watched the horrific gang rape scene from the 1988 Jodie Foster film The Accused.
She said there was a camera in front of her, recording her facial expressions, and a machine behind her, which she assumed was tracking her brainwaves.
This scene Kobelt says she found herself in may seem similar to one from another film, Stanley Kubrick's ultraviolent 1971 classic, A Clockwork Orange.
Only Kobelt wasn't a sadistic rapist being forced to undergo a new form of violence-aversion therapy in a dystopian Britain. She was an actor from Vancouver and member of a self-help training organization called NXIVM, who had agreed to help her friend and fellow member, Dr. Brandon Porter, with one of his research studies.
She didn't ask many questions before agreeing to participate in the study. She just assumed it had something to do with unlocking human potential and making the world a better place — NXIVM's stated mission.
The experiment took place in August 2016, she said, nearly two years before NXIVM founder and guru Keith Raniere and key members of his inner circle would be accused of running what prosecutors in New York describe as an "organized criminal enterprise."
Authorities allege a secret women's empowerment sorority linked to NXIVM was actually set up to recruit sex "slaves" for Raniere, whose initials were branded on the women's pelvises during an initiation ceremony.
Those accused have pleaded not guilty to all the charges, which include allegations of extortion, money laundering, sex trafficking and forced labour conspiracy.
Watch: Everything you need to know about NXIVM in under four minutes
Porter faces a hearing before New York's State Board for Professional Medical Conduct for his alleged role in conducting the experiment Kobelt underwent, described in documents as the "fright study."
None of Kobelt's allegations, or those in the board's documents, have been proven in an administrative hearing.
'What's going on for you, Jenn?'
The scene from The Accused left Kobelt crying, shaking and rocking back and forth in her chair, but the worst was yet to come, she said.
"What's going on for you, Jenn?" Kobelt said Porter asked her.
She said she couldn't stop crying for what seemed like 15 minutes. She doesn't remember much about the next few scenes she was shown, other than they were "probably happy clips."
Then Porter said he had one more clip to show her, but was nervous to do so because of her "intense reactions," Kobelt said.
Kobelt said she had also been shown another violent scene from American History X, where a white supremacist, played by Edward Norton, kills a black man by stomping his face into a curb. Stunned, she burst out crying.
Still she didn't want to quit the study before seeing the last clip — her NXIVM training wouldn't have it.
She started telling herself: "I'm not going to be shown to be weak. I'm not going to be weaker than every other woman you have had in here. I am a strong woman. I have character. I have discipline.
"I don't remember if I actually said this to him or not, but I'm pretty sure I said, 'Just f--king do it.'"
Only this wasn't a clip from another Hollywood film; it looked like "real footage," Kobelt said.
A group of men, many with bandanas over their mouths and guns in their hands, were shown in what looked to be a cornfield, with four women on their knees, she said. Several of the women were topless.
- Listen to the podcast at cbc.ca/uncover or on iTunes
One of the men started speaking in Spanish.
"I can't understand what he is saying," Kobelt recalled, describing the final clip. "I have no idea what is going on. I just see these four women on their knees. I think their arms are behind their backs."
The man in the video eventually stopped speaking and four of the men positioned themselves behind the women. Each then grabbed the woman in front of him by the hair, pulling her head back and chopping it off with a machete, Kobelt said.
(The professional conduct board's document outlining the allegations describes this clip as an "actual video of the horrific and brutal murders and dismemberment of four women.")
- Escaping NXIVM: How Keith Raniere went from gifted child to self-help guru to accused sex-cult leader
Kobelt said she was in shock, with tears and snot dripping down her face, when Porter asked her once again: "What's going on for you?"
He then suggested Kobelt should have an exploration of meaning, or EM, to find out why she had such extreme reactions to some of the clips, she said.
In the world of NXIVM, an EM is a process where a disciple digs deep into their psyche, with the help of a coach, to get at the root of an emotional reaction in an attempt to resolve the underlying issue.
At that moment, it sounded like a ridiculous idea to Kobelt.
She said she remembered thinking: "I don't know if this is something I want to resolve. I don't know if I ever want to be OK with gang rape. Or, you know, murder by machete."
Listen to a bonus episode of Uncover: Escaping NXIVM. Kobelt describes her experience in the so-called fright study
But another voice came into her head, she said, once again reminding her of the NXIVM lessons she'd spent years learning.
Like that she has faulty programming and limiting thoughts that have been building up since childhood and hold her back.
And that she should accept feedback.
"Jenn, you're fighting. Stop fighting. Just take the feedback," Kobelt said she told herself. "If you're fighting it, it's probably true."
She went back to the house where she was staying, had a shower and then texted her NXIVM coach: "Hey, I really need an exploration of meaning."
Porter faces numerous charges before the professional conduct board over several of the studies he oversaw, including the so-called fright study. The allegations include 16 violations of state and federal law, as well as violations of medical guidelines, including moral unfitness, gross negligence and gross incompetence.
He is defending himself against the allegations, none of which has been proven. His medical licence is still active, but he resigned from his practice at St. Peter's Hospital in Albany.
CBC tried to reach Porter repeatedly but did not get a response.
While Kobelt said she doesn't know the ultimate purpose of the fright study, a patent filed by Raniere in 2007 may offer a clue. Titled "Determination of Whether a Luciferian Can Be Rehabilitated," it outlines nearly the exact same study as the one Kobelt described.
In NXIVM lingo, a Luciferian is someone who takes pleasure in other people's pain.
It's not clear how the study would rehabilitate such a person.
Documents filed in advance of Porter's conduct hearing say the fright study took place over a five-year period. A spokesperson with the state board declined to say how many people participated in the study, but CBC has learned that other participants will be testifying against Porter.
'A lot of deprogramming'
It wasn't until Kobelt left NXIVM a year later — after she learned about the secret group and the branding of women — that she began to really take stock of what happened.
That process included filing a complaint against Porter with the New York Department of Health in August 2017.
The 28-year-old says she's trying to move on. She's engaged and runs a marketing business with her fiancé, who is also a former NXIVM member.
But she is still haunted by the horrific images she watched during the fright study, she said. And she continues to grapple with the impact of the teachings that kept her planted in that chair, looking at the screen rather than running for the door.
She often second-guesses herself in situations, she said, and wonders whether she's listening to her own conscience or NXIVM instructions that may still be ingrained in her mind.
"I wish I had a wonderful success story that could just be like, 'Oh yeah, everything is peaches and rainbows now,'" she said.
"But I don't. It's still a lot of deprogramming work left to do."
Read the other features in the Escaping NXIVM series:
- How a B.C. actor joined a self-help group and ended up in a suspected sex cult
- How Keith Raniere went from gifted child to self-help guru to accused sex-cult leader
- The public and private turmoil of escaping a suspected sex cult
- 'I feel like my brain has been wiped': As NXIVM leader awaits trial, stunned former members ask, 'What now?'
- Listen to all seven episodes at cbc.ca/uncover or on iTunes