iHeartRadio’s “Was I In a Cult?” is hosted by filmmaker Tyler Measom and comedian/writer Liz Iacuzzi. In the episodes, listeners will hear firsthand accounts from people getting absorbed by cults, realizing their situation, then exiting safely when time allowed. Since the podcast’s start in September 2021, Tyler and Liz combine their guests’ interviews with info-tainment.
This season kicked off with stories from what Joanne Hanks called “Mormonism on steroids.” This 2-episode arc discussed fearing an apocalypse, visions, temple rituals, and polygamy. She also explained “cookies with Jesus,” wearing special underwear, and speaking to the dead. You can learn more about Joanne’s experience in her book, It’s Not About the Sex My Ass: Confessions of an Ex-Mormon Ex-Polygamist Ex-Wife.
Jessica joined NXIVM
Survivor and former NXIVM member Jessica Joan spoke about her cult experience with the hosts on the multi-part episode, “WOMEN ONLY SECRET SOCIETY (NXIVM).” In recent years, NXIVM was exposed for abuse and sex trafficking, and has received a ton of media coverage. NXIVM started in the 1990s and called itself a self-help, multi-level marketing company. Its leader, Keith Raniere, has been sentenced to 120 years in prison and is expected to pay $3.4 million to victims.
Jessica’s early trauma
Jessica discussed why NXIVM was so appealing. As she got older, she realized she was hurting from past traumas and wanted to heal. She detailed her difficult yet cushy upbringing and the baggage she carried. As a kid, she witnessed her parents cooking and selling drugs à la Breaking Bad. Her mom became addicted to drugs and abruptly left the family. Her dad was arrested, and she and her siblings were rescued from foster care by their grandparents.
Jessica went to a community college and met a teacher who changed her life with a prophetic, life analysis reading. She learned about quantum physics, higher-awareness education, reiki practices, and was inspired by Mark Vicente’s film, What the Bleep Do We Know.
Heading to Hollywood
Motivated by a friend to drop out of college, she moved to Hollywood and hit the clubs, landing waitressing gigs and pursuing acting in the interim. After spending time at an elite, trendy health food place in LA, Erewhon Market, Jessica became more interested in personal development. She was invited by a friend to attend a special presentation. Little did she know, this event would change her life in unexpected ways.
At this event, Jessica learned about workshops sold as ethical curricula for “activating human potential,” using a series of modules to get past limiting beliefs and become the best version of yourself. It was pricey!!! But she signed up! At this event, she met Mark from the infamous film. She also learned about The Executive Success Program (ESP), which was part of NXIVM. She had second thoughts, tried to get a refund, but went through with the 5-day program anyway and chose this experience over a vacation.
In NXIVM, Jessica felt “high on life”
The training went through various modules and subject matters for its participants to work through their trauma and limiting beliefs in a public setting. They did rituals and reframed memories publicly, a high-level manipulation cognitive behavioral tactic where this info could be later be used against them. Indoctrination started at these first few sessions. Over time, members were placed in a tiered, hierarchy system where one could become a prefect. They’d receive colored sashes to signify their rankings. And Jessica was hooked.
Jessica said she had immense breakthrough moments and was “high on life” by feeling heard and seen, and finally feeling part of a community. Jessica’s boyfriend declined to sign up with her, so Jessica broke up with him and pursued more classes.
Cult volleyball with Keith
Jessica’s MO was to recommend NXIVM to everyone she knew. In this situation, recruitment equated to rewards, so she was moving up the ladder. The next step was to travel to NXIVM’s home base in Albany. The group’s first stop was to meet with Keith in the sports barn to play volleyball, his favorite sport all while casting his “allure” over new members. They went through the first 11 days, sharing and connecting with fellow members and experiencing milestones. After the course was over, Jessica said she wanted to stay forever and was concerned over FOMO.
Allison Mack inspired Jessica to stay
Jessica had a one-on-one with Keith in the sports barn and Keith used manipulation tactics to convince Jessica to stay in Albany. Smallville’s actress and NXIVM favorite, Allison Mack, was a proctor during the last days for the Magnificent Series and sealed Jessica’s deal. Then, Jessica had completed the 16-day course and received one of the highest sash rankings.
In this episode, Jessica also explored the meaning of why it’s named NXIVM and how the other ranking members, like prefects, sourced their names. She thinks they’re Roman references.
What happens when Jessica is offered to enter into an even more-exclusive sector of NXIVM? How is she convinced? When does she realize it’s a cult, and what was her escape plan? How is she recovering now? We’ll have to tune in to find out.
If you have left a cult or know someone who has, you can write the show at CULTS@iHeartMedia.com to be featured on a future episode.