That Time I Almost Took a Job With the NXIVM Cult

It seemed like a good idea at the time

Doug Bierend
9 min readMay 20, 2024

Nobody ever thinks they‘re joining a cult. I can say this from some experience, but not as a reformed believer. When I found myself standing at the cusp, it wasn’t in pursuit of meaning or belonging, just a paycheck.

In the summer of 2016, I was between gigs and worried about when—or if—the next one would land. A months-long campaign of sifting through job postings was yielding diminishing returns, and the lack of feedback was eroding my reserves of patience and self-esteem. It was at this low point that I saw a promising posting from an organization with a strange name: The Knife of Aristotle. At once confusing and pretentious, it immediately evoked the comical mental image of a bearded, blade-wielding wise man in a tunic. Instead of being dissuaded, though, I was intrigued. After all, what organization would take on such an outlandish moniker, if not one confident in its identity and purpose?

The basic work of ~The Knife~ was to create reports about the bias or slant of various news articles, to apply a ‘scientific’ analysis that could help readers understand the underlying motivations or prejudices behind the information they consumed. Sounds pretty good, right? In their own words:

“[The Knife] introduces scientific analysis to media reporting in order to distinguish fact from fiction and ensure that readers receive truthful information that builds wisdom and inspires critical thinking. Based on principles of responsibility, honor, integrity, and truth, The Knife of Aristotle commits to standards that promote journalistic accountability and reader consciousness. Furthermore, it emphasizes the importance of precision and honor in reporting world events.”

In retrospect, I probably should have noticed how strange some of the verbiage is. While I consider journalism to be a highly honorable pursuit, the emphasis on the term ‘honor’ is notable, as is the inclusion of ‘precision’ (why not the usual reporting benchmarks of truthfulness or accuracy?). Things like critical thinking and wisdom are inarguably virtues, and one could easily say they are lacking throughout much of the news media. By mid-2016, the phrase “fake news” was about to enter the popular vernacular, while signs of growing public skepticism toward ‘the media’ had been mounting for a long time. The idea of contributing to a project for journalistic accountability and integrity seemed timely. I had yet to learn that there was one media narrative in particular against which The Knife sought to cut.

Lending to a sense of its credibility was the involvement of former New York Times and TIME Magazine journalist Jens Erik Gould. With months of practice in applying for jobs firmly under my fingers, I quickly shot off a cover letter. Gould replied to my application promptly and warmly, telling me it seemed that my skills and attitude could be of use to the organization. Within a few days we had arranged a preliminary interview on Skype (remember that?). The brief and friendly conversation was focused more on my thoughts and perspectives about the news than on my education or experience as a writer and editor. He seemed to ‘get’ me in a way other potential employers rarely did.

We quickly arranged a followup call, this time including Rosa Laura Junco, The Knife’s CEO, and daughter of the Mexican billionaire newspaper publisher Alejandro Junco de la Vega. NXIVM’s leader, Keith Raniere, later described her as a leader in his operation. Also on the call was Nicki Clyne, the Canadian actor best known for her role on the rebooted Battlestar Galactica. She was very earnest and friendly, but it wasn’t made clear to me what exactly her role was in the organization.

We again discussed what I hoped to accomplish with my work, the sad state of media literacy, and our shared concerns that the news suffered from a widening credibility gap, for which the public also suffered. And again my comments seemed to resonate. It was clear that they wished for me to feel heard. I hadn’t yet considered that this might be intentional, but alarm bells had already begun winding up in the back of my mind. It started with the first reply from Gould, describing what would be required to join the team.

One of Us

Rather than an edit test or any other standard onboarding process, The Knife required all applicants start by becoming “experts at our tools of critical thinking, ethics and analysis,” as Gould described it in the email. To learn those tools, I would need to attend a month-long “critical thinking course” somewhere in Albany, New York. At the time, I lived in Brooklyn, and was preparing to spend a few months in Montreal. Besides being a huge commitment for any job, attending this critical thinking course would conflict with that plan.

I am not proud of how much consideration I gave to the decision. My sense of having made a meaningful connection with these people, and of the possibility of doing interesting, useful work (to say nothing of simply needing a job), was enough to make me weigh the question of whether to accept The Knife’s ‘training’. Gould also mentioned that this course would normally cost $7,700 for the general public, so there was a financial argument to consider as well. Once again, today I can recognize that these layered inducements were not accidental.

Even after two conversations, though, I still wasn’t entirely clear on how the work was to be structured, quantified, or even compensated. Green though I still was as a working writer, I had developed enough backbone to insist on answers to obvious questions like these. And I would not upend my plans for a summer in fair Montreal, let alone to spend a month in Albany of all places, before knowing the basic terms of the arrangement. After some prodding over email, I managed to get a breakdown from Junco:

“There are many different levels of analysis that can be done on each story we cover. A certified analyst (each level of analysis has its own certification process) can sign up to cover as many stories as he or she wants any day of the week, within their level of certification. For example, when doing a Full Analysis, a “Data Expert” earns $80 per analysis, a “Spin Expert” earns $50. An analyst can decide to sign up for one or more levels of the analysis, there are up to 6 levels and most levels have at least two analysts assigned to work together. That means that there can be up to 12 people working on analyzing a single story!”

Junco suggested that I could start out with a monthly income of around $2,000, and underscored that the work was structured so as to fit the needs of each individual. “I expect that you would find it a superior system, as our analysts do.” She noted that everything would make more sense after the training, but by this point, I was already unnerved by the situation, and had begun to dig deeper for a sense of just what I was getting myself into.

The full contents of The Knife of Aristotle’s website were accessible only to subscribers (no vestige of it remains today, not even on the Wayback Machine). Just who funded and founded the organization weren’t evident, either. During an afternoon of internet sleuthing, I came across the writings of one Frank Parlato, a former publicist for NXIVM who had since begun writing exposés on the organization and was seemingly a thorn in its side. Parlato had been decrying NXIVM, mostly in self-published articles, but a few years later he would gain a much broader platform, by way of a popular documentary series about Raniere and the tragic fates of various women connected to the organization.

It became immediately clear why things had seemed strange in my dealings with this honor-obsessed outfit. While the budding journalist in me saw a story opportunity, I was given pause by what Parlato had characterized as an extremely litigious attitude on the part of NXIVM, and didn’t see much opportunity to uncover anything new or interesting, unless I was willing to go undercover and spend a month in Albany (reader, I was not). Still in need of work, and not in need of additional hassle, I opted to sever ties as quickly and cleanly as possible. In a carefully worded email to Gould and Junco, I explained that I did not feel like the job was a good match for my needs and goals. Junco responded:

“It is clear that you went online and did some research on the “parent” organization.

You found the “cult” stuff, and all sorts of destructive things that are allegedly linked to us.

These are the effects of a very well funded media campaign against the organization. It is quite unfortunate, an amazing tool like the internet can easily be used to propagate lies that dishonor people and destroy reputations. That is actually one of the things we are trying to make better with the Knife, through science, critical thinking and logic.

With all that there is up there, its [sic] understandable that you want to run the other way. The story they tell is pretty horrifying.

But you are a journalist at heart, you believe in gathering data and fully looking into things before arriving to a conclusion. Sometimes, just sometimes, things are not what they seem. Clearly, your conclusion about us, about me, without the internet data was a very different one. We seemed to connect in world views, values, goals. Either there is a match and we can exchange successfully to both parties’ advantage, or there is not.”

The tone of the email—simmering with accusation and disappointment— rather than making me feel spurned or offended, simply confirmed that this organization was indeed part of a cult, and even operated something like one itself. These were the very same mechanisms of coercion that I had read about cults using as a means of emotional and psychological control. The subtle but sudden shift in tone also cast every interaction up to that point in a more sinister light. I managed a polite retreat, stressing that I didn’t know enough to have come to any conclusions, and counted myself as lucky to have withdrawn when I did.

I sometimes wonder what would have happened if I had spent that month in Albany. Most likely, I wouldn’t have lasted very long—or maybe that’s just what I like to think. I imagine that, in order to work for The Knife on a continuous basis, I would first have to sign on to their philosophy, and become invested in correcting the record according to their narrative. I can’t believe I would reach that point before recognizing that it was tantamount to doing propaganda for a cult, but who knows? If they’d taken a slightly different approach, I may not have backed out so soon. It’s amazing what we’ll tolerate when desperate for work, or simply validation.

Today, as I again look for work, it occurs to me there is perhaps not that much difference between a job seeker and a seeker of the sort that finds their way into a cult. I am struck by the parallels between the kind of longing that arises when searching for employment, and the sort that accompanies the search for meaning or a sense of inclusion.

I have been lucky enough to lead a life that, for whatever reason, never led me to feel the appeal of a cult. Yet like almost everyone else, I must sell my time, effort, or knowledge in order to eat and house myself—though I resent this aspect of our society, my sense of physical and mental wellbeing does rely largely on the approval of others, whether it’s a hiring manager or an editor. And like everyone else, as the need to do so becomes more acute, as a scarcity mindset takes hold, I can become more pliable and easier to manipulate. I can feel shame about my lack of integration in the system of wage labor, and even though in rational terms I fully reject it, on another level I long to be brought back into the fold. In a certain sense, maybe all of us work for a cult.



Doug Bierend

Wandering freelance writer and author living in upstate New York.