When we hear of cults, it's hard to comprehend they could still exist in modern times. But, as news emerged this week, they are clearly still prominent.
US actress Allison Mack pleaded guilty on Monday to charges linked to an alleged sex-trafficking operation disguised as a mentoring group.
Mack, who is best known for her role as Clark Kent’s friend in the television series Smallville, was one of six defendants in a case filed last year against members of the cult-like group Nxivm.
According to The Hollywood Reporter, the 36-year-old wept as admitted her crimes and apologised to the women who prosecutors say were exploited by group leader Keith Raniere and the purported self-help group.
"I believed Keith Raniere's intentions were to help people, and I was wrong," Mack reportedly told a judge.
In her statement, Mack admitted to recruiting women into the society by telling them they were going to become members of a female mentorship group.
Her goal, she said in court, was to promote Raniere’s teachings and help him further his objectives. To do so, she engaged in criminal conduct.
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The accusations recently surfaced are alarming; she stands accused of recruiting "slaves" and branding women with a hot cauterising pen (without consent), being the leaders' "number 2", and forcing members into sexual activities as well as demanding damaging or explicit material from them as "insurance" amongst other things.
A "women's movement"
It all started as a seemingly regular self-help group for successful women before things took a more sinister turn.
The programme was billed as a "women's movement" within Nxivm, an umbrella organisation offering a host of personal growth courses. It was attended by thousands of people around the world. Nxivm's president, Nancy Salzman, a nurse who co-founded Nxivm in 1998 with its leader, Keith Raniere, reportedly began each session talking about how women have been raised to be monogamous and how men's general nature is to be more polygamous - this was apparently the group's "soft sell" into polygamy and set out what would allegedly become one of the forced requirements of women who joined.
Self-help it seems was far from the group's priority; disturbing details have emerged after prosecutors say the group was merely a cover for "a brutal, coercive sex ring."
Mack was considered one of the most prominent members of the group; if convicted on charges of three felony counts of sex trafficking and conspiracy to commit forced labour, she could face up to 15 years in prison per charge.
Our fascination with cults – real or fictional (look at all the Netflix documentaries on the subject alone) – may stem from the fine line between being drawn to what appears to be a utopian community and a dangerous, free-will-stripping group.
One can see the appeal of a group of like-minded people who share the same values, who seek a sense of belonging - outside of what they feel society can offer them. Enlightenment is a goal frequently sought out. Yet too many times we hear of groups who promise its members a euphoric existence; one without boundaries or restriction - only for their free will to be extorted and taken away. The documentary Holy Hell is only one example of this scenario.
Hollywood has always been full creative, artistically minded people who are open but also can easily feel lost or damaged in a system or industry which demands much of those who seek success.
Nxivm reportedly sought out Mack - a fan favourite in Smallville - hoping that her celebrity status would elevate the group to more prominent status. But what drives successful people to such groups or communities?
Wild Wild Country, about the Rajneeshpuram commune in Oregon in the mid-1980s, touches briefly on the story of Francoise Ruddy (ex-wife of Godfather producer Albert Ruddy), who rose to the sect's highest levels. "If you're successful in Hollywood, you're a rare breed who has achieved your goals," director Chapman Way told The Hollywood Reporter.
"When people find that success doesn't bring them the absolute fulfilment they thought it would, they go on these journeys, and cults often fulfil that vacuum."
Mack said she was "lost and seeking a sense of purpose" when she joined the group.
Her trial is set for October 1.