The Childhood of NXIVM Cult Leader Keith Raniere Was a Lonely Existence

HBO Max just released 'The Vow, Part 2,' which focuses on the trial of NXIVM cult leader Keith Raniere. How did he become this person? What was his childhood like?

Jennifer Tisdale - Author

Oct. 17 2022, Published 8:53 p.m. ET

According to former FBI agent Joe Navarro, who has studied cult leaders extensively, they have a few key traits in common. First and foremost, they are "pathologically narcissistic." And with that diagnosis comes an irrational belief that they're special and because of that, should be admired. This, in turn, leads to an expectation of unquestioning loyalty from others as well as an inability to receive criticism.

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This sounds a lot like Keith Raniere, who founded and led the NXIVM sex cult. He's currently serving a 120-year prison sentence in Tucson, Ariz. after being found guilty of sex trafficking, child pornography, and racketeering, to name a few. How did Raniere become this manipulative person who seems to enjoy the suffering of others? We're looking to Keith Raniere's childhood for answers — or at the very least, some understanding.

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What do we know about Keith Raniere's childhood?

According to Raniere's sentencing memorandum, his childhood began in a relatively typical fashion for the time. He was born in Brooklyn on Aug. 26, 1960, to James Raniere and Vera Oschypko. His father was an advertising executive who excelled at his job, which took him away from his family quite often. Raniere's mother was described as a "beautiful, graceful woman," who at one time was a dance instructor specializing in ballroom dancing.

Money was definitely tight for Raniere's family, which could have contributed to the fact that they moved to Suffern, New York in 1966. Evidently Raniere's parents would fight often, leaving him to wonder if he was to blame for their friction. As an only child, Raniere had no one to turn to during these tumultuous arguments. Two years after moving, his parents separated which, of course, led to their divorce as well as his father moving out.

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Despite being in Raniere's life as much as possible, his father was simply not present enough. This was especially true after Raniere's father met a woman who would be his partner until his death. Raniere was mostly raised by his mother, who suffered from heart disease and consequently was absent in a different way.

The health of Keith Raniere's mother only grew worse over time.

When Raniere was 13 years old, his mother underwent open heart surgery, from which she had great difficulty recovering. Apparently, this put a deep emotional strain on them both but particularly on Raniere, who lived under the shadow of the idea that his mother "could die at any moment, leaving him alone in the world."

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The role of caretaker was then reversed, with Raniere making sure his mother stayed on top of her health. "He made sure she kept her medical appointments and urged her to take care of herself," per the memorandum. Unfortunately, Raniere's mother didn't seem to care about herself as much as he did. She would drink heavily, allegedly feeding her own sadness which only increased her loneliness. Because of this, Raniere barely engaged with people his own age and spent most of his time doting on his mother.

Somehow through all of this, Raniere was quite successful in high school and later attended Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in 1977. On Aug. 26, 1978, Raniere celebrated his 18th birthday at home with his mother before he was scheduled to return to school ahead of his sophomore year. That would be his last birthday with her. She passed away four months later. He has not spoken of her much, but it stands to reason that was probably a difficult time.

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