The heiress wanted to meet the Dalai Lama. She wanted the Dalai Lama to be her friend. She had been obsessed with him for two-and-a-half years.
“I was literally in my bedroom one day listening to his tapes and thought to myself, wow, this guy is amazing!” Sara Bronfman told an Albany AM radio host last year. When His Holiness arrived in town the next day, Ms. Bronfman could take credit for his presence.
During her dilettantish early 20s, Ms. Bronfman continued, she never would have conceived of such an ambition, but for the previous five years she had been immersed in Executive Success Programs (ESP), a self-help regimen administered by the local organization NXIVM (pronounced Nex-ee-um). It was an experience she found singularly emboldening.
Ms. Bronfman sensed a connection between the Dalai Lama’s teachings and her training. “The way he looks at things is very scientific and very much in line with the philosophy of NXIVM,” she told the host. “I said, ‘Well, that kind of sounds like what we do!’ And I thought, maybe I could introduce myself and bring him here and introduce him to Keith, because I think Keith is a scientist and also a great philosopher.”
Ms. Bronfman was referring to NXIVM founder Keith Raniere, a bespectacled 49-year-old with graying, shoulder-length hair. Mr. Raniere, who goes by the moniker Vanguard, bills himself as a “leader in human potential development” and has trademarked a philosophy he calls the Rational Inquiry Method. He is what you would get, said one former associate, “if David Koresh and Bernie Madoff had a child.” Over the past seven years, Mr. Raniere has earned the devotion of Sara Bronfman and her sister, Clare. In that time, according to his former girlfriend and financial adviser, Babara Bouchey, Mr. Raniere has also squandered more than $100 million of the Bronfman liquor fortune, destabilizing one of New York’s most prominent business and social dynasties.
In NXIVM’s arcane system of ranking members by colored sashes and stripes, Ms. Bouchey ascended to the fourth stripe of the group’s green-sash tier. (In ascending order of rank, the NXIVM awards yellow, orange, green, purple and blue sashes.) As such, she is the highest-ranking of Mr. Raniere’s disciples to defect publicly from the group. “For years, I was telling them that the scarves, the stripes, all the weird stuff needed to go. I mean, come on, the bowing? There were a lot of good things about NXIVM, and we were turning people off with the weirdness.”
A restraining order bars Ms. Bouchey from speaking publicly about the Bronfman sisters, who have sued her for breach of fiduciary duty and invasion of privacy. But in an affidavit made public in January, she said the sisters had ceded more than $100 million to Mr. Raniere and his executive success operation. Sixty-five million dollars alone bankrolled what Ms. Bouchey and Mr. Raniere’s former commodities broker Yuri Plyam describe in court documents as a pathological day-trading addiction. Another $25 million financed the partial construction of 26 homes in Los Angeles at the peak of the housing bubble, in a now-stalled joint venture with Mr. Plyam, who, like Ms. Bouchey, has since declared bankruptcy amid increasingly convoluted legal disputes with the Bronfmans and other associates of Mr. Raniere.
The pair remain staunchly loyal to NXIVM and Mr. Raniere, who appears to have curtailed his most profligate spending habits. (A roster of NXIVM coaches lists Sara, 33, and Clare, 30, as having received the organization’s orange and green sashes, respectively.) But they continue to spend what one former NXIVM associate estimates is $2 million per month waging Mr. Raniere’s and NXIVM’s numerous legal and public relations battles with various enemies—skirmishes that have involved retaining the services of self-professed G.O.P. hit man Roger Stone and crisis communications firm Sitrick & Company, funneling hundreds of thousands of dollars to politicians from Hillary Clinton to Mike Huckabee and contracting a series of aggressive private investigators to carry out a bizarre array of schemes, like an (ultimately abandoned) attempt to assassinate the anti-cult activist and “deprogrammer” Rick Ross.
Quixotically, Mr. Raniere also commissioned studies into establishing a sovereign country, another former NXIVM consultant said. According to that consultant, the Bronfmans at one point wired $500,000 on behalf of Mr. Raniere to a pair of purported ex-C.I.A. agents in an attempt to smear a NXIVM member who had committed suicide.
And then there are Mr. Raniere’s less clandestine affairs, from Vanguard Week, an extravagant 10-day festival NXIVM holds each August on the occasion of Mr. Raniere’s birthday at a resort in Lake George, to employing five nannies to tutor a 3-year-old orphan named Gaelen (whose mother’s identity is unknown) in Russian, Chinese, Hindi, Spanish and English as part of Rainbow Cultural Garden, an international child-rearing experiment.
With their trust funds drained, Ms. Bouchey said, the sisters have started borrowing against the inheritance they expect to receive upon the death of their 81-year-old father, Edgar Bronfman Sr.
Mr. Bronfman’s fortune was pegged by Forbes this year at about $2.5 billion. That number would be larger by a few orders of magnitude if not for the dismemberment of the Seagram liquor cash cow, including its divestiture of a near-25 percent stake in DuPont, at the hands of the sisters’ half-brother, Edgar Jr., in his quest to become an entertainment mogul. (Of Edgar Jr., an anonymous Hollywood executive once quipped in the 1980s, “he’s like a piñata! Hit him, and money comes out.”)
The costly antics of the wayward sisters are but another in a series of blows to the Bronfman legacy the past four decades. In 2007, Edgar Sr. was forced to retire after almost three decades as president of the once-mighty World Jewish Congress, the liberal philanthropic organization known as “the diplomatic arm of the Jewish people,” after evidence surfaced that his trusted deputy, Rabbi Israel Singer, had embezzled more than $1 million.
Three decades ago, the clan suffered public humiliation when, on the eve of Edgar Sr.’s wedding to the sisters’ mother, his eldest son, Samuel II, who had just graduated from Williams College, was abducted by a pair of kidnappers, one of them a New York City firefighter, and held for a $4.6 million ransom. The next year, a jury acquitted the duo of kidnapping charges on suspicions that young Sam had been attempting to extort money from his father in retaliation for the anointing of his younger brother, Edgar, as heir to the Seagram throne.
But none of these shames match the strange contortions of the tale of Sara, Clare and the $100 million they gave up to the “philosopher” they call Vanguard.
Sara and Clare Bronfman are the products of Edgar Bronfman Sr.’s second marriage, to an English nightclub receptionist 21 years his junior. He met Rita Webb in Marbella, Spain, and, like a lot of men, he fell hard for her fair-haired beauty and disarming guilelessness. The daughter of pub owners, the young Miss Webb was an unapologetic social climber. Renaming herself Georgiana after Edgar Sr. took to calling her George, she married him in 1975, gave birth to Sara the following year and had Clare two-and-a-half years later.
In one of his three memoirs, Edgar Sr. wrote that Georgiana asked for a divorce “shortly after Clare was born.” The couple remarried for a brief stint in the early ’80s, a decision Mr. Bronfman termed “really naïve.” After the second divorce, she began a brief but tempestuous affair with Lorenzo Ricciardi, an Italian filmmaker in his 60s. He was arrested in 1990 for trying to kill her. In 2007, at age 57, she married British television actor Nigel Havers, an inveterate lady-killer and wingman to Mick Jagger.
While Georgiana divided her time between New York, London and Kenya, the girls spent most of their childhood in England. They make scant appearances in Edgar Sr.’s memoirs. He mentions the anti-Semitic bullying that 13-year-old Clare suffered at school in England and his having the offender expelled. In 1996, he wrote, Sara had “gone through the normal phase of rebellion, especially from her mother.” His 2002 book mentions Sara attending school but makes no reference to her brief marriage to Irishman Ronan Clarke. Months after their Las Vegas wedding, the marriage was in tatters, and Sara was adrift.
Susan White, a family friend, recommended an ESP course to Sara. She enrolled in a seminar, as did Edgar Bronfman Sr. Sara was instantly hooked, and Clare, an amateur equestrian with ambitions to be an Olympic show jumper, followed soon after. In 2003, the sisters settled near Albany, working as ESP trainers while Clare nurtured her flagging equestrian dreams in Saratoga Springs. By October 2003, Edgar Bronfman Sr. had decided the group was a cult, an assessment he aired to a Forbes reporter, but it was already too late.
“They’re just nice girls. Clare is a bit withdrawn and certainly the type to stay in and read while everyone else goes out, but they’re both very, very warm and unpretentious,” Yuri Plyam, Mr. Raniere’s former commodities broker and real estate partner, said. When Sara and Clare came to Los Angeles at Mr. Raniere’s behest to sign papers and tour properties, Mr. Plyam said, they stayed at his home.
“They were more interested in staying home and playing with our kids than real estate investment,” he said. Mr. Plyam is now bankrupt and being sued by both sisters over a stalled real estate deal. He believes they are merely acting as Mr. Raniere’s pawns.
NXIVM is headquartered in a modest suburban office park on the outskirts of Albany. Parking spaces near the entrance bear the first initials and last names of the organization’s top officials. On a Friday afternoon in July, the lot was empty save for one midrange BMW in an unmarked spot in the middle of the VIP section. I was visiting the center with John Tighe, a 53-year-old retired waste-management worker for the city of Saratoga Springs who has been chronicling the NXIVM saga on his blog, “Saratoga in Decline.”
Mr. Tighe frequently mocks NXIVM on his blog, and a few concerned Saratogians have started a legal defense fund for him. Mr. Tighe marvels at the paranoia the organization has instilled in many former associates but remains unbowed. “I guess when you’ve got nothing to lose, you’ve got nothing to fear,” he said.
The first occasion I spoke to anyone with direct involvement in NXIVM was a phone call from an anonymous Skype account. A female voice said that Mr. Tighe had disseminated my contact information among some of his sources. She had convened a conference call with a number of NXIVM dissidents willing to talk. They did not yet feel comfortable identifying themselves.
“But if none of you will tell me who you are.” I said. “How do I know you are actual NXIVM defectors and not actors?”
One instantly relented. “Very good point,” he said.
I was not actually concerned that my interlocutors were in the pay of Mr. Raniere but not because the scenario is implausible. In 2003, according to former NXIVM consultant Joseph O’Hara, the organization paid a $500,000 deposit to International Program Group, a now-defunct California-based private-investigation firm whose owners advertised themselves as former C.I.A. agents. The job was to probe the history of Kristin Snyder, who committed suicide, leaving a note in which she claimed to have been “brainwashed” during a 16-day “intensive” NXIVM seminar in Anchorage, Alaska, earlier that year. “I’m sorry. … I didn’t know I was already dead,” the note read.
In a separate case in 2004, NXIVM contracted Interfor, whose founder, Juval Aviv, claims to be an ex-agent for Mossad, to orchestrate a sting on anti-cult activist Rick Ross. Interfor hired an actress to impersonate a concerned mother seeking to hire Mr. Ross to lead an intervention for her son on a cruise ship. The intention, Mr. O’Hara claims, was to throw Mr. Ross overboard. They went so far as to wire Mr. Ross a $2,500 deposit for his services before dropping the plan.
More recently, court documents allege, NXIVM retained private investigator Steven Rambam to harass Barbara Bouchey’s assistant and to loiter outside a hair salon she patronized, asking customers if they were aware Ms. Bouchey was “in trouble.”
On the evening of my visit to Saratoga Springs, Mr. Tighe called to inform me that a NXIVM member with whom I had met a few hours earlier had been “spotted” talking to me by a few apparent members of the cult. A few times walking along the town’s main drag, I distinctly heard voices call out “Moe” or “Maureen,” then disappear into the crowd.
“My son, a cult leader,” James Raniere said. “It’s just not so.” The elder Mr. Raniere is a retired advertising executive who talks with a Brooklyn accent. He responded to my inquiries, he said, primarily to defend his deceased wife, Vera. Many in the NXIVM community believe that Keith Raniere’s mother was an abusive alcoholic, and this, James contends, could not be farther from the truth. “She was the best mother I’ve ever come across,” he said. Keith’s first five years were spent in Brooklyn before the family moved to Rockland County for better public schools. By coincidence, James handled his agency’s Seagram’s account and said he knew Edgar Bronfman Sr. professionally during the 1970s. He is now remarried and settled in Easthampton.
The father and son remain close, James said. He has taken NXIVM classes, attended Vanguard Weeks and has met Gaelen, whom he describes as “one of the luckiest kids, to have five mothers doting on him.” James considers his own son a misunderstood genius whose classes “help people get things done and stop procrastinating.”
Records indicate that Keith graduated in three years from Troy’s Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in 1981. James told me his son spent the ’80s “drifting.” Ms. Bouchey believes that Keith toiled for much of the decade as a salesman in a series of “multilevel marketing” operations, a business he learned about from a girlfriend whose father was an Amway salesman. In 1990, he founded his own multilevel-marketing firm, Consumers’ Buyline, reselling $14 annual memberships in Purchase Power, a Texas discount club, for more than $200 per year. He was forced by authorities to shutter the operation in 1993 amid widespread allegations that it was a pyramid scheme.
The Consumers’ Buyline brain trust, however, remained intact. Keith Raniere and a few of his business partners—mostly women with whom he was or had been romantically involved—soon started another multilevel-marketing scheme, this time shilling vitamins and holistic health techniques.
NXIVM is a potent cocktail of ideas derived from self-help, therapeutic hypnosis, Scientology and the writings of Ayn Rand—all delivered through the classic mechanisms of the pyramid scheme first employed with Consumers’ Buyline. Its origins date to 1997, when Mr. Raniere met Nancy Salzman, a registered nurse. Their relationship was initially romantic, but, in Ms. Bouchey’s telling, he cut off their physical relationship abruptly over an apparent “ethical breach.” Still, Mr. Raniere saw potential in Ms. Salzman’s expertise in neuro-linguistic programming, a therapeutic form of mind control used to hypnotize patients out of habits like smoking and binge-eating. (Edgar Bronfman Sr. has credited hypnosis for enabling him to quit smoking.)
Mr. Raniere used hypnosis to help one his girlfriends, Toni Natalie, kick cigarettes. With the help of the (by all accounts) gentle and nurturing Ms. Salzman, he became more ambitious, using her techniques to promulgate his own worldview among his friends, starting with Ms. Natalie, who later said she had been their “guinea pig.”
“At the beginning with Toni, I really think a lot of it was just Keith using Nancy to advance his agenda of sleeping with other women,” Ms. Bouchey told me. She said the pair attempted to do the same with her. “She’ll say, ‘Well, why are you jealous? What don’t you like about yourself that is causing you to feel negatively in this way? We play tennis together. Would you feel jealous if you found out I had other tennis partners?’ And I thought about it a bit, and then I thought, now wait a second. Sex is not tennis!'”
Mr. Raniere and Ms. Salzman took the names Vanguard and Prefect. “I was the only one who dared to call him Keith,” Ms. Bouchey recently told me over dinner on the Upper East Side. I was like, ‘You’re not Vanguard. And Nancy, I’ve known you for 20 years, and I refuse to call you Prefect.”
Mr. Raniere and Ms. Salzman wrote a textbook laying out a sequence of 21 “modules” that would become the basis of NXIVM’s original three-week Executive Success Program. They started the seminars with Ms. Salzman’s existing list of clients. That is how Ms. Bouchey, then going through a divorce, found herself enrolled in a class. Ms. Salzman promised that NXIVM would help her cope. “It was totally life-changing,” Ms. Bouchey said.
From the jargon-loaded worksheets and grammatically scattershot texts that make up Mr. Raniere’s 240-page “Rational Inquiry Method” patent application, it is hard to tell what so many have found life-changing about NXIVM. Many extol the method for its supposed “mathematical” elegance. Skeptics are more likely to credit its appeal to a combination of long classes (14 hours in heated rooms), the heavy repetition of key concepts, the twisting of language and a cannily calibrated sequence of attacks on participants’ emotional vulnerabilities.
“It works because it attracts people who are in extremely intense emotional states,” Mr. Plyam, who has taken three NXIVM courses, said. He told me he found them “extremely weird” but that many of his classmates, like actress Linda Evans (who was going through a divorce at the time), were instantly converted.
Whatever constituted NXIVM’s appeal, “it wasn’t originality,” Rick Ross told me. “ESP cribs whole swaths of Scientology, down to using some of the same jargon, like ‘suppressive’ and ‘clear,’ then throws in some Randian Objectivism, with Keith playing a sort of charismatic David Koresh guru-type role and packaging it all together as a Landmark Forum-type self-improvement program.”
Hired in 2003 to “deprogram” a NXIVM follower, Mr. Ross failed to counter-ESP-anize his target. But he posted the results of a critical analysis on his cult-awareness website, to which NXIVM immediately responded with a lawsuit alleging trademark infringement. “The Church of Scientology should actually sue Keith Raniere for trademark infringement,” Mr. Ross said.
“It breaks people down and then builds them back up again,” explained Mr. O’Hara, who said participants at his 2004 NXIVM “intensive” began to “break” after three days. Comparing notes with his son, a Marine, he concluded that the process by which NXIVM indoctrinates followers was similar to military basic training. “First, they convince them that they’re nothing without NXIVM. Then they make them believe that with NXIVM they can truly achieve anything. And I’ve got to hand it to Keith—he makes women believe they can do anything.”
As Sara Bronfman told a Forbes reporter in 2003 after earning the sash of a NXIVM coach, “Coming from a family where I’ve never had to earn anything before in my life, [it] was a very, very moving experience for me to be awarded this yellow sash. It was the first thing that I had earned on just my merits.”
“You have to remember,” Mr. Plyam said, “that Keith is the funniest, nicest, most sensitive, smartest, most charming man you will ever meet in your life.”
Mr. Raniere has consistently presented himself as a child prodigy. In 1988, he was inducted into the Mega Society, a sort of ultra-Mensa for individuals with I.Q.s of 176 and higher. An Albany Times-Union profile repeated Mr. Raniere’s dubious claims that he “tied for the state record in the 100-yard dash” and required “only two to four hours of sleep” each night. (Mega Society founder Ronald Hoeflin confirmed that Mr. Raniere’s score on the Mega entrance examination placed him in the “top one-hundred-millionth” of the population.)
Then there is his notorious charisma. Even the 2003 Forbes investigation of his “cult of personality” referred to his “disarmingly warm smile.” Over the years, he has left the day-to-day operations of his various enterprises to his revolving cast of disciples-cum-girlfriends—currently said to include Sara Bronfman and Ms. Salzman’s daughters, Lauren and Michelle—while devoting his own time to an assortment of projects with male collaborators.
Mr. Plyam alleged he often spent several hours per day on the phone with Mr. Raniere talking about the financial markets and Vanguard’s sexual exploits. Mr. O’Hara said he found Mr. Raniere’s “middle school” boasting—he claimed to bed between one and four women per night—tiresome, but other men seem to have found him magnetic. I was told that for many men NXIVM’s draw lies in sexual opportunities with the sort of malleable young women Mr. Raniere’s “philosophy” attracts.
Ms. Bouchey, for her part, said she was “creeped out” by Mr. Raniere when he first began pursuing her. “On the last day of class, he presented me with his personal copy of Atlas Shrugged, with all his highlighting and everything, and he looked at me very seriously and said, ‘You’re Dagny,'” she remembers, a reference to the Ayn Rand novel’s heroine. Dagny is dragged down by an endless string of losers—guilty, liberal men—before she submits to industrial superman John Galt. “It was obvious that he was supposed to be John Galt.”
Like Rand, Mr. Raniere divides the population into “parasites” and “producers.” No. 11 of NXIVM’s 12 “commandments” requires all followers to “pledge to ethically control as much of the money, wealth and resources of the world as possible” on the grounds that “it is essential for the survival of humankind for these things to be controlled by successful, ethical people.” In court documents, Mr. O’Hara has alluded to “a lecture from Raniere/’Vanguard’ on why his followers do not have to pay taxes.”
Ms. Bouchey said Mr. Raniere’s libertarian ravings are a “sideshow,” but the wealth within the NXIVM network is formidable. It includes former Enron executive Stephen Cooper, Black Entertainment Television co-founder Sheila Johnson, former U.S. Surgeon General Antonia Novello and actress Goldie Hawn. Richard Branson has hosted an intensive NXIVM course on the Caribbean island he owns. Mr. Branson is listed along with Sara Bronfman as one of the two “benefactors” of the 2008 Albany A Cappella Innovations conference, the culmination of Mr. Raniere’s brief obsession with a cappella singing.
NXIVM’s deepest reserves of power are rooted in Mexico, where self-improvement guru Edgar Boone Sabag began converting members of the Mexican elite, including the children of two presidents, in 2000. NXIVM has since launched numerous campaigns in Mexico, most of them devoted to curbing violence through the power of sing, street art and “compassion.”
Plenty of success regimens endorse and deploy cult-like tactics. Popular self-help books like The Secret and the more respectable Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience associate happiness with achieving an altered state of consciousness. The Church of Scientology, Landmark Education and the Kabbalah Centre merely deliver customers to that state by subjecting them to marathon classes in overheated rooms with limited access to food,
NXIVM is much like its forebears in that it has attracted zealous devotees and equally vehement (and paranoid) communities of apostates. But perhaps no group has succeeded as thoroughly as Mr. Raniere’s at peddling the promise of “executive success” to people with so little actual need for success in any conventional sense—the scions of the wealthy.
There is a certain genius to targeting such people for a “success” program, since it eludes any requirement to help followers achieve material results: They are already rich. Yet the program clearly filled a gap in the lives of Sara and Clare Bronfman. A former NXIVM employee familiar with both told me that Clare struck him as withdrawn and awkward with people, whereas the more sociable Sara’s malaise was a more typical case of someone with too many parties to attend and too few responsibilities to uphold. Both sisters likely suffered from an inferiority complex in the shadow of their self-made socialite mother.
The Bronfman family has of late exhibited a rapidly diminishing ability to control its own wealth. In 2003, Edgar Bronfman Sr., who initially encouraged his once directionless daughters’ journeys of personal growth, said he believed Mr. Raniere was operating a cult. He has since remained silent about Mr. Raniere.
Mr. Raniere, according to Mr. Plyam, blames Edgar Bronfman Sr. for his $65 million losses in commodities speculation and claims his followers’ father was trying to poison their relationship by “rigging the market” against his bets on corn and oat futures.
Mr. Plyam alleged that when the sisters’ trust funds began to run dry, Mr. Raniere hired Frank Parlato Jr., an Albany property developer, to fly to L.A. with three “thugs,” clad in sunglasses and long leather coats, and impersonate an emissary of “Papa Bronfman” to intimidate Mr. Plyam into ceding his own assets to cover a portion of Mr. Raniere’s losses. (Among Mr. Parlato’s more sensational claims about Papa Bronfman, according to a cross-complaint Mr. Plyam filed against Mr. Raniere and Sara and Clare Bronfman, was that he had installed a camera in Sara’s bedroom in order to spy on his daughter having sex with Mr. Raniere.)
Mr. O’Hara told me he doubts that the real Papa Bronfman has any further plans to intervene in his daughters’ involvement with Mr. Raniere and NXIVM. “I don’t think anyone wants to go after them at this point, least of all Edgar Bronfman,” Mr. O’Hara told me. Citing the NXIVM plot against Mr. Ross, he said, “This is criminal activity we’re talking about, and his daughters have been financing the entire operation.” The patriarch may have resigned himself to hoping that his daughters meet new friends.
Georgiana Bronfman, for her part, appears to be trying to extricate her daughters from Mr. Raniere’s thrall by subtler means. In an October 2009 post on her blog, sarabronfman.com, Sara Bronfman recounted a recent evening when her mother took the sisters to see the David Mamet play Oleanna, which depicts a struggle between a manipulative professor and a female student who threatens to sue him for sexual harassment. “From the opening monologue, and throughout the entire 80-minute performance, I sat with my arms folded tightly across my chest, attempting to counter the extreme discomfort ignited and fueled by the controversial performance,” Ms. Bronfman wrote. “My feelings grew with increasing intensity, and, while part of me was drawn in, hanging on every word, another part was repulsed, resisting a strong urge to bolt right out of the theater.”
Until Sara and Clare Bronfman bolt from NXIVM, anyone who flees Mr. Raniere’s discipleship risks legal hell. Several have been bankrupted, and few have escaped unsued.
The defection, meanwhile, of Barbara Bouchey, who retained power lawyer Nathan Goldberg (of Allred, Maroko & Goldberg) to represent her in court against the Bronfmans, could prove to be Mr. Raniere’s undoing. Ms. Bouchey controlled the purse strings of Mr. Raniere’s operation for a decade, until she left abruptly with eight other followers in April 2009. In a deposition taken that summer, she detailed how the sisters handed over their wealth to Mr. Raniere.
When the sisters’ trust funds ran out, Ms. Bouchey took the pair to Citibank to open two $20 million lines of credit using their future inheritance as collateral—a move that first required a change in trustee. Because the Bronfman family trust was structured by Edgar Sr.’s father, Samuel, to favor younger generations, there was little any concerned party could do to stop them.
Inherited millions are often fraught with an array of pathologies and dysfunctions. In 1987, Joanie Bronfman, then a Brandeis philosophy doctoral candidate and the daughter of Edgar Bronfman Sr.’s cousin Gerald, investigated the peculiar psychoses of the idle rich in her 429-page dissertation The Experience of Inherited Wealth: A Social-Psychological Perspective. In the course of her research, she attended 50 “wealth conferences” and interviewed 100 heirs and heiresses. Drawing from her own experience of growing up “visibly wealthy” and full of “shame” as a result of it, Ms. Bronfman argued that inheritors of massive wealth tend to be emotionally stunted. They adopt paranoid worldviews and come to see humans as radically selfish. They perceive relationships to be transactional. Their misanthropy derives from the attempts of absentee parents to buy their affections as compensation for outsourcing their rearing to hired professionals. These feelings are reinforced when they interact with the world outside their class and are alternately solicited for donations or mocked as dilettantes by the media. It was that last many-tentacled villain she accused of promulgating a destructive bias toward inheritors, one that she termed “wealthism.”
Back then, the self-hating rich were more apt to assume a new name and withdraw from wealthy society, as Sara and Clare’s elder half-sister, Holly Bronfman, did when she married an Israeli guru and tea entrepreneur and took the name Bhavani Lev. But during the decade that started with Paris Hilton on video and ended with Bernie Madoff in cuffs, Mr. Raniere’s materialistic and militaristic philosophy, glorifying the ruthless pursuit of wealth, has had a certain timely appeal. As Sara Bronfman explained in the 2009 radio interview when the host politely asked if it was appropriate to compare Mr. Raniere to the Dalai Lama and Mother Theresa when the latter two repeatedly disavowed materialism: “If you look at both Mother Theresa and the Dalai Lama, they are based in completely different countries with much more ancient traditions. In order to survive in a Western capitalist country, one needs to be able to exchange the products of their efforts for money that’s going to allow them to live.”
It is no accident Sara and her sister were ripe targets for Mr. Raniere’s capitalist mysticism. The Bronfman family has floated for generations on a fortune amassed by bootlegging Canadians during Prohibition. Its scions can hardly be blamed for losing their grip on reality. And who, without a tether to reality, could be expected to hold on to money? Luckily for the Bronfmans—and for Mr. Raniere—they have plenty more to lose.
Ms. Tkacik will join the staff of the Washington City Paper next month.