One Weird Trick to Avoid Possible Cult Recruitment

"Pick-Up Artist" Mystery giving YouTube advice in a black fur hat, dark eyeliner, soul patch and sneaky expression
Screenshot: YouTube

by Anna Merlan

Perhaps you are too young or high-minded to remember pickup artists, who roamed the mid-2000s landscape, sometimes wearing accessories like top hats and enormous goggles, attempting desperately to attract women in bars through a series of increasingly counterintuitive tricks and flop-sweaty group maneuvers. (The top hats, part of an attention-attracting strategy known as “peacocking,” were most memorably demonstrated by Mystery, a Canadian man whose real name is Erik, and who is, lo these many years later, still doing his whole schtick.) 

The most culturally durable tactic the pickup artists preached was “negging”–inserting an insult into a conversation with a woman in order to intrigue and beguile her into seeking your approval. Soft versions of the tactic have made their way into non-dating spaces, as I learned when a fellow journalist used it to ask me to attend a “self-improvement group.” A couple years later, I realized the group was almost certainly the cult NXIVM. 

A lot of women in media and entertainment have stories about their near-misses with NXIVM, whose leader Keith Raniere ultimately went to prison for life in 2020—convicted, among other things, of sex trafficking and fraud. Women in the public eye were approached by women in NXIVM with promises of some kind of badass mixture of professional development and personal empowerment. Journalist Lauren Wolfe wrote about her experience very nearly getting sucked in, when Allison Mack—who would serve two years for racketeering and conspiracy—happened to catch her with a well-timed email in an emotionally vulnerable moment. 

My experience was not like that, which is why it took me so long to figure out what I’d been asked to join. My overture in early 2015 came from Jens Erik Gould, who was then editor-in-chief of The Knife of Aristotle, a NXIVM-backed “news analysis” site that claimed to be able to score articles based on their objectivity. (Gould did not respond to requests for comment via Twitter DM and email.) 

The Knife’s connection to NXIVM was, to my knowledge, first revealed in Paste by journalist Brock Wilbur, who’d interviewed for a job there. As the New York Times would later write in its coverage of the NXIVM  trial, Raniere created The Knife in 2014 as the sole permissible source of news for his cult’s members: “Reading outside news was considered an act of rebellion, according to the plaintiffs.” The documentary series The Vow also outlined how The Knife worked as an operation, and how deeply entwined it was with NXIVM, as Marlow Stern noted in a 2020 Daily Beast story.

I met Gould—this is where it gets awkward for me, the next time I go home—because I went to high school with his sibling, whose name I am keeping out of here. On Christmas Eve 2014, I was home in Santa Fe taking the customary stroll that everyone takes that night to look at the farolitos. I ran into this sibling and a group of other people I knew. Gould was also there; as I recall, we soon realized we were both journalists, and fell into conversation. He told me he was based in “upstate New York” and was the editor of a website that quantified media “slant” in news articles, with a numerical score.

“That’s not possible,” I remember saying. (Clearly he disagreed.) We exchanged phone numbers—possibly with mildly flirtatious intent, although I really cannot be sure nearly a decade later—and went on with our night.

Gould and I followed each other on Twitter, and I can recall exchanging a few text messages about hanging out the next time he came into the city. Then, probably a month after we met, came the phone call. 

Gould told me, as I recall, that he had a few things coming up he thought I would enjoy being part of. 

“I’m also going to a self-improvement seminar,” he added, as an afterthought. There was an extremely long pause. “You don’t seem like you’re into self-improvement, though.”

This seemed to me—at the time and also now, still—to be bait. I was supposed to insist that I loved self-improvement and that I wanted to do more of it. At this point, however, I was nearing the end of my 20s, and I had already been suckered into a fair number of things in the name of wanting to placate or impress men, most disastrously wasting a huge number of Sundays at the only bar in New York City devoted to the Dallas Cowboys, reading under the table while my then-boyfriend watched the game. 

The point was, I knew myself, at that stage: I agreed with him wholeheartedly, I was not into self-improvement—I can imagine I probably chortled as I told him so—and we hung up. 

We didn’t speak again, and then, in 2017, I saw Brock Wilbur’s piece about The Knife, which mentions Gould by name. My jaw unhinged and fell several feet to the floor as I figured out what he’d likely been proposing. Raniere was indicted in 2018. At the time, The Knife was still active; I messaged Gould on Twitter to ask if he planned to assess stories about Raniere and the charges for their “slant.”

Sadly, he did not respond. 

Gould has never been accused of or charged with a crime, and after NXIVM, to my astonishment, he went on to work for my hometown paper, The Santa Fe New Mexican. Hannah Colton, a journalist at KUNM, wrote on Twitter that she made several efforts to get Gould to respond to basic questions about his time with the group. Colton, who has since passed away, also told me via Twitter DM that she’d put the same questions to Gould’s editor. 

Gould is no longer with The New Mexican, and seems to have left the news business entirely; his personal website lists him as “Founder & CEO of Amalga Group, a pioneering Texas-based nearshore outsourcing firm specializing in IT, software engineering, and contact center staffing.”

The whole experience lingered in my mind for years, halfway between a funny little party anecdote and a genuinely unsettling near-miss. There is, of course, a slim chance that Gould was inviting me to some other self-improvement group, had something in mind entirely apart from the cult that was financing the news operation that he headed.

On his personal website, Gould has eliminated any mention of The Knife part of his career from his biography. Whether it should be put back in is a subject of heated debate on the Talk section of his Wikipedia page. Whether he’s still a self-improvement enthusiast, I regret that I cannot say.