Although the general surreality of modern living can make these things kind of hard to keep track of, one of the weirdest pop culture moments of 2018 came all the way back in April, when actress Allison Mack—as in, the one who starred in baby Superman series Smallville for 10 seasons on The CW and The WB—was arrested in relation to charges that she was one of the masterminds behind a bizarre sexual slavery cult. Mack has been accused (along with the “movement’s” founder, Keith Raniere) of being one of the ringleaders of a group called NXIVM, billed as a women’s self-help group, but frequently accused of intentionally working to break down members’ egos so that Raniere could have sex with them. (Mack, allegedly, is the one who introduced branding—like, with a hot iron—into the groups’ psychological practices.) Among the various things that the organization allegedly required of its members: Collateral, in the form of nude photos and confessions of wrongdoing, to be released if a member crossed the group, and specifically to keep “slaves” in the organization’s pyramid scheme-esque structure in line.
If that sounds a little hinky, legality-wise, well, the Brooklyn Federal Court thought so too; among the charges being levied against Mack, one is for forced labor conspiracy, accusing her of keeping a number of women working under her via threat of harm. Per Deadline, though, Mack’s lawyers have issued a somewhat novel rebuttal of the claims: Scientology did it first.
Not, to be clear, the “burning your initials into another person’s pubic region” parts—that’s a NXIVM original, allegedly—but Mack’s lawyers are saying that there’s no fundamental differences between the group’s practices, and Scientology’s policy of branding people who leave the organization as “dissidents,” cut off from family and friends who remain within the group. That’s relevant thanks to a 2009 court ruling, which found that those psychological pressures didn’t rise to the level of “threat of serious harm” required to trigger the country’s forced labor statutes, so if Mack is guilty, the argument runs, then Scientology must be, too.
On the one hand, drawing direct comparisons between your group and one with a reputation as cloudy as Scientology’s feels like a pretty desperate move in terms of legal tactics. On the other hand, though, it might be a way for Mack and Raniere to worm their way into some of the court protections that the group’s famously vigorous legal teams have carved out for it over the years. Mack has been out on bail for most of the year, but both she and Raniere are facing minimum 15-year prison sentences if they’re found guilty of all the charges against them.