Former NXIVM member Bonnie Piesse and Catherine Oxenburg, whose attempts to free her daughter India from the cult forms one of the main storylines of The Vow. (Photo: HBO)
Former NXIVM member Bonnie Piesse and Catherine Oxenburg, whose attempts to free her daughter India from the cult forms one of the main storylines of The Vow. (Photo: HBO)

TelevisionOctober 21, 2020

Review: The Vow takes a deep dive into the cesspit of the NXIVM cult

Former NXIVM member Bonnie Piesse and Catherine Oxenburg, whose attempts to free her daughter India from the cult forms one of the main storylines of The Vow. (Photo: HBO)
Former NXIVM member Bonnie Piesse and Catherine Oxenburg, whose attempts to free her daughter India from the cult forms one of the main storylines of The Vow. (Photo: HBO)

Just a few years ago, few people had heard of the self-help group/cult of personality known as NXIVM. Now the dark story has gone global, thanks to an eight-part docuseries that debuts on Neon today.

This review contains mild spoilers for The Vow.

What is it that people love so much that they’d join a cult by mistake?

For the hordes who joined Keith Raniere in his self-improvement cult NXIVM (pronounced “nexium” because why not), the list of reasons includes the standard banalities: they wanted to be more rich, more successful, more talented, and more loved. Ultimately, the need to be loved – and our inability to love ourselves – is the vulnerability exploited by every successful cult.

In October 2017, an explosive New York Times story revealed that NXIVM was more than just a standard Tony Robbins-style personal development pyramid scheme. The increasingly expensive seminars and retreats had evolved into full-blown human trafficking and exploitation systems, disguised as self help programmes to live your best life. 

The new HBO docuseries The Vow, arriving on Neon today, takes us inside the world of NXIVM, the cult that Keith Raniere and Nancy Salzman founded in 1998. Over eight hour-long episodes, the story is told by a group of former members who share their memories and traumas, as they try to bring the organisation to justice. It’s slow and sedate storytelling for something so intense, but the filmmakers – Jehane Noujaim and Karim Amer, whose previous work includes last year’s Cambridge Analytica documentary The Great Hack – use the generous runtime to deftly allow the full insanity to unfold.

This is gripping stuff: a saga of earnestness, privilege, manipulation, money, sex and power. Not all cults start as sex cults, but it’s where, eventually, most of them end up.

Sarah Edmondson,  one of the first members to speak out about her experiences inside NXIVM. (Photo: HBO)

In The Vow, the slow creep of the NXIVM cult is recalled and reconstructed by its survivors. First there were the introductory steps, the self-improvement exercises, maybe a day or two here and there to really get into the philosophy. In NXIVM, it wasn’t meditation or prayer or alternative lifestyles that lured people in. The first step in NXIVM’s system was ESP, or Executive Success Programs – an expensive personal development courses that claimed to teach people to overcome their “limiting beliefs”, and acted as a funnel into the higher levels of the cult, where the real weirdness lay.

Like many pervy cult leaders, Keith Raniere gave himself a cheesy title: Vanguard. That’s right, this creepy little man who was kind of OK at playing volleyball and piano called himself Vanguard, and expected other people to call him that as well. Which they did, of course, because they were greedy people who wanted Executive Success.

The systems and techniques that keep people cultified are a fairly standard playbook by now. If you can overwork your followers, that’s a great start. If you can tear apart their psyches by doing some hack analysis or embarrassing them in front of their cult-mates, you’re onto a winner. Start depriving them of sleep and baby, you’ve got a cult going! The heart and horror of the NXIVM story is the absolutely brutal things that went down once people were deep into the cult; and how a slow process of indoctrination, manipulation, and codependency brought those things about. And by brutal, I mean completely brutal: think sex trafficking, branding, and blackmail.

Bonnie Piesse, a former member of the NXIVM cult and one of the stars of The Vow. (Photo: HBO)

How exactly people fell into traps like that is the really chewy part of the NXIVM story. The Vow moves from first hand accounts, through archival footage – NXIVM, much like The Manson Family, had its own filmmaker on staff – and into a legal drama as the survivors chase down justice. The most harrowing details concern the machinations of NXIVM’s sub-group DOS, a secret society of women slaves. I’m not using that word lightly – master and slave was what the members called themselves; DOS demanded zombie-like obedience, for life. 

The issue of women using and abusing other women is uncomfortable, and in this case complex. While it is absolutely true that women can be abusers and manipulators, in the case of DOS there was a higher manipulation occurring. While DOS operated as a kind of multi-level marketing version of sexual abuse, with women recruiting and abusing other women, the whole thing was Raniere’s idea, with him as ultimate “master”.

Raniere’s right-hand woman in the creation of DOS was Alison Mack, an actress best known as Chloe Sullivan on the show Smallville. As The Vow shows, NXIVM was wall to wall actors, actresses, filmmakers and beautiful people. As a drama, The Vow depicts a kind of nouveau American Dream that would seem hacky, schlocky and silly if it wasn’t totally true.

As the story unfolds, we hear gut wrenching stories of emotional and physical abuse and devastation, accompanied by stranger-than-fiction detours including a journey to northern India to ask the Dalai Lama to visit the NXIVM compound, and Catherine Oxenberg – Dynasty actress and minor European royal – asking her mother to please appeal to their cousin Prince Charles, since he’s such good friends with the Tibetan spiritual leader.

It’s peak white, peak woke, and peak capitalism. The experiences of former and current NXIVM members are completely horrific, but as a viewer it is a curious experiment to ask yourself if you’d fall for the huckster tricks Raniere and his associates used to reel people in. Unlike Scientology, for a long time NXIVM flew under the radar, promising community, friendship and personal success, without any of the unfortunate downsides of a cult.

While you can Google Keith Raniere to find out where the eventual criminal case against him stands now, I’d advise against it. The Vow is an incredibly absorbing way to let the story unfold in front of you, at a measured pace that allows the slew of revelations their full impact. Get hooked on The Vow – it’s much more healthy than accidentally getting hooked into a cult.

Season one of The Vow arrives on Neon on October 21.

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Mad Chapman, Editor
Aotearoa continues to adapt to a new reality and The Spinoff is right there, sorting fact from fiction to bring you the latest updates and biggest stories. Help us continue this coverage, and so much more, by supporting The Spinoff Members.Madeleine Chapman, EditorJoin Members

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