What does a cult member look like? Do they have wild eyes and a gaggle of similarly wacky friends, all sporting shaved heads and matching Nikes? Are they handing out flowers with a zonked-out smile outside of a train station? If that’s the case, then the members of NXIVM (pronounced “nex-ee-um”), the seemingly innocuous inspirational organization that’s the subject of HBO’s latest true-crime docuseries, don’t look like stereotypical cult members. They dress in khakis and button-down shirts. They have careers. They have families. They’re everyday people, espousing a system of self-help-inspired beliefs that has more in common with executive retreats than UFO lore.
NXIVM’s teachings are a mishmash of business jargon, wellness culture, and philosophy 101. Its materials have the lighting and production values of a corporate training video, and are full of vague platitudes about “maximizing potential” and “changing the world.” It’s pretty vanilla stuff, which directors Jehane Noujaim and Karim Amer explore in sometimes excessive detail over the course of their nine-hour series, The Vow. The filmmakers have an immense treasure trove of footage to draw from, but only a few defectors willing to be interviewed on camera. At times, the whiplash between the banality of the source material and the extreme nature of the allegations is striking. At one point, an ex-member who was deeply traumatized by her experience pulls out a card sent to her by the group’s leader, Keith Raniere. “Dance like nobody’s watching,” it says.
The third and fourth episodes of The Vow do give viewers sensational details about the blackmail, sexual slavery, and bizarre “master/slave” dynamics of the group’s women-only inner circle, DOS. Most of these revelations were covered in the New York Times article that brought the story to the attention of the FBI, but they’re brought to life here by actual text messages and recordings of phone calls between women in the group. DOS is NXIVM at its most insidious, twisting pop rhetoric about female empowerment into a group where women were branded with a symbol that incorporated both Raniere’s initials and those of his alleged No. 2, Smallville’s Allison Mack. (Like Scientology, NXIVM is popular with actors, who like its emphasis on positive thinking.) But the series spends more time exploring the lead-up to and aftermath of these events than the scandal itself. The signs of rot are present even in the artificially sunny first hour of the series, if you know what to look for.
Look closely at the ecstatic faces of the people watching Raniere speak, and you’ll see the same glassy-eyed expression as a Peoples Temple member at a Jim Jones lecture. (They also laugh hysterically at even the slightest joke, another tell.) Raniere, who calls himself “Vanguard” and looks like he’s there to fix your printer, is one of those insufferable know-it-alls who smells women’s hair and thinks he’s putting one over on everyone—and in this case, he is. Cameras record his every statement for posterity, because he’s a humanitarian (who doesn’t run any charities), a scientist (who has no credentials), and a philosopher with one of the highest IQs ever recorded (or so he says). He’s backed by a small army of intensely devoted women like Clare Bronfman, the liquor heiress who bankrolls the cult, and Nancy Salzman, the chief pitch woman whose energy is like that of a bizarro Elizabeth Warren.
A lot of what Raniere says is designed to undermine the self-esteem of the person listening, a process we see unfolding in real time. (At one point, Mack comes to him asking how she can channel the sublime feeling she gets from good art, and he tells her—an artist—that art is phony and pointless.) Raniere thinks of himself as Steve Jobs crossed with Albert Einstein, but he’s really the guy who will corner you at a party and explain why he knows more about your field of expertise than you do. Raniere’s appeal is never obvious at any point in the series, but we watch women waste away on “Vanguard”-imposed starvation diets and line up to play volleyball with a side of Raniere ramblings at an Albany YMCA at 11:30 at night. In short, it’s obviously a cult—and a pretty typical one at that, corrupted, like they all are in the end, by clichéd male entitlement.
The basic sales pitch and ultimate pyramid scheme behind NXIVM is similar to that of Scientology: Draw people in with a philosophy that promises to teach them practical life skills, then entangle them in a complicated hierarchy (here, a system of colored sashes) that requires a down payment at each level. Once you’ve got them in deep enough financially, you can begin to warp their sense of reality, until the group is right and concerned family members are wrong. Also similar to Scientology, NXIVM’s philosophy involves working out subconscious mental blocks to success in sessions that function like sped-up therapy. One thing The Vow does well is break down the techniques of emotional abuse Raniere and his inner circle used to manipulate lower-ranking members, so we understand why they stuck around—if not why they were devoted to this man in particular.
We know more about the inner workings of NXIVM than we do about those of Scientology, however, thanks to the efforts of the ex-members who collected the mountains of evidence used to prosecute Raniere and Mack on sex trafficking charges. They also serve as our portal into The Vow, which begins with former high-ranking members Sarah Edmondson and Mark Vicente going through their old training materials in a cathartic version of the ritual where NXIVM members “explore the meaning” of a triggering memory in order to overcome it. Halfway through, however, Noujaim and Amer switch tactics, moving to documentary footage of Edmondson, Vicente, and their growing circle of supporters as they organize a campaign to bring Raniere to justice.
This shift adds new characters to The Vow, like Catherine Oxenberg, the Dynasty actress who is on an all-consuming mission to save her daughter from Raniere’s inner circle. Along with testimony from women whose involvement with Raniere dates back to the early ’90s, they provide valuable insight into the scope of the problem, as well as a tie to the #MeToo movement, which exploded during filming. But the emotional through-line of these women’s journey toward healing is less pronounced and affecting here than the community of survivors in another HBO docuseries, I’ll Be Gone In The Dark, as Noujaim and Amer get lost in the weeds of NXIVM’s structure and tactics. In fact, the emotional center of the piece turns out to be Vicente, a documentary filmmaker now wracked with guilt over his inadvertent role in persecuting the women, and his sense of betrayal toward his former boss and teacher.
Before those who have escaped NXIVM can truly be free of Keith Raniere, his mystique needs to be shattered. And if that happens in The Vow, it does not occur in the seven hours of the series screened for critics. The filmmakers’ procedural approach means that statements about Raniere as a diabolical genius with an almost godlike power to change lives, for better and for worse, are presented at face value. With the viewer left to read between the lines, his reputation remains intact—if inexplicable.