Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Left: India Oxenberg in Seduced: Inside The NXIVM Cult; right: Mark Vicente in The Vow

In the NXIVM docuseries showdown, Seduced is the clear winner

Left: India Oxenberg in Seduced: Inside The NXIVM Cult; right: Mark Vicente in The Vow
Photo: Starz, Courtesy of HBO

By the time the first podcasts on NXIVM were being made, I was already deeply obsessed with what was happening in Albany, New York. I don’t have any real connection to the group or some anecdote about almost being brainwashed in one of their introductory sessions; I just happened to go to Williams College, a small school only an hour drive from NXIVM headquarters where the Bronfman family, of Seagram’s liquor empire fame, maintained a legacy as alumni. They were huge donors to the school. The Bronfman Science Center bore their name. They offered a huge annual scholarship to students.

The Bronfmans were nearly synonymous with Williams College, and I worked in the alumni office. The family name frequently came up back then, but it wasn’t because of our science building—it was because of Sara and Clare Bronfman, and some weird group called NXIVM. I followed the early pieces about the group in The Times Union and knew classmates who had stories of NXIVM recruiters coming to campus to offer rides to Albany. When The Observer and Vanity Fair pieces about Sara and Clare came out, I was in my junior year and could already recite a history of their complex legal battles. It was the novelty of these two women, Sara and Clare, that made me so interested in NXIVM. They were two people who had been given every privilege and opportunity, but threw it away for a guy with a ponytail. I worked so hard to get into Williams while Sara and Clare could’ve just waltzed in on the legacy of their names, married some nice guys and spent the rest of their boring, peaceful lives making millions as consultants or something.

Instead, they assisted a man who victimized young girls and women, and participated in criminal activities. Eventually, the more salacious details of brandings and celebrity sex cults came out, and a New York Times piece forced everyone to pay attention to the little cult near my college. A few years after I graduated, Williams tore down the building with their name as “Bronfman” became synonymous with NXIVM (also it was a really ugly building).

Seduced: Inside The NXIVM Cult
Seduced: Inside The NXIVM Cult
Photo: Starz

When The Vow was first announced, I was glad someone would finally lay out all the pieces of a vast criminal conspiracy for people who weren’t cult nerds. Certainly, over nine episodes, The Vow, with a creative team led by directors Jehane Noujaim and Karim Amer, would look at the core of Keith Raniere’s evil and those that enabled him. Then, just as that HBO docuseries was ending its run, Starz announced its own four-part docuseries, Seduced: Inside The NXIVM Cult, directed and edited by filmmakers Cecilia Peck and Inbal B. Lessner. It seemed like another case of dueling Fyre Fest documentaries, with nefarious characters on both sides attempting to profit off of a story that had already been talked about in detail.

But The Vow and Seduced are two documentaries with completely different goals. The Vow, which premiered in August, spends most of its time trying to convince viewers that Keith Raniere really was saying something his followers thought was worth believing in, and that’s why they got so lost. The producers, directors, and those involved with The Vow are mostly former NXIVM members who seemingly still have some need to tell themselves that some of what they did as part of the cult was good. The Vow is as much them telling the story of NXIVM as it is an attempt to justify the money they made off of NXIVM. It’s long and tedious, as most overly explanatory excuses tend to be. If you want to understand how Keith Raniere was able to break down so many young women, The Vow won’t explain that. It exists so those who were involved can point to something in order to make sense of their actions as they try to get back to their old lives—old lives that often involved famous friends and positive attention.

As more details of Raniere’s crimes come out, it makes sense that high-profile ex-members would want to get ahead of the curve with their own narrative, which is what The Vow does. But when you finish The Vow, you’ll just wonder why you wasted nine hours learning about some pervert who stole money from rich white people and made filmmaker/NXIVM member Mark Vicente cry. There is no greater understanding of the evil Raniere has committed in the world to be had, no mention of the woman Raniere kept locked in a room under the eye of group leader Lauren Salzman. Nothing about the multiple abortions he forced women to get, or the children he tried to hide, or of the lost women who’ve disappeared around Raniere whose families still seek answers.

The Vow
The Vow
Photo: Courtesy of HBO

Despite The Vow’s length, if you want to actually understand Raniere’s crimes, you’ll have to watch Seduced. Through it, you’ll learn that Dynasty actor Catherine Oxenberg wasn’t just one of many rich white people to get involved with NXIVM; she had the resources and fame to go up against Raniere and the Bronfmans’ wealth and actually did it. Her plan to get her daughter, India, out of NXIVM was far more strategized than anything Keith Raniere could ever organize. Unlike NXIVM’s other victims, she couldn’t be sued into oblivion or mysteriously erased, which gave her a particular advantage. She wasn’t just trying to reach India; she was strategizing interviews to prove her daughter’s victimhood to prosecutors to protect her from charges, while scoping Brooklyn for clues about where NXIVM leader/Smallville actor Allison Mack was possibly hiding. Seduced also reveals some startling details about India’s time in NXIVM, when she helped normalized the group and boosted their reputation. Raniere viewed her as a commodity he had to hold onto. This is an important dynamic The Vow doesn’t address; in fact, the docuseries doesn’t seem ready to address any of the ways Raniere used people.

In The Vow, India Oxenberg is used more for fodder to show the depths of Raniere’s mind control than anything else. As her mother, Catherine carries the narrative, but the HBO docuseries trivializes her efforts by focusing on her wealth and personal quest for wellness prior to NXIVM. After a casual namedrop in a phone call with her mother, it’s revealed that Catherine is related to British royalty. The Vow uses this to play into its overall theme: NXIVM was just a group of privileged, rich white people who fell for the beautiful dream of a liar; India, by extension, is just a pretty, privileged white girl who needs to wake up and come home. While that is a narrative that can apply to NXIVM, like The Vow, it’s hardly the entire story. In fact, like The Vow, it’s the boring story. This is where Seduced tells the more interesting and necessary narrative.

The Vow paints India as a woman simply overtaken by her dedication to a man she thought was a genius with a good mission—as though she’s just another poor little rich girl like Clare and Sara who got lost trying to change the world. But it was not Raniere’s beautiful mission that inspired India or any of these celebrities to join him. It was the basic power of seduction. He promised them wealth, notoriety, and access. Seduced acknowledges this and sees India for the young girl she truly was. India was 19 when she joined NXIVM, the same age I was when I first read articles about the Bronfmans. Seduced shows us the excitement and insecurity of an impressionable teenager whose college happened to be NXIVM and the hell it led her to, a horrifying curriculum that left her mentally, emotionally, and physically imprisoned.

The Starz docuseries does not attempt to highlight or explain Keith Raniere’s flowery language or ideas. It gets straight to the point with clips of Raniere explaining a hypothetical situation in which a baby is “fuckable” and digs into his misogynistic views of women. The series tracks his misogynist views across NXIVM subgroups like Jness and the Society Of Protectors, not just in DOS, the branded sex ring inside the cult. The Vow doesn’t dive into the depths of Keith’s ideologies because it only shows how culpable the participants were to internalize these ideologies in the first place. Women who weren’t viewed as skinny were often left drowning in debt since they couldn’t advance in the organization. NXIVM higher-ups Sarah Edmondson and Allison Mack are seen nodding in agreement as Raniere’s leadership partner Nancy Salzman explains that women feel while men think. There was never a noble message, it was just the allure of power and money that got them to agree to some really dumb shit.

Sarah Edmondson and Mark Vicente were members of NXIVM when I was a sophomore in college, reading about Raniere’s decades-old sex crimes and secret children in the Times Union. Yet The Vow never explains how as members they could ignore these things, other than by saying, in essence, “He was just so great” before showing you a clip where Raniere shares wisdom on par with a Grey’s Anatomy monologue. Seduced makes it clear: These people were making a profit, so they looked the other way, or worse, helped Keith Raniere and the Bronfmans in their criminal activities and legal battles.

When you realize this, it’s almost offensive that The Vow ends with the promise of interviews with Keith Raniere and Nancy Salzman. There isn’t anything we need to hear from them, nothing they can explain. Raniere and Salzman shouldn’t be allowed to use any of these platforms. While the finale of Seduced hasn’t aired yet, the series remains fixed on the women who brought NXIVM down, and their fight to change legislation around coercion laws in the United States. There is no Raniere or promise of more lurid details, just a call to action.

If we’re going to get multiple documentaries about NXIVM, they should focus on the women involved. There are still people who haven’t come forward about Raniere’s abuses. There are still literal lost women. Seduced displays the difficult path to healing necessary before some can even begin to reckon with the pain NXIVM caused them. India is privileged enough to have the resources and support necessary to get therapy for PTSD and Seduced shows us brief moments of her treatment. Rather than these scenes playing up the aspect of her wealth, the series wants us to consider how hard it is for most people to access these tools: those left in poverty by NXIVM, those mentally scarred by a harmful ideology that was never the positive thing it claimed to be. Will The Vow’s second season be focused on giving former NXIVM members the support they need to heal? Or will it simply be a prolonged rationalization meant to detract attention from the events people actually need to heal from? This docuseries duel, unlike the Fyre Fest competition, feels like Raniere’s principles come to life, as a far better documentary made by women arrives just as NXIVM fatigue may be settling in. Of course some people will watch both, but I fear most will just throw on the one from HBO. It’s nine episodes and has already been renewed—what could it possibly be missing?

The most telling difference between the two documentaries is in the use of footage from NXIVM’s Vanguard Week. Vanguard Week is described as “summer camp for adults” or a “high arousal” event meant to pull in new members, as Seduced puts it. This expensive week cost a fortune to go to, but splashy, fun trailers made by Mark Vicente made it look like an opportunity you couldn’t afford to miss. In The Vow, these clips play somberly in the finale as Vicente and his wife Bonnie Piesse walk through the old lodge where the event was held. The feeling is nostalgic, as though they can imagine the good times that were had despite the bad that followed (indicated unsubtly by the dead flies that litter the ground). There’s even a clip of Mark hugging India. Seduced opens with India bravely going back to the grounds of Vanguard Week. Clips of Vicente’s trailer play, but Peck and Lessner edit the footage to be as off-putting and cult-like as it truly is without Vicente’s music and pacing. There is no nostalgia here. There were never any good times.

Ashley Ray-Harris is a stand-up comic and writer.

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