When the exposés of NXIVM — a self-help group and pyramid scheme founded in 1998 that also served as a recruitment pool for a sex cult that branded its “slaves” — went nationwide in 2017 and 2018, the stories were shocking even in the midst of the #MeToo movement.
But they were also confusing. Headlines seized on the branding — and the involvement of Smallville actress Allison Mack, who had effectively retired shortly after the series’ wrap and moved to Albany, New York, where NXIVM (pronounced nex-ee-um) was headquartered. The alleged details about life in the group — starvation diets, lifetime pledges of service, nude photos as “collateral” — were outrageous and, probably for many outsiders, bewildering. Why would anyone put up with such mistreatment? And why would they do so for so long?
HBO’s nine-part documentary, The Vow, seeks to answer precisely those questions. Directed by Oscar-nominated husband-and-wife team Karim Amer (The Great Hack) and Jehane Noujaim (The Great Hack, The Square), it’s the highest-profile deep dive on NXIVM to date. Each of the first six episodes sent to critics focuses on a different defector, their experiences adding up to a “character”-based history and explanation of the billionaire-backed organization. The specifics of the group are both bone-chillingly familiar to critics of gendered cult dynamics and wildly idiosyncratic to guru Keith Raniere, whose initials — along with Mack’s — were branded in the pelvic region of possibly dozens of women. Defector Sarah Edmondson, the “star” of the excellent 2018 CBC podcast Uncover: Escaping NXIVM, claims that she saw through the blindfold she was forced to wear in the car ride over that her branding took place at the Smallville co-star’s home.
First, a clarification: NXIVM was an umbrella group for several organizations dedicated to disparate missions. Executive Success Programs, or “ESP,” was a personal-development course that seems to have been the gateway for many NXIVM members; about 15,000 individuals have taken ESP classes. Active NXIVM membership was between 700 and 800 people, of which less than a tenth were invited to join Dominus Obsequious Sororium (DOS), a female-only group allegedly founded by Raniere and Mack, where the most egregious acts were to have taken place. An anonymous former member recalls having to ask her “master” for permission to eat virtually every bite of food. It’s shocking all over again when we’re reminded that all the enforcers of DOS — the brander, the ones pressuring underlings to submit nude photos as collateral and the ones claiming sex with Raniere was the key to enlightenment — are women.
An ongoing curiosity about NXIVM is how Raniere and his female deputies twisted the language of women’s empowerment to mold recruits into sexual partners for him. (His type seems to be young, blonde, thin and grateful — one woman recalls that Raniere wooed her from the start, but wouldn’t sleep with her until she lost weight.) The Vow is particularly compelling in outlining the various methods that NXIVM used to break down these women, which included the sinister strategy of framing brainwashing techniques, like forcing a member to sleep only two hours a night, as a test of (female) strength and will. The filmmakers appear to argue, as does Edmondson more explicitly, that understanding NXIVM means not only knowing about the behavior of its leader and top lieutenants, but also understanding the grooming process that systematically broke down the resistance of aspirants. (Mack pleaded guilty to racketeering charges in 2019 and is awaiting sentencing. Raniere faces life in prison for a slew of convictions that same year, including sex trafficking, child exploitation, possession of child pornography and forced labor.)
An early protagonist of The Vow is What The Bleep Do We Know?! director Mark Vicente, who hoped to make Raniere’s teachings more accessible through film. It’s unclear how Noujaim and Amer got their hands on so many NXIVM videos — both professional and home video-style footage of group events — though some of the material is certainly supplied by Vicente and his wife, Bonnie Piesse. (After defecting, the couple installed cameras all over their home and recorded every call with cult members; Raniere is known to retaliate aggressively against apostates with the help of two members of the politically connected Bronfmans, billionaire heiresses to the Seagram fortune.)
The generous peppering of insider NXIVM videos throughout The Vow renders the dorky, soft-spoken Raniere, who appears not to have participated in the documentary, a thoroughly unimpressive figure, while providing visual relief from the many talking-head interviews. Overall, the production is handsome and well-structured, with new episodes unearthing new layers of viciousness and manipulation.
Like Lifetime’s Surviving R. Kelly and Showtime’s upcoming Love Fraud, The Vow also chronicles an attempted rescue mission — here, of India Oxenberg, the daughter of Dynasty actress Catherine Oxenberg. Edmondson and Vicente, racked with guilt for their tremendous past contributions to NXIVM, aid the elder Oxenberg however they can, but sadly, it isn’t much. The mother-daughter rupture testifies more powerfully than perhaps any other element in The Vow to the uphill battle of convincing someone that their purpose in life, for which they’ve made unimaginable sacrifices, has been little more than a grimy lie.
Premieres Sunday, Aug. 23, at 10 p.m. ET/PT on HBO