How to Tell the Story of a Cult

Two docuseries about NXIVM present a question: Are the people who have escaped a controlling organization the most reliable sources on what happened to them?

Images of the former NXIVM members India Oxenberg and Sarah Edmondson
The former NXIVM members India Oxenberg (left) and Sarah Edmondson (Starz / HBO)

Not 20 minutes into The Vow, HBO’s enthralling-then-ultimately-gasbaggy docuseries, things started to feel concerningly familiar to me. Sarah Edmondson—an engaging Canadian actor with big valedictorian energy who had joined the Albany-based organization NXIVM (pronounced nex-ee-um)—was describing how she was first drawn into a group that she would later expose as a sex cult. Edmondson’s career had stalled, and she was looking for a sign from the universe. A chance meeting on a cruise with a documentarian named Mark Vicente led her to her first five-day NXIVM seminar, where, between clunky taped interludes with ’80s fitness-video graphics, Edmondson says, she had a revelation.

The part that grabbed her came midway through, when NXIVM’s co-founder Nancy Salzman theorized that people with low self-esteem let their “limiting beliefs” curb their potential. “I thought that was just the way that I was,” Edmondson says. “And then all of a sudden, like, I could systematically evolve to be the ideal version of myself. To write my own character.” The jargon comes thick and fast in The Vow: “disintegrations,” “possibilities,” “human-potential program.” To the uninitiated, this might read like so much innocuous psychobabble. But during an intensive self-development workshop, when you’re sleep-deprived, isolated, and being love-bombed by peppy idealists who speak in emphatic cadences, these kinds of ideas can feel like the secrets of the universe are being unlocked.

Reader, it happened to me. In 2006, when I was floundering after college and my father was dying of cancer, my mother enrolled me in a personal-development program she’d recently taken and couldn’t say enough good things about. Edmondson’s description of suddenly awakening to the idea of profound personal change tracked with what I found on day three, having identified my own limiting beliefs and witnessed dozens of fellow attendees “transform” emotionally onstage. Pepped up on possibility, I decided to apply to journalism school. During one of the breaks, compelled by the session leader, I called my dad and told him I loved him. (Because we were both English and therefore hopelessly emotionally repressed, this was the moment my stepmother decided I was in a cult.) For years afterward, I told people how much the course had helped me, and encouraged them to consider it. My interpretation of the program was, until recently, colored by the immersive experience of the whole thing—of being surrounded by joyful, trippily tired people committing themselves to being better human beings. What could be so bad about that?

The storytelling in The Vow can be both similarly open-minded and similarly blinkered. From the outset, the show’s directors, Jehane Noujaim and Karim Amer, appear intent on countering the reductive “sex cult” portrayals of NXIVM with a persuasive portrait of how intelligent, empathetic people became so swayed by the promise of infinite human potential sold by NXIVM’s Executive Success Programs that some ended up agreeing to be branded with a cauterizing iron. As Edmondson publicly revealed in 2017, NXIVM wasn’t just running self-improvement seminars. Within the larger organization was a smaller cult of personality in which some female members (including the Smallville actor Allison Mack) reportedly recruited other women into sexual servitude for NXIVM’s co-founder Keith Raniere, a soft-spoken, unprepossessing volleyball enthusiast.

“We didn’t join a cult,” the NXIVM member turned whistleblower Mark Vicente says in one scene, frustrated. “Nobody joins a cult. They join a good thing. And then they realize they were fucked.” Much of The Vow’s footage is taken directly from the propaganda videos Vicente made as he abandoned his directing career to climb higher in the NXIVM ranks, which may explain why the show feels curiously defensive. It dreamily weaves ex-members’ reminiscences through abundant scenes of Raniere working his schtick—expounding vaguely on topics such as integrity and trauma. The emphasis is always on understanding, not judgment.

NXIVM’s hierarchy was determined by color-coordinated sashes inspired by Raniere’s history practicing judo. (HBO)

Some crucial context is missing, though. Amer has said that he and Noujaim are filmmakers, not journalists; according to Noujaim, their mission was to document a crisis of faith, not tell the comprehensive story of NXIVM. (Noujaim enrolled in a few NXIVM workshops herself and has spoken about being swayed by the group’s supposedly idealistic mission.) But The Vow’s fly-on-the-wall approach to capturing how NXIVM unraveled means it treats both its apostates and Raniere himself—sentenced last month to 120 years in prison for sex trafficking and other crimes—with a dubiously soft touch.

It’s easier to see the series’s blind spots when it’s viewed as a companion piece with a new Starz series on the same subject, the finale of which airs tonight. Seduced: Inside the NXIVM Cult undercuts The Vow’s approach. Its directors interview cult experts in tandem with former NXIVM members to better understand Raniere’s tactics. The Starz series also includes information so pertinent to understanding NXIVM that it seems inexcusable for The Vow to omit it. Before watching Seduced, I had seen the particulars of the workshop I took (14-hour days, no alcohol, no snacking, no painkillers for headaches) as quirks designed to impress upon participants the importance of self-discipline, rather than coercive techniques to make them more psychologically and emotionally pliable. My own account of the course was incomplete, because my ability to interpret it critically had been fundamentally manipulated and impaired. The same thing is true of The Vow.

The blessing and the curse of The Vow is the footage it has to draw upon. Like many a megalomaniac before him, Raniere apparently wanted his every breath, utterance, and stilted performance of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata to be captured on camera for the benefit of future generations studying his influence. When Vicente left NXIVM in 2017, he took with him more than a decade’s worth of Raniere on tape, and Noujaim and Amer use as much of the footage as they possibly can. Viewers see Raniere at volleyball practice in a tie-dye shirt and short shorts, his straggly ponytail subdued by a sweatband. We hear him philosophize on art (“just an excuse for people who can’t do”), pain (“the more pain we feel, the more we feel alive in a body”), and abuse (“a made-up human construct”). We see how he greets every woman he meets—by kissing them on the mouth. Glimpsed in these out-of-context fragments, Raniere seems not dangerous so much as absurd, less cult leader than creepy camp counselor.

Virtually everything else in The Vow is filtered through the experiences of three fairly high-profile members who left NXIVM in 2017: Edmondson, Vicente, and Vicente’s wife, Bonnie Piesse, an actor and musician. The Dynasty star Catherine Oxenberg, who says she unwittingly helped recruit her own daughter India when she took her to an introductory NXIVM event, also appears in the show, as she grows more and more concerned about India’s health and welfare under Raniere’s thumb. But the viewer’s first impressions of NXIVM come as Vicente, Edmondson, and Piesse try to explain what attracted them to the organization, with cameras following them from their initial disaffection in 2017 through Raniere’s arrest a year later. For Vicente, a filmmaker with grandiose ideas about changing the world, the promise of professional success hooked him. “It’s almost like [Raniere’s] showing me the movie version of what I could be like,” he recalls, reverently.

The Vow is squishier when it comes to laying out what NXIVM and Raniere actually stood for. There’s some vague talk of humanitarianism, via campaigns to tackle inequality and world hunger (most of which begin and end with enrolling powerful people in NXIVM). Edmondson and Vicente repeatedly emphasize that the group’s appeal lay in its ethical vision for humanity, in which kindness abounds. “I felt like I’d found my people, and they just felt like such good vibes compared to the situations I’d been dealing with in the music industry,” Piesse explains. The directors include montages from NXIVM’s annual retreat, named “V-Week” in tribute to Raniere’s official title, Vanguard. The scenes are joyful: people embracing, dancing, goofing around in swimsuits, blowing out birthday candles. “If this is a cult,” Edmondson remembers saying to people who joked about her degree of commitment to the group, “… it’s a cult of happy successful people, so what’s the problem?”

Sarah Edmondson (left) and Mark Vicente reached the upper ranks of NXIVM during their time within the organization. (HBO)

Watching The Vow, V-Week does indeed come across as Edmondson describes it: “like the best adult summer camp you’ve ever experienced.” Seduced portrays it slightly differently—not in flashes of idealized scenes that seem ripped from a photo album, or a music video, but as an event designed to break its participants down psychologically. “V-Week was pretty overwhelming, and incredibly exhausting,” India Oxenberg—whose testimony after finally leaving NXIVM is central to Seduced—tells the camera. (The series was directed by Cecilia Peck, who—like India—is the child of Hollywood royalty and was herself targeted by NXIVM.) The cult expert Janja Lalich describes how the event employed “high-arousal techniques” to keep participants so busy and constantly excited that they have no time to themselves, and are thus more susceptible to suggestion. The episode shows Vicente and his camera team documenting everything for future NXIVM promos, including the week’s final event: a birthday celebration for Raniere in which members perform elaborate tributes to him. Among them is the Seagram’s liquor heiress Clare Bronfman, recently sentenced to more than six years in prison for using her wealth to intimidate NXIVM’s detractors, who becomes tearful onstage as she tells Raniere how much he has enhanced her life.

The differences in how the two shows use archival footage are small but notable. Both seem to have specific intentions when it comes to how V-Week is perceived. The Vow offers up scenes that substantiate what Edmondson and Vicente are saying: that anyone could have been drawn in by NXIVM’s promise of blissful community and altruistic intentions. Seduced shows a cult in full bloom, and outsiders offer crucial context into what’s being seen onscreen. If The Vow’s desire is to prove to people watching how enticing the NXIVM community might have seemed, Seduced’s is to expose how disturbing it really was—how the triathlons and singing groups were cover for a leader trying to see how far he could push people to obey him.

I had many questions watching The Vow, none of which were answered when the series waddled off on an extended tangent about Keith’s retrograde ideas about gender in its penultimate episode, before ending with the promise of bombshells in Season 2. (The directors apparently managed to interview Raniere in prison, which makes it likely that even more time in future episodes will be devoted to his seemingly limitless ability to bullshit.) Who exactly is Nancy Salzman, NXIVM’s co-founder? Is she a true believer in NXIVM’s mission, or just an opportunist? Again, it falls to Seduced to fill in some extremely pertinent details. When Salzman was arrested at her suburban Albany home in 2018, more than half a million dollars in cash was found on the premises. Salzman also reportedly trained in hypnotherapy and neuro-linguistic programming, which might have explained why NXIVM members describe sometimes experiencing trancelike states, or how Raniere’s Mad-Libsy statements about mental freedom could have seemed so compelling. “It wasn’t so much what we talked about,” one member recalls in Seduced of her first meeting with Keith, “[so much as] the feeling of the encounter. It felt very connected, and intimate.”

Seduced includes other appalling details that The Vow questionably leaves out. There are the allegations that Raniere groomed and raped a 12-year-old girl in the early ’90s, and that he separately abused three sisters, one of whom was 15 at the time. (Raniere continues to maintain his innocence.) The Starz series details how, after one of the sisters expressed a sexual crush on a man who wasn’t Raniere, she was allegedly confined to a bedroom for two years. Seduced also includes footage of Raniere defending adult-child sexual relationships—for instance, proposing that many “little children” who have been sexually abused might have enjoyed the abuse and seen nothing wrong with it until they were told to do so. And, rather than simply explain that Raniere counseled the women he had relationships with to lose weight, the series allows Oxenberg to explain how she was bullied into hitting a desired target of 106 pounds, limited to consuming 500 calories a day, and had to ask permission before eating.

India Oxenberg revisits the resort where NXIVM’s annual V-Week took place. Cult experts say the event was intended to break participants down. (Starz)

It’s unclear how many of Raniere’s abuses Vicente and Edmondson were aware of. (At one point, Vicente recalls telling Raniere that NXIVM’s consistent bad press “is a problem.”) What The Vow does inadvertently reveal in staying so tightly knit with Edmondson and Vicente, though, is that both have an agenda. As they realize how they’ve been manipulated by Raniere into recruiting young women for him to abuse, they start trying to persuade those women to leave. This mission is presented as a heroic one, with the three ex-NXIVM members joining Catherine Oxenberg in a battle to bring Raniere down. They meet furtively in underground parking lots, target journalists and the authorities with relentless phone calls, and consult with other ex-members. All four go on the record in an interview with The New York Times in the hope of attracting federal attention to Raniere and NXIVM.

What Vicente and Edmondson are doing is penance, but it’s also self-protection. Both express profound, if vague, feelings of guilt over their high-ranking roles working for Raniere. But both also ascertain quickly that going public is the best way to insulate themselves not only from Bronfman-funded legal attacks that have bankrupted other NXIVM apostates, but also from public and legal condemnation. “I think that the smartest strategy is to hit ’em like a ton of bricks with law enforcement,” the former member Kristin Keeffe tells Edmondson. “If you frame things from the sense of, ‘I’m a victim,’ … it’s a game changer.” When the New York Times exposé is published, Edmondson is dismayed that one comment attacks her for having supposedly preyed on Vancouver’s acting and yoga communities for new recruits. She’s also upset that the story, in her mind, doesn’t sufficiently get into “the psychology of the coercion” that left her in thrall to Raniere for so long, and branded with his initials. The Vow, viewers might interpret, is filling in the gaps. But to whose benefit?

Without external voices in the mix—the cult experts and psychologists who populate SeducedThe Vow becomes less a documentary series than an artfully made exercise in spinning a story. Just as Raniere was the gravitational center whose utterances became NXIVM gospel, Vicente and Edmondson’s version of NXIVM becomes the truth for Noujaim and Amer, and for HBO viewers. Both ex-members seem certain that there was some nebulous “good” in NXIVM when they joined, and are still unable to perceive that they might just have been captivated by a persuasive con artist who preyed on their own distinct vulnerabilities and ambitions. Neither is questioned by the filmmakers about how they squared their early enthusiasm for the group with exposés on Raniere’s controlling and abusive practices that date back to 2003, long before either of them joined.

The subjectivity of The Vow is important, because organizations like NXIVM hook people by manipulating the line between what’s real and what’s simply interpreted. Something that happens to a person is deemed to be less significant than how that person perceives it: Raniere’s 12-point mission statement for NXIVM declares, among other things, that success is an internal state and victimhood is a choice. The Vow allows Vicente to recount the mythology surrounding Raniere in the first episode, including the claim that The Guinness Book of World Records lists him as having one of the highest IQs ever recorded. In Seduced, a cult expert fact-checks the assertion, which was only ever published in one Australian 1989 edition of the book and cites an IQ test that doesn’t appear to exist. But her findings don’t matter, because Raniere, Salzman, and now Vicente have repeated the claim so many times that it’s become part of Raniere’s legend. The Vow unfolds as a human story of biased, fallible people, but their version of events is too intricately entwined with the man who manipulated them to be entirely trustworthy. The best people to tell the story of a cult, it turns out, aren’t exclusively the ones who’ve escaped it.