Stories about so-called cults fascinate — and repel — because the extreme behavior at their core exposes uncomfortable truths about the way ideology works on people.
NXIVM, a banal multilevel marketing company peddling “executive success programs,” first made national headlines in 2017, thanks to a big New York Times exposé about an underground sorority within the organization. It featured bizarre sex rituals, including the branding of women members with a cauterizing pen in what turned out to be an homage to founder Keith Raniere and Allison Mack.
The following year, Dynasty actor Catherine Oxenberg went on shows like Inside Edition and Megyn Kelly Today with claims that her daughter India Oxenberg was being victimized by the organization. Soon after came the arrests of Raniere and Mack, the Smallville actor who was deemed his co-conspirator by authorities. Seagram heir Clare Bronfman, who had long been bankrolling the NXIVM, was also arrested. Many wondered how these privileged, supposedly self-empowered women could end up in such a violently misogynist enterprise, serving a greasy-haired, Napoleonic, nebbish huckster.
So far, Clare Bronfman was sentenced to almost seven years in prison, and Mack pleaded guilty to racketeering and conspiracy charges, but hasn’t been sentenced yet. Raniere was found guilty of charges including sex trafficking, forced labor conspiracy, and human trafficking. He is being sentenced today.
Both the recent nine-part HBO miniseries, The Vow, and a four-part Starz documentary, Seduced: Inside the NXIVM Cult, attempt to explain the organization’s appeal.
HBO’s The Vow focuses on the story of two couples — particularly filmmaker Mark Vicente and actor Sarah Edmondson — who defected from NXIVM and exposed the group’s abuses to the Times. It’s a slow, overly long attempt to turn the saga into a prestige series about idealism gone wrong and members’ attempts to make it right. The Starz docuseries is more traditional, centering mostly on India’s experience of indoctrination, and her mother’s efforts to get her out, accompanied by the stories of other NXIVM victims, and experts on the inner workings of groups they deem cults.
Seduced is ultimately better at illuminating the reasons that led women to NXIVM in the first place, along with the strange gendered dynamics of the group. Both series’ emphasis on making it relatable — you too could be a desperate mom, you too could be an entrenched couple — prevents them from asking other questions; it could’ve pondered about, say, the lack of oversight of the MLMs that feed cult-like organizations, or the ethics of the philanthropic industrial complex, in the aftermath of NXIVM’s demise.
Organizations like NXIVM often have similar dynamics, including an authoritarian leader, but they have to speak to their cultural moment in order to truly work. In Seduced, we learn that Raniere created NXIVM and its series of Executive Success Programs after meeting his collaborator Nancy Salzman in the ’90s. Through reams of footage from these meetings, both documentaries show how NXIVM worked by appealing to members’ gender ideologies.
The programs basically took the popular “men are from Mars, women are from Venus” cliché and created workshops around gender differences to exploit the specific vulnerabilities of women, men, and couples. But they did so in the name of achieving a supposed enlightened masculinity and self-empowered femininity.
Though most of the media has focused on the women involved, The Vow does an especially good job showing how the group spoke to dissatisfactions with gender roles for men, too. We see footage of a men-only group called the Society of Protectors as Raniere encourages its members to talk about their lack of direction as men and their alienation from macho masculinity. Vicente, one of the moral centers of The Vow, talks about how he had yearned for tenderness with male friends. Anthony Ames, Edmondson’s husband, also talks about not feeling comfortable in his masculinity growing up. “It’s incredible what’s going on in here, our insides are all over the floor,” says another attendant about all the men opening up.
Jness was like the women’s version of the Society of Protectors. We see footage of Salzman explaining, with a retrospectively frenetic cheeriness, that Jness was the first program for women’s empowerment created by a man: Raniere. But he was so sensitive that he could really help women, she says.
The footage of the workshops shows that they were actually like perverse feminist consciousness-raising seminars, where women were encouraged to talk about their pain under patriarchy only to be humiliated and told that men had it worse. During sessions, they’re called whiny and spoiled princesses; one woman even blames herself for feeling disempowered by men in her company.
It was from Jness that Raniere selected the women — including Mack, Salzman, and Edmondson — to create the secret DOS sorority that sparked the Times articles. And it was through Jness that India and her mother came into NXIVM.
The public would have never heard of NXIVM if it hadn’t specifically started drawing in actors and targeting the offspring of billionaires and celebrities. In Seduced, we learn that in the early 2000s Sara Bronfman joined and turned her sister Clare onto it. Clare became entwined when she was successfully coached in her equestrian career. Soon, they went international, ensnaring Emiliano Salinas, the son of a former president of Mexico.
Throughout the documentaries, we hear Raniere’s pseudo-deep ramblings about capitalism, which weren’t about economic justice but appealed to the (twentysomething) children of celebrities and billionaires whom he could guilt-trip about the corruption behind their wealth. Clare Bronfman, for instance, was forced to wear a jockstrap during one workshop, ostensibly so she’d understand what it meant to be a man. Those high-profile names in turn helped bring in the less-connected people who dropped up to $3,000 for NXIVM’s five-day workshops.
But neither documentary spends much time with the people who simply attended workshops; instead, they focus on the people who made NXIVM their life. The Vow, in particular, illustrates the way the members who were making their living through the organization felt a real sense of community in it. It also sensitively renders the trauma the couples experienced and how members grappled with understanding what happened as abusive in the aftermath of leaving. In one especially illuminating scene, Catherine Oxenberg jokes about how she was shocked, when visiting Vicente, that his wife, Bonnie Piesse, was sleeping on the floor while doing “penance” for the organization. Vicente points out he’s not ready to joke about it, and that bringing it up was re-traumatizing Piesse.
Still, it ultimately devotes too much space to the personal journeys of the defectors at the exclusion of any real context or chronology about the organization. It was a “very personal” story for one of the filmmakers, Jehane Noujaim, who attended one of the workshops. As she told Variety, she had known Vicente for a decade and had experienced firsthand the way he believed in “the ethical mission of the organization.” She said he “was all of a sudden talking in a very different way, questioning everything that he believed, and it was very much a crisis of faith.”
That framing — of high-mindedness led astray — permeates The Vow, and not always to its credit. The series never quite explains that Vicente was explicitly hired by NXIVM to make a movie with Raniere about NXIVM, and Raniere himself, to counter bad press he was getting about the organization being a cult.
That it took white women getting branded — and not, say, Raniere’s criminal history with MLMs — to get the attention of authorities is an indictment of US law enforcement.
Perhaps because each series is so invested in making viewers relate to the protagonists’ choices, they leave out nuances that might actually make the characters more relatable, forcing us to think about how gullibility can be entwined with self-aggrandizement or self-interest. Vicente and his wife, Piesse, were participating in a kind of MLM Ponzi scheme, and as senior proctors in the organization, he and his wife made huge commissions from anyone they brought in, including, as viewers learn in Seduced, India.
By focusing on India — whose voice is absent from The Vow — Seduced does a better job at getting at the specificities of what drew people in and how the group actually worked. Catherine, for instance, was drawn in during a session where she was made to notice a pattern of sexual abuse in her life. She found it so illuminating that she even decided to later hold a Jness event in her home.
But she soon chafed at the continued cost of the workshops, even as her daughter India became more and more enthralled with the group. India explained how she felt disenfranchised from traditional learning — she had been diagnosed with dyslexia like Tom Cruise was — and Jness was her first pleasant learning experience. It was like having her brain scrambled, she said, and she liked it. Unlike The Vow, Seduced gives a clear sense of how Raniere and, later, Mack were able to wield their control and escalate further and further until they were asking India to take nude pictures and forcing her to count and lower her calorie intake.
That control culminated in sessions where India was forced to receive oral sex from Raniere. It was that inner sex cult, DOS, and the branding of the women that finally started creating controversy — even within the group. In The Vow, Ames, the seemingly mild-mannered husband of Edmondson, explodes when he hears she had been branded.
But The Vow has nothing to say about the fact that it was the branding — and not, as prosecutors later claimed, that Raniere had allegedly been raping and photographing a 15-year-old girl who was an undocumented Mexican citizen — that became the NXIVM inner sanctum’s breaking point. The lack of chronology makes it unclear what was known and when. In Seduced, India visits the house where the girl was kept in a cage and says she didn’t know about it. The protagonists in The Vow don’t discuss that case. Of course, the documentaries barely mention that story — let alone use it as a central piece of emotional resonance — because, like all so-called cult stories, including the so-called Manson girls, these are ultimately melodramas about white women’s lost innocence and bravery.
Towards the end, both documentaries focus more on Catherine’s battle to use the media to spur authorities into prosecuting NXIVM in order to save her daughter. Raniere’s arrest wraps up the melodrama as the Oxenberg family and The Vow’s couples rebuild their relationships.
The NXIVM prosecutor in the Starz documentary points out that in these kinds of criminal organizations, the lines between victim and victimizer are unclear. The questions about who was deemed complicit and who was deemed solely a victim, and why, are ultimately left unasked and unanswered by both series. Mark Vicente was granted immunity after contacting the FBI and agreeing to testify against Raniere.
At one point, India tells an attorney that her mom knew by going public that she could get authorities involved before her daughter became complicit, in a way that would make prosecutors treat her as a co-conspirator like Mack. The Smallville actor is now facing up to 40 years in prison. Seduced shows India and other ex-members of the group featured throughout the series advocating for legal recognition of “coercive control,” the psychological techniques used by groups like these to prey on their victims.
But so many other — less easily solved — moral conundrums are left untouched. The Vow includes scenes of Raniere and Bronfmans being able to buy a visit from the Dalai Lama that lent the organization legitimacy, which should raise serious concerns about the ethics of philanthropy and the unquestioned tax exemption for many so-called nonprofits. That it took white women getting branded — and not, say, Raniere’s criminal history with MLMs — to get the attention of authorities is an indictment of US law enforcement.
The series’ framing of Raniere as a kind of compellingly charismatic sociopath — rather than a banal MLM fraudster — is almost necessary to create more content around him. He proclaimed his innocence in a recent Dateline episode, and an entire second season of The Vow will reportedly be about him and his inner circle.
Toward the end of The Vow, Vicente and his wife tell some random people at a coffee shop that they just escaped a cult. You must be very trusting, says one young woman. Not anymore, they reply. And in some ways, despite nine hours of television, that’s as deep as the documentary’s insight gets. ●
Correction: Due to a copyediting error, India Oxenberg was misidentified as Catherine Oxenberg in several instances in a previous version of this post.