The immersive HBO documentary takes viewers inside Keith Raniere's sinister "self-help" group NXIVM.

By Kristen Baldwin
August 19, 2020 at 03:21 PM EDT
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Documentaries about cults are a little like horror films; they provide us with the visceral thrill of seeing other people battle a terrifying monster — all while feeling secure in our superiority: We would never pick up a creepy hitchhiker or fail to check the back seat of a darkened car like those dolts on screen.

But cult leaders aren’t always as simple to spot as machete-wielding maniacs, and the people who fall prey to their manipulation tactics are not the weak-minded nincompoops we’d prefer them to be. What’s so chilling about The VowHBO’s immersive new docuseries about NXIVM, the New York-based “self-help group” brought down by charges of sexual slavery — is how vividly it illustrates the seductive and insidious ways these groups lure intelligent, well-meaning people into servitude.

Before NXIVM (pronounced "Nexium") became known as “that weird sex cult run by that girl from Smallville,” it began building its following as ESP NXIVM, an organization offering a variety of “personal development” seminars. (ESP stands for "Executive Success Programs.") The Vow opens with video of founder Keith Rainere — an innocuous-looking white guy with glasses and feathered, salt-and-pepper hair — making his sales pitch: “ESP NXIVM is a methodology that allows people to optimize their experience and behavior.”

For Sarah Edmondson, a Vancouver-based actress looking for her “real purpose,” and Mark Vicente, co-director of the 2004 “quantum fable” What the Bleep Do We Know?, the appeal was immediate. Both were searchers, looking for a way to do good in the world — and ESP NXIUM’s “technology,” including a targeted kind of therapy called Exploration of Meaning, seemed to hold the proverbial key. Vicente recalls his reaction after his first EM with NXIVM co-founder Nancy Salzman, which helped him overcome recurrent panic attacks: “I’ve arrived at the Federation, 50 years in the future, and they have hacked the human brain.” Edmonson was equally overwhelmed by her EMs: “I really felt like I had this secret potion of understanding.” In the simplest terms, NXIVM was a sort of spiritual Amway: Members earned color-coded sashes as they followed “The Stripe Path,” taking expensive self-help courses and bringing in new recruits.

After moving to a suburb outside of NXIVM’s Albany headquarters in 2004, Vicente was charged with the task of documenting Raniere and his organization. The Vow (premiering August 23 at 10 p.m.) has an astonishing cache of archival, promotional, and candid recordings, both video and audio, which gives the narrative an immediacy that can’t be replicated by talking-head recollections. Rather than just hearing about Raniere’s mysterious “rock star” charisma in the abstract, we watch NXIVM members sit at his feet, rapt, as the self-described genius philosophizes about ethics with a soft-spoken, disarming confidence.

Smallville star Allison Mack, who pleaded guilty last year to racketeering and racketeering conspiracy charges related to her role in NXIVM, does not participate directly in The Vow, but she appears throughout the series. We even see her first-ever conversation with Rainere, a man who would ultimately lead to her downfall, during one of his famous overnight volleyball games. It’s an almost uncomfortably intimate moment: Mack and “Vanguard,” as NXIVM members called Raniere, sit snugly on a bench, leaning their heads against the painted cement-block walls, talking about the actress’ emotional connection to the arts. “The most excitement you’ve ever felt is yours to have all the time,” says Raniere softly. “If you feel that art is necessary for that, that’s almost a self-condemnation.” The actress begins to cry and admits she’s afraid to “let go” of some long-held beliefs about herself. The scene is all the more devastating knowing what’s to come for Mack, and the women she recruited into NXIVM herself.

So how did all of this lead to a group of female NXIVM members being branded with Raniere and Mack’s initials and coerced into sexual "slavery”? The Vow chronicles NXIVM’s expansion in the early 2000s, as Vanguard oversaw the launch of a series of subgroups — "The Source," a public-speaking workshop led by Mack; a men’s group called "Society of Protectors"; a fitness collective called "exo/eso," led by Vicente’s wife, actress Bonnie Piesse (Aunt Beru in the Star Wars prequels) — and opened new centers in Vancouver, Mexico City, Los Angeles, and more.

Through all the growth, Vanguard’s message remained the same: Comfort is an addiction, and you’ve gotta break the habit. The Vow lays bare the many ways Raniere and his team used this philosophy – on its face a tool for emotional empowerment — to shame people into suppressing their doubts about the program. Piesse began to experience her own misgivings while working her way down the Stripe Path, a process that soon dominated all of her waking hours and drove her deeper into debt. When she missed a meeting after nearly passing out from exhaustion, Piesse turned to Vanguard for guidance. His response? “You’re blowin’ it from a spiritual perspective,” he told her on a middle-of-the-night walk. (Piesse recorded the conversation on her phone.) “You’re enslaved to worry, enslaved to pettiness, enslaved to materialism… don’t you want to be free?”

It was this type of manipulation that made the creation of a “secret sisterhood” of women within NXIVM called DOS (“Dominus Obsequious Sororium”) possible. Sold as a type of “sorority," DOS required members to take a “vow of obedience” and turn over “collateral” — a videotaped confession of past misdeeds, say, or a nude photo. Edmondson says it was pitched to her as an exercise in self-actualization. As she explains to a reporter in episode 6, “If they had said, ‘Hey, do you want to get Keith and Alison’s initials branded on your vagina?’ I definitely would have said no.’”

Edmondson later made headlines by going public with her branding in a New York Times interview in 2017, along with Vicente and Piesse. The Vow offers a riveting behind-the-scenes chronicle of the months leading up to their decisions to leave NXIVM, from Vicente’s tense phone calls with Raniere to Edmondson’s final confrontation with employees at the Vancouver headquarters. They’re later joined in their whistleblowing crusade by actress Catherine Oxenberg, who is desperate to extract her daughter India from DOS and Raniere’s emotional prison.

The NXIVM scandal was global news three years ago, and plenty of viewers will already know how Raniere’s story ends. But The Vow may be the closest we ever get to understanding why it was allowed to begin in the first place. Grade: A-

The Vow premieres Sunday, August 23 at 10 p.m. on HBO.

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