During the muggy last weeks of June 2019, Keith Raniere, the leader of the self-help organization NXIVM, sat in a downtown Brooklyn courthouse, owlish face peeking out from beneath a halo of pewter hair, looking like an overgrown prep-school boy in a jewel-toned crewneck, as prosecutors recounted a litany of his alleged crimes and peccadilloes, each more depraved and debauched than the last.
Raniere, they alleged, coerced a bevy of bright, ambitious women, including a former WB star and the daughter of an actress from Dynasty, into sending him photos of their vulvas and having his initials branded into their montes pubis while reciting the words, “Master, please brand me, it would be an honor.” They alleged he was obsessed with BDSM and lesbianism and lesbian BDSM. And they alleged that before he was arrested and charged with, among other things, sex trafficking and racketeering, he had reconvened some of his devoted female followers in Mexico for a group blow job.
For this reason, the media referred to Raniere as a sex-cult leader, and NXIVM, the self-help organization he cofounded, as a sex cult; it also focused heavily on the high-profile names associated with the group, such as Smallville star Allison Mack, Seagram’s heiress Clare Bronfman, and Battlestar Galactica actor Nicki Clyne. This is not the tack taken by The Vow, the new HBO series co-directed by Jehane Noujaim and Karim Amer. A sober, empathetic deep-dive into the group, The Vow stubbornly resists any efforts to be categorized as lurid or salacious, occasionally to its detriment (Variety referred to its extensive footage of self-help seminars and lectures as “for lack of a better word, boring“). And the filmmakers eschew all tabloid coverage of the group as a “sex cult.”
“One very funny comment that was recently made to me by a member was, ‘I was in this group for 20 years,'” says Noujaim. “‘Where was the sex?'”
In disputing this description, Noujaim is not entirely without bias: She has a personal connection to NXIVM. While attending a conference on Richard Branson’s Necker Island in 2008, she met Sara Bronfman, another heiress to the Seagram fortune and one of NXIVM’s most prominent members. (Bronfman’s sister Clare recently pleaded guilty to conspiring to conceal and harbor an undocumented immigrant for financial gain in connection with NXIVM.) Two years later, she took NXIVM’s flagship course, a 16-day intensive curriculum called Executive Success Program (ESP). “I was very moved by the classes and some of the people that I met there, because I think the commonality among them was that they believed they could change their lives and they could change the world with this ethical mission,” says Noujaim. “They all shared this idealism, which was refreshing.”
The Vow (or at least, the first seven episodes provided to media so far) largely focuses on the escape of two members: Mark Vicente, a longtime devotee and filmmaker; and Sarah Edmondson, the former head of the organization’s Vancouver center. Both came forward to the New York Times in 2017 about DOS, a secret society within NXIVM consisting of “masters” and “slaves” that starved and branded female members. Noujaim and Amer, who are married, had been friendly with Vicente and other NXIVM members; in 2017, they hosted a party at their house for some members, and were surprised when Vicente did not show up. He later told them he had left the group because his business partner, Sarah Edmondson, had told him about DOS, the secret, all-female society to which she belonged, and he was horrified by her account of being branded and learning that Raniere was at the top of the group. “He started to tell me he was having a crisis of faith,” Noujaim says.
Initially, the series began with the filmmakers focusing on Vicente, Edmondson, their spouses, and Dynasty star Catherine Oxenberg, the mother of then-DOS member India. “At the beginning, we wanted to document what we were doing, because we were certain Clare [Bronfman] was going to sue us and we wanted to have everything on tape. It was self-protective,” says Edmondson. “And then it morphed into, ‘Wow, this is crazy, we need to document this.'” The series shows the former members of NXIVM struggling with whether to expose the group, and their ultimate decision to come forward to the New York Times in 2017, then to approach the federal government to intervene.
Raniere and several other key NXIVM members were arrested in Mexico in 2019, but so far, the episodes provided to media by HBO do not address this. Instead, they hopscotch from the early 1990s, when Raniere ran a multilevel marketing company called Consumers’ Byline and got his initial taste of power; to 2017, when Vicente and Edmondson were coming to terms with the role they played in NXIVM. This is an effective strategy, as The Vow, more than anything else, is focused on highlighting not the salacious details of what happened when people were drawn into Raniere’s web, but why they were in the first place, without drawing conclusions or making judgments. “Everybody who joined NXIVM, what they had in common is they dared to dream they could do something that can fundamentally change their lives,” Amer explains. “And that’s a beautiful dream. And I think that if we judge those who dare to dream, it says a lot more about us than it does about them.”
The first few episodes of the show make painstakingly — at times uncomfortably — clear why so many people would be drawn to Raniere’s teachings. The language of the ESP curriculum, while abstruse, contains echoes of scientific jargon, making it seem on the surface a lot more legitimate than woo-woo New Age pablum. The filmmakers also feature footage of NXIVM members raving about the effectiveness of the course, such as Marc Elliott, a member who says that Raniere and cofounder Nancy Salzman helped cure his Tourette’s syndrome. The series also tracks how Raniere laid the groundwork for his members to accept some of the more extremist aspects of his philosophies, such as the all-female organization JNESS and the all-male group Society of Protectors, which inculcated members to his more misogynistic beliefs.
Even DOS, with its dark veil of secrecy and its BDSM-influenced language and branding rituals, seemed relatively innocuous at first to many NXIVM members. It was presented as a network for powerful women to exert influence, something that appealed to Edmondson in the wake of Trump’s election. “I just felt there was stuff happening in the world that was scary for me, the shifting of power,” she explains. DOS was “presented as a way for us to have influence of good, and this would be the best way to, ironically, counter other abuses of power in the world, not seeing that this would be a massive abuse of power in itself.”
What NXIVM offered its members, and what is in short supply for the rest of the world right now, was a promise of community and belonging. Even though the organization has been officially dissolved, it also allegedly continues to this day, as the Albany Times-Union has reported that Raniere’s devoted followers have formed a splinter group, We Are As You, to dance outside the prison where he is being held. “Their belief is Keith is such a brilliant, misunderstood man that the rich and powerful people have planted evidence against the most honorable, noble man in the world,” says Edmondson. “[And] I know what that mindset is, because I used to have it.”
The Vow further illuminates just how seductive this promise of power and community were, and how painful it is for all of those extricating themselves from Raniere’s web to have it taken away. “We like to think of ourselves as super-smart intellectuals who, you know, Nobody can tell me what to do or who I am, and I’m in control of everything I do, and I’m the boss of me and all of that,” says Amer. “And I think the world is showing us time and again, especially now with Covid, we’re a lot more vulnerable and a lot more fragile. And we don’t have as many answers as we have questions.”
One of the more compelling subjects interviewed is Barbara Bouchey, one of Raniere’s former girlfriends and a high-ranking NXIVM member. For more than a decade, Bouchey was relentlessly pursued by the company in civil and criminal court after departing in 2009, a battle that’s left her destitute, according to her own accounts. Throughout Raniere’s trial, Bouchey would often insist that most coverage of NXIVM ignored the positive aspects of the program, what led thousands of people to stay for so long and pledge fealty to the nebbishy little man who played volleyball and loved prog rock and inexplicably referred to himself as “Vanguard.” She reiterates this message in The Vow, at one point speaking fondly of the person who she freely admits ruined her life. “He could’ve been great,” she says, blinking back tears while watching old footage of Raniere playing piano. “There was so much potential. And he did do good and help thousands of people, including me.”
It’s an uncomfortable moment, because it throws a wrench into our preconceived notions about not just NXIVM and Raniere, but about good and evil in general. We know, at this point in the series, the havoc that Raniere has wrought on Bouchey’s life, and the pain he has inflicted on his acolytes in the service of his own ego. Yet Bouchey steadfastly refuses to deny him the credit she feels he is owed for fulfilling at least some part of the group’s stated mission: to do good in a world that does not make doing good easy. A cynic would call this being in denial; an optimist would call it having hope. And The Vow is, at its core, a hopeful project.