If you’ve heard of Nxivm in the last couple of years, it was probably because of shocking, salacious headlines – sex cult, starvation diets, initials branded on women’s crotches, “master slaves” organized by the former Smallville actor Allison Mack. The extent of the group’s abuse, as exposed in court, a New York Times exposé and several memoirs, was indeed galling and nauseating, but the most horrifying details overshadowed a confusing, chameleonic and far more deceptive road to ruin. As documented in The Vow, a nine-part HBO series which follows former members as they reckon with their participation in the group and attempt to destroy it, the path to involvement in Nxivm – which billed itself as an ethical training program under the “vanguard” leadership of Keith Raniere – was far more insidious and seemingly innocuous than one might assume.
It’s not as though the women of DOS, the secret, all-female group orchestrated by Raniere to twist “female empowerment” into coerced sex under threat of “collateral” blackmail, joined Nxivm looking for a “master/slave” relationship. (The name DOS is a Latin acronym allegedly meaning “Lord/Master of the Obedient Female Companions”). “Had Raniere initially said, ‘Hey guys, welcome to executive success, I’m going to burn my initials into your crotch,’ I would’ve thought differently,” Sarah Edmondson, a former Nxivm member who displayed her branding scar in the 2017 Times article and serves as co-narrator for The Vow, told the Guardian. If you think it would never happen to you, “it makes you a prime candidate”, she said. “Because you need to understand how it would.”
The Vow provides ample space for former members of Raniere’s orbit, in particular Edmondson and documentarian Mark Vicente, to explain their journeys into and out of the organization in at first benign, then harrowing detail. The show, created by the Oscar-nominated film-makers Jehane Noujaim and Karim Amer (The Square), derives its sensitivity toward former Nxivm members in part from personal experience; Noujaim once participated in one of Nxivm’s five-day “executive success” intensive programs.
In 2006, Noujaim was “at the top of my game”, she told the Guardian – she had just become the first woman and youngest person to win the Ted prize for her film Control Room – but had “some very big questions in my life”. At a Ted-related retreat on Richard Branson’s island, she was introduced to Nxivm by Sarah Bronfman, the billionaire heiress to the Seagram liquor fortune who, along with her sister Claire, bankrolled Raniere. Two years later, Noujaim met Vicente, who convinced her to sign up for the five-day workshop at the group’s home base outside Albany, New York.
There were a few red flags, she recalled – the reverence with which members of the group spoke of Raniere, the hierarchy demarcated by strange colored sashes – but overall, Noujaim found the group “fascinating”. She met executives, Harvard graduates, ambitious creatives who “believed that they could change their lives and that they could change the world with this new ethical mission”, she said. “They shared a kind of idealism that I found refreshing.”
Edmondson had a similarly warm experience with Nxivm at first; when she joined on Vicente’s recommendation in 2005, she was going on 27, adrift in her career, and wondering “what’s my purpose here? What’s meaningful to me? What do I want to do? Who am I?”
Nxivm appeared to offer a chance at radical self-improvement, its multi-level marketing recruitment tactics masked as an empowering commitment peddled above a stream of “always be optimizing”, boss-bitch feminism. “As women, in this culture, we’re never ‘OK’ – we’re never thin enough, we’re never perky enough, nothing is ever enough,” said Edmondson. “That was the motor behind so much of what we did, and I hate that.” Edmondson’s parents were therapists, but she found the weekly work of therapy tedious and boring; Nxivm was “sort of like a diet pill” in that it proposed to fix you in five days. As documented in The Vow and her 2019 memoir Scarred, Edmondson threw herself into the group as a mentor, overriding concerns about Raniere’s unquestioned leadership role.
In 2017, a decade after she first enrolled in a Nxivm class, which she paused because of a work commitment, Noujaim reconnected with Vicente in Los Angeles, who encouraged her to finish the program. So she was surprised when Vicente missed the program’s closing party at her house, and no longer responded to her texts.
A few weeks later, Vicente explained why: he and his wife, the former Star Wars actor and musician Bonnie Piesse, had defected from the organization. They, along with actor Edmondson, another longtime Nxivm member who had founded the center in Vancouver a few years prior, were awakened to Raniere’s sexual abuses, psychological control and the terrifying realization that for years, they had participated in and recruited for a cult. Amer and Noujaim started filming what seemed at first to be two individual stories of escape, as Edmondson and Vicente/Piesse tunneled their way out and attempted to bring others – close friends, members of their wedding parties, people they had introduced to Nxivm – with them.
The Vow burrows under your skin in ways hard to predict, largely because of the accounting by Edmondson and Vicente, who unravel Nxivm’s toxicity and abuse through reconsideration of their memories, photos and pamphlets from a group that became their career and family, and, most importantly, extensive audio and video evidence. The first episode presents what seems to be a weird but ultimately harmless self-improvement group; the second and third reveal the depths of manipulation and smokescreens to be near bottomless. Edmondson in particular speaks to the bizarre experience of waking up in an indefensible pot of water you didn’t realize was boiling. “It’s so hard to explain these things in soundbites, because it’s over 12 years of indoctrination,” she said.
Nxivm, she explained, seemed initially to make your impulses legible – why you sink into the couch when you should go to the gym, why you turn to cheesecake when you’re stressed. DOS was introduced to Edmondson by her best friend, Lauren Salzman, who pitched the group as “committing to override that for a higher principle, to not indulge in those feelings, to follow through on those goals you set”. (Salzman later testified against Raniere and pleaded guilty to racketeering.) The idea that your ideology could be stronger than your body – “there’s truth in that,” Edmondson said. “That’s the fucked-up thing about Nxivm – there’s a lot of truth and a lot of good nuggets, but then those are warped for personal gain.”
Raniere and the women closest to him, most notably Mack, twisted self-improvement into self-blame; “Keith tried to teach us that the victims are the abusers,” said Edmondson. “We were taught in Nxivm that there were no victims, that you can never be victimized.”
The Vow’s later episodes document DOS’s unraveling in the fall of 2017, as the #MeToo movement triggered a wave of public reckonings, as well of the depths of Raniere’s depravity (in June 2019, Raniere was convicted of federal crimes including sex trafficking of children, conspiracy and conspiracy to commit forced labor; his sentencing is scheduled for 27 October). For Edmondson, the days since coming forward to the New York Times have been a “really, really long journey”. She’s done “extensive” therapy with cult experts, worked with a psychologist, a couple’s counselor with her husband, Anthony “Nippy” Ames, also a former Nxivm member. She’s connected former members with pro bono attorneys (Nxivm was notoriously litigious with defectors). Some days she’s reaching a new normal at her home in Vancouver, others she becomes “infuriated, because these are friends of mine, people who were at my wedding”, she said. “And I want to shake them and wake them up. But I can’t.”
The series will, she hopes, break stereotypes about “how groups like this form and how people get hooked” and impart lessons beyond the judgment wall that is the polarizing word “cult”.
“This isn’t about cults; this is about abuses of power,” she said. “And those happen in organizations, in churches and religions, it happens within families.
“Everybody is indoctrinated in some way, it just depends what your indoctrination is,” said Noujaim. “And looking at the process of questioning – each one of us, no matter what we believe, need to continually go through a process of questioning.”
The Vow airs on HBO on Sundays with a UK date later this year