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SKEPTIC’s REVIEW: “The Vow” (2020) | HBO Original Series | Movie Analysis

The Premise

I wasn’t sure whether to cover this documentary in the SKEPTIC’s REVIEW segment. Even though the analysis of video materials regarding cults is a perfect fit for the category, I tend to see Keith Raniere’s NXIVM more as a dysfunctional group that brought together Hollywood rejects and entitled trust-fund kids with a puerile “save the world” message as bait than a cult.

NXIVM is a scheme that tricked everyone involved, more similar to multi-level marketing scams than to any other cult with a religious or spiritual core system of beliefs.

The belief system linked to NXIVM is indeed a salad of manipulative techniques but those who joined seemed more motivated by money and power than the stated mission of the group.

I see the whole NXIVM fiasco more as an “I’ll do anything for money and power” environment than the victim factory HBO’s “The Vow” series wants to portray.

Yes, there are plenty of elements that can classify NXIVM as a cult but to me, it only seems that they’ve mimicked the traits of one, in a MLM company, while bringing a sick twist to it all because there were just too many sociopathic traits brought together in a small portion of the world.

It was all going to backfire like it often happens with organized crime groups.

“The Vow” offers an up-close perspective of how such a group operates, which makes it an interesting documentary to watch, but the meaning that the producers and main characters want to convey is a failed attempt at redemption, yet a successful part of a Get Out Of Jail Free card for the former NXIVM members who suddenly decided to shine a light on the organization’s illegal practices.

I will explain more in the review.

 

Note: This analysis is not meant as a personal attack on the individuals whose content or craft makes the subject of the series. By no means do I intend to trigger through my content any type of aggressive (re)actions toward them, their collaborators, or supporters. We are all entitled to our own beliefs, however foolish they may be considered by others, and we are also entitled to practice them, the only limit being, in my opinion, causing any type of harm to another being or to our common environment. I believe all of our activities could, in theory, be deconstructed and less-than-perfect characteristics may be revealed in the process, so nitpicking is not my aim. Some of these people and organizations may have good intentions, but may also deliver messages and provide services that can do more harm than good to individuals or social environments. This is what I want to reveal.

 

• SPOILERS AHEAD •

About “The Vow” (2020)

“The Vow” is an HBO Original nine-part documentary that presents the inner workings of NXIVM – an MLM-type organization focused on pseudoscientific personal development programs -, and the associated sex-cult Dominus Obsequious Sororium (DOS), through the perspective of several leading members of the group.

The Anatomy of the Analysis

Unlike the other articles in the SKEPTIC’s REVIEW series, this won’t be an in-depth, step-by-step, episode-by-episode analysis, partly because I watched this documentary a few months ago and took no specific notes, but mostly because I consider the whole series a repetitive cluster of elements meant to favor the main characters and tell a story with a very subjective, self-serving spin.

“The Vow” is not an unmediated account of the life inside NXIVM and DOS, so I would mainly be analyzing someone’s opinion about the cult and organization. That would not be an analysis of NXIVM but an analysis of the individuals talking about their experiences. For more reasons than one, I don’t think such an interpretation is necessarily relevant to understanding the psychological environment of NXIVM since all that is presented in the documentary is carefully tailored to fit the interests of these former members.

This is not to say that their opinion does not matter or that this manner of describing their experiences cancels the negative effects their time spent as NXIVM members had on their lives but it would be an unbalanced, incomplete view on the cult.

Long story short, the analysis below is my opinion of their opinion on NXIVM, their participation in the group, and the effects of their membership on their own life and the lives of other members.

THE REVIEW

 

“The Vow” reveals that NXIVM was a group meant to bring together:

  • Pseudointellectuals. The ideal NXIVM member for Keith Raniere, and his sidekick, Nancy Salzman, had to fall for the “you’re smart enough to help us save the world” spiel, as well as not question the pseudo-scientific techniques the org was going to use in their everyday training programs. NXIVM is for those who like the idea of science but don’t understand its process and results.
  • People with enhanced narcissistic traits. NXIVM stroked the egos of its members, especially those who brought the most money to the organization – be it in the form of fees, donations, or rich people who could potentially spend a fortune on NXIVM’s crap in the years to come. The members were told they were going to save the world and make it a better place, and they believed it because of the little nothings they were given by Raniere as confirmation of their alleged value – colorful sashes, praise, and higher positions on the pyramid, etc.
  • People willing to spend money on NXIVM. Rich was better but even those with modest savings or an average income were welcomed by the group if they were willing to put all of their time and money into NXIVM-related services and products. That was known to all members from the beginning since the initial workshops meant a fee of several thousand dollars.

These were the main things that would get someone to enter the NXIVM realm.

No matter how hard the creators try to convey the idea that the main characters of the documentary joined the group “for the good reasons” and “then something bad happened” because “brainwashing“, the reality is more nuanced than that and I believe that many of the above lenses can be applied to them as well.

Mark Vincente, co-creator of another pseudoscientific classic, the “What the #$*! Do We (K)now!?” documentary, was not only one of NXIVM’s top trainers and recruiters but was also tasked with documenting the organization’s journey and produce video content to highlight Raniere’s propaganda regarding their mission and results. The vulnerability Raniere and Salzman seemed to exploit when it comes to Vincente was his desire to be someone of importance, to feel special, and to be recognized for his creative efforts. He was allowed to have a cozy spot next to Raniere – who mainly had female friends, and that position was then exploited for the organization’s and Raniere’s direct benefit. He not only made them money, but he also made their image palatable for potential new members.

Sarah Edmondson is a Canadian actress, who was struggling professionally when she decided to join NXIVM. She became one of their main earners and recruiters, and, just like in Vicente’s case, she was rewarded with sashes, key roles in the org, and praise. In “The Vow” and beyond, her willingness and courage to expose the highly abusive environment of NXIVM’s DOS segment – now seen as a sex cult, especially her decision to go to the media to tell her story and show photo evidence of her body branded with Keith Raniere’s and actress’s Allison Mack’s initials – are core to the movement that ultimately made NXIVM implode. Edmonson was brave, sure, but seeing her as a victim alone is a reductive perspective on her years of being a NXIVM and DOS member.

Mark Vicente’s wife, Bonnie Piesse, and Sarah Edmonson’s husband, Anthony “Nippy” Ames were also significant figures in the organization and participated in the legal actions against NXIVM. Piesse was actually one of the first to see the signs that there was something definitely wrong with the way the organization operated.

“The Vow” shows that there were plenty of signs and red flags about Raniere and NXIVM all around them – ever since joining the group – yet they chose to ignore them and allow themselves to focus on the parts that confirmed their views and satisfied their interests and expectations.

Among the red flags the documentary reveals:

  • Keith Raniere had a shady past that involved multi-level marketing schemes. It would’ve been easy for the well-connected members of NXIVM to research his past ventures such as Consumers’ Buyline Inc. and National Health Network.
  • Keith Raniere’s “highest IQ in the world” claim based on a 1989 Guinness Book of World Records entry was easy to dismiss as bogus. The alleged record was based on an irrelevant test.
  • The group you’ve just joined wants you to address the leaders with funny titles. From the very beginning, the NXIVM members were asked to call Raniere “Vanguard” and Salzman “Prefect”. If that doesn’t give away the abusive hierarchical structure of the group right from the start, I don’t know what is.
  • The male leader of the group has a funny way to greet female members. Raniere would kiss female members on the lips as a form of greeting. Sure, consenting adults, but it’s still weird. If this behavior is not what you’re used to or there for, then why just accept it?
  • The group made everyone recruit others and work mainly to benefit the organization. Participate in the group’s activities? Sure. Work like crazy, for little or no money for some members, when your main task is to make others join and pay participation fees? Would your local book club make you do that? 
  • The demeaning workshops. Like a demented behavioral experiment, NXIVM’s workshops often involved activities that were demeaning to participants, especially women. Out of one’s comfort zone? Sure. But do you not see the pattern? Do you not see the lines that have been crossed toward humiliation and abuse?
  • The neverending celebrations of the leader. NXIVM had a variety of events meant to celebrate the alleged genius of Keith Raniere. Among them, something called Vanguard Week – a 10-day celebration of Raniere’s birthday. Seriously? You find it normal to sing and do little sketches and dance routines to celebrate another human being? Especially since that’s not the case for every NXIVM member.
  • The branding and the collateral. I mean, the mother of all giveaways when it comes to cults, I’d say. You’re in a group that makes you do a lot of shady things for them anyway but now they suddenly ask you to get cuts on your body, in the shape that you later realize is the small group’s leaders’ initials – DOS was led by Smallville actress Allison Mack -, and give them data that can be used against you, such as nudes and statements against those you care about. Now, now, the “I was brainwashed” argument only works in certain contexts, and I will explain later why I don’t think that’s the catch-all argument for NXIVM and DOS members. If you still had doubts about the org you are in, the moment they brand you with no anesthetic or specialized doctor, and video record everything as evidence that you wanted the brand, I say you’ve gathered enough proof that the whole thing is pretty messed up.

Anyway, the list can go on and on about the things that happened within NXIVM that could’ve provided the members with enough data about the type of organization they were in. Mark Vincente was even asked to re-record footage so that Raniere would look more trustworthy, and he was also leading some of the workshops where women were being treated as less than men. I think they dismissed the signs because the benefits they got from the group – money, status, heightened feelings of self-worth, etc – outweighed everything else, especially the interests of others.

Bonnie Piesse got out sooner than the other main characters of “The Vow”. She had a tough time though convincing her husband of her suspicion and findings. In fact, it was Sarah Edmonson’s admission of what’s going on in DOS that convinced him. If what is needed to nudge you out of it is the story of young women being coerced into having sex with the group’s leader and having their bodies mutilated… then of course you dismissed the more vague cues with ease.

 

Now, the members featured in “The Vow” claim that brainwashing was the reason why they ended up acting against their otherwise clean and friendly views. We hear a lot about cults brainwashing members to make them do the unthinkable. We may even think of U.S. Central Intelligence Agency’s MKUltra program to legitimize the term, the process, and its effects. But things are not that straightforward in the psychological realm.

Brainwashing by itself, with no context, is a meaningless term.

It’s informally used to describe a cluster of manipulative techniques intended to gradually change a person’s locus of control from internal to external – meaning, the person would allow others to control their thoughts and actions. Uhm… easier said than done.

Psychological abuse is a real thing but it comes in many forms. When it comes to NXIVM, I am not convinced that the so-called brainwashing is responsible for the actions of many, if not most of the members. I’m not going to address each of my reasons, but the main thing is that they seemed independent enough to be aware of their environment the majority of the time they spent in NXIVM.

I think they willingly went with most of the stupid activities linked to the group because they always had something to gain from doing so.

But I also believe that at some point things went too far, and that’s when many of them lost control of what was happening to them and to those they recruited into the group. That’s the moment that makes them victims of an abusive smaller group of deranged people within NXIVM.

The leaders of the group were charged with sex trafficking, racketeering, and conspiracy, not brainwashing or pushing people over reasonable limits of behavior. That’s when the stuff got real and this is why I think NXIVM is more of an organized crime group than a cult. Without the organized crime, it’s just another MLM scam.

Keith Raniere, Nancy Salzman, and their minions – Allison Mack, Clare Bronfman, and others – did exploit human vulnerabilities such as vanity, gullibility,  personal frustrations and failures, as well as one’s tendency toward antisocial acts, but most of the time, the individuals within NXIVM did act freely and had the opportunity to leave and warn others.

I understand the fear that may come with that but for most people, taking the risk of being chased by the bad guys versus saving innocent destinies means an easy choice.

I don’t think NXIVM would’ve ended if DOS did not exist. Some even say that cells of the alleged cult are still active.

The whole thing makes me think of the Church of Scientology. The MLM structure is present there as well, the money floods their accounts in the same way it did NXIVM’s, and celebrities are targeted primarily by the – also – alleged cult. Yes, I also see Scientology as less of a religion and more of a money-making scheme with a religious twist for tax exemption purposes.

I see similarities between Vicente and Edmonson’s actions against NXIVM and Leah Remini’s actions against Scientology. Remini was an advocate until David Miscavige’s wife mysteriously disappeared and the actress was excluded from the organization’s elite circle.

Even though the behaviors benefit more people than those taking steps against these harmful organizations, their core motives do not seem selfless. Prioritizing one’s ego and legal interests seem the main driving force for all these actions.

Conclusions

“The Vow” wants to portray heroes but it only shows people who finally decided to do the right thing. That’s decency, not heroism.

Vicente, Edmonson, and the other members who decided to tell their story via “The Vow” seem honest enough and reveal a good amount of information about their own implications in the group’s workings. But they’re definitely still holding back information, and the cherry-picking gives the documentary a propaganda nuance.

Who knows? Maybe we will get more answers in the series’s Season 2, scheduled to launch on October 17th, 2022.

P.S. The whole thing was too long. The nine-episode format is diluting the rhythm of the information and it all becomes incredibly repetitive. A 90-minute info-packed documentary would’ve been a better choice, I think.

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