On August 23, 2020 HBO released their first episode in a docuseries titled “The Vow” and on October 18, 2020, Starz’s released the first episode of “Seduced: Inside The NXIVM Cult.” Both documentaries are about NXIVM, the cult that splintered in 2018 amid allegations of sex trafficking, human branding, and fraud. Both of these documentaries provide valuable perspectives in the telling of this complicated and harrowing story.
My history with NXIVM goes back to season one of the podcast “Uncovered.” I listened to it when it came out and was absolutely hooked. When I heard that there was going to be a docuseries on HBO about that very same cult, I was excited but I also felt like I already knew the story. Little did I know, I had barely scratched the surface.
“The Vow” spends a lot of time talking about Mark Vicente, a member of NXIVM’s inner circle, and his crisis of faith, and not as much about the women who were abused by Keith Raniere. It also centers Sarah Edmondson, Bonnie Piesse, Anthony “Nippy” Ames, and more, following them through their decisions to leave the group and go public with its alleged abuse. “Seduced: Inside The NXIVM Cult” chronicles India Oxenberg’s attempts to grapple with, and heal from, her time in NXIVM and DOS. “Seduced” also discusses how Raniere created an entire system so that he could abuse women and manipulate them into abusing each other, all while they make money for him. “The Vow” does not go as deep into that topic, at least not until several episodes in.
The next group to be formed by Raniere was DOS in 2015. According to Glamour, the initials, in Latin, stand for “Lord/Master of the Obedient Female Companions.” DOS was composed of women who had slave-master relationships all in the name of aspiring each other to be better. Members were required to give collateral to join, often including nude photos. They were also allegedly put on near-starvation diets, branded with Raniere’s initials, and coerced into having sex with him. The women in DOS were led to believe that Keith did not create the “sorority” when, in fact, it was his idea all along. They were told that Keith knew of the group, but that he did no start it.
It’s clear that both documentaries are putting in an effort to convince audiences that absolutely anyone could be sucked into a cult, but they fail to highlight the fact that NXIVM mainly recruited white people who could afford the expensive courses they offered. If the shows had acknowledging these factors, you are taking away from a very valid point. If the shows had acknowledged that not just anyone would be compelled to join, but that if you ticked certain boxes you were much more susceptible to it, they could have had a much stronger message.
One other nitpick I had was that you can be both victim and perpetrator, but neither show really went into that as much as they should have. I wanted the subjects, like India and Sarah, to take more responsibility for the people they brought in. Sarah seemed so proud of her recruiting skills and all the money she made and it felt strange considering how she made that money by bullying people to join NXIVM.
No one joins a cult. Cult members think what they are joining is an organization, church, etc. that is trying to make the world a better place. One of the most important things I learned from both documentaries is this: follow your gut. Many of the people in NXIVM had a gut feeling that something wasn’t right and they convinced themselves that their gut was wrong.
“Seduced” dove deeper into the psychological damage that a cult can cause and how Raniere created NXIVM to abuse women, feel powerful, and manipulate people. “The Vow” was more focused on its subjects and how and why they left the group. I found the former to be much more compelling. If you are planning on watching only one of these series, “Seduced: Inside The NXIVM Cult” is the one I would recommend.
On October 27, 2020, Keith Raniere was sentenced to 120 years in prison on charges of sex trafficking, racketeering, and possession of child pornography.