There are times when watching HBO’s “The Vow,” the new nine-part documentary series about the Nxivm self-improvement cult, feels a lot like being in the Nxivm self-improvement cult. Throughout the series — which kicks off Sunday at 10 p.m. EDT — you are surrounded by smart, good-looking people who really want you to get with the program. Long stretches of tedium are broken by bursts of drama and insight. There are many volleyball games.
And you will spend so much time listening to Nxivm guru Keith Raniere blather on about being the best you that you can be and not being defined by your fears (and, by the way, how much is not being defined by your fears worth to you?), your brain will get a little mushy around the edges.
Having watched five of the six episodes made available to the press, I can’t say for sure if the end result will be worth the sacrifice of your time and gray matter. But like the gnomic, volleyball-obsessed Raniere, “The Vow” ends up being so creepily effective, you might become a convert in spite of yourself.
Even if you don’t know much about the Albany, New York-based Nxivm, you probably know about Keith Raniere.
In June of 2019, jurors in a Brooklyn courthouse heard about D.O.S., a secret all-female society within Nxivm where sharing blackmail-worthy secrets and getting branded with Raniere’s initials were the price of admission, and having sex with him was the ultimate reward.
The jurors heard about starvation diets, master-and-slave relationships and physical punishments for breaking the D.O.S.’ many rules. And at the end of the six-week trial, the jury took less than half a day to find Raniere guilty of multiple counts of racketeering and sex trafficking. He will be sentenced on Oct. 27.
But how did this happen? How did Raniere — whose pre-Nxivm experience involved a company that was investigated for being a suspected pyramid scheme — manage to persuade so many intelligent, ambitious people to buy into what he was selling? Why were they OK with enlightenment being tied to just one more expensive seminar? Or to the recruitment of other seekers? Or to a relationship where you had to text your master before you were allowed to eat?
It’s a slippery slope, this journey that starts with signing up for the official-sounding Executive Success Program and ends with enslavement. And one of the best decisions filmmakers Jehane Noujaim and Karim Amer (“The Great Hack,” “The Square”) made was in their choice of Sarah Edmondson and Mark Vicente to lead your tour down the Nxivm rabbit hole.
Vicente was a filmmaker hot off the success of “What the #$*! Do We (K)now?”; Edmondson was a Canadian actress whose career wasn’t going much of anywhere. They met on a Deepak Chopra-endorsed Caribbean cruise dedicated to spirituality and cinema, and after theorizing that Edmondson’s chronic cough might be a bid for attention (a classic Raniere-style move), Vicente casually mentioned Nxivm and its Executive Success Program (ESP).
Edmondson was a lost soul looking for a purpose, and like Vicente — who was plagued by panic attacks — she found the answers she was looking for during a five-day ESP training. Sure, there were odd rules about how to shake hands and what to call Raniere and co-founder Nancy Salzman. (Salzman was “Prefect” and Raniere was “Vanguard.”) There was a weird hierarchical structure that involved colored sashes.
But the Nxivm family was warm, welcoming and highly social, and Raniere seemed so wise and humble. And after putting in their time and climbing the sash ladder — which involved paying for many more sessions and recruiting more people who would also pay for many more sessions — Vicente and Edmondson became part of Raniere’s inner circle. They were happy. They were getting rich. They fell in love with fellow Nxivm members and got married.
Then things got weird. Through his wife, actress Bonnie Piesse, Vicente found out about the D.O.S. group, the starvation diets and the branding. When he brought it up to Edmondson, she admitted that she was in D.O.S., and that she was branded, too. (She did not have sex with Raniere, however.) Vicente and Edmondson (and their spouses) left the group, eventually becoming the main whistleblowers for the newspaper stories that eventually led to Raniere’s day in court.
With their showbiz poise and their insider knowledge, Vicente and Edmondson make great narrators. But their stories of being saved by Nxivm only to be betrayed by it are retold multiple times by other former members whose experiences follow the same disturbing pattern. And with each retelling, we get more footage of Raniere playing volleyball and pontificating, more recorded phone calls and conversations with Raniere talking a lot but not saying much of anything, and you find yourself thinking, “Him? They turned their lives over to him?”
If there is a vacuum in these initial episodes of “The Vow” where the villain is supposed to be, there is more than enough personality and power in his victims to keep you invested in their well-being. I still don’t know what made Raniere and his philosophical mishmash so special, but I believe that Edmondson, Vicente and all of the other beautiful people believed it. And watching Raniere systematically exploit that belief to serve his needs is both heartbreaking and infuriating.
Keith Raniere did not deserve their devotion, and they did not deserve his bland brand of evil. Some of the messages in “The Vow” get lost in the hot air, but that’s not one of them.
“The Vow” debuts Sunday at 10 p.m. ET on HBO and streams on HBO Max.
(Karla Peterson is a columnist for the San Diego Union-Tribune.)
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