Ian Thomas Malone

A Connecticut Yogi in King Joffrey's Court

the vow Archive

Wednesday

11

November 2020

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Seduced breaks down the complexities of NXIVM’s vast web

Written by , Posted in Blog, Pop Culture, TV Reviews

The saga of NXIVM is endlessly fascinating, a web of mostly detestable figures running a pyramid scheme in Albany, New York. Occasionally lost in the jokes about Keith Raniere’s bullshit is the trail of victims he left in his wake. There are the Mark Vicente’s and the Sarah Edmonson’s of the story, whose own culpability remains a puzzling question. The India Oxenberg’s of the story are perhaps even more complex, women who were indoctrinated at young ages to become sex slaves and cogs in the scheme’s vast machine.

Much of HBO’s The Vow was filmed in real time as former NXIVM members worked to take Raniere down, culminating in his 2018 arrest alongside several other key figures. A major storyline of The Vow centered around actress Catherine Oxenberg’s efforts to save her daughter India from the cult’s clutches. STARZ’s Seduced: Inside the NXIVM Cult picks up where season one of The Vow left off, presenting India’s story in her own words for the first time.

Seduced offers a superb primer into the world of cults, expertly breaking down the mechanics behind Raniere’s long grift. Several expert psychologists provide simple explanations for the ways that Raniere was able to build such a vast empire while mostly recycling nonsense from self-help gurus and Scientology. Like its bizarre name, NXIVM can be pretty confusing at first, but Seduced peels back the layers of the bullshit.

Raniere ruined countless people, both psychologically and financially. Part of NXIVM’s effectiveness was the way in which the organization was able to entrap its members by making many culpable themselves. The lines between victim and perpetrator can be blurred. India was a sex slave to Smallville actress Allison Mack, but India herself had slaves of her own. By including interviews with some of the prosecutors, Seduced works to clean up what will always be a messy picture. There are no easy answers here.

Seduced is a succinct series, presented over four episodes. The show is ostensibly India’s narrative, while including accounts from other DOS victims that help provide a clearer picture of the destruction Raniere caused. There is some slight overlap with content explored in The Vow, but Raniere’s insistence on recording practically every interaction ensures that there’s plenty of new material here.

India’s interviews are often challenging to watch. Persistent is the sense that she’s still clearly working through all of this. Maybe Seduced would be better off waiting for a bit longer to present her story, but maybe India simply wants to get on with her life. The brief amount of time between Raniere’s arrest and the arrival of NXIVM-related content is perhaps too short a period for much introspection, a dynamic exacerbated by the fact that many of the subjects only narrowly avoided prosecution. This is messy stuff.

India’s time in Albany gave her a much better front row seat to the actions of key players such as Nancy Salzman, Mack, and Raniere than The Vow was able to present. The web is complex, hardly the subject than any series would be able to tackle in only a handful of episodes. Seduced clearly has the better claim to casual viewers, supplying the broad details of what makes NXIVM so captivating while limiting the time spent down the various rabbit holes.

NXIVM is among the weirder true crime stories in recent memory, involving numerous Hollywood figures, ginger ale heiresses, and the Dalai Lama among countless others. It’s not hard to see why this saga is so fascinating to many. India is a young woman who went through the trauma of a lifetime in her early twenties. Seduced presents her story in a way that horrifies while also providing some hope that this unfortunate mess won’t define the rest of her life. NXIVM’s victims deserve a chance to turn the page.

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Wednesday

14

October 2020

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The Vow peels back the murky, deeply unsettling world of NXIVM

Written by , Posted in Blog, Pop Culture, TV Reviews

Everything about NXIVM and its “vanguard” Keith Raniere screams “cult.” From the bizarre sashes, to the late-night volleyball games, to the endless money-suck of classes for their “Executive Success Programs,” the red flags seem pretty damn obvious to any reasonable outsider. Over the course of nine episodes, HBO’s docuseries The Vow peels back the layers to explain how this con took hold of so many lives over the course of nearly twenty years.

NXIVM (pronounced “nex-e-um”) is a complex organization, a notion perhaps best represented by its confusing name. Its surface level operations focus on courses in the vein of “awareness training,” the kind of stuff that appeals to those who fuel the billion-dollar self-help industry. For those seeking community, NXIVM functioned in essentially the same role as a church. Deep beneath NXIVM’s surface are its subgroups, including DOS, which blackmailed and branded women, the primary driver that led to Raniere’s 2017 arrest.

The Vow succinctly explains the “how” and the “why” behind NXIVM’s success, an organization largely bankrolled by Seagram’s heiresses Sara and Clare Bronfman. Dissenters were frequently met with various legal threats, providing extensive cover for Raniere’s various cons. As loathsome as Raniere appears, a scraggly looking figure whose sense of style doesn’t appear to evolved past his freshman year of college, it is easy to see the appeal of his snake oil strategy to unsuspecting souls.

Directors Karim Amer and Jehane Noujam do an excellent job balancing the many pieces of NXIVM. The “sex cult” allegations are by far the most salacious and interesting to see on screen, but the saga of this Albany clique with outposts in Mexico and Canada goes far deeper than that. It is perhaps impossible to calculate the damage caused by NXIVM, from the financial ruin to the emotional turmoil. The series paints with a broad brush, translating the complex theories in an easily digestible manner.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, The Vow draws its protagonists from the crop of people involved in the film industry who were lured into NXIVM’s orbit. Former members Mark Vicente, a filmmaker, and Sarah Edmondson, an actress, provide invaluable first-person perspectives. Amer and Noujam center much of their narrative on Catherine Oxenberg of Dynasty fame, whose daughter India was deeply involved in DOS right up to Raniere’s arrest.

Part of what makes The Vow so compelling is its use of extensive archival footage from NXIVM’s history, much of it shot by Vicente before he turned on the group. Raniere’s obsession with recording his entire existence backfired in this regard, allowing him to be featured extensively without the agency of his own intentions. One gets the impression that the mere existence of the series must be driving Raniere insane as he currently awaits sentencing after guilty verdicts on multiple charges.

The participation of Vicente and Edmondson, the latter of whom ran the Vancouver branch and describes herself as a former top “earner” within NXIVM, creates an interesting moral quandary that the filmmakers approach with delicate hands. Occupying leadership positions for so long within the company produces a natural sense of responsibility. It is fair to wonder just how guilty either are, an issue that The Vow nuzzles up toward without ever really confronting head on.

Maybe it didn’t need to. Largely shot before Raniere’s arrest in 2017, it is fair to acknowledge the lack of distance between the subjects and their traumatizing events. The series takes a hands-off approach as Vicente grapples with his own guilt, a moving display of emotion that communicates the sense that this is something he’ll never truly recover from.

The same holds true for Edmondson, branded for life with this initials of Raniere and Smallville actress Allison Mack. How much of her victimhood is negated by her leadership role, which encouraged countless people to spend their life-savings on junk courses taught by sexual predators? The Vow has no idea how to gauge this question, perhaps only faltering a bit in choosing to celebrate its leads as heroes. There are no easy answers here. It’s tempting to write off chunks as PR reclamation projects, but perhaps that action isn’t wholly unwarranted either.

Nobody sets out to join a cult, a notion presented many times over the course of the series. The Vow provides an illuminating front row seat to the unimaginable, navigating the murky waters of a cult with dignity toward its subjects. Maybe there aren’t any real heroes here besides Oxenberg, who’s quest to save her daughter provides The Vow’s most emotionally rewarding journey.

Several subjects point out that there was good in NXIVM, even in its monster of a founder. One should not be faulted for not wishing to bother thinking about whether or not Raniere did any good in his life. The sum of his existence will always lie in the red. For the rest, redemption is a long road, one started by the actions displayed in the series. It is important to believe in redemption, the kind of saving grace that affords good people an opportunity for another chapter.

There is tremendous value in hearing Vicente and Edmondson’s story, even if you remain a bit unsure what to think of them after the dust starts to settle. The recent nature of the whole NXIVM saga suggests the story is far from over. For now, The Vow encourages its audience to see the complexity in the humanity presented on screen.

The entire nine-episode series was screened for review.

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