The threshold for bizarre, horrifying news is high these days, but certain stories rise above the cacophony of Bad and stick in the mind as unusually disturbing. The story of the NXIVM cult and its sex trafficking sub-sect DOS (Dominus Obsequious Sororium) is one of those stories that stick.
In October 2017, a New York Times article revealed that NXIVM, thought to be a self-improvement practice-cum-multilevel marketing scheme popular with celebrities and influential persons, was in fact a criminal enterprise that facilitated sexual and physical assault at the hands of its founder Keith Raniere. Smallville actor Allison Mack was implicated in and later pled guilty to charges related to the cult’s crimes, and NXIVM’s long history of brainwashing and intimidation came to light.
Those who have never been exposed to cults or brainwashing practices might assume that the victims of NXIVM were especially vulnerable, perhaps because the idea that anyone could fall under the spell of a leader like Raniere is too difficult to swallow. HBO’s new docuseries The Vow exists to strip the public of that illusion and expose NXIVM’s processes through the eyes of those who lived in, escaped, and later worked to take down Raniere’s operation.
Some might assume that victims of NXIVM were especially vulnerable, perhaps because the idea that anyone could fall under the spell is too difficult to swallow.
From the beginning, The Vow is an uncomfortable but necessary watch because the subjects of the documentary all appear lucid, sane, and normal. These people — former NXIVM VP Mark Vicente, early escapee Bonnie Piesse, ex-DOS member Sarah Edmondson, and former leader of a NXIVM men’s group Anthony Ames — have the terrible advantage of seeing NXIVM from both sides. They can clearly describe what happened to them as members from the perspective of people who fully understand the moral and ethical boundaries they violated on Raniere’s behalf. It’s chilling to witness their clarity as they process their guilt and complicity and The Vow unravels more of NXIVM’s dark side.
In addition to the former members, Dynasty star Catherine Oxenfurt is a central presence in the documentary; her enormous contributions to the New York Times article and later criminal case were on behalf of her daughter, who was a member of DOS. Oxenfurt’s story and involvement with the whistleblowers sheds light on the effects that cult brainwashing has on members’ families, and her tireless work to free her daughter is a heroic and heartbreaking throughline.
The Vow contains so many stories and perspectives on NXIVM and Raniere that the docuseries does struggle to keep them coherent as the hours roll on. In the seven episodes provided to Mashable for review, three or four felt overstuffed with information and lacked a distinct way to follow the flashbacks and timelines of every single character. Compounding this confusion is the plethora of footage Vicente and others shot while in NXIVM, which is edited together with later interviews, staged recreations of key moments, and text-over-visual sequences denoting important phone calls or text message exchanges.
All of the information is there, but it’s not particularly streamlined, leading episodes to start with footage of one character in 2017, jump back to introduce a new player with shocking information, and leap back to the original character with little connection between their narratives.
If anything, The Vow’s occasionally confused editing speaks to how complex the effects of cult systems really are. Human psychology is a messy, difficult process in the absence of bad actors and intentional brainwashing — trying to organize the aftermath of several people’s psychological abuse into nine hourlong episodes was always going to feel a little scrambled. The chaos of disparate experiences is hard to rein in, and the subjects of The Vow truly do their best to explain the hows, whys, and whens of their involvement.
Cautionary, confusing, and horrifying, The Vow invites viewers to empathize and understand the core truths of human commonality that made something like DOS possible in the first place. Maintaining one’s assertion that someone like Raniere could never affect them is not only unsafe but illogical. One of the tools we have in fighting off these influences is exposure to the perfectly clever, ordinary people who volunteered their humanity to NXIVM and had the presence of mind to leave at great cost. The Vow tells their stories, and they are stories everyone needs to hear.