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Image / Living / Culture

The Vow: A gripping must-watch documentary to binge this weekend

by Jennifer McShane
16th Jan 2021

Airing now on Sky Documetories/Sky Atlantic/NowTV, HBO’s The Vow‘s nine parts tell the story of Nxivm, a community formed under the guise of self-help when really it was a front for what became a sex ring. In the nine-part first series, its whistleblowers, with hours of video footage pieced together, tell of their decades-long time as members and what made them decide to get out

The Nxivm story is bizarre and sickening. The group, which was based near Albany in NYC but had offices with thousands of members in Los Angeles and Mexico, offered “self-improvement” courses, claiming they would help participants overcome fears and realise their potential.

In reality, it was a misogynistic, mind-control cult whose adherents referred to its leader, Keith Raniere, as “Vanguard,” and where women who joined a secret sorority were branded with a symbol containing his initials. Several Nxivm defectors including Mark Vicente, his wife, Bonnie Piesse, Sarah Edmondson and her husband and Dynasty actress Catherine Oxenberg all helped to blow the lid on the group when they realised what was going on – Sarah herself was branded after falsely being told the symbol would be the size of a dime and of The Elements.

She is likeable and emphatic; too-operated to be drawn into Raniere’s “inner circle” of women and is calm, measured and distraught when she realises how all the members, in particular, the women have been brainwashed for Raniere’s own twisted needs. Mark Vicente’s side as a nieve worshipper comes across a just a little too strongly at times (if you watch a sister documentary called ‘Seduced‘, you’ll see The Vow left out crucial details: Before joining Nxivm, he had been a devotee of another cult). But, he does do the right thing in the end and help expose the cult leader for the monster he really is.

Over the past two years, several Nxivm officials have pleaded guilty to federal charges and Raniere, following his conviction for sex trafficking and other crimes, was recently sentenced to 120 years in prison.

What happened?

US actress Allison Mack pleaded guilty to charges linked to this sex-trafficking operation disguised as a mentoring group.

Mack, who is best known for her role as Clark Kent’s friend in the television series Smallville, was one of six defendants in a case filed last year against various member.

In her statement, Mack admitted to recruiting women into the society by telling them they were going to become members of a female mentorship group.

Her goal, she said in court, was to promote Raniere’s teachings and help him further his objectives. To do so, she engaged in criminal conduct.

She stands accused of recruiting “slaves” and branding women with a hot cauterising pen (without consent), being the leaders’ “number 2”, and forcing members into sexual activities as well as demanding damaging or explicit material from them as “collateral” amongst other things. Her trial date has since been delayed thanks to COVID.

A “women’s movement”

It all started as a seemingly regular self-help group for successful women before things took a more sinister turn as portrayed in The Vow.

The programme was billed as a “women’s movement” within Nxivm, an umbrella organisation offering a host of personal growth courses. It was attended by thousands of people around the world. Nxivm’s president, Nancy Salzman, a nurse who co-founded Nxivm in 1998 with its leader, Keith Raniere, reportedly began each session talking about how women have been raised to be monogamous and how men’s general nature is to be more polygamous – this was apparently the group’s “soft sell” into polygamy and set out what would allegedly become one of the forced requirements of women who joined.

Self-help it seems was far from the group’s priority; disturbing details have emerged after prosecutors say the group was merely a cover for “a brutal, coercive sex ring.”

Mack was considered one of the most prominent members of the group; if convicted on charges of three felony counts of sex trafficking and conspiracy to commit forced labour, she could face up to 15 years in prison per charge.

Cult fascination 

Our fascination with cults – real or fictional (look at all the Netflix documentaries on the subject alone) – may stem from the fine line between being drawn to what appears to be a utopian community and a dangerous, free-will-stripping group.

One can see the appeal of a group of like-minded people who share the same values, who seek a sense of belonging – outside of what they feel society can offer them. Enlightenment is a goal frequently sought out.  Yet too many times we hear of groups who promise its members a euphoric existence; one without boundaries or restriction – only for their free will to be extorted and taken away. The documentary Holy Hell is only one example of this scenario.

Hollywood has always been full creative, artistically minded people who are open but also can easily feel lost or damaged in a system or industry which demands much of those who seek success.

Nxivm reportedly sought out Mack – a fan favourite in Smallville – hoping that her celebrity status would elevate the group to more prominent status.  But what drives successful people to such groups or communities?

Wild Wild Country, about the Rajneeshpuram commune in Oregon in the mid-1980s, touches briefly on the story of Francoise Ruddy (ex-wife of Godfather producer Albert Ruddy), who rose to the sect’s highest levels. “If you’re successful in Hollywood, you’re a rare breed who has achieved your goals,” director Chapman Way told The Hollywood Reporter.

“When people find that success doesn’t bring them the absolute fulfilment they thought it would, they go on these journeys, and cults often fulfil that vacuum.”

The Vow will return for a second season this year.

The Vow is streaming on Sky Documentaries/NowTV  

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