True Crime Tuesdays: The Vow
Helen Archer | On 20, Sep 2022
What is the difference between a multi-level marketing scheme and a cult? Not much, by evidence of this nine-part documentary, which looks at the inner workings of NXIVM, a company that peddled “Executive Success Programmes” to highly privileged Americans for nigh on 30 years, before its leader Keith Raniere was convicted of racketeering and sex trafficking in 2019. What had started out as a self-improvement programme had somehow degenerated into exploitation, forced labour, blackmail and fraud.
Directed by Jehane Noujaim and Karim Amer, who have previously worked together on The Square and The Great Hack, The Vow attempts to untangle the knotty history of the organisation. They have the benefit of a wealth of primary material at their disposal, thanks mainly to Mark Vicente, an ex-member of NXIVM who made promotional films for the organisation and is one of the main movers in this documentary. The directors mix recordings made of Raniere, various workshops and events, testimonials, behind-the-scenes interviews and all the audio collected in recordings of conversations, along with more recent footage of those who are attempting to unmask him, as they get together in luxurious Malibu houses and Vancouver apartments. It’s not difficult to see how this could have resulted in its bloated running time, even as some important questions are left not only unanswered, but also apparently unasked.
The series ultimately shows the way in which NXIVM expanded its many self-improvement programmes and marketed them to wealthy, influential people, until so much money was rolling in that they created centres around the world. Seagrams heiresses Clare and Sara Bronfman bankrolled Raniere, while the ex-President’s son Carlos Emiliano Salinas headed up the highly successful Mexican chapter. Connections were made with people such as the Dalai Lama, in an effort to legitimise the organisation. And for a long, long time, it seemed that Raniere, thanks to his links with the elite, was bulletproof.
But behind the scenes, along with NXIVM co-founder Nancy Salzman and her daughter, Lauren, and with the help of Smallville actress Allison Mack, he was overseeing an offshoot of the programme that demanded a master/slave relationship with women – involving branding them with his initials, ensuring they limited their calories, and sexually exploiting them for his own gratification. In an effort to maintain control, he demanded they provide him with “collateral” – which included nude photos and videos, as well as the admission of their darkest secrets – in case they decided to leave.
The programme jumps in timelines, so that it proves hard for the viewer to unravel exactly what has gone on, and when. The bulk of the series follows as Mark and his wife Bonnie join forces with other leavers, predominately Sarah Edmonson – one of NXIVM’s most successful salespeople – and her husband Nippy. Later, ex-Dynasty actress Catherine Oxenberg teams up with them as she attempts to get her daughter, India, away from Keith and the others at their base in Albany. In the latter part of the series, revelations are made about a group of women who had attempted to blow the whistle on Raniere some time earlier and they, too, voice their support as Mark et al attempt to get their story out – first to the press and later to the FBI.
This mangling of timelines to cause confusion is possibly intentional, as it also helps to mask the complicity of some of the documentary subjects in the entire operation. Sarah brought in hundreds of new members and wrestles with her guilt about that, while it is ultimately revealed that Mark allowed Bonnie to sleep on the floor of their bedroom at the behest of Raniere, who felt she had sins to atone for. Both had been involved in the silencing of previous dissenting voices, and in the fiscal abuse, via legal cases brought against ex-members. There is a self-mythologising aspect to some stories told, as well as the lingering suspicion that others may be retconning their involvement. Questions remain regarding how much those higher up in the organisation benefited financially from their time there.
Cults need a charismatic leader, which perhaps explains the filmmakers’ decision to include hours of Raniere’s motivational speeches, as well as his well-versed control methods. We learn that when Mark first met him, they talked for five hours – some of the conversation is played during the film – after which Mark felt “broken”; “He had me,” says Mark. It’s a masterclass in brainwashing, and a fascinating glimpse into cult recruitment. As the directors merge Raniere’s methodology with those attempting to break free from his mental clutches, though, it becomes a battle of ideologies. While we are told time and again that anyone can be recruited into a cult, and as the leavers attempt to bolster their own senses of self in the face of Raniere’s hypnotic grip of them, the immersive nature of the series leaves us with an overwhelming feeling of being manipulated in more ways than one.