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Entry 9: The Vow, and Raniere's Theories (hah!)

Author’s note: I did an Instagram poll asking what my next topic should be, and the overwhelming response was pop culture/current events. Goes to show that even though I think philosophers are fascinating, because it’s my hobby, it really can’t compare to the thrills of Love After Lockup and Jersey Shore (both of which maybe I’ll cover some day). If you want to tell me to talk about something, or watch the Instagram stories I force myself to put up to engage with the algorithm, go to and throw me a like or two. Now, onto the show.


I’m not a big binge-watcher – a binge-listener, maybe, as my Spotify Wrapped has so shamefully indicated, but I don’t often find TV shows that I can watch with rapt attention for hours on end (with the possible exception of Frasier, because really, does Niles end up with Daphne? And how did they train Eddie to do all those tricks?). But recently I’ve been sucked into the HBO series The Vow, which chronicles the NXIVM umbrella company/cult, a member’s journey from the Executive Success Program to DOS, a sex-based master-slave sorority, and a member’s journey leaving the cult as they attempt to take others with them.

With nine episodes spanning roughly an hour each, the series isn’t necessarily a one-day watch, unless you really, really want to. It starts out as a fascinating artistic landscape, with a plethora of B-roll from the documentarian who was instructed to film as much of NXIVM’s leader, baby-faced Keith Raniere, as possible. The filmmaker then left the cult, and began filming his journey as a means of protecting himself against the group’s notoriously litigious revenge. It provided for an insane amount of footage, both from inside the cult and outside, and made the documentary especially engrossing. While the season ends with Raneire’s arrest at a Mexican resort (unfortunately, no, he didn’t have pineapple sunglasses and a frozen margarita in the Federales' backseat – though that would have been really hilarious), the good news is that he went to court, and will be spending the next 120 years at a different kind of all-inclusive: prison.

To lay it out flatly, NXIVM (pronounced “nehx-ee-uhm”), was a diet brand Scientology with more sex, and less science fiction. You enter through one program that masquerades as leadership training, like business-oriented Executive Success Programs. You pay a ridiculous amount of money to spend three or five days with a bunch of your peers in a La Quinta conference room, where you systematically break down your beliefs systems, your deep-seated fears of success, and re-write your childhood trauma – kitschy to us on the outside, I know, but the human mind is an infantile hole of desired validation and narcissistic inquiry. I think this guy said it best when he said, “human beings are funny”.

Not a lot is known about the specific program of ESP, goals, etc., but Raniere at least attempts to drive home that the entire NXIVM program is about ethics, and re-instituting a new ethical sense in the world that is now lost by consumerism, or capitalism, or greed, or politicians, or whatever the reason du jour is. This vaguely altruistic reason sets up for the formal system of how ESP works. The Vow highlights the sash system, in which sashes indicate different levels of service within the organization, and can be earned through recruiting, running trainings, and other kinds of unpaid labor. Think of karate belts, or judo, as Raniere claims he was a judo aficionado, but substantially less cool. Also, that link to a website called The Frank Report was written by one lonely upstate New Yorker who had an axe to grind with NXIVM - his blog posts were integral in compiling evidence to charge Raniere.

You get your pretty sashes, in part, by attending and leading trainings. Activities in ESP trainings seem to play out like the Learn to Drive course I took from the DMV; you watch a video of hypnotist, "nurse" (allegedly), and NXIVM henchwoman Nancy Salzman explain a very nebulous, faux-erudite topic in cult jargon, like “limiting beliefs”, which are, you guessed it, beliefs that limit your potential. I think I’ve heard this song before… oh no, that’s just Albert Ellis’ cognitive distortions. You then do exercises where you fill out a little worksheet about what your limiting beliefs are, how they hold you back, and all that jazz, before processing it with a group. An unpaid trainee who is also trying to work their way up in the NXIVM ranks is leading the seminar, most likely sleep deprived, broke, and stuck in the NXIVM headquarters of Albany, all around a raw deal. Then more videos, more worksheets, more videos, more worksheets, maybe some bonding activities – and just like there was no actual driving in my Learn to Drive course, there’s no actual direct lines to executive success in the ESPs. All theory, no practice.

Sprinkled in are also EMs, explorations of meaning, where you sit in front of the class, the person leading the training probes you about a painful childhood memory, and you mentally go back in time to flip that big ol’ negative into a positive. It’s like therapy, but it takes about fifteen minutes, and …isn’t therapy at all. Wait, I think I’ve heard this one too… no, no, that’s just these psychotic people. And these are just some exercises in one of the many programs NXIVM had to offer. A lot of the organization is still kept secret, so who knows if we’ll ever see the full booklet on Executive Success Programs – or if it would make any sense if we did. But generally, it looks like it falls in the theme of the rest of the cult: dude reads a little psychology, a little philosophy, a little math, and thinks he can rewrite all the stuff he read, and make it better. While he doesn't make it better, he managed to convince a bunch of people that he thought of all this stuff himself, solidifying him as the super-duper genius that he advertised himself to be. Sounds like a solid gig, right?

The other organizations you get roped into after ESP, like Jness, the all-women’s club, Society of Protectors, the men’s club (and boy, are those meetings spicy!), groups on yoga, dance, meditation, and other hippie dippie things that reeled in struggling actors and exhausted business professionals. From those odd-yet-still-kinda-nonviolent groups formed DOS, Dominus Obsequious Sororium, a ladies-only group invented by someone whose PornHub keywords were mainly “naughty satanic sorority hazing” and “nineteen skinny girls one man not all at once and they never leave me”. While Raniere was the ultimate "master", the “master” girl would recruit “slaves”, giving them strict commands and demanding to be texted back within minutes, not unlike a teenage Sara London did to her unsuspecting boyfriends. Not too proud of that, but you know, you learn and you grow.

What I never did, however, were things like calorie control, with text messages like, “Master, can I please have 95 calories?” (what even is 95 calories? A glass of water?), or controlling when they slept, what activities they did, etc. You also sent in "collateral", which was essentially just blackmail, like nude pictures of yourself or the deed to your house, in case you ever felt like breaking your "vow" to your master (get it? Vow? Like the title of the show?). And if you were a good little slave, you not only got to have slaves of your own, but you’d get – surprise! – branded on your hip, right near your lady hole, with a symbol that looked suspiciously like DOS founder and F-list actress Alison Mack’s initials, and Keith Raniere’s as well. Work your way up the ranks enough, and you’d get to sleep with the volleyball queen of Albany himself, Keith. Maybe even become a staple in his harem of very, very, very skinny girlfriends.

So that’s the layout of NXIVM. Entry point, slightly weirder little groups, very weird abuse group, absolute weirdest one-on-one abuse. The slightly weirder groups shouldn’t be understated, as The Vow powerfully puts forth; groups like SOP (lots of acronyms, huh? You might be in a cult, if…) would have these long meetings with Keith at the helm where women were berated for being controlling, manipulative, fake and ungrateful. “We put you in a castle like a princess, then we resent you for being there,” Raniere says. While that line alone isn’t so bad – seems kind of on the nose, actually – it’s buffered by Raniere’s rants about how all men want is to be angry and have sex (wait, am I a man?...), and how all women do is emasculate men, acting sympathetic but really just castrating them left and right. Not to be an armchair psychoanalyst or anything, but… you think Keith was close with his mom?

The Vow’s interviews and recaps are quite interesting, and there’s a big attempt to make former cult members seem empathetic, and relatable. What Sarah and Mark try to relay, once big-time NXIVM volunteers and now big-time NXIVM detractors, is that this cult can prey on anyone, weak or strong, rich or poor, stable or unstable. That the kids with unlimited access to the Seagrams fortune can get swooped up in baby-faced Keith’s world-bettering mission, or emaciated actresses who are just in a bit of a slump right now, mom, please, just let me borrow $50 for gas, I promise I’ll repay it this time!... can also fall prey to NXIVM. But even with the dramatic, filtered pans of a shadowy figure standing on the beach, her still NXIVM-sounding philosophical pontifications dubbed over with voice-altering software, I felt like it was pushed a little hard.

I understand being the victim of a sexual predator, or a long-haired smooth talker, as that can happen to anyone, and is disgusting, and horrific. But I have a really hard time understanding intellectual manipulation, especially of someone who seemingly has it all together even before they come in to ESP. Like, you can say you were manipulated, psychologically, intellectually, emotionally, sexually, and I fully believe NXIVM did all those things. But the way Catherine Oxenberg, former Dynasty star and best-looking 60-something year old woman I have ever seen, refers to her daughter India as strong, and stable, just taken advantage of, manipulated by a bad dude, is doing India a disservice. Maybe her mother wants to think the best of her, maybe her mother just couldn't see her daughter's suffering. Either way, I hope they're doing better now.

That was a running theme in the series - that no matter who was interviewed, they said that NXIVM didn't prey on the weak as a means of just collecting members, they preyed on the strong as a means of sustaining power. But no one said someone who has money or status can't be impressionable. Maybe I'm off base, but I think you don't have it all figured out if you get sucked up into a cult – you're not entirely self-assured, or stable in your sense of self if some tiny little volleyball player (yes, I’m obsessed with the volleyball thing – it’s just so funny!) can spew some intellectual-sounding, poverty-of-content gobbledy-gook at you, and you don’t think critically about it. There’s no shame in saying you were a victim of the cult, and that you were weak, and they took advantage of you. But for some reason, perhaps the psychology of the people who came into NXIVM in the first place, they all had to seem self-assured, strong, insightful, and at the same time, helpless victims who stood no chance against the tight clutches of volleyball guy. If you click on no other link in this article, please click on that one. Look at his little shorts and his little knee pads.

I think to the average person, it’s hard to use yourself as an example when you're trying to prove a firm point about good and evil. There’s a big difference between, “I was vulnerable then, they took advantage of me, I’m strong now”, and “I was just existentially unsure of myself, ESP gave me the toolkit to help me, so there were good parts of it, I’m so sure of myself now, but also Keith Raniere is a sick bastard”. Maybe they’re still enmeshed, who knows, or maybe as the documentary was being filmed a few years ago, this stuff was still raw, and they hadn’t processed it yet. But it made me feel like I wasn't yet watching people who had been completely deprogrammed, as they say, and that they were almost trying to talk themselves into really believing how terrible NXIVM was.

Some like sweet Bonnie, the first one out, has few qualms about admitting she was taken advantage of, and is broken as a result. But her husband filmmaker Mark, Keith's former best friend, obviously has a lot of mixed feelings about the whole thing. Either way, while the content of The Vow was interesting, I thought that those they interviewed had a lot to still emotionally process, and in some ways, though they had left the cult, and would say that they hated Keith and everything he did, I could still see his philosophies insidiously worked into the way in which some of them interpreted the world, and themselves.

This show made me think a lot about what people will believe, and what they're looking for. I mean, this isn't the first big business cult that promises you a look inside yourself to find out why you're failing, and the MLM-format reminds me of the lessons learned in one of my favorite shows, On Becoming a God in Central Florida. For whatever reason, people seem to love being told how to fix themselves using fancy terminology or really specific activities, and thought the 18,000 people in NXIVM probably would have done better with a bit of cognitive-behavioral therapy, they seemed to enjoy the culture, friendship, rules, and layout of NXIVM. Do you think people really like being told how to live, especially if it's in some ways dependent on their success? Because then, when they fail, they have something or someone else to blame other than themselves. Or perhaps a system that mandates blaming themselves for every discretion is perfect for the masochist, who wants to find excuses to blame themselves anyway.

NXIVM is referred to by many an amateur psychologist as a cult of narcissists, which to some degree is correct, as narcissism is defined not by the obsession with self-image, but the obsession with an idealized self-image - the person they think they are, the person they could be, or the person they wish they were, all to a delusional extent. For the most part, those in NXIVM had a fixation on the person they could be, but it was consistently undermined by their inability to adhere to Raniere's program - because it was made to accomplish nothing but spinning your wheels, and unconsciously, they probably knew that. Here, have this unreachable self-image - and this untenable way to reach it - oh, you didn't make it? That's your fault.

Maybe that's enticing to some, and the potential for your grandiose sense of self to be made a reality is good enough to keep you around. But the appeal of self-sabotage is that it contains the ripe opportunity to excuse the inability to fulfill the idealized self-image. There's someone to blame - and this time, it just happens to be you - so not only do you get to have the extreme high of thinking you can conquer the world, and the extreme low of thinking you blew if for yourself. And a bunch of people around you during that low to tell you how great you are, and that you can really do it if you just try harder. Like a roller coaster of self-esteem. Makes life exciting, right? I just wonder if anyone, narcissistic or not, really could fall for a NXIVM type cult, or if it's easy to spot the logical flaws if you're someone who's a little more realistic insofar as knowing who you are.

Anyway, it was a really good series, and I'm looking forward to season 2, because I love a good court room drama. I highly recommend it if you either pay for HBO, or can siphon it off of an unsuspecting family, friend, coworker or partner. It made me think a little about groupthink, and intellect, and if making sense really means that much to some people, as long as they get their needs fulfilled. Whatever those are. Note to self, stay away from volleyball.

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