Everyone involved in the nine-part documentary series “The Vow,” which chronicles the twisted saga of Nxivm, seems pretty media savvy. They know how easily complicated stories can get condensed into the shorthand of headlines.
If you’ve heard only one thing about Nxivm, which billed itself as a self-help organization but led many participants down dark and damaging paths, it’s probably that its leader, Keith Raniere, coerced women in the group to have sex with him — most coverage of the group has referred to it as a “sex cult.” If you’ve heard two things, the other fact is likely that some women were put through a terrifying ceremony in which Raniere’s initials were branded onto their bodies.
At one point in the eighth episode, a former Nxivm member, Sarah Edmondson, jokes that a scar-healing cream should give her a sponsorship deal. By then, after the series had offered ample evidence of the rampant misogyny and corrosive narcissism Edmondson and other Raniere followers experienced, she had more than earned that brief display of levity.
Debuting Sunday on HBO, “The Vow” doesn’t stint on the jaw-dropping details. But it also makes clear that and the story of Nxivm (pronounced “NEX-ee-um”) is more complex — and much more chilling — than the reductive “sex cult” label would indicate. As dangerous conspiracy theories rise to shocking prominence in American life, “The Vow” examines why people are so primed to fall for the kind of tempting but perilous psychological traps that skilled manipulators use to lure and catch their idealistic prey.
Nxivm, which was based in a group of unexceptional houses and offices in and around Albany, N.Y., but had chapters all over North and South America, promised to free participants, many of them articulate and energetic women, from insecurities, negative emotions and destructive patterns. Raniere, a floppy-haired former businessman who insisted that people call him “Vanguard,” told seminar attendees that through “data and facts,” he and his instructors could help them push past the fears and limitations holding them back.
Instead, trial testimony and court rulings have revealed, Raniere weaponized people’s secrets and insecurities so that he could exploit them emotionally and financially. According to a lawsuit filed by former followers, Nxivm was also an enormous pyramid scheme that bilked its members out of millions of dollars.
There had been negative coverage of Nxivm in the past, but everything began to go awry for the group in 2017, when The New York Times reported on the branding ceremonies and other disturbing allegations about Raniere and his most loyal acolytes. Last year, Raniere was convicted of multiple felonies including racketeering and sex trafficking. (In Raniere’s trial, his attorneys said his sexual encounters with his followers were consensual.) Some top-level adherents, including Allison Mack, the former “Smallville” actress, and Clare Bronfman, an heiress to the Seagram liquor fortune, have struck plea deals and await sentencing.
“The Vow” illustrates how seemingly bright, capable people ended up enmeshed in the organization. As Mark Vicente, one of many appealing, complicated Nxivm refugees who appear in the series, put it: “We’re not [expletive], strange monsters that made bad choices our whole life. We didn’t join a cult. Nobody joins a cult! Nobody. They join a good thing — and then they realize they were [expletive].”
“The Vow” creative team, led by the directors Jehane Noujaim and Karim Amer, had plenty of raw material to work with. Members of the group appear to have documented nearly every conversation they had with each other and with Raniere during the past two decades, and many Nxivm seminars were also recorded. We don’t have to rely on the commentary from former members to see what Raniere was selling, and how much others helped him promulgate sexist mind-sets and increasingly deranged formulations of abuse as love.
The early episodes focus on how adherents were drawn in by Nxivm’s superficial resemblance to other self-help philosophies, then the documentary evolves into something of a slow-burn thriller. The viewer becomes a fly on the wall as the filmmakers follow a group of anti-Nxivm campaigners, including Edmondson, Vicente and the actresses Catherine Oxenberg and Bonnie Piesse, who implore the authorities and the media — including The Times — to do something about Raniere and his secretive inner circle. (Oxenberg’s daughter India was deeply involved in Nxivm — the group attracted quite a few Hollywood folks — and Catherine’s pain and relentless energy are affecting.)
For survivors of Raniere’s alleged patterns of financial and emotional abuse — which reach back at least three decades — the path toward healing and potential redemption often involves trying to undo the work they did for the “Vanguard” and his lieutenants. There’s a lot of talk these days about the concept of restorative justice as a means of atoning for damage done, and the ex-Nxivm folks at the core of “The Vow” show what that idea looks like in action. Even as they bravely fight for justice for Raniere’s victims, they struggle with a painful array of things they wish they’d done differently.
What is the path back for those who participate in — or look away from — abuse? Where’s the line between coercion and independence? What consequences is society willing to dish out when a storyteller with a committed following — in politics, in the arts, in self-help realms or anywhere else — is revealed to be a charismatic predator or canny charlatan? Those are the deeper questions that animate “The Vow” and help make it not just engrossing but extraordinarily relevant.
It occasionally also feels like a juicy soap opera, with glimpses into the lives of wealthy heiresses and the haunting rituals of a secret society. Though Mack is not interviewed, her adoration for Raniere can be seen in excerpts from glossy Nxivm promotional videos, and her descent into abject, destructive devotion is both tragic and fascinating.
In one of the series’s most chilling moments, we see Raniere and Mack chatting at one of the group’s late-night volleyball games. Raniere deftly manipulates her deepest vulnerabilities — they involve art, repression and emotion — and it’s as if the rabbit hole she is about to fall down takes shape before our eyes.
“The Vow” isn’t flawless. Early episodes can feel a little padded, with repetitive shots of people staring at computer screens or restating the initial attractions of the group. (Its most reasonable teachings, at first glance, have an appealing TED Talk earnestness.) But as the personalities of the series’s key participants come into focus, the narrative momentum becomes irresistible.
Ultimately, “The Vow” is an impressive and even transfixing achievement. It uses the viewer’s curiosity about branding and sex cults to tell a valuable and engrossing tale about gullibility, trust and the human desire to put one’s faith in a leader who promises the real Answer. You know, the one that powerful forces are keeping secret from you.
But there is no secret, of course, and as is so often the case, the man behind the curtain is a petty, angry, manipulative mess. “I wanted to believe that he was good,” a former Nxivm adherent called Jane (a pseudonym), tells the filmmakers.
Unfortunately for Jane (and the rest of us), life tends to resist universal moral formulations, let alone the “scientific” answers Raniere sold. So buy self-help books if you’d like — some of the best are genuinely useful. But before you hand over your credit card — or life — to someone peddling a very expensive solution to life’s difficulties, think twice. And watch “The Vow.”