Television

In a grim lesson for the age of conspiracy, The Vow explores how the search for meaning can be twisted to dark ends. By Chris Johnston.

The Vow

A scene from the first episode of The Vow.
Credit: Foxtel / HBO

The Vow – a new documentary series on American cult NXIVM – offers an extraordinarily detailed investigation into the crimes and mind-bending methods of a powerful cult, and cults in general. Told with a huge amount of intimate insider footage, it shows how NXIVM’s mass “life-coaching” recruitment and brainwashing evolved into its eventual sexual violence against women.

The directors are husband-and-wife team Karim Amer and Jehane Noujaim, who have won Emmy Awards and been nominated for an Academy Award for their documentary films The Square (about Egypt) and The Great Hack (about data-hacking). They in turn were given exhaustive footage and audio recordings by key whistleblowers Mark Vicente, himself a filmmaker, and his wife, Bonnie Piesse, a Melbourne-born musician and Star Wars actor.

In 2010, Noujaim attended an “Executive Success Program” run by NXIVM. She had previously met billionaire heiress Sara Bronfman, a financier of the nascent cult, which then masqueraded as a multilevel marketing organisation offering leadership skills and life-coaching to urban elites and creatives, from a base in upstate New York.

Noujaim dabbled in the program, and stayed in touch with friends she met there, including Vicente and Piesse. But much later – after Noujaim had made other films and had children – she discovered that all hell had broken loose. The benign life-coaching organisation was revealed as a cover for leader Keith Raniere’s misogynist, narcissistic fantasies around sex, control and money.

With his senior female enabler – Hollywood actor Allison Mack of Smallville – he had created a secret women’s inner circle called DOS (“Dominus Obsequious Sororium”), in which the women were literally branded on the pelvis with a hot iron with his and Mack’s initials.

The documentary evokes the grim effectiveness of other extreme cults: the Jonestown mass suicide of 909 people, for example, or the deaths of 76 Branch Davidians – members of a religious sect led by David Koresh – in Waco, Texas. These cults show how deeply mind control can exploit the hopes and fears of vulnerable people. NXIVM, as we discover in The Vow, started with the hope of empowerment and ended with horrific sexualised violence in a long game of psychological manipulation. Despite Raniere and Mack – and four other enablers – facing charges of human trafficking and racketeering, the cult continues in Mexico with a small group of rusted-on devotees. Raniere will be sentenced by the United States courts this month.

It also speaks to the recent rise of QAnon, which isn’t a cult as such, but a cultish global conspiracy theory that Forbes calls “a belief system”. QAnon has misled millions and continues to seduce more on social media with hashtags such as #SaveTheChildren and #SaveOurChildren. Its central belief is that the world order is being destroyed by members of a deep state who facilitate – in their spare time – a Satanic Epstein-esque network of paedophilic elites. They believe that Donald Trump was put in power by the US military to free the world, and their deep state enemy is rich with lefties, Hollywood stars, the Chinese and the Jews.

This year, with paranoia and mistrust at all-time highs, is a golden age for conspiracy, the bastard cousin of cults. Fears about vaccination or wind farms or 5G are now being conflated with issues around Covid-19, Jeffrey Epstein, Trump, Russia and China; and these in turn merge into anti-Semitism and racism, hate and violence. Cults and conspiracies have a central tenet in common – suspended belief. People are manipulated or persuaded to put logic aside and turn a blind eye to warning signs in their search for enlightenment or “answers”.

Having a filmmaker as a key NXIVM whistleblower is extremely useful for directors wanting to source primary material. The 2018 series Wild Wild Country, about Osho or Bagwhan Shree Rajneesh – the cult leader of the Orange People in Oregon – was remarkable for its archival footage from the 1980s. Its grainy, amateur nature gave the series a home-movie quality. Wild Wild Country’s archival footage was found by the directors in a local historical society, where it had been donated and forgotten, while they were researching something else – a case of getting lucky.

The Vow is different. It’s as if Vicente was compelled to record everything that moved, at first in a quest for the perfect document of NXIVM’s powers, and then as the document of its atrocities. He was originally courted by the cult specifically for his filmmaking prowess – he had worked as a cinematographer on Hollywood films starring Halle Berry and Patrick Swayze.

Soon he was making a propaganda film for Raniere, which included an animated project featuring Raniere as a character named Einhart. Vicente worked on the animation project alone for seven years. The film footage, however, is the key. While cults must have learnt by now that their own people will turn on them and reveal all, I’m not sure it’s been shown in quite this way before.

For example, we witness the first time Raniere meets his future recruiter, Allison Mack. At his behest, she would go on to “love bomb” a series of women who would end up with her initials burnt into their flesh. She went right into the cult’s demonic inner chamber and coaxed many others in with her to play master and slave roles with each other and with Raniere. She is facing up to 40 years’ imprisonment after pleading guilty to charges of racketeering last year, and is under house arrest as she awaits sentencing.

The Vow shows them meeting at a weird late-night volleyball activity Raniere had with his “people”. We see him in nerdy knee pads and a thick white headband, perspiring and flushed, counselling his flock courtside on all that troubled them.

The pair are filmed fly-on-the-wall throughout the introductions and then through a flirtatious conversation during which Raniere, beginning his mind control before our eyes, criticises something Mack had nominated as important to her – art. He tells her art is not something to be loved. She cries. Many of the women in The Vow spend a lot of time crying, either in Raniere’s presence or years afterwards, as they survey the untold damage and begin to deprogram.

Every former cult member I have met says this period of deprogramming – if it ever actually ends – is like stripping away bits of yourself that you previously considered unassailable. It all needs to be slowly patched back together. The lucky ones are able to achieve this.

Over its nine episodes, The Vow is primarily about this journey towards freedom. We follow Vicente and Piesse, the imposingly strong-willed Sarah Edmondson – also an actor – and her husband, Anthony “Nippy” Ames, all smart, capable urbanites who become indoctrinated and, to their immense shame, enable the cult’s dark torture. We see moments of revelation when they realise what is really happening, and we see their escapes and the deprogramming.

Much of the time the primary material – the video and audio – is just left to run, letting the plot take care of itself. Audio of phone calls is used in isolation over a blank or coloured screen, with subtitles. It makes those conversations feel very close and immediate. When Ames and Edmondson are trying to escape, we see and hear how it actually went down, rather than the protagonists re-creating it later. Nippy, in a call to a senior NXIVM woman: “You are branding my fucking wife.” Or Sarah, speaking to another cult woman: “I’m not choosing you over my husband. You are not my master, I am not your slave.”

We see that in the beginning they were seekers – a common denominator in cults – who were looking for something with meaning and purpose that their education and worldliness had failed to deliver. As Piesse says at one point: “It was a code to understand myself.”

I expect to see big new cults emerge in a post-Covid-19 world as people struggle with the notion of “truth”. Washington’s Pew Research Center, an independent think tank, released a poll last month showing awareness of QAnon among American adults had doubled since March. Australia, according to the anti-extremist Institute for Strategic Dialogue, ranks fourth in the world for online discussion of QAnon, after the US, Britain and Canada.

But there’s no evidence for QAnon’s conspiracies. It’s empty. It’s made up. The New York Times last month described NXIVM’s Raniere as having a “curious void of magnetism”, and this is spot on. His bag of psychological tricks offers grand hope that something is out there. That there is, in fact, a secret code by which to live – a branding or inscription or set of messages – that solves everything we cannot face. 

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 3, 2020 as "Codes of delusion".

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Chris Johnston is a Melbourne writer and co-author of The Family.