No one got involved with NXIVM because they thought their bodies would be branded, or they’d be locked in a room for two years under threat of deportation. No one joined Jim Jones’s People’s Temple because they wanted to poison themselves and their children. No one willingly chooses to give away their freedom — it happens because of years of grooming, of coercion, of incrementally changing the goalposts ever-so-slightly, until the things you’ve come to accept become deeply dangerous.
I’ve never seen anything illustrate the way cults work more effectively than the new HBO documentary series “The Vow.” The show is about NXIVM, the group whose leader Keith Raniere was convicted of seven charges in 2019, including forced labour and sex trafficking, and is currently awaiting sentencing.
But the show doesn’t start with the most disturbing stuff about NXIVM. It starts with its “Executive Success Program,” a set of self-improvement courses that thousands of people said helped them in their career and relationships. It attracted a lot of people who ached to make their life better, but who didn’t feel they had the tools to know how.
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There’s this pervasive idea that people in cults are stupid and gullible: I wouldn’t murder Sharon Tate just because some guy told me to! But that’s not how they work at all. The darkest stuff never comes out at the sales pitch, because no one would agree to it if it were presented clearly.
“Nobody joins a cult,” filmmaker and former NXIVM member Mark Vicente says on the show, and in the trailer above. “They join a good thing.”
That was one of my gripes with the 2018 Netflix show “Wild Wild Country.” While it told an incredibly interesting and deeply weird story about a cult that took over a small Oregon town in the early 1980s, it focused so much on the Rajneeshees’ antics that it never went into detail about what they actually believed. In leaving that out, empathy felt a lot further away. The show felt like it wanted us to point and laugh at the weirdos dressed all in red trying to poison the water more than it wanted us to understand how so many people got to that point.
One of the main subjects of “The Vow” is Sarah Edmondson, a Vancouver native who was in her late 20s when she joined the group. (She was the subject of the excellent 2018 CBC podcast “Uncover: Escaping NXIVM”.) Edmondson was trying to make it as an actor, but her career was moving at languid pace. She craved community and a sense of purpose. She spent ten years in NXIVM before she realized she was in a cult.
You can’t watch “The Vow” without developing affection for Sarah. She’s smart and funny and foul-mouthed, and critical of some of the organization’s initial quirks in a way that feels deeply relatable.
Watching the first episode, it’s easy to forget how much depravity we know NXIVM engendered. And that’s the point. It’s told so sensitively and deliberately that viewers really come to understand how and why people joined in. And that’s the scariest and most incredible kind of filmmaking possible.
“The Vow,” which this editor thinks you really, really need to watch, is currently streaming on Crave TV in Canada.