Everyone who was clamoring for a new crime docuseries to watch on HBO with the conclusion of I’ll Be Gone in the Dark was in for quite a treat in late August 2020 when the premium cable outlet (and it’s multiple streaming platforms) released The Vow, a nine-part documentary exploring the alleged multilevel marketing scheme turned sex cult known as NXIVM (pronounced Nexium like the 24-hour heartburn medication). After watching the trailer (or perhaps the first episode) some viewers may be asking themselves â what is the story behind the subject ofHBO’s The Vow?
Well, before we get into the answer of that seemingly simple question, please note that the contents of this article may or may not spoil some of the later episodes of the docuseries. So, if you want to go into The Vow without any prior knowledge of the group at the center of the series, turn back now. However, if you want a nice primer of the story so far, sit back and watch this insane and hard-to-believe story unfold.
The Peoples Temple didn’t take part in a mass suicide on the first day, and Aum Shinrikyo didn’t attempt to release large amounts of sarin gas in the Tokyo subway system until later in the cult’s history, and NXIVM didn’t start out as a sex cult where its leaders were arrested and charged with various felonies related to a sex trafficking ring and fraud. Founded by Keith “Vanguard” Raniere and Nancy “Prefect” Salzman in Albany, New York in 1998, NXIVM started off with humble beginnings as a self-help group that specialized in what was called Executive Success Programs (ESPs).
Throughout the first episode of The Vow and in several profiles on the group, including one by Esquire in 2020, it is revealed that the early days of NXIVM and its spiritual and financial leaders carried out these ESPs (five-day intense retreats) that cost students $2,700 a piece, fairly often and built up quite a large following in the 20 years following the group’s formation. These highly specialized and sometimes uncomfortable training seminars would be completed by upwards of 16,000 people at various centers around North America. But as NXIVM’s popularity began to soar in places like New York, California, and everywhere in between, the group began to receive attention from the outside world.
It didn’t take long for Keith Raniere, who preferred to go by the name Vanguard with his students and followers, to get attention from outsiders and the media, who called NXIVM a cult five years after the group got its start. In a 2003 Forbes profile on the organization titled “Cult of Personality,” a reporter spoke with a number of people who had taken the courses, including former CEO of the Seagram beverage company, Edgar Bronfman, who had taken part in the program but grew worrisome when one his daughters and eventual bankroller of the organization, Clare, lent the group a reported $2 million.
In the profile, Edgar Bronfman explained that he thought it was a cult and that he hadn’t talked to Clare Bronfman or her sister, Sara, in months after they became involved with NXIVM, and was worried about emotional and financial investments they were making to something he didn’t trust. Other detractors in the profile claimed that Keith Raniere ran a cult-like program that would break down students psychologically and isolate them from the outside world.
As the years went on, NXIVM and its spiritual leader, Keith Raniere, gained even more attention from detractors, who accused “Vanguard” of operating a business model that could be classified as a multilevel marketing scheme.
A 2011 article in the Albany Times Union detailed a bitter court battle between attorneys representing former members and one put in charge of NXIVM’s legal affairs, which included the breaking down of different notes detailing various charts and diagrams showing the various levels and rates of the group. One of the major components of the argument (and one that shows up in the HBO series) is the use of different colored sashes and stripes that are earned by climbing the ranks of the organization by doing things like paying for courses, getting new members to join, and other metrics.
Multilevel marketing schemes weren’t the only reason NXIVM started to get attention from the media and authorities in the latter part of the 2010s as the outside world began to learn about the sick and demented cult-like happenings going on behind the scenes. Perhaps the straw that broke the camel’s back came in October 2017 when the New York Times published an in-depth report on the secret sisterhood within the group that were branded with markings that included the initials of key members like Keith Raniere and Allison Mack, the former star of Smallville who would quickly become a major name in subsequent months.
The branding of the members was reportedly just a small part of the abuse the sisterhood, referred to as Dominus Obsequious Sororium (DOS), experienced in the years leading up to the revelation. Sarah Edmondson, an Actress featured heavily in The Vow and who had been a member since 2005 and onetime leader of the Vancouver center, was just one of many women (and male) members to leave the group as the abuse began to become more rampant and NXIVM went down an even darker path.
Less than a year after the New York Times article exposed NXIVM and its DOS program, Allison Mack, Keith Raniere, Nancy Salzman, and other high-ranking members of the organization were all arrested and charged with a number of felonies, including racketeering, racketeering conspiracy, extortion, forced labor, and other charges related to an alleged sex trafficking operation, according to CNN. Prosecutors argued that Mack, Raniere, and Salzman actively recruited women from across the country to join the group, and were called “slaves” until they could recruit additional members, at which time they would become “masters.”
The former Smallville star would eventually plead guilty to the racketeering and racketeering conspiracy charges in 2019 when she admitted that her role in the extortion and forced labor carried out by NXIVM. According to the Albany Times Union, Keith Raniere went to trial in May 2019 and was found guilty a month later on all of the charges, including the sexual exploitation of a child, sex trafficking, identity theft, forced labor, and various other counts related to the group’s operations. He is currently awaiting sentencing. Salzman also pleaded guilty to racketeering criminal conspiracy in March 2019.
The story of NXIVM, its victims, and the high-ranking members who carried out the abuses over the years will be told over the course of the nine-episode The Vow which has already premiered on HBO. But the original idea for the docuseries originally started out fairly small as former member Sarah Edmondson told RollingStone in August 2020:
At the beginning, we wanted to document what we were doing, because we were certain Clare [Bronfman] was going to sue us, and we wanted to have everything on tape. It was self-protective. And then it morphed into, ‘Wow, this is crazy, we need to document this.’
Mark Vicente, a filmmaker who was an early star of NXIVM, starts out the first episode of The Vow basically saying the same thing and that he was going forward with the production so that the world could see what was going on behind the scenes. The documentary series is essentially Vicente and Sarah Edmondson coming to terms with the roles they played in the abuse and how they need to rectify their actions.
New episodes of The Vow air at 9 p.m. EDT on HBO and its various streaming services.
Philip grew up in Louisiana (not New Orleans) before moving to St. Louis after graduating from Louisiana State University-Shreveport. When he’s not writing about movies or television, Philip can be found being chased by his three kids, telling his dogs to stop yelling at the mailman, or yelling about professional wrestling to his wife. If the stars properly align, he will talk about For Love Of The Game being the best baseball movie of all time.
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