For two decades, the cookie-cutter Albany suburb of Clifton Park was the stage for Keith Raniere’s NXIVM (pronounced NEX-ee-um), the self-help business cult that fronted for his boundless sexual and financial abuse. Raniere preached a prosperity-gospel psycho-technology that he claimed would bring about world peace, playing the role of guru until he was sentenced in June 2020 to 120 years for child sex-trafficking and conspiracy to commit forced labor.

In building his cult, Raniere headhunted Hollywood stars and high-value assets like New Age filmmaker Mark Vicente (former member of the cult of Ramtha and director of What the Bleep Do We Know?) to be frontline recruiters and to airbrush his image. He weaseled approximately $150 million of financing out of the billionaire Bronfman sisters, benefactors of their late father’s Seagram liquor fortune, and finessed a misguided publicity stunt with the Dalai Lama (staged by the older Bronfman, Sara, and a monk who served as one of His Holiness’s aides) as an endorsement of his validity.

It took a stint of hounding by Raniere’s survivors—or at least a few of those who hadn’t yet been bankrupted by his attack lawyers—outside the doors of New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and the FBI for the facade to crumble. But over the course of the three-year-long investigation and trial, Clifton Park underwent a strange transformation. The former members of NXIVM turned what had been their propaganda center into the film set of a documentary series primed for a golden age of cult media.

In HBO’s The Vow, producers Jehane Noujaim and her husband, Karim Amer, have domesticated Raniere’s cruelty into cult-themed reality TV, complete with teasers. (Will they get to interview Raniere in prison? Tune in for Season Two!) Meanwhile, the core cast and crew have remained suspiciously in place. Key former stars of the cult are now the stars of its cancellation. And in valuing entertainment over information, they (perhaps unwittingly) end up doing more to keep misconceptions about cults alive—along with Raniere’s mystique.

The reality TV conceit is thin gruel, because as far as NXIVM is concerned it’s all over except for the jail time and trauma therapy. When The Vow was released in August 2020, the NXIVM story was already the most examined cult case in forensics history. As a result, every suspenseful hinge point of The Vow’s narrative is yesterday’s headline, with dramatic filler added for the mass market.

What ends up being most striking about this exposé about an overexposed story is everything the filmmakers leave out. They leave out the fact that Noujaim took the group’s introductory course after meeting Sara Bronfman and Mark Vicente. They leave out the fact that to this day Karim Amer says that there was a “beautiful aspect” to what NXIVM was offering. They leave out the fact that Noujaim was Vicente’s personal friend for a decade before his rebranding as a NXIVM whistleblower. They gloss over the most abject horrors of Raniere’s abuse—the savage extent of his financial exploitation, the chilling psychological experiments on women in the group, and the two-year bedroom imprisonment of a Mexican woman who “cheated” on Raniere by kissing another man. In their own defense, Noujaim and Amer describe themselves as filmmakers rather than journalists. This conceals a boundary-free imbroglio: they are filmmakers making a film about their tragically heroic friend Vicente—himself a filmmaker who got caught up making films about Raniere.

These conflicts of interest are deepened by the fact that almost all the NXIVM archival footage was shot by Vicente while he was making propaganda for Raniere. Noujaim reports on Vicente confiding his doubts about NXIVM in 2017 and then how they decided to film his withdrawal from the group, even as Vicente was documenting it himself. The two streams of footage were eventually interwoven to form The Vow. We see Raniere lecturing, being interviewed, and out on walks with his smiling, calorie-controlled devotees. Vicente has himself filmed in intimate moments with Raniere, asking tender questions about his future; Raniere’s answers are a banal word salad, yet as we watch him, we see him through Vicente’s saintly lighting.

It doesn’t seem to occur to anyone on The Vow’s production team that hours of haloed portraiture of Raniere will make the series unwatchable for those he raped. Neither does it occur to them that similar lingering shots of Vicente will make it loathsome for those Vicente recruited, those who didn’t survive NXIVM to strike a deal with HBO.

It is increasingly important that the cult stories we tell and consume are framed more for public health than private entertainment.

All the melodrama is a terrible missed opportunity. Cult dynamics have become newly relevant across various online and political spaces—to the point where these issues have bled into conversations about national elections and pandemic responses. And as greater access to technology has made it easier to expose and study cults, it also has given them other ways to spread. It is increasingly important that the cult stories we tell and consume are framed more for public health than private entertainment. It’s important to pay attention to who is telling the story and why.

With the stakes rising, cult documentaries have a responsibility to make it plain that whatever a cult is selling is by definition a scam—that it never mattered what Raniere said about how he was helping the world, because the purpose of his schtick was to conceal his crimes. Raniere is neither a fallen angel nor a dramatic villain but a sociopath who feeds on attention. The useful cult documentary should follow the money and expose the truth: that the banality of cultic jargon is a blank slate for the leader’s charisma.

If its goal is to actually help people, a cult documentary should walk viewers through the well-researched processes of love bombing, in which the vulnerable recruit is overwhelmed by a group that promises fellowship and solutions, creating a sense of indebtedness. It should uncover the machinelike tactics of indoctrination, in which behaviors, thoughts, and emotions are strictly controlled to the point that the selfhood and agency of the member is hollowed out. Most importantly, it should establish how utterly dependent cult members can be made to feel through isolation from family and friends and the infused adoption of a terrifying view of the outside world.

Catherine Oxenberg, Mark Vicente, and Bonnie Piesse worked together and with filmmakers to expose the abuse happening inside NXIVM. | Photo courtesy of HBO

All these objectives can be accomplished if the reins are handed over to survivors who have nothing left to hide and nothing left to sell. If need be their stories can be buttressed with expert analysis, which is now widely available.

Those who really want to explore answers instead of intrigues could move on to Cecilia Peck’s documentary Seduced and listen to India Oxenberg describe Raniere systematically raping her over months. They will listen to Peck’s sources, especially cult expert Janja Lalich and therapist Rachel Bernstein, who deconstruct Raniere with diamond saws. Peck’s spotlight is not so much on the mystery of Raniere but the machinelike spell around him that mediocre filmmaking will never break.

Undoubtedly, Vicente and other prominent former members, such as the Canadian actress Sarah Edmondson, are also victims of Raniere. But I wouldn’t trust them as analysts until they come clean. They made bank as Raneire’s salespeople and enforcers, while many of their NXIVM downliners worked like dogs and made nothing. Vicente and Edmondson first told New York Times reporter Barry Meier that they believed NXIVM was a good organization gone bad but not a cult. Vicente was still planning on releasing a documentary about NXIVM’s Mexican operations, even as Raniere was going down. So if NXIVM watchers really want to know who Keith Raniere was, they won’t learn it from Vicente or Edmondson as long as they’re still conflicted or as long as no one asks them where the money is.

Nor will they learn it from Noujaim and Amer, even if their cameras seem to be rolling at all the pivotal moments—the 2017 phone negotiations with Meier at the New York Times that ended up being a major media breakthrough or the subsequent meeting with Attorney General Schneiderman. It’s as if all the players knew in the moments of their escape and recovery that this was a story to keep telling—and to keep selling.

The disorienting process echoes a key NXIVM deepity: that the successful person is always writing their own best story. It also echoes a key NXIVM context: in a group that mandated personal work and private transformation, everything was under surveillance. Raniere was always watching. Even if Noujaim and Amer do pull off that prison interview, Raniere will continue to spin his story for them. That’s how the cult began, and its spell won’t end as long as he’s talking and someone’s recording.

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