NXIVM documentaries: Here are all the bombshells we’ve learned
People are fascinated by cults and stories about them. The latest of these cults being NXIVM, which combined cults with multi-level marketing to make a whole new terrible beast. From allegations of branding to sexual slavery to taking millions of dollars from members, the whole business has been sordid ever since the arrests happened. Unsurprisingly, given our collective love of true crime, two documentaries emerged.
Well, two documentaries so far. With Keith Raniere recently sentenced to 120 years in prison from charges ranging from sex trafficking to racketeering, people are probably going to check things out. So, if you’re curious about the docs and which you should watch, then here’s what you need to know about HBO’s The Vow and Starz’s Seduced.
How are the documentaries similar?
HBO’s The Vow will have two seasons and recently finished up its nine-episode first season. Seduced is a four-part special on Starz. Both series focus on NXIVM, which was the cult-like self-help ground with some multi-level marketing thrown in as well. Both projects have similar core themes: anyone, not just the vulnerable, can fall under the sway of a malignant narcissist.
The Vow and Seduced also have pretty similar backstories & personal connections to NXIVM. Both were made by people with connections to NXIVM. The Vow’s Jehane Noujaim, who co-directed with her husband Karim Amer, took NXIVM classes. Cecilia Peck of Seduced, the daughter of Gregory Peck, was the target of an extended & unsuccessful recruitment effort. NXIVM usually wanted children of the wealthy, famous, and/or powerful to join.
In addition, the stories focus on a single person’s experience in NXIVM. Mark Vicente is at the center of The Vow while India Oxenberg is at the center of Seduced. Despite these similarities, however, Seduced comes across as correcting some of The Vow’s more glaring flaws. Considering that it also premiered during The Vow’s season finale? It feels even more intentional on that front. So let’s take a look at both shows individually.
Given the reduced size of the series, Seduced tends to go for a more direct approach in content. India Oxenberg does double duty in the series, acting as both subject and host. She said at a recent speaking engagement:
“There is no way to help these victims or solve these problems unless you stop judging us. I hope that bringing faces to people who have been associated with words like ‘cult,’ ‘coercion,’ [and] ‘victim’ will bring this room”—and by implication, the viewer at home—“a better understanding rather than thinking, ‘This could never be me.’”
Seduced pairs Oxenberg’s personal story with perspective from various experts including academic Janja Lalich, Cult Education Institute head Rick Alan Ross, and Oxenberg’s own therapist, Rachel Bernstein. Due to the four-episode run, Seduced produced a more legible timeline and established the pattern of recruiting in NXIVM. So there’s more useful information than in The Vow.
The Vow (HBO)
The Vow’s appeal hinges on years worth of compiled recordings from documentarian Mark Vicente, who serves as the focal point of the story. Vicente is a former NXIVM member who spent more than a decade on the cult’s executive board. The Vow, consequently, has a ton of primary source material. The Vow tries to communicate NXIVM’s appeal and how it’s hypnotic pull captured so many in its web.
Due to this, The Vow tends to be more nonlinear in its structure and timeline. It flips between its subjects’ (Vicente, his wife Bonnie, their friend and fellow higher-up Sarah Edmondson, her husband Anthony “Nippy” Ames, and later Catherine Oxenberg) time in Raniere’s thrall and their later disillusionment with NXIVM. There are endless loops of Raniere walking around Albany or a NXIVM volleyball game. We see sermonizing from the bland Raniere as well.
Finally, there’s a chilling moment when Edmondson slips back into coach mode and talks about how our emotions are under our control. It sounds empowering, but it’s a mindset that quickly turns manipulative when all is said and done. Unfortunately, the documentary struggles in putting Raniere’s tactics into context along with the confusing timeline & heartfelt confessions that eclipse the subject’s bubble.