Why are We So Obsessed with the NXIVM Cult?

As you might have heard, this year has seen the premiere of not one but two premium cable series focused on the rise and fall of NXIVM, the cult (or self-help organization, or pyramid scheme, depending on your point of view) at the center of an ongoing criminal investigation and court battle. First there was The Vow, a nine-episode series that debuted on HBO this past August. Then, in October, we got the four-part Starz series Seduced: Inside the NXIVM Cult.

Setting aside any comparisons between the two projects, it’s evident now that they’ve both aired that they were never really in direct competition with each other. Instead, the shows have dovetailed nicely, drawing in millions of viewers hungry for more tidbits, more insights, different points of view. We can’t seem to get enough of NXIVM (pronounced “nix-ee-um” for those who aren’t in the know). HBO has already announced a second season of The Vow, catching up with the latest developments in the case.

Keith Reniere and Mark Vicente in HBO’s The Vow.

Both series rely on the participation of former members who have since left the cult and are now helping prosecutors make the criminal case against it. Through first-hand accounts we learn how they fell prey to the techniques of indoctrination and became devoted followers of the organization’s founder, Keith Raniere. These aren’t simple-minded, gullible naïfs but well-spoken, sensible people who were taken in by a cunning scheme. Thanks to Raniere’s fondness for self-promotion, there’s an abundance of damning footage from workshops, parties, retreats, and intimate interviews that reveal the full, twisted truth of life on the inside.

Notably, there was actually third NXIVM documentary, The Lost Women of NXIVM, produced last year for cable channel ID. It aired in December of 2019, but didn’t break though to the mainstream the way the more recent two have. Perhaps it was a matter of exposure — ID certainly doesn’t have the same reach as either HBO or Starz — but more likely it was a matter of timing.

Timing, it seems, has been a key factor here. For one thing, when The Vow came out this summer the Covid pandemic was in full swing. Free time was more plentiful, and fresh entertainment offerings were drying up. There was also the contemporaneous court case, which brought news of related indictments and sentencing at the same time the episodes were rolling out and kept the story in the news. And finally, most significantly I think, it was election season.

India Oxenberg in Seduced: Inside the NXIVM Cult on Starz

By the time Nov. 3 came around I’d already watched all of The Vow and most of Seduced (the final episode didn’t air until Nov. 8).  Yet it took me until that night to finally put it together. As I watched the results come in, it became more clear than ever that our country is bitterly divided into two vastly conflicting factions. This wasn’t a shocking revelation. We’ve been heading that way for a while now, and the gap has only gotten wider (for more on that subject, check out another revealing documentary: The Social Dilemma).

But as I wondered how so many people could see the world so differently, I thought about how we’ve lost the ability to even talk to each other across the political divide. If you’ve had friends or relatives who’ve become so deeply entrenched in extreme beliefs and conspiracy theories you don’t recognize their version of reality anymore, then you understand on a personal level what it’s like to lose someone to a cult.

But what is it like to get them back? In these documentaries we hear the stories of how people can easily be sucked in, but we also hear how they pulled themselves out, often with the help of their family and friends. Now clear-eyed, they’re finally able to see Raniere for what he is — a malignant narcissist who used his followers to feed his own insatiable ego. It’s a hopeful revelation: the idea that no one is lost for good. What these series and the story of NXIVM’s survivors offer us is a road map that may just lead home the ones we’ve lost as well, to another cult of personality no less damaging.

The Vow is currently available to stream on demand or on HBOMax. Seduced: Inside the NXIVM Cult can be found on demand and online at Starz.com.

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