Over Christmas, my wife and I finished watching Season 2 of “The Vow,” an HBO documentary about the unraveling of the Nxivm organization — better known to tabloid readers as the “sex slave cult,” after its inner circle, whose members were branded and participated in self-described master-slave relationships — and the trial of its leader, Keith Raniere. It’s a striking piece of filmmaking and a deeply frustrating exercise: A mystery story that offers copious evidence, endless evidence, evidence enough to make Hercule Poirot envious, without coming close to answering the key questions raised by its fascinating subject.
That evidence is a mixture of extensive video footage from inside Nxivm — presumably compiled for the future generations Raniere assumed would wish to see his mind at work — and testimony from members, starting in Season 1 with the disillusioned whistle-blowers who publicized some of the extreme inner-circle stuff, extending into Season 2 to the confessions of Raniere’s second-in-command, Nancy Salzman, who pleaded guilty to racketeering conspiracy and whose daughter testified against Raniere.
Out of all of this, you get an intimate familiarity with the kind of people (most of them seemingly intelligent and self-aware, up to a point) who ended up deep inside Nxivm’s therapeutic world: unhappy artistic personalities, self-conscious seekers, people who wanted to change the world without knowing exactly why or how, people in desperate need of a traditional religious structure without being quite aware of it and women who were in love, or believed themselves to be, with Raniere. You get a fascinating window, through the Salzman interviews, into how a well-meaning person can sell her soul, piece by piece and year by year, to a devilish ally by convincing herself that the larger project helps enough people to make up for his exploitative behavior — even when her own daughter was one of his targets. And you get a clear-enough sense of Raniere’s style and substance, such as it was, even though he wasn’t interviewed directly for the film, just by watching him in action with several people across several settings where he reigned as an unchallenged guru.
But even after so many hours, the documentary fails to resolve the biggest questions that hover around the cult experience. First, there’s the legal and philosophical questions of what constitutes coercion as opposed to voluntary (if deeply self-destructive) adult choices and what kinds of group-mediated control should be criminal in a liberal society. The turning point in Raniere’s trial — as portrayed in the documentary, at least — comes when the prosecution brings forward a female victim (part of a Mexican family that was deep into Nxivm and essentially handed its daughters over to it) who was 15 when the cult leader first had sex with her. But while this clear-cut case of child sexual exploitation seals the criminal case against him, it stands out from the rest of the show, where the emphasis is mostly on how the consensual-or-are-they choices of adults, adult women especially, led them into functionally coercive situations and relationships — which some of them continued to defend as empowering and good even after Raniere’s arrest and conviction.
How the law deals with these kinds of situations is an interesting problem, with links to other debates — over drug use and euthanasia, for instance — about when and whether a liberal society can limit “free” choices that tend toward self-destruction. But apart from letting Raniere’s attorney ramble a bit, the show never gives us any sense of the relevant law or precedents at work in cases like this, or whether a “consenting adults” defense would have failed Raniere even absent the clear-cut case of the underage victim. The fact that filming wasn’t allowed in court places some limits on the documentary, but the bigger problem is the absence of any authoritative voice explaining the legal context in which a trial like this takes place.
Second, there’s the question of what Nxivm’s process, its curriculums and retreats and seminars, actually did for the people involved. Because clearly they did something, enough to make a lot of people — not just the core believers but also the more casual clients, the non-cultists who made it a successful racket — feel like Raniere and Co. had cracked some crucial psychological code. The most striking episode in the second season features two people whose childhood-onset Tourette’s was, on the evidence presented, radically ameliorated after they went through a Nxivm treatment program. One of them, a young woman, abandoned Raniere when the branding was revealed, but the other one stood by him. And seeing that man’s before-and-after footage, his transformed speech and affect, you can understand why he would place so much trust in Nxivm’s leaders and give them every benefit of the doubt.
But as with the legal questions, the documentary doesn’t have any disinterested voices doing analysis — for instance, comparing the transformations it depicts with the results of more mainstream forms of therapy for Tourette’s. It just leaves those remarkable-seeming experiences hanging there, without external context. And all of the interviews and footage never give you a clear sense, beyond clichés, of how the more typical person experienced the kind of therapy that Nxivm served up, or how less-extreme benefits of its protocols manifested themselves in people’s lives, or how an expert observer might usefully distinguish between therapy and, well, brainwashing.
This is admittedly a harder thing to capture and explain onscreen. But just as you’d want to leave a documentary about, say, Freudianism with a decent sense of how talk therapy actually works, a documentary about a movement that promised profound psychological transformation and delivered enough to keep its clients invested over years and decades needs more than a fragmentary portrait of what people who paid for courses and workshops and sessions actually did, or had done to them, before they reach the sex-cult stage.
Finally — and this is the deepest of the mysteries, where I have the most sympathy with the documentary’s limitations — there’s the question of how a cult leader’s charisma works. Because it’s obvious that Raniere didn’t just keep people in thrall with an insidious form of talk therapy or group bonding or brainwashing or even blackmail. He himself drew people in, convinced people that he was the embodiment of all the wisdom they were seeking, the exemplar of the more ethical life they aspired to live. He cast the strongest spell on women — some of whom were apparently strung along for years by promises that he would one day deign to father children with them — but his magic clearly worked on men as well. Whatever drove Nxivm to success and then to its meltdown, the appeal of Keith Raniere was at the heart of things …
… and I cannot imagine a less appealing cult leader than the figure who dominates most of the hours of “The Vow.” He is physically unprepossessing, casually dressed, poorly groomed, with long, lank hair and stubble — OK, fine, maybe you’d expect the source of all enlightenment to look like he doesn’t shower all that often. But you get to hear him talk in the documentary — and talk, and talk — and nothing he says rises above the level of vague, repetitive banality; to call it “dorm-room philosophizing” would be an insult to dorm-room philosophers. His ramblings make the typical self-help author or new age-y figure, a Paulo Coelho or Deepak Chopra, sound like Saint Augustine or the Buddha by comparison. I have a fair amount of experience with different types of spiritual leaders, personally and journalistically — some of them holy, some much more dubious — and I’ve never encountered one whose narcissism and megalomania are so thinly disguised and whose compensating charisma seems so limited.
Yet that’s clearly not at all how the inner circle of Nxivm — the people who eventually escaped his spell and the unfortunate souls who are still standing by him — experienced him in the flesh. It makes me wonder whether there is something about certain kinds of charisma or spiritual magnetism that simply can’t be captured on film (notwithstanding Raniere’s own enthusiasm for the medium), some quality that defies the entire project of “The Vow” by refusing to make itself available to the filmmakers, withholding its true effects unless it’s experienced in person.
Or there’s the alternative, which is the simplest reading of the show: that lots of people in our society are just fruit ripe for the plucking, and with sufficient arrogance and a solid dose of sociopathy, becoming a cult leader is a lot easier than you might think.
Adam Tooze on how Britain’s situation is worse than mere decline.
Christopher Kelly on Roman London.
Molly Worthen on the study of the miraculous.
Matthew Walther on “high proles,” labor shortages and seagulls.
Walther, Minoo Dinshaw and yours truly discuss fantasy television.
Ted Gioia on the recovery of Barnes & Noble.
Sonny Bunch on the cultural impact of the “Avatar” movies.
This Week in Decadence
“My intention is not to present a list of miserable points, but to group them together in a meaningful context whose consequences are far-reaching. While most of what I will outline here focuses on the United States, many of these same trends are present elsewhere because its catalyst is primarily the internet itself. With no signs of abating, a new kind of sociability has only started to affect what people ask of the world through the prism of themselves.
… The data presented is enough to sketch out an archetype of the new individual, a growing minority: one who is plugged in, dispirited and often feels invisible. Carl Jung wrote that personal meaning comes ‘when people feel they are living the symbolic life, that they are actors in the divine drama.’ In such a frayed sociality, the drama that would give one meaning closes. What often enters instead is nostalgia, exaggerated hatred, and the desire to be saved.”
— Anton Cebalo, “The Social Recession: By the Numbers” (Oct. 23)