HBO’s Sex Cult Documentary ‘The Vow’ Will Shock and Horrify You (Eventually)

The crazy story of Keith Raniere’s Nxivm group involves Jewish heiresses, sex slaves, a onetime soap star and volleyball. And you thought ‘Wild Wild Country’ was wild

Adrian Hennigan
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Mark Vicente and Sarah Edmondson extoling the virtues of Nxivm before eventually discovering the truth about Keith Raniere's self-help group.
Mark Vicente and Sarah Edmondson extoling the virtues of Nxivm before eventually discovering the truth about Keith Raniere's self-help group.Credit: HBO / Cellcom tv
Adrian Hennigan

In a year in which the humble cough has become a potential deadly weapon and a Congress-bound woman believes a group of Satan-worshipping pedophiles run the world, there’s something perversely reassuring about a documentary that reminds us that crazy was not invented in 2020.

Yet when I initially learned about HBO’s “The Vow,” I must admit that my first thought echoed that of the legendary “Brenda from Bristol,” when she learned there was going to be another British general election in 2017: “You’re joking, not another one?!”

After all, how many documentaries about American cults led by priapic gurus do we really need? Haven’t we seen enough with the likes of Netflix’s “Wild Wild Country” and “Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator,” or films like “Holy Hell,” “Prophet’s Pray” and “Children of God,” to know precisely how these things work? Charismatic con man – always a man – works his way into a position of power and operates a high control group to make seemingly normal people do his bidding, no matter how illogical that may be. (By the way, Israel is really leaning in to the sensationalist elements of “The Vow” by giving it the Hebrew title “Sex Cult of New York.”)

Well, it turns out there’s always room for another when the story is as compelling, disturbing and bizarre as the one laid out in HBO’s new nine-part documentary.

Yes, “The Vow” is sprawling and, at over nine hours, has a running time that even Richard Wagner might consider a tad excessive. But get through some of the longueurs early on and you’ll be richly rewarded by the jaw-dropping revelations as the series progresses.

Put it this way: A third of the way through, I couldn’t see how the show could possibly stretch to nine episodes. But now I’ve seen seven, I’ve no idea how it’s going to squeeze everything else into the remaining two.

“The Vow” is a reminder that if you want to know what documentaries you’ll be bingeing on HBO or Netflix tomorrow, just keep an eye on the big court cases of today. I’m sure, for example, that some documentarian is currently beavering away on a six-parter (at least) on the Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman college admissions scandal. And anyone who was following the United States v. Keith Raniere case last year would surely have known that this particular story had the potential to be documentary gold.

What they probably couldn’t have foreseen, though, was that it would be the thousands of hours of footage shot by Raniere’s own organization that would ultimately grant us such a comprehensive window into his activities. Or that the saga would end up giving a former soap star her biggest starring role in decades.

Inner workings

“The Vow” also serves up yet another reminder that not only is truth stranger than fiction, in the right hands it also has the potential to be more dramatic than any drama. In this case, those hands are a particularly safe pair – or, to be more accurate, pair squared. Life and work partners Karim Amer and Jehane Noujaim previously directed “The Great Hack,” and their work on “The Vow” is as sobering and involving as that 2019 film on the Cambridge Analytica scandal.

Lord knows, the materials were there to make “The Vow” a lurid affair. Even that grayest of ladies, The New York Times, couldn’t help itself with its headline following the court case verdict last year: “Nxivm’s Keith Raniere convicted in trial exposing sex cult’s inner workings: [He] set up a harem of sexual ‘slaves’ who were branded with his initials and kept in line by blackmail.”

Yet the makers of the documentary recognize that it would be a mistake to see Nxivm (pronounced “Nexium”) as simply a sex cult. That’s part of the story, for sure, but “The Vow” also looks at the workings of a self-help group whose stated aim was “to raise human awareness, foster an ethical humanitarian civilization, and celebrate what it means to be human.”

Or, as its website made even plainer, Nxivm believed it was “working toward a better world.” That’s a statement you might see on countless foundations’ websites, and so perhaps it’s no surprise that Raniere ensnared wealthy backers – the Jewish heiresses Sara and Clare Bronfman (of the Seagram fortune) – to bankroll his venture.

The latter allegedly poured $150 million into Nxivm over the years, which, given her current predicament – I’ll let you google that for yourselves or watch the documentary to find out – must go down as the worst business decision since Decca Records rejected the Beatles.

Sure, the documentary spends too much time showing us the modus operandi of Executive Success Programs, which sat under Nxivm in the company hierarchy as a “human potential program” for people who had thousands of dollars to spare on intensive self-improvement workshops (a mere $7,650 for the 16-day option).

Sarah Edmondson holding a sash, whose color signified your level in Nxivm's ESP program. It was an expensive journey to progress up the many levels.
Sarah Edmondson holding a sash, whose color signified your level in Nxivm's ESP program. It was an expensive journey to progress up the many levels. Credit: HBO/Cellcom tv

But that detail is necessary in order to explain how the organization attracted the likes of Mark Vicente and Sarah Edmondson. They both drank the Nxivm Kool-Aid for over a decade – Edmondson sums it up best by saying ESP was like a “secret potion of understanding” – before having their eyes opened to the horrors occurring at the organization’s hub in Albany, New York (where the core of the membership would live).

Along with Mark’s wife, Bonnie – who, though she doesn’t say much as the series progresses, has a haunted look that speaks volumes about her time in Albany – they are shown leading the fight to reveal what’s really happening at Nxivm after they leave the group in 2017.

A tale of three actresses

Vicente is a filmmaker himself, having enjoyed a surprise box office hit with the New Agey 2004 documentary “What the #$*! Do We (K)now!?” It’s him we have to thank not only for the copious amounts of footage of cult life in the leafy Albany suburb of Clifton Park, but for the recordings of all his phone conversations about the group after he bolted from it.

Edmondson was a middling Canadian actress (“Big Wolf on Campus,” anyone?) when Vicente invited her to an ESP session, and she quickly rose through the ranks to become one of Nxivm’s star performers. Her real-life role here, though, is that of the courageous whistleblower who regrets introducing so many people to the organization and is determined to make amends.

Allison Mack being escorted out of court during the Nxivm trial in New York in 2019.
Allison Mack being escorted out of court during the Nxivm trial in New York in 2019.Credit: Bebeto Matthews/AP

Two other actresses also loom large: Allison Mack (best known for playing Chloe Sullivan in over 200 episodes of “Smallville”) and Catherine Oxenberg (one of the numerous ice queens in the 1980s TV soap “Dynasty”).

All I’ll say about Mack is that she’s one of the villains of this particular story – but what to say about Oxenberg? It’s probably fair to note that her best days were behind her when this all occurred (your honor, I present her most recent films: “Ratpocalypse” and “Sharktopus vs. Whalewolf,” both from 2015). Yet she becomes the unlikely star of “The Vow” after her young daughter becomes involved with Nxivm and Mom clicks into full Sally Field in “Not Without my Daughter” mode, leading a media campaign to get the authorities to investigate the group and extricate her daughter from its clutches.

The filmmakers follow Oxenberg from her Malibu (where else?) home to the attorney general’s office in New York, taking in such surreal scenes as when she picks up her mother, Princess Elizabeth of Yugoslavia, from the airport and asking if she can ask “Charles” – aka the Prince of Wales – for a favour. And who could possibly resist hearing the poshest of English accents hollering “Fuck you all, shitheads!” about the organization she seeks to take down.

Catherine Oxenberg with Casper von Diem at a movie premiere in Los Angeles in 2005.
Catherine Oxenberg with Casper von Diem at a movie premiere in Los Angeles in 2005.Credit: REUTERS

As mentioned earlier, you couldn’t make any of this up. However, there is one depressingly familiar figure throughout all of this: the slimy guru running the show. Looking like Stephen King if he’d had some facial work, Keith Raniere is a “240-IQ” genius who once called himself “one of the top three problem-solvers in the world.”

Bizarrely, he likes to hold court – quite literally – during regular volleyball sessions, surrounded by adoring acolytes. He insists that everyone call him “Vanguard” and is prone to nonsense statements like “Everyone builds their own postulate world.”

Raniere enjoyed relationships with multiple women in his organization from the start, but he definitely developed a “type” over the years: young, skinny, pretty. Indeed, one of the documentary’s most disturbing elements is how weight loss is used as a form of control over the group’s women (either living in Albany or elsewhere). For instance, in the sorority Raniere himself set up and controlled – spot the contradiction there? – “slaves” would have to ask permission from their “master” every time they wanted to eat, specifying how many calories they were planning to ingest.

As smoke was being blown up his ass at a rate that would make even Donald Trump tell “Fox & Friends” to ease up, Raniere clearly lost any sense of perspective he might once have had. Treat someone like a deity for long enough and they’ll develop a God complex, it turns out. I also blame his parents for calling him “Keith,” surely one of the cruelest names in the history of humanity (though, it's got to be said, the guy looks like a Keith).

Ultimately, when you watch “The Vow,” you’ll see how Raniere managed to take advantage of hundreds of lost souls who were looking for mishpachah and a sense of community, and witness what a truly despicable cult he and his enablers were.

“The Vow” is on Cellcom tv, Yes VOD and Sting TV from Monday and Yes Docu from August 31, at 11 P.M. It will also air on Hot VOD and on Hot 8 from September 3 at 10 P.M. The show airs on Sundays on HBO and HBO Max in the United States.

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