If you’ve watched The Vow, the HBO documentary series that follows disaffected members of NXIVM as they extricate themselves from the so-called cult and denounce its leader, Keith Raniere, then you might be wondering how seemingly intelligent people got involved in such a dubious operation.
Didn’t they panic at the colored scarves the members wore to indicate their rank? What about the outlandish claims about Ranières’ supposed intelligence or the midnight volleyball matches he insisted on? Was whatever Really worth relocating to the suburb of Albany, NY where the band was based?
Sarah Edmondson and Mark Vicente, two of the main subjects of The Vow, which concludes its HBO broadcast on Sunday, say they never planned to join a cult. They were well-meaning spiritual seekers who found purpose through Executive Success Program groups or ESP personal development seminars, meant to help people overcome their limiting beliefs.
As recounted in The Vow, Edmondson and Vicente rose through the ranks of the internal hierarchy of the organization known as The Tape Path and became enthusiastic boosters of its mission, recruiting Hollywood actors and other performers for joining NXIVM and helping it grow in North America.
But more recently they have been key players in the downfall of the group, speaking out in an explosive History of the New York Times 2017 detailing a secret society within NXIVM, known as DOS, whose female members, including Edmondson, were designated as masters or slaves and marked with the initials of Ranieres. Others have been subjected to restrictive diets and, in some cases, forced into sexual servitude.
Their decision to become whistleblowers, recounted by The Vow directors Jehane Noujaim and Karim Amer, contributed to Ranieres’ conviction last year on charges including sex trafficking. Other high-profile members of NXIVM, including Seagrams heiress Clare Bronfman and Smallville actress Allison Mack, have also faced legal action.
In separate interviews, Edmondson and Vicente spoke about their experiences in NXIVM, why they ignored the warning signs, and whether they gave up on improving.
How they got involved
When Edmondson first signed up for a five-day intensive ESP seminar 15 years ago, she was a struggling actress in her twenties, living in a basement apartment for $ 400 a month and playing occasionally in a beer advertisement.
Encouraged by Vicente, a filmmaker hangar gathered on a spiritual cruise, Edmondson signed up for the workshop, believing it might clarify her purpose in life. She was not impressed. At least not right away.
My instinct on the first day was that it was weird and cult and that I wanted to leave, Edmondson said over the phone from his home in Canada. Stopping every now and then to soothe her 18-month-old toddler, she remembers that she decided to hold out until the third day, as Vicente had told her to do.
And at this point, the indoctrination and programming can literally take over your mind, she says. It’s a crazy process. Anyone who thought they were not sensitive to brainwashing was all brainwashed.
Edmondson says she made a breakthrough in the first seminar, deciding she needed to fire her agent and explaining how to do it. Other actors in the organization have had positive feedback on more daring and more emotional performances. I felt like I just wanted all of my friends to have this secret book of knowledge on how to be successful, she says of her NXIVM evangelism.
Edmondson is hoping The Vow will help stop people making the same mistakes she does. When people look at things like this, their natural instinct is [to say]This would never happen to me, only stupid people fall for stuff like this. I want to dispel the myth that people get involved. No one joins a cult on purpose, just as no one enters an abusive relationship on purpose.
Edmondson says the public is now better informed about suspected cults and high-control groups, in part thanks to shows like Leah Remini: Scientology and the Aftermath or Wild Wild Country. If I had seen a documentary like this when I was 26, I might have seen those red flags and gotten the fuck before I went any further.
Vicente, who grew up in South Africa, was approached about NXIVM after his spiritual documentary What the Bleep Do We Know !? became an unexpected box office success. He quickly rose within the organization, becoming a member of the board of directors and one of Ranières’ few trusted men, speaking to Vanguard, as the leader was known, practically every day for seven years. (During phone calls included in The Vow, the men named each other their animals, Markos and Keithos.)
Vicente compares NXIVM’s self-help classes and the personal breakthroughs they seem to create to the flowers, jewelry, vacations offered by an abusive boyfriend. You can’t run organizations like [NXIVM] unless you give people treats, he says.
His wife, actress-singer Bonnie Piesse, was also active in NXIVM, but began to have doubts about Ranieres’ controlling behavior, especially his sidekicks, and decided to leave. It took a while to convince, but Vicente eventually followed her, as did Edmondson.
He quickly contacted Noujaim, a friend and fellow documentary filmmaker who had signed up for ESP lessons at his suggestion, to tell him what he had learned. I was in total horror. Honestly, it was like, Oh, my God, what did I get my friend into? he says.
Noujaim and Amer followed Vicente, Piesse and Edmondson as they defected. At first, they say, it was about self-preservation: documenting their side of events as they anticipated a hostile response from NXIVM executives.
Gradually they realized that there was perhaps a more important story to tell, especially since as members of NIXVM they used to record many of their conversations and gatherings.
the The main reason this was done was Keiths’ narcissism, Edmondson says, because he was so wise.
Go beyond the sex cult label
Both Edmondson and Vicente have been troubled by what they see as sensational, shallow coverage of NXIVM and sinister headlines that conceal the intricacies of a secret organization.
I was deeply disturbed by the sex cult etiquette, although I understand why this is happening, says Vicente. It was the thing, however, that caught everyone’s attention. But, he adds, the term discourages people from wondering why so many seemingly intelligent people have been drawn to the group a relevant question these days.
We live in a society where there are so many radicalized people who believe in crazy things. It’s easy to go, well, they are idiots. Why don’t you try to figure out how they got there, why they think these crazy things?
While some critics have objected to the length of the vows, Vicente believes it brought a much-needed nuance to the salacious titles. Noujaim and Amer were determined to figure out how to tell the deeper story. In my case it’s a 12 year trip from, Wow that’s amazing, to Holy s, it’s hell.
Reconstruction after NXIVM
The experience with NXIVM shattered my belief in kindness, says Vicente, who now lives with Piesse in Portugal. Being a whistleblower sucks. he sucks. Because the interior [of the group] hates you and the people who leave hate you too. Eden was run by a sociopath. But I still destroyed Eden, and it is overwhelming.
Vicente says leaving the group was like a shaky wake-up call and his attitude to anything even loosely related to personal growth was very reactionary, he says. I was like, f every human potential self-improvement bull thing that exists. You can go there yourself. You are all run by a group of psychopaths.
He is slowly recovering. Whatever process this is, I am not. I have spoken to people who have been in organizations for 30 or 40 years. It can take decades to unravel everything.
Vicente continues to channel his energy into a number of creative pursuits, including an upcoming memoir on his experience in NXIVM, a mystery thriller starring Piesse he plans to direct, and a trilogy of documentaries.
Edmondson, whose husband was also involved in NXIVM, followed a similar journey. When a friend recently invited her to a personal development event, she replied: Are you kidding me? After what I just experienced?
She says I’m very skeptical of bands and anything that has a glorified leader. Edmondson is in therapy and looking for other ways to heal but, she says, my confidence in humanity is definitely damaged.
A milestone in the healing process came last year, when she removed the mark of Ranieres’ initials from her body. All that’s left now is a 4 inch white line, similar to a cesarean scar, a reminder, she says, of my strength and what I’ve been through. That I am a survivor.
When: 10 p.m. Sunday
Evaluation: TV-MA (may not be suitable for children under 17)
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