There were so many explicitly cult-y things going on in the NXIVM cult, especially as described by the captivating HBO docuseries The Vow. A select group of women were literally branded with the leader’s initials, which is horrifying and violent and one element of why the founders should go to jail for a long time. At the upper levels, members of NXIVM were participating in master-slave relationships with their mentors. Women were encouraged to starve themselves for the sake of personal growth. Even at the entry levels, stuff at NXIVM was bizarre — the colored sashes, the stripe path, the insistence that the true intellectual hub of the world is Albany.
No question, the branding is horrific. The starvation is horrific. The sashes are weird. The Albany thing could be something to do with real-estate prices? As I see it, though, and as depicted in The Vow, a different aspect of NXIVM should’ve been the red line, the “this is obviously a cult” warning for its participants. Because long before anyone got to the point of branding, there was volleyball.
It shows up first in The Vow’s second episode, and it’s presented as just another unusual thing about the organization. After all, once everyone has acclimated to a hierarchy based on colored silk sashes (sashes that have to be regularly ironed, by the way), a groupwide volleyball hobby doesn’t seem that odd. On paper, it seems sort of fun. It extends the summer-camp-like mood of some of NXIVM’s programming, that feeling where everyone spends tons of time together, all experiencing stuff that will never make sense to an outsider who wasn’t there in that moment. Many scenes in the docuseries were shot at a YMCA summer camp, in fact, where NXIVM would hold its annual weeklong retreat. You can see it in everyone’s faces as they traipse around this beautiful property. At heart, they are all camp kids who want to sit around a fire and talk about the meaning of friendship. So, yeah, it feels obvious that they’d also be really into their regular volleyball meet-ups.
When you see it, though, the volleyball is something else entirely. Okay, not entirely. It’s volleyball. There are nets, shorts, and sweat bands. It’s in an ordinary gym with bad fluorescent lighting. There’s a scene where a man (NXIVM founder Keith Raniere) shows a woman (Sarah Edmundson, one of the docuseries’s main subjects) how to serve correctly. It’s volleyball!
But with even a touch more context for what’s happening, the volleyball situation goes from benign to overwhelmingly cultlike. Volleyball only happens in the dead of night. As former NXIVM member Mark Vicente explains, Raniere never showed up at the gym before 10:30 or 11 at night, and volleyball would continue until possibly 7 a.m. And even if volleyball weren’t strictly mandatory for NXIVM members, it was highly encouraged for anyone who wanted to rise in the NXIVM rankings. Later, as Vicente describes his frustration that Raniere was withholding his one-on-one attention, he explains that Raniere would occasionally ignore Vicente’s requests and deflect. “‘Come to volleyball, come to volleyball,’” Vicente remembers Raniere telling him.
“I didn’t understand volleyball at first,” Vicente says in episode two, “but it became a big social event.” Vicente describes the scene: Keith and his crew show up at this gym late at night, and between volleyball games they’d sit around on the bleachers while NXIVM adherents gathered around to ask questions. It was, if you will excuse the pun, a place where Raniere could hold court.
While there’s plenty of recorded material about the most disturbing things that happened inside NXIVM — the brandings, the intense calorie counting, the mental intimidation — most of it does not appear as filmed footage in The Vow. There’s mountains of footage of other stuff, especially from all the NXIVM/ESP workshops led by Raniere, Vicente, and others. Those workshops, though, are designed to seem as anodyne and unthreatening as possible. The footage we see is usually of a few people standing in front of a presentation-size pad of white paper. They scribble on it with big markers. They hold enormous cups of takeout coffee while they talk about being your best self. They’re standing in rooms that look like badly lit, budget hotel meeting rooms. The workshops are modeled after the look and feel of middle-manager corporate America, and not even big, scary corporations that probably have a lot of money. That’s the point, of course. It’s definitely a cult, but it’s also indistinguishable from a regional insurance brokers’ conference.
The volleyball, though — the images of these gathered people, huddled adoringly around Raniere in the middle of the night, squeezing together on bleachers so they can be close to him. The Vow spends a lot of energy explaining just how much of NXIVM was a cult of personality with Raniere at the center, but it’s never clearer than in those volleyball scenes. In one moment from episode four, the actress Alison Mack meets Raniere for the first time at a volleyball night, and she goes from a calm and happy greeting to her eyes filling with tears as Raniere tells her that art is actually nothing and that she is responsible for all her unhappiness. She looks at him with awe, a stunned expression on her face. Meanwhile, Raniere sits on the bleachers looking like a minor character in a Danny McBride show. His long hair is tied in a ponytail, there’s a hideous terry-cloth sweatband around his forehead, and he has a look that says, “It’s so great that I’ve convinced all these idiots to listen to my nonsense in between 3 a.m. volleyball matches.”
Together these scenes comprise The Vow’s most unexpected and indelible motif, rendered even more so by the knowledge that it’s volleyball — volleyball, for Pete’s sake! Not even beach volleyball! Just regular volleyball! It’s a sport you’ve heard of, you know roughly what it’s about and someone likely forced you to learn it in school. But it’s also distinctly second-tier in the pantheon of American sports. It is, if we’re honest with ourselves, the Albany of sports.
That disconcerting combination is what makes the volleyball scenes the most unnervingly cult-ish material in the series. The essence of a cult is that the participants believe, even as people outside the cult cannot fathom how anyone could ever get swept up in something like that. Much of The Vow is about trying to break down that sense of mystery, to get inside and explain that NXIVM had massive appeal, that Raniere really was this powerful, magnetic presence. I don’t feel that appeal myself when I watch the volleyball scenes, but more than anywhere else in The Vow, that’s where his appeal is reflected in the faces of the NXIVM members.