In college I was briefly a tourist on the outskirts of a Christian fellowship. Every problem the members had — romantic, spiritual, relating to a discrepancy in whether there should be plastic or paper cups at a birthday event — could be “solved” by an extraordinarily long walk and talk; it was as if Aaron Sorkin was secretly orchestrating the whole Evangelical enterprise. I remember walking across a bridge over the Schuylkill River at 3 a.m., embroiled in a Borgesian verbal exchange and wanting to lie down right on the pavement just to make my fellow walker shut the hell up. If you just sorted through all those feelings and got down to some essential truth, the group always crowed, everyone would end up happier and more fulfilled.
The members of NXIVM are afflicted with this same Sorkin virus. They can’t stop hoping that through some mangle of nonsense words and phrases — “process,” “data” — they’ll systematically work through every neurosis or hang-up. Language solves all. After all, that’s what Keith’s “tech” (another bit of meaningless linguistic spin) offers. You can optimize! Enhance! And maybe even just dust under the rug the allegations that there’s an abusive secret society operating within the bounds of your multilevel-marketing-scheme-turned-long-tentacled-self-help-book-come-to-life.
All those conversations, however revelatory, do drag “Viscera” along a bit, especially since the episode offers very little clarity on timelines and locations. At one point Mark mentions that Bonnie left ESP in 2017 (the same year that the New York Times broke the news about the branding), but we don’t know exactly when. Did it take her weeks to decide to leave? Months? Did Mark stymie her need to talk about the fact that they were in a goddam cult for a week or so, or did he keep calling Keith for advice on his wayward wife for months? A definitive timeline would help, and tether the story.
Even with that haziness, “Viscera” is crafted like a ticking bomb; at first the allegations Bonnie raises against the group are so nebulous that if you didn’t already know we were headed for “sex cult abuses and brands women” you’d think she might be inflating things a wee bit. But then the ante climbs higher, higher, higher. And just as it did in its first episode, The Vow plays the smart trick of exposing increasingly damning information to the audience the same way it unravelled for NXIVM’s members.
Bonnie’s story is center stage this episode. We know she’s not the first person to leave NXIVM, addled by the group’s demands and concerned about the deteriorating mental health of its members, but she’s the fuse — married to a top lieutenant in the org, and a (low-rate but still) celebrity voice for the brand. She lays out some general weirdness, like Keith kissing everyone on the lips (why god why), and then breaks down the methods that ESP leadership used to lock her in to what she eventually realized was a “high control group.”
All the classics of cult behavior are there. Slowly dominating more and more of your time until you spend virtually all of it with other cult members? Check. Sleep deprivation and calorie restriction? Yessiree. Implying that your labor and/or financial donations are an integral part of membership? Yep. Asserting that the group is always in the right and anyone who questions it is at fault? Absolutely. Considering how much time Nancy Salzman spends peering out of NXIVM videos with her cold, probing eyes and pontificating on the joy awaiting anyone who joins, there’s also an awful lot of a flat-out misery.
“Comfort is like an addiction,” Keith says. Which is true, as anyone who has ever been bumped to first class and then had to go back to flying economy afterwards can attest. But Keith doesn’t simply mean that we want to stuff our faces full thick and rich mac and cheese while snuggling down in a cashmere onesie as our personal masseuses paw the stress away. He means that if Bonnie feels like she might pass out from low blood sugar before a singing performance she should push through it because only weak people let their endocrine systems have a say in whether or not they remain upright. In other words, he’s banally cruel, a figure from a Hannah Arendt report. (“I’m not going to put you in a chamber and torture you,” he tells Bonnie, jokingly, after she comes to him with her worries. But, um.)
We have all this footage — of late-night walks, and Keith playing Fur Elise or whatever on the piano, and the whole crew playing some badass midnight volleyball (yeah!) — because Mark was asked to film it all. Every chat about telomeres, every instructive swoop of Keith’s arm as he — a man who says he’s 5’8” — demonstrates proper serving techniques. And this is when you know that they’ve really jumped the shark. Every word out of Keith’s mouth was apparently sacrosanct enough that scores of little counting house notetakers scurry behind him and cameras pick up every last bit of hokey-pokey mumbo-jumbo.
(It makes you wonder: why would Keith agree to this? Well, it seems like maybe Keith needs to do some EM practices himself, because dude has a tiiiiiiiny bit of an ego problem, i.e. he sees himself as the Gandhi figure in a screenplay.)
As time goes on, Mark isn’t just filming with booms and steady cams, he’s also recording every conversation he has with a NXIVM member, surreptitiously if he has to. And it turns out he has good reason. Bonnie bombards him with thoughts on Allison Mack’s weight and overeager thirst for Keith’s approval. And her friend’s revelations about a “secret group of women” who are required to offer collateral to join the circle are a tipping point for him to stop turning to Keith for advice and start pressing him for answers. (No one yet makes clear what the collateral might be, but I have a feeling we’re going to find out.)
But what’s most remarkable is how Keith reacts when asked. First he tries to lure Mark to stay with him for three months, promising an hour of conversation a day, a classic tactic that controlling individuals use to suppress dissent. And then he quite literally tells Mark that if he thinks the women of the group look like zombies it’s because SOMETIMES PEOPLE GO CRAZY AND THINK THEY SEE ZOMBIES. It would almost be funny if it weren’t for the fact that Keith most likely is powerful enough to convince people that they can’t believe what’s right in front of their eyes.
It’s undeniable, though, that something truly hellish is going on and that Keith knows about it. Scared to keep talking to Mark while the recorder is on, Sarah asks him to turn it off. Then she confesses that the group — called DOS — approached her, and she joined. The picture of a relatively fresh brand, a literal marking on her skin like she’s an owned piece of cattle, appears.