When you imagine a branding, which I hope you don’t actually ever do, you might flash back to that scene in Braveheart when James Cosmo’s Campbell has a big old wound cauterized by a hot, whiskey-dipped arrow. “That’ll wake you up in the mornin’, boy!” he snorts afterward, as if it were a tonic for sleepiness, instead of a flesh-killing mound of red-hot iron pressed upon him. Painful, yes, you might think, but quick, like a burn from a hot cookie sheet.
When “At Cause” really gets in the muck of what NXIVM’s “sorority” DOS put new members through in order to join, Sarah outlines the process by which they all received their brands. They were tricked, she says, and told they would receive a small tattoo (still shitty, but okay). Instead, they were told to strip naked, blindfolded, driven to a different location, and then forced to hold each other’s bodies down for 30 minutes at a time as a cauterizing pen slowly carved what they believed was a graphic of the sky, a mountain, and a river directly on top of their pubis. As Sarah puts it, “it’s a fucking medical procedure with no anesthesia,” and it’s also like something straight out of a dreamscape in The Leftovers. So why the hell would they submit? Well, because if women came together, they were told, they could “really do something.”
Let’s put aside the fact that the question “What if women could really do something?” is insulting, dismissive, and generally ignorant of the list of things women have done and continue to do for humanity on a minute-by-minute basis. (Remember how this whole “people existing” experiment only works if there are uteri?) We’ll focus instead on how big and weird of a promise it was to the members of NXIVM.
If the first two episodes of “The Vow” focused on how shortie-David Foster Wallace-wannabe Keith Raniere and zombie TV morning-show host Nancy Salzman lured people into their voodoo multilevel marketing scheme, “At Cause” drills down hard on the way the men and women in NXIVM were herded into separate pens. The men — burly, strong, and certainly agile from all that volleyball — belonged to the Society of Protectors, a name that should give you pause if you remember that this took place in the Year of Our Lord 2017. Some women decided they needed their own group, and, as so not to be out-named, they went with DOS, or Dominus Obsequious Sororium, which translates to “lord over the obedient female companions,” or Dominant Over Submissive.
The point of DOS stays fuzzy, which makes sense, considering even Sarah isn’t quite clear on why she joined or how she was convinced. But its methods — the juice at the heart of the NXIVM story when it broke a couple years ago — are crystal.
At the top of Sarah’s DOS family tree is Lauren Salzman, daughter of Nancy and super-EM-er, a woman so capable of breaking down other members’ childhood fears that she can charge $375 for the privilege. Lauren is also, according to Sarah, a strange mix of “therapist, superior, and best friend,” a mixed-up-enough slosh of roles to completely tangle her in every bit of Sarah’s life. She served as Sarah’s maid of honor (at another wedding in which Keith wrote the couple’s vows for them!!!), and as relatively high-ranking lieutenants in NXIVM’s army, the two shared almost everything.
The chronology of events is again confusing because the filmmakers don’t indicate exactly when each piece of footage was filmed. Some of it is Mark and Bonnie recording every last ounce of interaction with NXIVM as they try to leave, and then expose, the group. Some are sit-down interviews, filmed much later. But mixed in there are conversations with Sarah that seem to be taking place in real time, as she extracts herself from Lauren and the group. (“DON’T FUCK WITH ME. I WON’T FUCK WITH YOU.”)
What we do know is that Lauren is either as dense as a brick or is working exceptionally hard to convince Sarah that nothing strange is afoot and there’s no reason to be hysterical about the ritual flesh-carving she underwent with a group of nude women. The best tool at her disposal is to push “being at cause” back in Sarah’s face every time she questions DOS. What sounds like traditional self-help mumbo-jumbo — admitting that every aspect of your emotions and feelings is up to you — is also a controlling tactic. To buy into the “at cause” method of seeing your relationships is to renounce your right to ever hold someone else accountable for their actions. Sarah can’t question the inherent trauma of violent hazing rituals without Lauren throwing back at her that any fear or anxiety she had was entirely her own. What Sarah saw as two and half hours of desperate horror (“How the fuck am I gonna get out?”), Lauren talks about like a bachelorette party with a few too many penis Jell-O shots. And Lauren’s attitude of “if it was really bad I’d leave” can be understood when you remember that she’s been taught not to listen to her gut.
But somehow the day-to-day workings of DOS are even more alarming than the Girls’ Night Out, Branding Edition. Those flashes of text messages: “May I go to sleep?” along with a chain-link emoji and a little heart made my eyeballs expand to an unprecedented size. The language of slave and master, which cruelly connects the exploits of a group of bougie white women on fucked-up vision quests with the plight of Black Americans. And then there’s the collateral (“It should be something you feel nauseated about”), so often exploitation of the women’s bodies and reminders to think of their flesh and fat and skin as dirty or only valuable as a commodity. Of course, it goes without saying that the men in Society of Protectors were not required to sign over the deed to their house or tape themselves falsely alleging that their spouse is a child abuser. Only the women.
Sarah’s turning point might be when she realized the brand, pitched to her as a tie to the nature surrounding her, turns out to simply be “K.R.” and “A.M.” — Keith and Alli Mack’s initials, intertwined. She hasn’t sworn allegiance to her soul sisters, she’s put two people’s initials right above her crotch without realizing it, like a 17-year-old who thinks her slew of Chinese characters says “live laugh love” when they really read “silly white girl.” And she hasn’t just implicated herself. The group’s top recruiter, Sarah, has brought 2,000 people into NXIVM and connected plenty of “skinny beautiful girls” with Keith. She’s never been asked to sleep with Keith herself, but there’s a reason for that: “I wasn’t brought in for Keith, I was brought in as a recruitment tool.”
So in the summer of 2017, after Sarah’s husband, Nippy (Nippy!), drives over to Lauren’s house and verbally mangles her, she decides to undo what she can. She hands over the keys to the Vancouver center that was once her pride and joy. She tells other members, in a filmed exchange, that NXIVM is participating in human trafficking. “It’s illegal, unethical, immoral,” she practically cries out, as she begs them not to enroll anyone else. As for the scores of people she carrot-and-sticked into joining? “We brought them in, we have to take them out.”