The Vow drops three huge bombs in this episode that are somehow never returned to. The first is that Kristin Keefe, the former NXIVM “legal liaison” who we meet in the introduction to “Class 1 Data,” disappeared from that CultLife because she had a baby with Keith. A baby? Where is it? What else do we know about it? Is this confirmed? Well, no luck with any of those questions because just as easily as the subject is raised it’s abandoned. Kristin returns as a voice on the phone, coaching other ESP defectors, but we don’t learn a damn thing about this tiny human.
The second is that Mark Vicente, the highest ranking man to ever leave NXIVM — a driving force behind The Vow and the push to take the group down — is the son of a spy, and he casually trots out spycraft when he realizes that the cult may be lurking behind door jambs and tailing him on the streets of L.A. A spy? Tell us more! Was he working on behalf of anti-apartheid forces in Mark’s native South Africa? Did he teach this all to his son? What was Mark up to in his 20s that led him to learn how to memorize every face in a crowd like one of Elizabeth Jennings’ acolytes on The Americans?
And lastly, we hear little tidbits about teenage girls who alleged that Keith abused them long before NXIVM moved into the limelight. Their stories are briefly mentioned and then poof, nothing else, like the potential assault or endangerment of a child doesn’t warrant a second mention.
All of which is to say that the creators of The Vow have a strategy for every episode, a regimented idea of how they’re going to tell this story, and if a juicy tidbit or startling revelation slips out in there and it doesn’t fit the working narrative, well, oops, sorry. In this case “Class 1 Data” homes in on two related topics: it follows the money that keeps NXIVM tossing aside lawsuits, and it tracks exactly how the defectors pushed their narrative into mainstream media.
On the first front, we learn more about the Bronfman sisters, heiresses to the Seagram’s fortune (ginger ale and whiskey, more lucrative than I imagined!), who have fallen for Keith’s “scientific” “techniques” hook, line, and sinker. At one point we hear that on the death of their father Clare Bronfman inherited “another $250 million,” with that “another” as the operative word. With that much cash to burn, and a fervent belief in the NXIVM cause, the Bronfmans (especially Clare) prop up the whole enterprise. Remember the private plane rides mentioned in earlier episodes? The retreat on an island owned by Richard Branson? Presumably paid for by the Bronfmans.
Which brings up the most confounding and disappointing scene in all of “Class 1 Data” — Keith’s meeting with the Dalai Lama at the latter’s home in Dharamsala. Maybe I’m naive to the ways of the world, but when the Dalai Lama rejected Keith’s invitation to visit Albany in light of the lawsuits, I thought, “well, yes, of course.” When he agreed to see Keith, Nancy, Clare, Mark, et al, in India I thought, “he’s probably just being polite.” But when he pulled a full 180 in that meeting and went from insisting that Keith “must prove” that the lawsuits against him are false, to declaring with a big grin on his face that Keith “looks innocent,” my last little bit of faith left in organized religion slipped away. The Dalai Lama was fooled by this half-baked cretin.
Then again, so were about 700 to 800 people, the number of full-time NXIVM members Mark claims the group has. And the con played out for decades, considering a Forbes article published in 2003, before Mark or Bonnie or Sarah had even joined the group, that called Keith a “corporate Svengali,” and laid out his long history of Trump-style narcissistic boasting and a history of a collapsed $33 million-per-year pyramid scheme.
It turns out unflattering (hahahaha) media attention has dogged Keith for years, and turned the NXIVM leadership into a pack of vicious, litigious nuts who will, as Keefe said it while she was still a part of the group, “scorch the Earth” if someone fucks with them. At the beginning of “Class 1 Data,” Sarah finds out that she’s being investigated for “fraud, mischief, and theft,” and Catherine Oxenberg is served with some weird notice from Mexico telling her she’s basically under a restraining order. ESP leadership knows to always attack first.
But Keefe, whose fear of the group has pushed her to use burner phones and stay off the grid, offers the advice that the other defectors need to hear. Document everything, she tells them, and hit them with law enforcement. If Sarah, Mark, Catherine, and Bonnie can push the point that they are the victims, that the illegal activity started with DOS masters blackmailing slaves and only spread from there, a judge or reporter will be more sympathetic to their cause. So just as they go into protective hiding — under the government’s Safe Address program — Mark and the others also need to put their faces and stories in the pages of the New York Times, to come out swinging.
There’s an inherent manipulation on the part of both the defectors and Barry Meier, the Times reporter who works with them on the story. Which isn’t to criticize either party. At first unsure if he sees a big story there, Barry has to convince Mark and Sarah to go on the record — claims from anonymous beings don’t incite the kind of trust that a bombshell story like this one requires. And Mark and Sarah need to proffer the kind of details that they know a reporter won’t be able to exist. If you want to be annoyed by this, well fine, but “Class 1 Data” is an hourlong exercise in explaining just how little protection the law affords you when a grade-A con artist has brainwashed your child into screwing him and letting someone cauterize her skin with a blazing hot gun, even if you’re descended from goddam royalty.
There is no other avenue. They need to take what they’ve learned from Keith about refusing to be a victim, and turn it against him.