If you followed the NXIVM case as it played out in the news in 2017 and 2018, much of what emerges in this episode about Keith’s past won’t surprise you. But damn was I delighted that The Vow’s creators finally slipped all the way back in time to Keith Raniere’s absolutely undistinguished professional beginnings and invited us all in to see how a con artist lays his groundwork.
It will shock absolutely zero people to discover that a man who started a cult revolving around self-help voodoo and faux-scientific “tech” also once started a multilevel-marketing company. That’s right, folks, everybody’s gotta start somewhere, and for Keith Raniere, that meant Consumers Buyline, a business that sold “membership in a discount buying club,” a.k.a. a corporation that seemed designed to collapse and leave its “investors” in the lurch while its head honcho, Keith, walked away with the money.
If you don’t quite understand pyramid schemes — both how they work and why anyone would knowingly join one — well, that’s part of the point. They’re entirely reliant on recruiting: Each new “investor” buys into the business but must bring in new “investors” in order to maintain his status within the company. The “investors” aren’t salaried, and they rely on a percentage of sales from their recruits, but the people at the top make a little something off every cash influx. Which is essentially what Consumers Buyline did, claiming that it sold discounts to what Forbes described in 2003 as “groceries, dishwashers and even hotel stays, stoking crowds of a thousand pumped-up and profit-hungry people.”
It’s an entirely unsustainable model, even if you do have a baggy-dress-shirt-wearing Keith Raniere making direct-to-camera appeals for new investors in what look like hokey late-night infomercials. When business started to lag, and investors started complaining, Consumers Buyline was shut down. Twenty states were investigating the company and Keith. New York’s attorney general went after him, alleging it was a pyramid scheme. Keith wouldn’t admit he’d done anything wrong but agreed to pay $40,000 in damages.
There’s a bright red flashing line you can draw between Consumers Buyline and NXIVM. And yet again there’s an abused woman left behind to tell us how Keith moved from mildly inventive schemer to full-on “Vanguard.” This time it’s Toni, who met Keith in his Consumer Buyline days and was quickly wrapped up in the company and him. He practiced the same kind of magic on her that he has on other people, “curing” her of her smoking addiction with acupressure, and then pulled her into a relationship that she couldn’t tell anyone about. He “took my shame and figured out a way to use it to control me,” Toni says, and all I could do was shake my head, because at this point in The Vow, I could have written that line for her. We all knew what was coming. Bad men can be irritatingly predictable.
But Toni does offer one detail that admittedly shocked me: that Nancy Salzman, co-head of NXIVM and Keith’s right-hand woman, was originally her therapist. Can you imagine putting your absolute, all-encompassing trust into a therapist, only to have that woman start a so-called self-help company with your raging ex, whose friends and followers are stealing your mail, wreaking havoc on your financial life, and breaking into your home just to mess with your sense of safety? This is a horror story, people, in the way every tale of domestic abuse is a horror story.
This little bit of insight into Nancy and NLP (Neuro-Linguistic Programming) pulls together a pretty complete picture of how The Vow is alleging that NXIVM came together. Keith had the mystique and the experience running an MLM. Nancy had the skills as an analyst and practitioner (of what Toni calls “a kind of hypnotherapy”). With their powers combined … NXIVM.
At the same time, this episode is following Catherine Oxenberg as she inches closer and closer to actual legal action against Keith. Admittedly, until now I didn’t have much to say about her story line. I pitied her and her plight — a mother who can’t reach out to her daughter, shake her by the shoulders and get her to see some reason, dammit! Even in photos India looked like a lost soul, raised with old money and new, a poor little rich girl who perhaps couldn’t see her value in the world after coming in the stead of two vibrant, famed women. It’s easy to lack empathy for the rich and beautiful — jealousy gets in the way — but Catherine’s zeal helps you see past all that.
Big-time favors aren’t enough, though, so Catherine does the nitty-gritty work: compiling lists of the crimes she believes NXIVM leaders may have committed (extortion, kidnapping, fraud), meeting with attorneys, and finally spending what looks like a long working weekend with Frank Parlato — creator of The Frank Report and former publicist for and longtime thorn in NXIVM’s side — to pull together a dense binder of information for then-New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman. (The fact that Schneiderman resigned from his office in May 2018 after four women accused him of physical abuse is a detail so rich in irony that it could choke you.)
(At the same time, her connections certainly do make a difference. On a phone with her mother, the Princess Elizabeth of Yugoslavia, Catherine asks her to please call “Charles” and ask him to intervene with the Dalai Llama, to tell His Holiness that her daughter is being held as a sex slave by NXIVM. “Charles?” a producer asks from the backseat. “Prince Charles, he’s mum’s second cousin.”)
The Vow doesn’t dig in much on Parlato, or mention that he too has 18 counts, including charges of fraud and obstruction, pending against him. (He’ll stand trial next year.) Instead, the story is of Catherine’s triumphant visit to the New York attorney general, the pain of bringing evidence to prosecutors that directly incriminates her own child in serious wrongdoing, and the key bit of information that it appears helped tie this all together. That comes from Susan Dones, who we learned last episode went bankrupt fighting the charges NXIVM had thrown at her after she left the group and demanded accountability. It turns out all that hell she went through did yield at least some fruit. Those piles of evidence in all her cases seem to indicate that, as she says, “none of them pay taxes.” And if there’s one thing that pisses off the state, it’s when you cheat it out of money.