I moved into my former D.C. apartment on Halloween 2009, the same day a huge new Scientology center — seven stories, 50,000 square feet — opened two blocks away. Gold-vested Scientologists were often in line in front of me at the Whole Foods in our neighborhood, calmly buying platters of broccoli salad and sparkling water on their lunch breaks. That intermixing of the surreal (a member of what we can almost certainly call a cult) and the mundane (buying more eggs at the grocery) was always alarming. How, I often wondered, could they simply walk out into the world in those uniforms, knowing that we could identify then, that we knew they had fallen prey to such an embarrassingly bizarre scheme?
Towards the end of the The Vow, Nippy admits what a lot of us have probably been thinking, that it’s rather humiliating for him to look back and realize how easily he was conned, that he couldn’t see the grotesque misogyny and manipulation inherent in NXIVM. It’s one thing to leave a cult, it’s a whole other thing to look back months and years later and wonder what the hell possessed you to ever join it in the first place. From the outside — for me, for you lovely commenters, for all the viewers — it seems so patently obvious that this whole thing was a sham. The silk sashes! The $5,000 fee for a weekend workshop in a Holiday Inn! The volleyball, dear god, the volleyball! But as Mark so movingly offers at the end of “Wounds,” after Catherine has a laugh remembering how Bonnie once slept on the floor as “penance,” “We’re not fucked-up, strange monsters that made bad choices our whole life. We didn’t join a cult. Nobody joins a cult. Nobody. They join a good thing and then they realize they were fucked.”
NXIVM, DOS, Society of Protectors, JNESS — they were all like bindweed, innocuous at first, similar in appearance to other self-help groups, and then suddenly everywhere, strangling whatever they were growing on. And in its penultimate episode The Vow makes the claim that the poison that destroyed this thing at the root was plain old endemic misogyny.
Listening to Keith rant about how it’s “unjust” when young boys are stopped from fighting back against toddler girls who steal their shit is like falling into the logic-twisting hellhole that is r/MensRights. It all starts at the very beginning of a child’s consciousness, Keith insists in these talks to his NXIVM followers: little girls are overprotected, and then they’re “hitting up against reality, being suppressed, put in a glass box,” whereas little boys are given a “direct wound,” i.e., they’re prevented from responding to typical childish with more childish retribution. That’s actually just how we teach all our kids, not only baby boys, that we don’t respond to violence with more violence, but for Keith this suppression, this refusal to allow little boys to hit or harm little girls, isn’t a parenting tactic that goes both ways, but some primal injustice that men must face.
The Vow’s creators saved the real goods for this episode, all the moments where Keith can only barely pretend that the lines he spouts about women’s inherent flaws are some fun playacting exercise. He smiles first and asks permission to be really “rough,” with the crowd, which creates the impression that he’s only going through these motions to help them. Then he launches into a schtick so tired that it’s actually a little shocking to hear a man still try it out. “Do you understand why we hate you?” he hisses at the crowd. When Sarah speaks up, crying because this talk has stirred something in her, he interrupts her over and over to point out her flaws. He calls her a “cock tease,” and rants that women “aren’t inherently reliable” that “women don’t keep secrets … it’s like thinking a child is your ally.” But he’s just acting, guys! It’s all a performance. “This just what men think,” he declares, as if the first step to disabuse people of noxious notions is to first abuse them with that same bullshit.
And then there’s SOP, the Society of Protectors, a group inside NXIVM that we’ve heard relatively little about until now. Media coverage of NXIVM has pointed mostly to DOS as the problem, indicating that the insidiousness inside the group revolved around Keith and his harem. But Keith’s claim that he was only playing the role of a domineering, intolerant asshole in order to point out how men think about women is entirely undercut by every sad, pathetic word out of his mouth about SOP. “We’re the doers, the providers, the protectors,” he insists, practically painting his chest and strapping on a bearskin like some caveman prophet. It all comes down to, of course, sex, and he sounds an awful lot like Werner Erhard standing on stage at an EST seminar bellowing, “I wanna fuck it, fuck it, fuck fuck fuck,” and pointing around the room. SOP was his little army, a group of men he militarized with this mumbo jumbo and then turned on the women he supposedly wanted to enlighten. That “bootcamp” is hazing, which is just another word for abuse. But when you operate under a man who claims that “abuse is a made up human construct, and a lot of times the screaming of abuse is abuse in itself,” the logic becomes so circular that it keeps eating its own tail. Underneath the piano sonatas and the David Foster Wallace imitation Keith is just another lame man saddled with insecurity, narcissistic to the bone because to doubt a single part of himself would send the whole facade crashing down.
This episode does its best to rope in Allison Mack as a fellow ringleader (she pleaded guilty to racketeering and racketeering conspiracy in April 2019), but the details about her domination of the group just aren’t there. Does she sound sad and lonely and desperate for attention? Yes. Does it seem as if her career as a C-list celebrity only degraded her self-esteem further? Yes. But doesThe Vow draw a clear line between Allison and NXIVM’s crimes? Not really.
Heading into its finale, The Vow has laid out a damning case against Keith, and presented a rightly complex picture of the women who followed him into the sorority from hell. It paints the reformed NXIVM members as self-aware, asking themselves, “How do you unring that bell in your own psyche?” But it also offers us Keith’s justification, that somewhere along the line he was one of those wounded baby boys who took a toy and was held back from revenge, and never tries to find out where it all went wrong for him. The Vow draws a parallel between the Stanford Prison Experiment and the insane gender wars playing out inside NXIVM, but it has yet to reckon with what fucked up wiring in Keith’s brain would make him design one of those experiments of his own.