Like recent docuseries about Scientology and R. Kelly, among others, HBO’s The Vow explores the many ways a charismatic man can groom a flock of willing participants and impressionable victims. The nine-part series, directed by The Great Hack filmmakers Jehane Noujaim and Karim Amer, focuses on the cult/multilevel-marketing scheme NXIVM, which, underneath its self-help veneer, was mainly a sex-trafficking ring for its leaders.
The series chronicles the rise of NXIVM — pronounced “Nex-ee-um” — and the experiences of former members like actress Sarah Edmondson and Mark Vicente, who directed the 2004 documentary What the Bleep Do We Know!?. They describe how the organization’s founder, Keith Raniere, Smallville actress Allison Mack, the heiresses to the Seagrams liquor company, and several other co-conspirators lured people into the cult and convinced a number of women to be branded with the group’s logo and serve as slaves to the expanding NXIVM hierarchy. Like many cults, the leaders preached love and enlightenment while requiring members to devote themselves financially and through deeply personal secrets they called “collateral,” all the while telling them they had to recruit more members.
In advance of tonight’s premiere of The Vow, here’s a guide to NXIVM’s history, the documentary’s main players, the organization’s sex-trafficking inner workings, the eventual trials and convictions of many of the cult’s leaders, and its ongoing work.
Born in 1960, Keith Raniere had a similar appearance to David Koresh, the leader of the Branch Davidian cult who died in the infamous 1993 Waco, Texas, raid: bespectacled, long hair, and a beard. Whereas Koresh twisted biblical prophecies into creating a legion of followers, Raniere started out with a philosophy of betterment, ethics, and humanitarian causes alongside psychologist Nancy Salzman, who studied a form of neurolinguistics that involved hypnotism.
They began with ESPs, “Executive Success Programs,” that eventually attracted wealthy attendees: Mexican president Vicente Fox’s daughter Ana Cristina; Battlestar Galactica actress Grace Park; and Edgar Bronfman Sr., the inheritor of the Seagram’s distillery business, whose daughters Sara and Clare would later become heavily involved in funding the cult. NXIVM allegedly sought to recruit Virgin founder Richard Branson by renting his publicly available Necker Island in the Caribbean for a gathering, though Branson has denied any involvement with the organization, and the Dalai Lama himself came to one of their later conferences, after being convinced by Raniere that the growing number of reports of NXIVM’s abuses were lies.
Similar to Koresh and other cultists, Raniere inflated his background — saying he was a child prodigy with a 240 IQ, renowned pianist, and judo champion — and surrounded himself with young women. As described by many of his followers, he had a knack for charming people and believed he could improve upon the structures of Scientology and multilevel-marketing schemes like Amway. He’d originally started a merchandise pyramid scheme called “Consumers Buyline” that got shut down over fraud accusations, then met Salzman in 1998 to form ESP, which soon became NXIVM.
Raniere and Salzman became known as“Vanguard” and “Prefect,” respectively, to their followers in upstate New York, which eventually exceeded 16,000 members. In the vein of judo belts, they started using colored sashes to denote who advanced in the organization by attending more seminars, recruiting new members, and giving more and more money, allegedly into the millions. The trick with NXIVM, though, was that only those in Raniere’s innermost circle could achieve the highest colors — his was white, Salzman’s gold, and two of Raniere’s former girlfriends, both now deceased, attained purple, while a select few earned greens, the level of “senior proctor.”
Edmondson and Vicente are the main escapees featured in The Vow, akin to Leah Remini and former Scientology executive Mike Rinder. Edmondson, a struggling actress who appeared in several TV shows and Lifetime movies, also told her story in the CBC podcast Uncover, which was hosted by her childhood friend, journalist Josh Bloch.
While Vicente is shown giving speeches and filming pro-NXIVM documentaries to attract more members, including his future wife and fellow escapee Bonnie Piesse, Edmondson’s tale is far more harrowing. The most startling revelation is when she shows off her brand — a series of lines cauterized into her skin, adjacent to her vagina, in a place where she could still wear a bikini and nobody else would see it. Unlike the brands used on cattle or certain fraternity members, it was not a quick process done with a hot iron — as Edmondson details, she and her fellow slaves had to hold each other down while the brand was administered over the course of 30 to 40 minutes. It was only later, when showing the brand to a friend, that Edmondson realized the symbol contained the initials of both Keith Raniere and Allison Mack.
Accepting the brand came later in the process of a women-only subset of the cult known as DOS, which was billed as a secret sisterhood among NXIVM members. The acronym stands for Dominus Obsequious Sororium, a Latin phrase that the New York Times says translates to “lord over the obedient female companions.” Lauren Salzman, the daughter of Nancy, was the one to initiate Edmondson into this sect and became her “master.” Each master had a group of slaves who would perform menial tasks for them and also be available for errands at a moment’s notice, provided the slave didn’t inform her master that she would be “going dark.” This meant that the slave would be unavailable to reply via text message for several minutes at a time, like taking an elevator or driving. The slaves would be punished as a group if one did not respond to a text from the master within one minute, and some members were forced to go on strict diets because Raniere preferred young, thin women. In turn, some slaves became masters themselves by recruiting new members, while still reporting to their own master.
Eventually, it came to light that a certain group of DOS women got coerced into having sex with Raniere as part of their “assignments,” usually ordered by Mack and India Oxenberg, the daughter of actress Catherine Oxenberg. As a woman known only as Jane in the documentary says, Raniere admitted that he was the actual head of DOS, the grandmaster of them all. It’s estimated that Raniere had 15 to 20 women who regularly engaged in sexual acts with him, which he’d document with nude photographs for more collateral, in his Clifton Park, New York, “library,” a room with a bed and hot tub.
As The Vow shows, Edmondson, Vicente, and the elder Oxenberg took their claims to the Times for a 2017 exposé, believing that going public was the only way to get law enforcement to act on their allegations of abuse and fraud. Hundreds of NXIVM members quit the organization in response, while many who stayed behind tried to destroy evidence of the slavery aspects of DOS.
In March 2018, federal agents arrested Raniere in Mexico and charged him with counts ranging from sexual exploitation of a child and sex trafficking to conspiracy to commit forced labor, wire fraud, and identity theft. Mack was arrested a month later on similar charges, while the Salzmans, Clare Bronfman, and bookkeeper Kathy Russell would be indicted for fraud and racketeering. All except Raniere pleaded guilty to various offenses, and their sentences have yet to be determined due to procedural and COVID-19-related court delays.
Raniere’s federal trial kicked off in May 2019, with Lauren Salzman, Vicente, and several victims whose names were kept secret testifying against him. The jury found him guilty on all counts, and he, too, is awaiting sentencing, with a hearing set for October 27, nine days after The Vow’s final episode. He faces a minimum of 15 years in prison and could be jailed for life. Currently, Raniere is incarcerated at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, New York. Another federal lawsuit was filed in January 2020, with more than 80 former NXIVM members accusing Raniere and 14 others of abuse and conducting illegal psychological experiments. They’re currently seeking a jury trial and financial relief.
In addition to appearing in The Vow, Edmondson and Oxenberg have both released books about their experiences with NXIVM, with the latter’s memoir, Captive: A Mother’s Crusade to Save Her Daughter From a Terrifying Cult, getting turned into a Lifetime movie. India Oxenberg left NXIVM after Raniere’s arrest, reconciled with her mother, and hopes to one day write her own book about the ordeal.
It’s still unclear how many people continue to be involved with NXIVM, though a group called We Are As You has been regularly staging dance demonstrations outside of the jail where Raniere is being held. According to Vicente, several of the participants include former DOS members like Battlestar Galactica actress Nicki Clyne and Dr. Danielle Roberts, who administered the brands to many of the slaves. The organization claims it has nothing to do with Raniere, saying they’re there in support of all those incarcerated, particularly one inmate named Kay Rose, who shares her initials with the NXIVM leader. According to MDC officials, no prisoner with that name exists.
Update 8/24: This article has been updated to clarify the nature of Richard Branson’s interaction with NXIVM.