Everyone thinks of themselves as too savvy to fall for the voodoo wellness and empowerment shtick that lures the unsuspecting into cults. But still, you’d be forgiven if, at the halfway mark of The Vow’s first episode, you saw the allure of NXIVM. That far in, it looks like old-fashioned, good-natured, salt-of-the-earth … fun? There isn’t yet a trace of the horrific “sex cult” outed in 2017 by a slew of news reports that documented whipping rituals and the branding and enslavement of women. All of that is far off.
Ex-members of NXIVM (pronounced “nexium,” though it’s spelled like the name of a ’90s metal band) lay out its enormous promises: the joyful feeling of belonging, the sense of kinship and shared purpose. And judging by the collegial and energized feel of the footage — giggling women climbing atop a human pyramid, a vast emerald lawn filled with picnicking 30-somethings, arm-in-arm singalongs — it was often, in its early days, more like a church on a groovy weekend mountain trip than 50 Shades of Gray gone corporate. It’s not all a trick the documentarians are pulling — several former members of the organization have said that its outer rings didn’t betray even a hint of its rotten core — but what “The Science of Joy” does so well is to explain and bring to life the appeal of NXIVM in the first place. What the fuck, you may wonder, would make someone join what is so obviously a cult in the first place? The Vow wisely answers that question upfront by teasing viewers with little tastes of how NXIVM, and more particularly, its smaller organization inside the organization, ESP, billed itself.
“The Science of Joy” is almost, in a weird way, a mirror of those overly smiley videos of NXIVM co-founder “Prefect” Nancy Salzman preaching to attendees of the group’s five-day intensive beginner training seminars. From the first moments, when filmmaker Mark Vicente explains in a recorded video that he’s documenting what’s going on as evidence, there are hints that something strange is at work. And of course, any news follower will already know how things play out, that several NXIVM founders and members ended up arrested on a vast array of charges including racketeering and sex trafficking. But it wants you to see ESP, Executive Success Programs — a name so banal and broad that it’s practically meaningless — as a program that any vitamin-popping, breath-counting, therapy-going, intention-journaling, good-vibes-pushing person might head into with high hopes. It billed itself, as founder “Vanguard” Keith Raniere explains in what looks like footage from a different documentary, as a “methodology for enhancing or optimizing human experience.” So hopeful! And seemingly as harmless as The Secret.
As the group’s defectors and this episode’s main interviewees Vicente and former actress Sarah Edmondson explain, the rules and rituals that you might scoff at weren’t that different from those of other organizations that we never question. They had a special handshake, just like fraternities. Students took off their shoes, bowed before they entered the space, and called their leaders by designated titles, but so do people learning karate. The silk colored sashes, which Sarah complains about as too short and really awkward, are akin to Scout badge sashes, and “a way to recognize the value people bring to the world.” Sure, all this is a little creepy to a non-joiner like me, but directors Jehane Noujaim and Karim Amer flash graduation robes in the background as Sarah and Mark talk, a reminder that we all partake in arcane rituals and never really think about how goddamn weird it is that we wear a flat square of cardboard and a tassel on our head to show we’ve finished high school.
But from there the tactics of ESP (a name I can’t help but think they came up with so it would feel tied to something truly woo-woo and magical, i.e. mind-reading) start to edge closer and closer to discomfort. In fact, Nancy promises discomfort. It’s the only way to really work through your problems, she explains. It’s also an excellent tactic for exposing people’s vulnerabilities so you can capitalize on them.
The process that ESP is selling — EM or Exploration of Meaning — is designed, or so they say, to crack open people’s innermost fears, to lead them to “integrations,” moments in which they dispel their “limiting beliefs.” For Mark, that’s a lifelong feeling of panic when he’s on the freeway. Nancy, he explains, led him through a conversation, like talk therapy, in which he suddenly moved to a different intellectual plane. A few weeks later, on a freeway, he discovered that his panic wasn’t there, and he couldn’t quite recall how it had felt. The elimination of that fear, he then claims, opened up a creative space in his mind that allowed him to finish up a film script in just a few weeks. For Mark, the creator of What the Bleep Do We Know?!, a documentary that asks about the links between our consciousness and quantum physics, the experience was an elixir, intoxicating him with what he saw as its undeniable results.
Nancy & Co. throw around the word “science” a good deal, pinning their made-up psycho-babble to the word as if that truly grounds it in fact. She claims that Keith’s “patented” technology has “broken it down into a formula in a fashion of mathematics that’s reproducible, therefore creating and making it a science.” None of those words really mean anything: They make it a science? A fashion of mathematics? And acquiring a patent for something doesn’t necessarily mean it works. But the physical results of their cognitive experiments do produce some astonishing results — like Nancy and Keith’s claim that they’ve cured patients of their Tourette syndrome. “I listen to where I think their beliefs are limited and then I look at the stimulus response patterns they have and I systematically disconnect them,” Nancy claims. But what the hell does that mean?
Just as Keith was tucked away from direct contact with every shmo who wandered through for a beginner’s course, the filmmakers withhold his backstory. He appears as if fully formed and his attributes are rattled off. But if you listen carefully, while some of them are impressive, there are also some weird discrepancies between his inflated status as a genius and his actual accomplishments. He claims that he learned French, German, and English before he learned to read — but that’s exactly when most multilingual kids learn their languages, when their brains are at their most plasticine. Nancy crows that he’s a third-degree black belt in judo, which is admirable, but also far from the art’s top tier. He’s an adept piano player, sure, but by saying he gave it up long ago he can always act as if he’s rusty. And as for that IQ, so wondrous it put him in the Guinness Book of World Records, well, nobody mentions that the test he took was a take-home, from a group held in serious doubt by the IQ testing community, and that his “accomplishment” was removed by the book the next year.
By the time Mark meets Bonnie Piesse (who starred as Beru in two Star Wars films), who eventually raises the alarm about something strange going on inside the corporation, it’s clear that Keith and Nancy have huge aims for NXIVM — they’ve courted the Bronfman heiress sisters, and B-list actresses Catherine Oxenberg, Allison Mack, Kristin Kreuk, and Grace Park. The company’s umbrella has expanded and now there are a series of ludicrously named sectors inside it, like Jness (for women), Society of Protectors (a group for men that should have been the canary in the coal mine), and Exo Eso (yoga, but with dancing?). Keith has even met the Dalai Lama.
The veer toward Bonnie’s suspicions comes both too quickly and too slowly, like the directors knew they needed to plant the seeds of what’s to come by the end of the first episode to keep viewers coming back. And it’s worth noting that The Vow’s construction is a little unclear at this point; the many filmed interviews with Raniere and Salzman surely belong to some other documentary, but what about the taped phone calls? The lack of clarity is most likely intentional, if the directors want to simply drop us into the origins of the cult without raising too many questions about technique or access. But still, The Vow’s sources and footage beg for some explanation.
What “The Science of Joy” does exceptionally well is to rope us in, to offer just enough, and then leave us with the knowledge that, as Bonnie puts it “some things are going to crumble.”