Watching The Vow on HBO, a docuseries about the controversial organization NXIVM, it was so strange to hear names of places that I’ve heard all my life: Albany, Colonie, Latham, Clifton Park, the Adirondacks.
I grew up just north of Albany, New York, and if I had to pick the most unlikely place to be home to a bizarre cultlike group, it’d be near the top of the list. Then to learn we’re actually talking more about its quiet suburbs, Colonie and Clifton Park, was even more shocking. But all it proves is that evil can take root anywhere.
It’s not my intent here to run through the history of NXIVM (that’s detailed here), but suffice to say it billed itself as a self-help multilevel marketing company peddling secrets of self-knowledge and success. It was eventually revealed to have heavy overtones of control and sexuality, centered on Keith Raniere, a reportedly brilliant and charismatic leader (although he comes off as just c0nceited and nebbishy in the series).
Some elements of what he taught, and elements of what the group did, will be familiar to anyone who follows various New Age-influenced self-help movements, from the generally benign to the stranger fringes, and even to members of organized religions, especially those with monastic orders. Any actually effective psychological or spiritual technique can be used for good purposes or abused for bad ones.
Interestingly, people who were involved in NXIVM (pronounced NEX-ee-um) said that, early on, its teachings improved their personal and professional lives. It wouldn’t be the first time that a toxic organization grabbed a kernel of truth, or at least useful knowledge, and employed it to lure in people searching for meaning and structure in their lives.
But NXIVM took it many steps beyond that. According to those who have left, while at first they felt loved, appreciated and accepted, that later morphed into more extreme forms of coercion (emotional and financial) and control, especially for the women involved. As far back as 2012, there were questions about the group. Click here for the Albany Times-Union‘s expose from that year, updated in 2019.
Like Scientology, NXIVM seemed to both be attracted to, and attractive to, actors. I’m not an actor, so I won’t speculate on what psychologically might be going on there, but in The Vow, one actress that was in the group talks about bonding with her fellow performers on insecurity, body issues and feeling misunderstood.
NXIVM also drew in Seagram’s heiresses Sara and Clare Bronfman, who were idealistic and considered Raniere to be a humanitarian.
Other people who might not have been rich or actors shared the quality of being very idealistic, wanting to change the world for the better, and seeking the leadership of someone who could help them do that. This is a quality I also heard referenced frequently in Wild Wild Country, Netflix’s 2018 docuseries on the havoc wrought in rural Oregon by guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh and his followers.
One lesson there might be to always temper idealism with a bit of healthy skepticism, especially as regards other people’s motives and intent. You don’t need to be a cynic to be realistic about human nature.
While NXIVM was American and entrepreneurial in its approach, Raniere is heard in the series to use Buddhist terminology and reference Buddhist teaching. Also, reportedly with the help of the Bronfman sisters, he got the Dalai Lama to appear at a 2009 conference on ethics, sponsored by NXIVM, in Albany. It’s unclear whether the Dali Lama was aware of the negative side of the organization, and he denies having been paid.
In the end, NXIVM appears to have become what these groups too often do, a financial scam and a way for its leader to satisfy greed and uncontrolled carnal urges (because, of course, whatever rules there are don’t apply to this enlightened being). But for Raniere, there wouldn’t be physical intimacy unless the women involved were pretty and had also lost a lot of weight (for their own good, of course).
UPDATE: Raniere was sentenced on Oct. 27 to 120 years in prison.
Clare Bronfman was already sentenced to 81 months behind bars on identity theft and immigration charges. Smallville star Allison Mack, convicted on charges she trafficked women for a NXIVM sub-group, is currently out on bond, awaiting sentencing.
So, what stands between the wrongdoing of NXIVM and the more sordid revelations about the Catholic Church? To outsiders, on the surface, they don’t look all that different. But, NXIVM is a funhouse mirror of real faith, and stands as a warning about what to avoid. These are human failings and human evils, and the Church is full of humans. You could also argue that there are demonic influences at work. That may be true, but people are also capable of great amounts of evil all on their own.
For me, the NXIVM story and tales like it again point up the extreme danger of violating the First Commandment by putting all one’s faith and trust in a human, rather than in God. Until the Second Coming, we’re not going to have the human face of God in front of us in physical form, so attributing godlike qualities to a person is always a temptation.
It also testifies to what happens when people put self-improvement and secular success over what they know to be right and true. The people who left NXIVM all knew in their gut that what they were doing was wrong, but they were trained out of listening to the inner voice of conscience. It’s gaslighting, when you know you’re doing wrong, but everyone close to you tells you it’s just a feeling that should be ignored, or isn’t really valid.
Also, there’s an element of scientism, which seeks to make science the ultimate arbiter of truth. Because Raniere was considered a scientist (he did graduate from RPI, with a 2.6 GPA), that lent his ideas a legitimacy for many people that they might not have had otherwise.
Driving much of it though, is old-fashioned greed, lust and selfishness, in which other people are merely tools or objects to gratify desires. That is the deepest violation of the dignity of the human person, both for the perpetrator and the victim. The Gospel reading for this weekend features Christ proclaiming that love of God is the highest law, and with it, the love of neighbor as oneself.
Sadly, these are two laws which are broken with depressing frequency, even by those who profess to be Christian.
Despite being under the protection of the Holy Spirit, the Church isn’t immune from human evil, as we have had graphic evidence in recent decades. Fortunately, our founder is not Keith Raniere or any other fallible, ordinary human being, but Jesus Christ. It’s to Him, and to the Holy Spirit, that we can always turn for guidance and help … but we must choose to do it.
As a last note, it’s touching to see how Raniere’s victims believed — and rightly so — that getting the story in the New York Times would be the first step on the road to justice. That’s the best function of journalism, uncovering wrongdoing and bringing it to light. Credit to the NYTimes, the Albany Times-Union and all the other papers that ran with the story. Of course, it didn’t hurt that it involved salacious elements and the aura of celebrity.
I just wish I believed that the mainstream media was equally interested in all stories of wrongdoing, even those that don’t titillate and especially those that won’t win kudos from like-minded colleagues and friends.
UPDATE: After writing this, I watched a few more videos on NXIVM, but none (not even The Vow itself) was more compelling than the story told by investigative reporter Chet Hardin, who reported on NXIVM for the now-defunct Albany-area weekly Metroland. He was on the story long before there was a big Hollywood connection, and long before the major media took notice. Click here to learn more about him; and here to watch his video presentation of his story of dealing with Raniere and even playing midnight volleyball with him.
Hardin offers valuable insight into how Raniere embedded his group into the power structure of the Capital Region (not addressed in The Vow, which probably considered local affairs in Albany not sexy enough to be included). He also reveals that Raniere’s crimes are even more appalling than the ones discussed in the series.
It’s also yet another reminder of the incalculable cost of the loss of strong local news outlets with the wherewithal to do investigations. Long before crimes reach the attention of national media, local people who understand the power structure and players of their area could sound a warning — if they’re still there, that is.
The Vow is definitely not family viewing, and there is scattered nudity and frequent profanity. Also, unlike filmmaker Alex Gibney’s taut 2015 documentary Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief, and the addictive Wild Wild Country, The Vow is extremely slow, bordering on tedious. It’s nine one-hour episodes, and was recently renewed for a second season, which will reportedly cover the Raniere’s trial and related events.
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