Every other Tuesday in StoriedK. B. Hoyle explores the ways our cultural narratives act on us individually and in society as a whole.

I’m positive Allison Mack did not set out to be a sex trafficker. The perky Smallville actress with her blonde pixie cut and infectious smile was already an established child actress with a passion for performance long before joining the cast of the WB/CW superhero show. But in 2010 she met a man named Keith Raniere and the trajectory of her life changed forever. In Raniere, founder of a multilevel executive and personal well-being training system called NXIVM, Mack found what she thought was a guru—someone who could lead her to happiness, peace, and enlightenment above and beyond her identity as an actress. With fan adoration weighing on her shoulders and young girls looking up to her as a role model, Mack hoped Raniere would help her become a better person. She was devastatingly wrong. 

Mack’s abrupt turn into the strange world of NXIVM (pronounced nex-ee-um) is one of many stories told in HBO’s documentary series The Vow, the first season of which released this August. But Mack wasn’t the only high-profile person seduced by Keith Raniere’s program and promises, and she’s far from being the only person having to reckon with the consequences of them. For his inner circle, Raniere surrounded himself with anyone powerful he could entice to use for his own purposes, including filmmaker Mark Vicente, actress Bonnie Piesse, actress Sarah Edmondson, heiress India Oxenberg, the heiresses to the Seagrams fortune, and many more. I was interested in watching The Vow because of my fondness for Smallville and my knowledge of Allison Mack’s recent arrest, but I was worried that the documentary might be a lurid tell-all about a sex cult—too graphic and gratuitous for me to stomach. What I instead discovered in watching The Vow was a tragically fascinating study into the nature of deception, victimhood, and what happens when people suddenly wake up and discover themselves to be the villains of their own stories. 

The thing about lies is that eventually they have to give out. No matter how badly liars want truth to be relative—it isn’t.

Keith Raniere is a flagrant narcissist, which might be a personality requirement for a cult leader. As such, he insisted on having much of what he said and did visually documented for years, which is the main reason he recruited Mark Vicente into his inner circle. Mark became Raniere’s personal documentarian, convinced (by Raniere) that he was doing something to make the world a better place. And that is all Mark ever wanted to do, as a filmmaker—contribute to making a difference in the world. 

What exactly was Raniere’s vision of a better world? What were they doing at NXIVM? The full name of the organization is NXIVM ESP. The “ESP” stands for Executive Success Programs, and under Raniere’s leadership board, it was an umbrella covering a huge variety of branch organizations. What tied them all together, though—what drove people to sign up and pay to start their NXIVM journey—was a base desire all humans have: a desire for love and connection. Raniere’s courses promised that people not only could, but they also would achieve joy, and they would do it within a community of people who all wanted to achieve the same thing in the same way. He claimed that achieving joy was brain science, and he alone had cracked the code. 

But you could only achieve joy if you did it the NXIVM way, which was to pay a hefty sum of money to follow a “stripe path,” and . . . it all gets pretty murky from there. The creative genius behind it all was Raniere, who enjoyed the title “Vanguard” and the admiration and praise of not just his inner circle, but the entire organization as well. At the height of NXIVM’s power, they had centers around the globe and at least 16,000 people had taken Raniere’s self-help courses. 

Thanks to Mark Vicente’s footage and the hard labors of Bonnie (Mark’s wife), Sarah, and others who tell their stories for the documentary, HBO produced nine episodes of The Vow and has a second season coming in 2021 to continue the story as sentencing for Raniere and Allison Mack unfolds. Because of the abundance of footage Raniere had Vicente shoot—and despite the fact that Mack, Raniere, and others in high leadership at NXIVM refused to be interviewed by HBO—we still get to see a lot of interview-like footage from Raniere himself. It’s only in studying the man that the deception fully unfolds. 

Keith Raniere speaks to his people as if he’s studied the art of how to be a cult leader. One-on-one, he’s intensely focused on the individual. In conversations, he navigates with eerie precision past people’s logic centers to get to their emotions. When speaking to groups, he’s amiable and self-deprecating and keeps his message vaguely spiritual while promising that everyone will be able to bring out the very best in themselves. He’s the sort of person who allows others to talk him up so that by the time anyone is invited into his presence, they feel overwhelmed and grateful for the invite—and he knows how to take the people he wants to exploit, find their emotional pressure points, and push. He’s a people-collector, a master manipulator, and someone who lies so easily his lies are like breathing. 

In short, when Keith Raniere was building and running NXIVM, he bent reality around himself so that he could shape his own truth, and the number of people—who were otherwise good, rational, successful people—he deceived is shocking. His deception was complete for so many people until, one day, it wasn’t. 

The thing about lies is that eventually they have to give out. No matter how badly liars want truth to be relative—it isn’t. Raniere had to form his own community to give shape to his own reality just to uphold his lies just (as it was revealed) to maintain a certain lifestyle he wanted to live. But the greater the deception, when the cracks start to form, the greater eventually will be the collapse. In The Vow it starts with Bonnie, who has a realization one day. She’s been steeped in the NXIVM lifestyle for years, but she’s not experiencing joy. In fact, she’s at the breaking point of misery. But if she’s doing everything Keith Raniere is telling her to do, and she is farther from joy than she’s ever been in her life—joy, the primary NXIVM goal and promise—then that must mean that NXIVM doesn’t work. And if NXIVM doesn’t work, then Keith Raniere is a liar. 

Bonnie packs up and leaves, and she is the first domino to fall. She gets Mark, her husband, out, and they get Sarah Edmondson out, and what follows is an illustration of how the truth sets people free from bondage. But this was a bondage they didn’t even realize they were in, and one that was far more insidious than any of them yet realized. Because Keith Raniere wasn’t just running a self-help multi-level marketing-style program to exploit people for money, he had a harem of sex slaves within NXIVM called DOS, and he was brainwashing, blackmailing, branding, starving, and trafficking women to use for his own pleasure. Some of the women, like Allison Mack, were active agents in helping him to recruit and traffick more women. 

In the final episode of the first season of The Vow, Mark has an emotional breakdown when he thinks back over the things he was once okay with—the things he used to make his wife, Bonnie, do when they were both members of the NXIVM cult. “Nobody joins a cult,” Mark says during his breakdown, “they join a good thing.” It might sound like he’s trying to justify his actions during his time in NXIVM and alleviate his own guilt about how he acted and all the people he recruited and what NXIVM turned out to be, but (setting those things aside) he’s also right. Nobody chooses to be deceived, exploited, and brainwashed by a false teacher. And this is the tension inherent in all the stories of the NXIVM survivors: they are both victims and perpetrators of hurts against others. In some cases, some of them are guilty of very great hurts against each other. Mark was responsible for recruiting Sarah to NXIVM, and Sarah ended up with a brand of Keith Raniere’s initials on her pelvis when she was recruited—via NXIVM—into DOS. Sarah likewise helped recruit India Oxenberg, still (at the time of filming) in the inner circle of DOS. Mark recruited his wife, Bonnie. And all of them are responsible for hundreds, if not thousands, of new recruits. 

In seeking to make the world a better place, they hurt it. In seeking to better themselves, they hurt themselves so much so that most of them will be working to untangle the psychological and spiritual damages for the rest of their lives. And all of them unwittingly helped elevate a sexual predator to a position of direct power over hundreds of women, with indirect power over thousands more. They struggle with this, because even though none of them are Christians, there is still an inherent understanding of personal responsibility for sins. The weight of their wrongs drives them to try to make right what they can; it is a conviction driven by Natural Law. 

This is a conviction that also drove them to help each other to get out. And here is where The Vow has a lot to say about the power of forgiveness, especially forgiveness in the murky places where deception and self-delusion have broken trust—whether it’s broken trust with other people or broken trust with their own selves. Sometimes we have to forgive ourselves for making bad decisions, for being illogical, for losing moral clarity. Sometimes we have to forgive ourselves for being sinful, even when we are the victims of other bad people. We will each stand before God to give account for ourselves, and we won’t be able to say “the devil made me do it,” or, “but I was deceived.” 

One of the most tragic effects of what happened to the members of NXIVM was the loss of moral clarity. As each person told their story of how they got involved, what they eventually became okay with (and how), and what their breaking point was, they each looked back and realized they had become gradually inured against behavior that should have raised red flags much earlier. NXIVM was a process that encouraged people to cut themselves off from the world so they would only trust one person (Keith Raniere) and his version of truth—it encouraged them to think of anyone who challenged his way as liars. 

Nobody joins a cult, Mark said. We all like to think we are the heroes of our own stories, that we always make the best choices with the best intentions. But the stories of The Vow show how devastatingly easy it is for some people to join a good thing and wake up one day to discover they have been deceived and they are no longer on the side of good. As Mark and Bonnie and the others in the documentary wrestle with the long process of deprogramming, their reflections on their experiences and their efforts to save those still involved with Raniere and NXIVM have a lot to teach us—especially in our particularly partisan and divided times. As we try to figure out what is real and what narratives to follow or believe, it’s important to remember what it is that brought Raniere’s little empire to its knees: the truth.