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HBO’s ‘The Vow’ Takes Viewers Inside The Disturbing World Of The NXIVM Cult

The sex-cult was dismantled after leader Keith Raniere was arrested

HBO’s new nine-part docu-series The Vow is set to take a deep dive into the sinister inner workings of the NXIVM sex cult, from its humble beginnings as a ‘self-help’ group to its devolution into an abusive cult, and ultimately, its demise. 

In March of 2018, the cult came into the global spotlight when two whistleblowers came forward with horrific claims of psychological and sexual abuse at the hands of founder Keith Raniere, who was arrested under charges of sex trafficking. Smallville actress Allison Mack was named as a key figure in the organisation’s operations, and just a month later, she pleaded guilty in court to racketeering conspiracy and racketeering.

So, what exactly took place within the NXIVM cult? We take a look.

What was NXIVM?

Founded by failed businessman Keith Raniere in 1998, NXIVM (pronounced ‘Nexium’) was originally touted as a multi-level marketing company that aimed to help and support women in business, with the program’s main emphasis being ‘to have people experience more joy in their lives’. 

It began as personal-development program, popularised for holding Executive Success Programs (ESP) that encouraged women to “rewire” their emotions. In the series, it is claimed that recruiters were asked to look for vulnerable women, including sexual assault survivors, wealthy people and those with insecurities in particular. 

Nancy Salzman was the first official member and became one of Raniere’s right-hands. However, it was always Raniere at the helm, urging people to call him “Vanguard”.

By 2003, over 3,700 people had taken part in the group’s seminars, including billionaire liquor heiress’ Sara and Clare Bronfman who would play an instrumental role in funding much of the organisation’s operations, even becoming trainers at one point.

The price of classes were not cheap, with one former member Sarah Edmondson recalling her first class costing $5,000 USD (approx $6,500 AUD). And members were able to work their way through ranks, earning sashes as they rose. One particular way of getting ahead quickly was to recruit other members into the group. 

What Was DOS?

Dominus Obsequious Sororium (DOS), or The Vow, was the secret society within the NXIVM universe. 

A female-only sect where women were allegedly brainwashed and blackmailed into becoming ‘sex slaves’. Upon entering, hopefuls were reportedly forced to offer up incriminating or sensitive materials such as nude photos, passwords, bank details or family secrets, as a form of collateral.

One of the most disturbing rumoured aspects of membership was the forced branding that took place. Women were cauterised on their groins with the DOS symbol, made up of Raniere and Mack’s initials, an idea that Mack admitted to coming up with. 

At Raniere’s trial, the cult’s rulebook was revealed to explicitly contain orders that would see to the secrecy and master-slave dynamic enforced by Raniere. 

The best slave derives the highest pleasure from being her Master’s ultimate tool…It doesn’t matter what the command is, it matters that you obey. It doesn’t matter that you understand the command, it matters that you obey,” it read. 

Members were pushed to drastic weight loss and even starvation. As reported by The New York Post, one victim says she was restricted to a 500 calorie-a-day diet for over a year. Raniere allegedly repeated to the women that his “ideal” size was 107 pounds (48 kilograms). 

Dynasty star Catherine Oxenberg’s daughter India was one of the more notable recruits. She told People about how she felt when hearing about some of the horrors her daughter endured, “It’s so many layers of disgust. When you think it can’t get worse, it does. The layers of sadism and cruelty are endless.”

How Were DOS and NXIVM Brought Down?

Back in 2017, high-ranking NXIVM members Mark Vicente and Sarah Edmondson effectively blew the whistle on the entire operation in a New York Times article, with Edmondson even revealing her own NXIVM branding mark. Both of whom are interviewed for the HBO documentary. 

Raniere was subsequently arrested in 2018 and plead not guilt to sex trafficking and forced labour, among other crimes. he was convicted of racketeering and sex trafficking in 2019 and is being held in the Metropolitan Detention Center, where Jeffrey Epstein died and where Ghislaine Maxwell currently is awaiting trial.

Raniere was set to be sentenced in October 2020 and is facing life in prison.

Some of his still-devout followers are still protesting his innocence, with theories that the nightly dance parties held outside the detention centre are for him. The group claims that they are there to celebrate ‘Kay Rose’, however, no inmate exists of that name and the KR initials seem telling. 

What Will Be In The Docu-Series?

From Academy Award-nominated and Emmy-winning directors Jehane Noujaim and Karim Amer (The Great Hack), The Vow follows a number of people, all deeply enmeshed in NXIVM over the course of several years.

While the nine-part series offers us never-before-seen accounts of what happened behind closed doors at NXIVM, it ultimately focuses on the victims’ stories of survival. 

The Vow is set to be released on HBO on September 20 in Australia and will be available to watch on Foxtel or Fox Showcase. 

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