What's mi$$ing from the second season of the cult documentary 'The Vow'
Cult leaders know it, pyramid scheme operators know it, and you undoubtedly know it, too: Nothing complicates a narrative like half a million dollars in cash.
But let's step back.
The group NXIVM, once promoted as a system of self-help seminars, became infamous after its leader, Keith Raniere, was charged with and ultimately convicted of a raft of offenses including sex trafficking. He was sentenced to more than 100 years in prison. Others in his inner circle also pleaded guilty to various charges. They included Allison Mack, an actress who had seen some success in Hollywood, and who admitted to a prominent role in a sub-group of NXIVM called DOS. The revelation that women in DOS were literally branded gave the case its most indelible image, and the regrettable phrase "sex cult" gave the story its queasy combination of genuine tragedy and sensationalism.
NXIVM has been the subject of a few examinations. There was the Starz series Seduced, which focused on the experiences of India Oxenberg, a member whose powerful mother, the actress Catherine Oxenberg, worked to extract her. There was a CBC documentary podcast series called Uncover, which focused on the experiences of group member Sarah Edmondson. Edmondson had gone from a high-profile recruiter for Raniere to a high-profile whistleblower of sorts — it was her branded skin that was shown in a photo in an exposé in The New York Times in 2017.
But no presentation of NXIVM hit the zeitgeist quite as hard as HBO's nine-part documentary series The Vow, which landed in the late summer of 2020, when restless viewers still waiting out the first stages of COVID fastened onto the story's combination of gnarly, upsetting details (women known as "slaves" said they were blackmailed and ordered to do everything from sex acts to calorie restriction) and genuine exploration of the abuses that a lot of members of the group had suffered. Some combination of true crime and trauma, this story, too, relied heavily on the participation and the point of view of Sarah Edmondson, as well as that of Mark Vicente, another of Raniere's close associates who ultimately turned against the leadership of NXIVM and presented himself as newly enlightened regarding its wrongs.
A second season with a new point of view
When HBO announced a second season of The Vow, the business imperative was easy to understand; the journalistic or creative imperative less so. Having followed the group from its founding through Raniere's arrest, would director Jehane Noujaim (one of the two directors of the first season; the other seems to have stepped away) find another entire season's worth of material that wouldn't just be rehashing the ugliness? Nevertheless, the second season has arrived, and with it, a new point of view. Now, although it follows a few narrative threads, the series examines the story largely through the eyes of Raniere's second in command, Nancy Salzman, who ultimately pleaded guilty to racketeering conspiracy.
Salzman, who was trained as a nurse and then entered what she calls "the field of human potential," was the person who took Raniere's philosophical ideas and turned them into a curriculum that could be taught to his adherents via very expensive classes. He went by the title "Vanguard," and she went by the title "Prefect."
Much as Edmondson was in the first series, Salzman is presented as a heartbroken woman experiencing what the filmmakers called in Edmondson's case "a crisis of faith." One of her first lines from the extensive interviews with her in these six episodes is this hypothetical, which Salzman delivers with gusto: "Imagine you spent 22 years trying to build something that you fully believed in and thought was good, and everybody thinks it's the devil's work."
What unfolds is a version of the story in which Salzman, too, was taken in by Raniere — by his charm, by his attention, by her own need for something meaningful in her life. When it comes to the very worst revelations, including the horrifying story of a young woman named Daniela who testified she was largely confined to a single room for more than two years, Salzman pleads a kind of sympathetic shrug of sadness but not any particular sense of responsibility: "I can't tell you how sad I feel for Dani and what she went through." She is insistent that she believed until very late in the game that she was involved in an above-board, if unconventional, self-help group.
Show us the money
But here's something it's rather puzzling that they don't explore in the series: When the FBI searched Nancy Salzman's house pursuant to a search warrant, they found more than half a million dollars in cash. More than $390,000 of it was stuffed into a single shoebox.
Early in the introduction of Salzman's interviews, Noujaim shows the audience photos of what seem to be fruits of the search as Salzman talks about how thorough it was: we see boxes of files and a laptop with an evidence mark beside it. But the Albany Times Union published another photo back in 2019: a photo of the money, packed in bundles.
Money. Money has been missing from too much of The Vow's story of NXIVM all along. Recruiters made big money, the organization made big money — the story is awash in money. And for these people who are in the gray area where they are both victims and perpetrators (an area that exists in any similar organization), money affects their behavior, their accountability, and their attempts to make amends or "move on."
It's one of the things that Edmondson is asked about in the CBC podcast far more than she ever was in The Vow. Journalist Josh Bloch asks her: Didn't she make an awful lot of money recruiting other people into NXIVM? Does she feel right about keeping it, now that she says she's seen the light about Raniere? Edmondson has two basic responses: she worked really hard for the organization, and anyway, her money isn't really liquid these days, or she'd gladly hand it out to the people she took it from. It is a heck of a response. He also asks her whether she might have ignored certain red flags about abuses because of all the money she was making. She says the reasons she ignored the red flags were other things — the training she had received, the professed NXIVM principle of helping others improve their lives, and the belief that she was doing something worthwhile and meaningful. But neither the podcast nor the TV series has gotten much of an answer from Edmondson about wealth or its temptations.
Money peeks out now and then in the new episodes of The Vow, just not in the places you might expect. Here's Salzman talking about her anger at Edmondson: "Sarah went home and disenrolled everybody she enrolled, and gave them refunds out of our money. She didn't have a right to do that." For both women, this allegation raises interesting questions about the entitlement to keep what they earned from NXIVM. For both women, it raises the question of whether their "crisis of faith" has been accompanied by a willingness to compensate others from their own funds.
Salzman, despite her extensive participation in the series, may have been hesitant to discuss money and specifics because of some continuing legal jeopardy. But it winds up seeming like a gaping hole in the series that it avoids money with such rigor. Whose money was in her house? Did she know how much was there? What did she think it was for? Did that amount of cash, if she knew about it, spark no curiosity about whether something was wrong? When Salzman's sentence is explained near the end of the last episode, her incarceration is mentioned; the fact that she was fined $150,000 and ordered to surrender more than $500,000 in cash plus some properties — and a Steinway — is not.
It's not the only gap
The filmmaking approach here, which is to avoid outside expertise via talking heads or voiceover in favor of using the voices of the participants in the events (here including both the prosecutor and Raniere's lawyer), is ultimately ill-suited to this story. The series cries out for someone with expertise in cults to explain the dynamics and whether they affect people near the top the same way they do people near the bottom, and the influence of money, and the role of a neutral-seeming figure like Salzman in legitimizing a leader like Raniere. An episode that dives into Raniere's claims that his program could work magic on symptoms of Tourette syndrome desperately needs an informed, detailed medical perspective.
More generally, when your main subject brags about her ability to put on any affect she wants at any time as part of her work with self-hypnosis and "human potential," can you let her story go unchecked? (Salzman, for instance, discusses her expertise in "neuro-linguistic programming," and that's accompanied by a little illustrative drawing of the brain, but not by any discussion of the fact that there is considerable controversy over whether that is a real field or pseudoscience.)
Approaching a documentary subject with humanity and nuance makes sense; again, the line between victim and perpetrator is very fine here. No one is all good or all bad, and no one is all guilt or all innocence. It may well be that Salzman — and her daughter, and Sarah Edmondson, and Mark Vicente, and the other people to whom grace is extended in these hours of television — believed earnestly that NXIVM was helping people. But here's the rub: It's possible that Raniere did too. What if Raniere really believed that he was doing good things for the world by developing this world oriented around himself and his self-defined genius? Would it make him any less culpable? Do we assign responsibility only to people who do things for no reason at all?
And moreover, do we grant this searching examination of the factors that may have led people to commit wrongful acts to offenders broadly? Do we ask what influences, what mistaken understandings of the world, what pain and pressure leads a person to commit armed robbery? Or to sell heroin? Is it simply because Salzman, and Edmondson, and so many of the other people who enabled Keith Raniere are affluent white women that they are given this space to reposition themselves relative to their motivations and intentions rather than their actions?
There are some fascinating moments in this series, as there were in the first installment. But ultimately, it leaves an unpleasant aftertaste, a sense that the need to make more episodes and the need for someone to focus them on made this project vulnerable to becoming part of a rehabilitation campaign that is unearned.
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