NXIVM Explained: Bonus Post

Click here to view all posts in this series.

Content Warning: Since this post is more of a recap of other resources, I only mention some of NXIVM and Keith Raniere’s negative activities in passing, but general sexual assault, eating disorder, and overall mental/emotional abuse warnings apply to this post and definitely to the resources linked. Do not watch either the HBO or STARZ documentaries mentioned unless you are in a good mental headspace.

The Story of the NXIVM Story

There is a lot of information about NXIVM out there. I wrote this blog series because no single source seemed to have everything as part of one narrative. That’s not necessarily a critique – “everything” is so many things! But for example, I managed to spend like a whole week learning about NXIVM before I found out about Daniela being locked in a room. People who are big pieces of one narrative will just disappear into background shots in other media. 

My series doesn’t get into everything either, of course. You may have noticed a few times I’ve said something along the lines of “I can’t wait for someone to write the book on this subtopic” – and I think that’s the problem with trying to put together a singular NXIVM narrative. There is so much and each tendril is a full, fascinating story in itself. I did the best I could. 

This post will collate and review some of the resources I’ve utilized, with the goal of helping you decide which if any are of interest to you. Here’s a table of contents if you want to jump around:

DOCUMENTARIES

The Two Documentaries: The Vow and Seduced

Probably coincidentally, HBO and STARZ released their two documentaries on NXIVM within a few weeks of each other. (They were released right before Raniere’s sentencing, so maybe not super coincidental. I’m not sure how far in advance sentencing hearings are announced.) This obviously led to a lot of comparisons between the two, most of which decided that Seduced was the better of the two because The Vow kind of sugarcoats things. I fully understand and acknowledge the issues with The Vow, but I think they are both valuable resources, giving different pieces of the same story. 

Here is one of the better articles I read about the two documentaries:

The Vow (HBO)

The Vow is a (so far) 9-part series produced by Jehane Noujaim and Karim Amer. It uses as a frame the story of Sarah Edmonson (former DOS member, and main face of the NY Times exposé) and her husband Anthony Ames; Catherine Oxenberg (actress, mother of victim India Oxenberg); and Mark Vicente (filmmaker) and his wife Bonnie Piesse (actress) as they try to blow open the story of NXIVM.

One of the things I liked most about The Vow is how much source material there is, video footage and audio recordings of all of the major NXIVM leaders. Straight from the horse’s mouth. Much (all?) of it came from Vicente, from his years as NXIVM documentarian. 

However, watching The Vow feels like going on an oddly peaceful journey through the history of NXIVM. The Vow is slow and meandering and calm, taking its time to wrap the story of NXIVM around you. You kind of slowly realize how terrible everything is as they peel back layers, episode by episode, introducing people in a kind of normal way and then hitting you later with why they are important. This is very different from how Seduced tells the same story, and it’s the main critique of The Vow – compared to the directness of Seduced, it seems almost apologetic. It’s all a very definitive narrative choice. I decided I didn’t mind it, but many people do mind. I also think, content aside, the whole thing could have could have been tighter; the 9 episodes don’t quite have 9 episodes worth of content.

There’s also a lot of Keith Raniere, but they mostly show the calm, insidious, rational-sounding Raniere. (Read below about Seduced to see what’s missing.) One person I know stopped watching the first episode just because they were tired of listening to him. Totally valid. Again, I didn’t mind, but you might.

The other main critique of The Vow is that it really does seem like a hero/redemption arc narrative for the aforementioned former NXIVMers. This is, again, something I decided to accept as part of the documentary. I think watching with your eyes open, reading for that redemption arc, can add an interesting perspective. But Seduced doesn’t allow people like Vicente a redemption arc. 

The end of the 9th episode teases Season 2. It appears that we will hear from Keith Raniere in prison, and, what I’m more interested in, Nancy Salzman. There are many who don’t want to hear any more from those assholes, and I totally get it. They’ve had a lot of airtime. I don’t disagree, but I’m definitely going to watch.

Seduced (STARZ)

This documentary is hosted by India Oxenberg, a victim of NXIVM, and it focuses a lot on her story. There’s a way that makes it similar to The Vow, in that it is partially an answer to the question “how could people get involved in this?” This is Oxenberg showing us how she got involved. But there’s a way in which it feels less like a justification than The Vow, and bolder in directly and immediately blaming Keith Raniere and Nancy Salzman. (Not to say that there aren’t some narrative choices that are defensive, but it is overall more aggressive, narratively.)

Seduced is very good. Oxenberg is a little stilted sometimes, she’s reading her lines I think, or they’re rehearsed, but that’s a minor stylistic issue. Seduced goes in hard in showing us the horrors of NXIVM, and showing us the harshest of Raniere’s rhetorical manipulations. In the first like 10 minutes, we get footage of Raniere calmly saying, “Do you understand how you could rape a baby? I could make it a baby that’s very rape-able.”

A lot of the “how Keith Raniere thinks about the world” quotes and recaps I pulled were from Seduced. You’ll spend a lot of time slack-jawed, going “did he really just say that?” Yes, yes he did.

The biggest thing that I appreciate about Seduced is that it interviews a broad range of victims. Where The Vow focused mostly on Vicente and Piesse and Edmonson and their stories, Seduced has more of the “every woman,” non-Hollywood victims. It also uses some choice quotes and comments that put Mark Vicente on blast, for lack of a better phrase. Whether they were included as a direct response to the HBO documentary or not, they sure do read as Seduced making a statement to show that Vicente was more complicit than he tries to let on.  

So Seduced is very good and I recommend it, but be forewarned that some portions are incredibly difficult to watch. And on top of a general content warning, I will caution that in Episode 3: Enslaved, Oxenberg goes into detail about the sexual abuse she experienced. It is the only episode across both documentaries that I have not been able to rewatch during the writing of this series, and probably never will.

I do think, even though it is a lot of content, the two documentaries work well in tandem. 

Other Documentaries

There are a few other documentaries about NXIVM. I’m sure this number will increase.

NXIVM is the topic of the first episode of A&E’s Cults and Extreme Belief series. It’s a perfectly fine hour, kind of a general recap, but obviously can’t get into everything. If you just want to dip your toe in, it’s a good start. (Also, it was released in 2018, before some of the final chapters of this story had become public.)

I have not watched Investigation Discovery’s The Lost Women of NXIVM. I looked it up and saw the victims listed, and I saw that it was based on Frank Parlato’s journalism, and I suspected that a) it would not provide me with much new information and b) it would be a little schlocky and in-your-face, which isn’t a vibe I’m interested in. I fully admit that skipping this documentary is due to my own biases, and I may watch it eventually.  

(I’ve written more about Frank Parlato below.)

FURTHER READING

The Albany Times-Union

I’m giving the Times-Union their own section. They’re the first ones who reported on Keith Raniere in 2003, well before he was even a blip on the national radar. It’s dogged, impressive journalism. If you’re interested in NXIVM, I’d start with them. I’ve listed a few top stories of interest here, and will include some more in the next section. I’ve also done a quick review of their trial podcast.

Podcast: NXIVM on Trial

I listened to this podcast retroactively, but it was initially released week-by-week during Raniere’s trial. Each week, an editor in Albany interviews the Times-Union court reporter who spent the week at the courthouse in Brooklyn. 

I found it really interesting, but there were definitely some issues. All of the presenters are men. They do acknowledge this in a later episode, when a female listener calls them out on it. A woman was initially on their reporting team and helped break the NXIVM story in 2012, but subsequently left the newspaper. But it is a bit disconcerting to hear all of this sexual abuse against women reported on and discussed by an exclusively male crowd.

There’s also a way in which, to them, this is just another case, another job. They’re court reporters, they’ve seen some shit. And it’s partially a fascinating take, because there’s so little emotion in it, but it also leads to a tinge of voyeurism. The phrase “pass the popcorn” is used at one point, and in the episode where they’re recapping testimony about the items NXIVM tried to buy from an online sex store they’re a little too excited about going into all that ~weird sex stuff.~   

The audio quality is touch-and-go; Episode 3’s quality is terrible, because a change in court schedule means they had to interview the reporter while he was literally on a train. There are also a few behind-the-scenes things that are left in that I think someone was supposed to cut.

But, with those caveats, I do recommend the podcast if you’re at the level where you’re interested in the court proceedings but don’t want to read court transcripts. Listening to the in-the-moment commentary was especially interesting because they were speculating as they went. They’d discuss the laws and court precedent, and what options the prosecution and defense each had going forward. They debated whether egotistical Raniere would do his own closing statement, a la The Fountainhead (of which Raniere was a fan). If you’ve always liked the & Order half of Law & Order, give this podcast a shot.

Recommended Articles

I’m going to call this the “if you only read a few articles, pick from this list” category.

The Corporate Feminism of NXIVM (The Paris Review, October 2020)
If you only read one article, pick this one. It’s a shorter, more intelligent overview than mine, intersecting with feminism and current events in a valuable way.

Inside a Secretive Group Where Women Are Branded (The New York Times, October 2017)
This is the article, the one that blew the top off NXIVM and sent Raniere on the run.

Ivy Nevares’s Blog
One of Raniere’s victims, Ivy Nevares, provided a statement to the court at his sentencing and has posted that and some other personal narratives regarding Raniere and NXIVM to her blog. This links to all of her NXIVM content

The Heiresses and the Cult (Vanity Fair, October 2010)
I enjoyed this article about the Bronfmans because it was written before “everyone knew” about NXIVM, before Allison Mack had even joined NXIVM and well before DOS. Stuff was already weird, and people already knew about it!

From Heiress To Felon: How Clare Bronfman Wound Up In ‘Cult-Like’ Group Nxivm (Forbes, May 2019)
And then this one is a similar topic, “how did this rich girl with a perfect life get caught up in this?” but it came out after the news broke, after shit hit the fan, after Clare Bronfman pled guilty.

How to Tell the Story of a Cult (The Atlantic, November 2020)
Comparison of the two main documentaries. If you didn’t click on this when I posted it up under documentaries, now’s your chance. But yes it’s the same article.

Other Good Articles

And we’ll call this the “if you want to keep going down the rabbit hole” category. Not everything is technically an article, but I had to call this section something.

the NXIVM case (subreddit)
If you want to keep up with the latest twists and turns, this is where I get most of my updates now. These people are fast with the news and almost always provide sources. This is how I learned Allison Mack filed for divorce.

What Did NXIVM Want in Mexico? (Slate, May 2019)
Overview of NXIVM’s history in Mexico – one of the few.

Former NXIVM member “Jane Doe” reveals identity: “I finally felt like I was ready” (CBS News, December 2020)
This is a very recent addition to the victim narratives, which in some ways contradicts the narrative of India Oxenberg (who was this woman’s “Master” in DOS).

Actually, the Cultiest Part of The Vow is the Night Volleyball (Vulture, September 2020)

[A Cappella] A cult tries to ingratiate itself with the a cappella community (Reddit, October 2020)
I am obsessed with the subreddit r/hobbydrama. This particular post recaps the moment when an a cappella message board had some questions about an a cappella festival hosted by NXIVM. Mark Vicente, Clare Bronfman, Nicki Clyne, and Lauren Salzman show up to defend NXIVM. It also links to the original message board thread if you want to go deep down the rabbit hole and see some original writings of the aforementioned members.

80 people have signed onto a lawsuit claiming NXIVM cult leaders exposed them to ‘human fright’ experiments, forced labor, and human trafficking (Insider, January 2020)

I Tried to Make Sense of the Alleged Sex Cult NXIVM’s Bizarre Health Claims (Vice, May 2018)

Nxivm Trial Witness: We Hacked Billionaire Edgar Bronfman Sr.’s Email (Forbes, May 2019)

From Adolf Hitler to Herman Goering, NXIVM sex-cult leader Raniere told followers they were ‘Reincarnated Nazis’! (Artvoice, April 2018)
I realized I mentioned this in passing in my first post and never returned to it. Here’s yet another bizarre thing Raniere did, this time with added anti-Semitism. 

Keith Raniere Trial: Links to Available Transcripts (Reddit)
Blessings upon this Redditor who is gathering all available trial transcripts.

Lawsuit: NXIVM leader recruited Asian women, sorority members for sex (Albany Times-Union, February 2020)

Raniere, facing possible life sentence, wants judge to know ‘he’s being watched’ (Albany Times-Union, August 2020)

BOOKS

I have not read any of these books. Who has the mental capacity to read books in 2020/21? But these are the notable books about NXIVM, so far.

PODCASTS

There are a lot of podcast episodes about NXIVM now, with more coming out. Here are a few. 

Cults (Parcast) 4-Part Series
Anyone who has gotten this far will not be surprised to learn that I love Cults. Their four episodes are a good general overview. This should link directly to the first NXIVM episode.

NXIVM on Trial (Albany Times-Union)
Full review above, including it here out of an overabundance of thoroughness. 

Uncover Season 1 – Escaping NXIVM
Produced after the NY Times exposé but before The Vow aired, this series recounts Sarah Edmonson’s journey to get out of NXIVM.

The Vow and Seduced: Two NXIVM Docuseries (NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour)
I haven’t listened to this yet because I wanted to write my own version of “comparing the two documentaries” before consuming something similar. I expect it to be good!

DISHONORABLE MENTION: THE FRANK REPORT

I’ve been promising to talk about Frank Parlato for a while, guess the time is now. Parlato worked for NXIVM and the Bronfman sisters briefly; like many who left, he ended up entangled in lawsuits. He also started a blog called The Frank Report, which utilizes a lot of exclamation points and became the place on the internet to go for anti-NXIVM information. The Frank Report was posting about DOS before the New York Times

Parlato’s a colorful character, who you can see in Episode 7 of The Vow. “The greatest chess people, including myself, we don’t need a board,” he says. His colorfulness, and his deep hatred for NXIVM, make me dubious of anything that can just be sourced to The Frank Report. He is not unbiased. (I mean, who is honestly, but he is really biased.) He’s also pretty misogynistic. As far as I can tell, Parlato is the primary source for the “Raniere slowly poisoned Pam Cafritz” story as well as the “Sara Bronfman slept with the Dalai Lama’s assistant” story. He goes for the jugular, the dramatic angle, whatever will get the most hits and hurt NXIVM the most. Is what he writes true? Possibly, some of it. But the style of journalism just hits me the wrong way, and I can’t help but be dubious.

The Frank Report, for better or for worse, is colored by the colorful character behind it. Basically, I just don’t like the vibe. Am I prejudiced? Maybe. The great thing about Frank Parlato is I’m sure he doesn’t give a crap what I think of him.

CODA

So these were some of the many sources I used in putting together my series. (I have 22 pages of sources and notes. You don’t want all of them, I swear.) 

I hope this provides a jumping off point for anyone who wants more information, but just know that there will always be more. Feel free to drop additional resources in the comments!

~

If you enjoyed this series, please consider “leaving me a tip” by donating to one of the domestic violence organizations listed here or to a similar organization in your area. Thank you.

Disclaimer: Before the remnants of NXIVM sue me, I wish to clarify that the items covered in this post are allegations. I am merely recapping and collating the reporting done over many years by other media sources, including highly credible publications and media organizations that I trust to both fact-check their work and who also ran their articles or documentaries through their legal department. That’s all that is happening here. A simple recap of allegations.