If You Watched The Vow, You Must Watch Seduced on Starz

Last week, NXIVM cult leader Keith Raniere was sentenced to 120 years in prison, guilty of forced labor conspiracy, wire fraud conspiracy, sex trafficking and racketeering charges.

When I first heard the name NXIVM in 2018 — after Raniere’s arrest in Mexico —, my first question was probably a universal one. Is the “V” in NXIVM pronounced like the “V” in BVLGARI jewelry? Reader, it is.

NXIVM was like an ultra-evil Amway, but with fewer vitamins and more volleyball and face-slapping. It — under the guise of the poorly named Executive Success Program — was a self-improvement enterprise, built on the MLM/pyramid scheme model. NXIVM and ESP was created by the hirsute Raniere, a man claiming to have the highest IQ ever recorded. Ladies, never trust a dork in a golf shirt who is way into judo and answers your questions with, “Well, let me ask you a question . . . .”

Treating human emotions like scientific phenomena, Raniere started off fucking with minds and eventually just started fucking. That’s Cult Leader 101. He and his inner circle created a secret group of women called DOS, who were essentially exhausted sex slaves. Nothing goes with sex like exhaustion. The women had to endure a branding ceremony, in which the master would brand the slaves using a cauterizing iron with a symbol that was actually Raniere’ s initials. I love the smell of Mongolian bbq in the morning. Too soon?

From the CBC podcast Uncover to HBO’s The Vow, we have lots of pop culture to ingest about Raniere.

But the most insightful so far is Seduced on Starz. It’s not often that I can say Starz is doing something better than HBO, but here we are. 2020!

The Vow is like a pretty amuse bouche, a morsel that tastes good. It’s the first glass of sparking rosé that gets you a little tipsy. But Seduced is the $25 entrée. It has the meat. Hashtag Arby’s.

Part of the problem with The Vow could be that its producers only wanted to go so far in its accusations while awaiting Raniere’ sentencing. But isn’t this where you let the word “allegedly” do the heavy lifting? The other part of the problem is the obvious heavy hand of filmmaker and former NXIVM board member Mark Vicente and his unending horde of video footage of Raniere and NXIVM meetings. In The Vow, Mark portrays himself as 100% victim. He wants to be the hero in his own story. In Seduced, his victim/predator ratio is much more mixed.

The “stars” of Seduced are DOS victim India Oxenberg and her mother, Catherine, who worked tirelessly to remove her daughter from the cult, who was recruited at age 19. Adding to the drama is the fact that Catherine took India to her first week of ESP sessions. I have yet to find this kind of mom guilt in my own life, praise be.

The Vow made NXIVM retreats look like Young Life; Seduced shows the retreats to be what they really were: rallies for the dear leader disguised as summer camp. Trump would have loved it.

Seduced also better deals with the victims. The only way to have truth and reconciliation is with starting with the truth. Vicente and Sarah Edmondson – also heavily featured in The Vow — need to accept more of their role as predators and thieves, both emotional and financial. Seduced gives voice to the victim of not just Raniere but also the leaders, like Vincente and Edmondson. The most heartbreaking story  is Naomi who escaped one cult — Children of God — only to find herself preyed on by another — NXIVM and DOS.

While I think Seduced is superior, I did enjoy The Vow. It’s definitely worth a watch. The theme song is 100% stuck in my head.

If The Vow put the puzzle pieces on the table, and Seduced puts the puzzle together. Yes, I’m using a puzzle metaphor because we are headed back into Phase 2 in Rhode Island, and that means it’s jigsaw time! (So far, all my metaphors in the piece are about food, wine, and puzzles. That tracks.)

Some random thoughts:

The costs for NXIVM and ESP courses are insane. $3,000 for just the introduction week? Egad. I only spend that much on tennis.

Another thing Seduced does better: it’s more linear and gives a better timeline of Raniere’s hair, like when did he go from puffy Jesus to manager at Men’s Wearhouse?

Why did Keith surround himself with women who looked like extras from the Manson ranch in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. He has a type: he liked white and skinny, but most of all, he liked rich and eventually dead.

Seduced explains “why NXIVM,” with cult experts who understand “the systems of control.” One who asks the existential question, which is, Where was Keith Raniere going with all of this? He was building an army of defenders. In the end, all that mattered was protecting Keith.

Sarah Edmondson’s husband Nippy’s real name is Anthony Ames. Got it.

Who was filming Vicente while he was filming?

Keith is an incel with some power. His program was built from misogyny, and the men — the Oath Keepers — played right along because patriarchy benefited them.

Knowing that something called Neuro Linguistic Programming is a thing has given me real trust issues.

I still don’t know why co-founder Nancy Salzman and her daughter Lauren Salzman have sculpted their eyebrows to look like sperm.

The absolute best part of with documentary is when Catherine openly laughs at Vicente’s wife, Bonnie, for doing penance and sleeping on the floor, and Vincente says “We didn’t join a cult! Nobody joins a cult!” Bruh, you did.

The extra Uncover podcast episode “Turn it off!” that delves into the cult’s fright experiments is not for the faint of heart.

While trying to exfiltrate her daughter, Catherine’s friend says just tell her, “Stop doing weird shit!” This is my next cross stitch project.

Seduced is streaming now on Starz. New episodes drop each Sunday. HBO has greenlit a second season of The Vow.

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