HBO's 'The Vow' Takes a Deep and Disturbing Look at NXIVM

The "self-help" organization was popular with celebrities and led in part by Smallville's Allison Mack.

actress allison mack leaves us district court for the eastern district of new york after a bail hearing, april 24, 2018 in the brooklyn borough of new york city mack was charged last friday with sex trafficking for her involvement with a self help organization for women that forced members into sexual acts with their leader the group, called nxivm, was led by founder keith raniere, who was arrested in march on sex trafficking charges she was released on bail at 5 million photo by drew angerergetty images
(Image credit: Drew Angerer)

Premiering on August 23, HBO's new documentary series The Vow (opens in new tab) dives deep into NXIVM (pronounced "Nexium"), the organization that billed itself as a self-help and discovery group and made headlines when whistleblowers alleged physical, sexual, and emotional abuse against its members. Some of the more severe allegations included women being branded as part of a secret, ritualistic "sex cult" that existed within NXIVM. Since the allegations surfaced, several NXIVM members have been arrested. Keith Raniere, the founder of NXIVM, touted as a guru-like figure with a (supposedly) extremely high IQ, has already been convicted of several crimes and is awaiting sentencing in New York.

What was NXIVM?

Raniere said that his vision (opens in new tab) was for NXIVM to heal people's suffering and allow them to be forces for good in the world. His techniques ("technology") were designed to break people out of their emotional patterns and traps by "rewiring" those emotions.

The classes were popular with celebrities and public figures, including actors Grace Park (Battlestar Gallactica), Kristin Kreuk (Smallville), and Allison Mack (Smallville) as well as heir to the Seagram liquor fortune Clare Bronfman, who became a high-ranking member of NXIVM. Park and Kreuk later left the group.

Several former members now allege that the group's work was, in fact, conditioning (opens in new tab) to break down a member's self-esteem and to acclimate them to a system of punishment and reward. Recruiters say in the series that they were asked to look for survivors of sexual assault, people with money, and those with insecurities.

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Classes were expensive—former member Sarah Edmondson recalls the first class as $5,000—and members earned sashes as they progressed through the ranks. They did this in part by recruiting other members. NXIVM has since been described as a pyramid scheme (opens in new tab), and former members have sued Raniere and 14 other NXIVM members. In fact, Raniere had settled out of court for creating a pyramid scheme (opens in new tab) earlier in his career.

What was DOS, the secret society within NXIVM?

DOS (short for Dominus Obsequious Sororium, "lord over the obedient female companions," and also referred to as the Vow) was a secret, female-only society within NXIVM. When invited, women were told to hand over collateral—information that, if released, would be damaging to the person, such as nude photos, passwords, or family secrets. Initiates were branded with a cauterized mark on the groin that formed the initials KR (Keith Raniere) and sometimes included AM (Allison Mack (opens in new tab), believed to be second-in-command at NXIVM and who says (opens in new tab) she came up with the branding idea), forced to follow the orders of the woman who invited them (their "master"), and entered into a "slave" relationship where they counted calories, punished themselves, were sent more collateral, and in some cases were told to seduce or enter into a sexual relationship with Raniere.

As read aloud during the trial, the DOS rulebook enforced that relationship (opens in new tab): "Your sole highest desire must be to further your Master from whom all good things come and are related," per an opening passage. "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." Former members say that Raniere was the grand-master and founder of DOS, although the secretive nature of the society kept other members from knowing about each other or talking about it freely.

How was NXIVM brought down?

In 2017, whistleblowers including high-ranking NXIVM members Sarah Edmondson and Mark Vicente went on the record for a New York Times (opens in new tab) article (opens in new tab) (Edmondson revealed the KR/AM brand on her groin as evidence of the group's practices). They continued to speak out about NXIVM and are interviewed for The Vow.

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Charges were brought against Raniere in 2018 and he was arrested in Mexico (opens in new tab); he pled not guilty to sex trafficking, forced labor, and other crimes. Mack initially pled not guilty but later apparently changed her plea, pleading guilty to racketeering conspiracy and racketeering in 2019. At the trial, she apologized and cried, saying, "I believed that Keith Raniere’s intentions were to help people, and that my adherence to his system of beliefs would help empower others and help them...I was wrong." She's awaiting sentencing, and if convicted faces up to 20 years in jail (opens in new tab).

Edmondson has also gone on to write a book about her experiences.

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What's going on with Keith Raniere now?

Raniere was convicted (opens in new tab) of racketeering and sex trafficking in 2019 and is being held in Brooklyn's Metropolitan Detention Center; He faces up to life imprisonment and his sentencing is scheduled (opens in new tab) for October as of now.

According to Vicente, a group that's been hosting dances every night (opens in new tab) for inmates and in particular to remember "Kay Rose" (no prisoner exists with that name there, but they could stand for the initials K.R.) is in fact a "cover movement" for NXIVM members who are still loyal to Raniere.

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Katherine J. Igoe
Katherine J. Igoe

Katherine’s a Boston-based contributor at Marie Claire who covers fashion, culture, and lifestyle—from “Clueless” to Everlane to news about Lizzo. She’s been a freelancer for 11 years and has had roles with Cosmopolitan and Bustle, with bylines in Parents, Seventeen, and elsewhere. It’s “I go to dinner,” not “Her huge ego,” but she responds to both.