“The Science of Joy” works to explain how NXIVM presented itself as a wellness program to hide its true nature as a sex cult, and it’s striking how much of your Instagram feed probably mimics its tactics.
This recap of The Vow season 1, episode 1, “The Science of Joy”, contains spoilers.
As much as I think I’m pathologically predisposed to hate the culture of wellness and go-getter self-empowerment that even now proliferates on social media like some kind of awful parasitic growth, if you can squint you can kind of see the appeal. How easy life would be if success and stability were only a case of buying some dork’s eBook or putting turmeric in your Bulletproof coffee or whatever. NXIVM, pronounced “nexium” by its adherents, has that kind of easy appeal; just pay this fee, subscribe to these teachings, and you, too, can have all the professional and personal contentment you desire.
The Vow episode 1, “The Science of Joy”, is clever in how it makes this point first and foremost. It’s easy, in retrospect, after NXIVM has been exposed as a demented corporate sex cult, to laugh at the silly 80s-style training videos, and point accusatory fingers at those who bought into its obviously cult-like teambuilding exercises and belief systems. Upper management gave themselves lofty titles like “Vanguard” and “Prefect”, but even those who fell for the ruse admit that was ridiculous; what appealed about NXIVM and its smaller public-facing subdivisions was how it gave people a sense that they were part of something greater than themselves – something that was for the ethical betterment of themselves and everyone else.
The scary thing about NXIVM isn’t that so many of its founders and members were arrested on a vast array of charges, including the branding, raping, trafficking and enslavement of women, but just how many pro-progress hippy business coaches on your Instagram feed right now would be into it. It was the perfect blend of banal branding – one of its programs, ESP, was geared towards “executive success”, whatever that means – with lofty, grandiose ideas about optimizing the human experience. Prefect Nancy Salzman’s ideology seems palatable because it comes in the form of corny training seminars; Vanguard Keith Raniere, who, lest we forget, branded the women he raped with his initials, has the same pitch as anyone else who wants you to just take your vitamins or get enough sleep or overcome your personal limitations. He’s here to help!
This basic premise is deployed as a counter to all of NXIVM’s oddities throughout “The Science of Joy”. Everything that’s weird and cult-like – the titles, the secret handshakes, the sashes, the bowing – are shrugged off as just repurposed elements and rituals taken from other, harmless groups. If you look at two soldiers, one of whom has a chest full of medals and one of whom doesn’t, you’re inclined to believe that one is much more heroic than the other, despite probably not knowing what any of the medals mean, or what circumstances they were awarded under. These things are handed out for a reason. So too, we’re expected to believe, is a sash.
The Vow episode 1 is careful to show the appeal of this framing, but also to validate some of the basic principles of ESP by showing their effectiveness. It’s all rife with ridiculous buzzwords like “integrations” and “limiting beliefs”, but the underlying idea is that you can confront your fears and overcome your deficiencies, and in doing so you’ll be able to accomplish things that you weren’t able to previously. The curing of an aversion to driving on the freeway, or of Tourette’s Syndrome, is presented as the performing of a miracle, something impossible made tangible by whatever cognitive sorcery Nancy and Keith are peddling. The results speak for themselves. But it’s when they describe these techniques in ludicrous and largely meaningless scientific psycho-babble that the alarms start blaring. In the same way, Keith’s varied accomplishments all come with a caveat. Some of what you see is undoubtedly compelling, but it’s obviously, at least to some extent, a carefully cultivated fiction.
And you can tell by NXIVM’s clientele, which includes B-list actresses and heiresses and other well-to-do folks, that the corporation is consolidating a degree of power and influence that would be dangerous even if we didn’t know where it was ultimately heading. The Vow evidently has a bit of a worry that we might have forgotten that bit, so it’s quick to remind us that all these suspicions are building to something heinous. You can’t help but feel this is just pointing out the obvious, and it isn’t necessarily a boon to the show. But it works on the simple level of luring us in; fostering a morbid curiosity about how exactly this kind of gross misconduct can occur and continue to fester. “The Science of Joy” shows the beginnings, but more crucially, it promises to trace those beginnings wherever they lead.
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