“At Cause” reveals NXIVM’s terrifying treatment of women in a revealing, bonkers chapter.
This recap of The Vow season 1, episode 3, “At Cause”, contains spoilers. You can check out our thoughts on the previous episode by clicking these words.
Within the whole exceedingly weird and deeply creepy NXIVM scandal, the matter of women being branded was a particularly sordid element. “At Cause” has an immediate hook in that it promises to explain that aspect of the process. But that comes with something equally fascinating, which is that these women weren’t held down and branded against their will, but were duped into believing it was the right move if they wanted to “really do something” in the world. What’s most fascinating about NXIVM, and indeed The Vow episode 3, is the absurd mental gymnastics that members of the group subjected themselves to – and had subjected upon them – in order to justify what was obviously demented behavior.
Of particular note here is how all this relates to women since it’s women who were branded, suspiciously close to their genitals, with a symbol that was supposed to represent the elements – the sky, a mountain, and a river – but was really Keith Raniere’s initials turned on their side. This episode has a very well-done moment when the real meaning of the symbol is discovered, and the horror at figuring out that the brands signified their ownership was palpable. As we hear about the process of the branding, and the women being stripped and blindfolded and clandestinely deposited at a secret location, it’s increasingly absurd that anyone wouldn’t have realized that something dodgy was going on. The truth is they did – and NXIVM had already built in counteracting idioms, ideas, and processes that encouraged the women to talk themselves into it.
When you consider the sheer extent to which the multilevel structure of NXIVM was arranged, organized, and marketed, it’s as terrifying as it is impressive what Raniere was able to build. “At Cause” has a ton of footage of him leading group sessions, and knowing what he was really up to gives these moments a distinct creep-at-work air. But if you’re able to divorce yourself from what you know of this man, it’s easy to see how people would be suckered by him and his ideas – one of those was to separate women into distinct and hilariously titled groups. The men became the Society of Protectors. The women became DOS, or Dominant Over Submissive, or Dominus Obsequious Sororium, “lord over the obedient female companions.” Yikes.
DOS works in a mad way, with a master – in the case of Sarah Edmonson, that’s Lauren Salzman, Nancy’s daughter – and several “slaves” beneath them. The lines between each ranking are exceptionally and one assumes deliberately blurred. Sarah has no real idea if Lauren is her best friend or her boss or both, which is entirely deliberate. Screen-capped text messages show the casual exchange of emojis mixed with demands for subservience and obvious blackmail material. Whenever Sarah gets rightly suspicious about being branded, Lauren casually ripostes with a load of NXIVM’s buzzy self-help terminology and shifts the blame immediately to Sarah. She’s trapped by the idea that she is somehow benefitting from putting up with this nonsense, and also by the shame of having willingly subjected herself to it.
At some point during “At Cause”, I realized I was utterly transfixed, in part because I absolutely could not believe what I was seeing. The collateral Sarah was required to provide included nude photographs, the deeds to her house, and a recording of her falsely and deliberately alleging her loving husband was a child abuser. She cheerily messages Lauren – addressing her as master – asking if she can go to sleep. This is partly why her eventual realization that the brand isn’t a signifier of sisterhood but of ownership is so crushing; it’s confirmation that all of NXIVM is a fabrication designed to manipulate and control and that all the young, skinny, good-looking women that have been recruited to the cause, many by Sarah, have been recruited into a deeply exploitative cult.
A pretty significant catalyst of change here is Sarah’s flabbergasted husband, Nippy, who is the only person who reacts in a way that I feel I might’ve. He goes ballistic and starts making demands and, on some level, those demands are met. The organization begins to be exposed. The truth begins to leak out. But there’s still plenty of the story left to unpack, and after “At Cause”, it’s hard not to be riveted and faintly terrified by what else will be exposed.
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Jonathon is the Co-Founder of Ready Steady Cut and has been Senior Editor and Chief Critic of the outlet since 2017.