NXIVM’s many crimes begin to be exposed in “Honesty & Disclosure”, but the matter of complicity continues to be a complicted one as the story is made public.
This recap of The Vow season 1, episode 6, “Honesty & Disclosure”, contains spoilers. You can check out our thoughts on the previous episode by clicking these words.
You’ll recall that, somewhat incredibly, the exposure of NXIVM as a secret sex cult was considered by Barry Meier of The New York Times as an “evergreen” story – in other words, one not worth running straight away. The Vow episode 6, “Honesty & Disclosure”, has more to worry about than the ethics of considering a vast conspiracy that involves the branding and raping of women to not be particularly urgent, news-wise, but it’s something that stuck with me about the terribly cynical nature of our news climate. Being newsworthy, it turns out, isn’t enough anymore; something has to be newsworthy and also topical, which means it’s just as well that the large-scale and systemic abuse of women, in the workplace and elsewhere, was made trendy in the media by the grotesque exploits of Harvey Weinstein. That cultural current is what the story of Keith Raniere and NXIVM rode to prominence on.
Some additional themes begin to emerge – or at least crystalize – in “Honesty & Disclosure”, the most notable among them the idea of NXIVM being appealing and eventually ensnaring to people who were vulnerable in some way; in desperate need of the connection and the purpose afforded by being part of a chain, even one that had a master at the top and slaves beneath them. All cults offer the disenfranchised the possibility of belonging to something greater than themselves; as HBO’s docuseries progresses, it’s becoming increasingly obvious that, despite some of the individual effectiveness of NXIVM’s techniques and philosophies, it was engineered from the ground up to be attractive to the kind of people who would be unable or unwilling to figure out what it was really up to – and to blow the whistle on it if they did.
It all comes down to balance. NXIVM and most specifically Keith, who in essence was using the entire organization to stock his personal harem and keep his romantic partners a) obsessed with him and b) in competition with their fellows, was designed to temper all its worst behaviors with acts that were – or at least seemed to be – genuine. The organization’s techniques were designed to enthrall vulnerable people, yes, but they also had some utility. Keith’s relationships might have been inherently predatory, but his various partners, at least for a while, believed they were getting something out of the relationship. The ludicrous funding NXIVM was receiving on behalf of the Bronfman sisters could indeed allow its members access to a lifestyle that wouldn’t be possible without it, but it could also be used to bury them if it came to that – as it did with Barbara Bouchey, one of Keith’s girlfriends, when she left the organization.
On the one hand, Keith and his girlfriends are all consenting adults. On the other hand, it’s obvious that he created a system that was stifling, bamboozling, and that it was impossible to escape from without serious consequences. We’ve seen the use of blackmail all throughout the season. We’ve seen the wielding of money as a defense against everything from nonconformity to legal attack. There is no ambiguity here – these measures are in place so that Keith’s supposedly consenting partners have no choice but to be with him, and he’s so remarkably, aggravatingly smug about all this that there’s no doubt whatsoever he’s doing it intentionally. This isn’t just a charismatic man who people can’t help but be drawn to; this is a pathetic weasel who is calculating enough to have figured out an elaborate system of blackmail and control to keep his victims shackled to him.
The Vow has been and indeed remains a story about women; yes, about women as victims, but also about to what extent these women were complicit in Keith’s crimes – not all of them, remember, were his sexual partners, and had more utility elsewhere – and to what extent they are responsible for the many, many others who were suckered in by the scheme. We know Keith is at the head of NXIVM and that everything was done at his request, but if I told you to jump off a cliff, would you? We as an audience know there’s much more context than that, but legally speaking, who has committed a crime here? When Sarah, who addresses this during a radio interview in The Vow episode 6, was branded with Keith’s initials like some kind of livestock, it was other women who took her there, other women who talked her into it, and other women who held her in place while her flesh was seared. Of the roughly 2000 women Sarah herself recruited, the same thing will have happened to many of them.
There are other matters. There are the women who fed Keith money, who doted on him willingly, who chose to ignore at best or lie about at worst what he was really up to, who kept him shielded from everyone, even his other sexual partners. It’s impossible to determine where the perpetrator ends and the victim begins. From the perspective of the general public, hearing about this story on a front page, everyone seems as guilty as everyone else – if not of an actual crime, then at least of idiocy. This isn’t lost on Sarah. This isn’t lost, one suspects, on anyone.
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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.