I finally got around to watching The Vow, the HBO documentary series about the DOS/NXIVM cult and all those goings on. Beyond the usual prurient fascination with famous (and non-famous) people getting involved in cults, the series offers an insight into how people can be manipulated — and especially into the linguistic dimension of this manipulation.
Creepy Keith Raniere was the leader, now convicted on multiple counts of weird shit and sentenced to 120 years in prison. He comes across as a curiously charisma-free zone in the copious video footage used in the documentary, and you immediately start to wonder how he could have created this fiercely loyal circle of acolytes. His gift seems to involve his way with questions and vague TV hypnotist tricks, in which he reflects back on people their needs and desires, exploits their insecurity, and then blends into the background while they do his bidding.
His background was in multi-level marketing, which is the “it’s legal this time, honest” version of the classic pyramid or Ponzi scheme. Of course, these cons only work if the people being recruited are greedy and needy, and it is remarkable how often these things spring up. Only recently, the BBC’s documentary podcast The Missing Cryptoqueen detailed the growth of a similar money-making cult involving the murky world of crypto currency and blockchain. People invest their life savings, recruit their friends and relatives, lose everything, etc.
An interesting dimension of NXIVM as a pyramid scheme is that it was almost literally a case of money for old rope, or, in this case, a sash. Martial arts style coloured sashes were the only outward sign of people’s progress through the organisation, which in its detail reminded me of nothing so much as s c i e n t o l o g y. Another similarity with that particular tax avoidance scheme dressed up as a New Religious Movement (NRM) was the involvement of actors. Not Hollywood actors, per se, but actors working in Vancouver on mid-budget science fiction shows. The names are familiar to anyone who has followed the story, and they centre around two shows in particular: YA Superman drama Smallville and the rebooted Battlestar Galactica. The involvement of people from this latter is doubly ironic, since that show was steeped in religion, specifically Mormonism, from the very beginning.
One day the book will be written on how science fiction and NRMs became so intertwined. It’ll be a big book, one that needs to take into account the paranoid style of American political thought, puritanism, Max Weber, the history of quack medicine, televangelists, travelling tent shows, and, well, America.
The hilarious diagram above gives a flavour of the mixed up and half-baked “philosophies” creepy Keith used to seduce people. As I noted on twitter, what with his sweat band, his volleyball, and his judo, he comes across like one of the characters in Napoleon Dynamite. And once you start seeing these people as extras in that film, it all becomes even more absurd.
There seem to me to have been two distinct phases to Creepy Keith’s Quack Cult. The first involved “business” people, interested in career progression, the greasy pole, success etc. Those interviewed in the documentary always seem to claim some level of prior success. “I was successful but felt that something was missing” being a typical expression. My argument here is that none of them were properly successful, not yacht money successful, and even if they had some (temporary) success it was all cash flow and no savings. Like sharks, they needed to keep moving or their debts would kill them. This is America, after all. Where people go from putting down a deposit on a McMansion to living in their cars in the space of a year.
Anyway, creepy Keith starts here, and he attracts some women, including at least one with some inherited wealth who can bankroll his programme. He starts banging some of these women, even as they all embark on recruiting more people to the pyramid scheme, which is focused on “Executive Success”. LOL.
Now, as others have noted, The Vow is a bit sneaky with the timeline, presenting you with a mixture of footage from different periods, and not really giving you much of a sense of the true order of events, or the time period over which they happened. But my suspicion is that, by chance, Creepy Keith lands what he would see as a Whale. Someone involved in the entertainment industry who can bring in others. And, to put it crudely, the quality of the crumpet he was attracting suddenly went up a notch. From semi-successful “business” people, he moved up to younger (and hotter) actresses. Allison Mack (cute), Kristin Kreuk (very cute), Grace Park (cute), and Nicki Clyne (kinda… cute). Now, what do all these people have in common, apart from mid-budget science fiction TV shows filmed in Vancouver? (Perhaps the real reason David Duchovny left The X Files?)
To be brutal: they’re all attractive, all involved in quite successful TV shows, but none of them are really the main thing. And, beyond the tight (and ever diminishing) circle of their shows’ fans, they’re not household names. And there’s the rub: ambition. All that is solid melts into air.
Both the “business” people and the “media” people had in common a certain level of precarity: success that was either temporary or fragile and fickle. And all of them were greedy/needy enough to be looking for something more, something solid. Enter creepy Keith and his system of sashes.
Allison Mack, in particular, seems to have been seduced by the feeling of being Big Fish in this small cult’s scummy pond. You can see her in the video footage presenting herself to an adoring audience as if she’s the biggest thing that ever happened to them. Which she probably was. But the other thing you can see in the video footage is the way creepy Keith could tear down her walls and reduce her to insecure tears.
It’s no surprise that behind all this is neurolinguistic programming, the technique used by stage mentalists, conmen, seducers, actual therapists, snake oil salesmen and populist politicians. And the genius of a cult like this is that once people have been programmed, even when they have doubts, they express themselves in the language of the cult. This language includes words like “purge” and “suppressive”, and phrases like “envy-based habits” and “exploration of meaning”, the latter of which was given the acronym EM. It doesn’t really matter what any of these terms mean; in the cult world, they mean what they mean, and people begin to express themselves using them. Groupthink develops, and the limits of acceptable speech are defined. At which point, if you become concerned that you’ve heard about young women signing up to be “slaves” to “masters” and branding themselves and providing blackmail material to ensure their silence and complicity, you express these concerns using the language of the cult. And then the cult replies to you, “I think you’re expressing your envy and being a little suppressive. Would you like an EM session?”
At which point, you’re lost. It doesn’t matter that these jumbled ideas don’t make sense: the point is that the sands keep shifting so that nobody can quite grasp what’s going on. The master manipulator always leaves his acolytes wondering if they’re the only ones who don’t understand what he’s talking about. The emperor has no clothes. We’ve all had bosses like him.
It’s all fascinating. And yet: familiar. The cult members dancing outside creepy Keith’s jail are no different from the Family members sitting outside the courtroom while creepy Charlie Manson was on trial. And the only conclusion you can come to is that people are weird, and insecure, and needy, and, yes, greedy.
The Vow loses momentum after a while. Because it doesn’t really have a timeline, and because it’s not entirely honest with its audience, it meanders and carries on way past where it should have been edited. At best, it’s a three-parter, and I’m afraid the protagonists are not terribly sympathetic. But it’s a very American story, I think. The charismatic cult leader and the sex cult disguised as self improvement is a tale as old as the hills.