Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

How to Tell the Story of a Cult: NXIVM in soft focus and NXIVM analyzed

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Sophie Gilbert writes in the Atlantic:

Not 20 minutes into the vowHBO’s enthralling-then-ultimately-gasbaggy docuseries, things started to feel concerningly familiar to me. Sarah Edmondson—an engaging Canadian actor with big valedictorian energy who had joined the Albany-based organization NXIVM (pronounced nex-ee-um)—was describing how she was first drawn into a group that she would later expose as a sex cult. Edmondson’s career had stalled, and she was looking for a sign from the universe. A chance meeting on a cruise with a documentarian named Mark Vicente led her to her first five-day NXIVM seminar, where, between clunky taped interludes with ’80s fitness-video graphics, Edmondson says, she had a revelation.

The part that grabbed her came midway through, when NXIVM’s co-founder Nancy Salzman theorized that people with low self-esteem let their “limiting beliefs” curb their potential. “I thought that was just the way that I was,” Edmondson says. “And then all of a sudden, like, I could systematically evolve to be the ideal version of myself. To write my own character.” The jargon comes thick and fast in The Vow: “disintegrations,” “possibilities,” “human-potential program.” To the uninitiated, this might read like so much innocuous psychobabble. But during an intensive self-development workshop, when you’re sleep-deprived, isolated, and being love-bombed by peppy idealists who speak in emphatic cadences, these kinds of ideas can feel like the secrets of the universe are being unlocked.

Reader, it happened to me. In 2006, when I was floundering after college and my father was dying of cancer, my mother enrolled me in a personal-development program she’d recently taken and couldn’t say enough good things about. Edmondson’s description of suddenly awakening to the idea of profound personal change tracked with what I found on day three, having identified my own limiting beliefs and witnessed dozens of fellow attendees “transform” emotionally onstage. Pepped up on possibility, I decided to apply to journalism school. During one of the breaks, compelled by the session leader, I called my dad and told him I loved him. (Because we were both English and therefore hopelessly emotionally repressed, this was the moment my stepmother decided I was in a cult.) For years afterward, I told people how much the course had helped me, and encouraged them to consider it. My interpretation of the program was, until recently, colored by the immersive experience of the whole thing—of being surrounded by joyful, trippily tired people committing themselves to being better human beings. What could be so bad about that?

The storytelling in The Vow can be both similarly open-minded and similarly blinkered. From the outset, the show’s directors, Jehane Noujaim and Karim Amer, appear intent on countering the reductive “sex cult” portrayals of NXIVM with a persuasive portrait of how intelligent, empathetic people became so swayed by the promise of infinite human potential sold by NXIVM’s Executive Success Programs that some ended up agreeing to be branded with a cauterizing iron. As Edmondson publicly revealed in 2017, NXIVM wasn’t just running self-improvement seminars. Within the larger organization was a smaller cult of personality in which some female members (including the Smallville actor Allison Mack) reportedly recruited other women into sexual servitude for NXIVM’s co-founder Keith Raniere, a soft-spoken, unprepossessing volleyball enthusiast.

“We didn’t join a cult,” the NXIVM member turned whistleblower Mark Vicente says in one scene, frustrated. “Nobody joins a cult. They join a good thing. And then they realize they were fucked.” Much of The Vow’s footage is taken directly from the propaganda videos Vicente made as he abandoned his directing career to climb higher in the NXIVM ranks, which may explain why the show feels curiously defensive. It dreamily weaves ex-members’ reminiscences through abundant scenes of Raniere working his schtick—expounding vaguely on topics such as integrity and trauma. The emphasis is always on understanding, not judgment.

Some crucial context is missing, though. Amer has said that he and Noujaim are filmmakers, not journalists; according to Noujaim, their mission was to document a crisis of faith, not tell the comprehensive story of NXIVM. (Noujaim enrolled in a few NXIVM workshops herself and has spoken about being swayed by the group’s supposedly idealistic mission.) But The Vow’s fly-on-the-wall approach to capturing how NXIVM unraveled means it treats both its apostates and Raniere himself—sentenced last month to 120 years in prison for sex trafficking and other crimes—with a dubiously soft touch.

It’s easier to see the series’s blind spots when it’s viewed as a companion piece with a new Starz series on the same subject, the finale of which airs tonight. Seduced: Inside the NXIVM Cult undercuts The Vow’s approach. Its directors interview cult experts in tandem with former NXIVM members to better understand Raniere’s tactics. The Starz series also includes information so pertinent to understanding NXIVM that it seems inexcusable for The Vow to omit it. Before watching Seduced, I had seen the particulars of the workshop I took (14-hour days, no alcohol, no snacking, no painkillers for headaches) as quirks designed to impress upon participants the importance of self-discipline, rather than coercive techniques to make them more psychologically and emotionally pliable. My own account of the course was incomplete, because my ability to interpret it critically had been fundamentally manipulated and impaired. The same thing is true of The Vow. . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

Written by Leisureguy

10 November 2020 at 11:14 am

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