Welcome to the W TV Club, a spin-off series of W Movie Club, in which W magazine’s editors pick a season of a television show they’d recommend you binge-watch while in quarantine. This week, features editor Andrea Whittle goes deep on the *other* NXIVM show, the Starz docu-series Seduced, about former member India Oxenberg.
On a humid afternoon this past September, two friends and I spent hours sitting on a picnic blanket in Central Park, debating whether we thought we would ever be susceptible to cult recruitment. The conversation was, of course, sparked by the fact that all of us had been watching The Vow, the nine-episode HBO docu-series about the unraveling of the self-improvement-scheme-turned-sex-cult NXIVM. The conclusion we landed on: probably, yes, in our darkest, most insecure hours—it’s not like someone walks up to you and says, “Hey, wanna join this cult and get brainwashed?” If you’re lonely and looking for purpose and community and some happy-seeming person starts gushing about these classes they just started taking, who wouldn’t be curious?
What I find so fascinating about cults (and about NXIVM’s weirdly corporate approach in particular) is that the more I learn about how they function, the more I’m convinced it could happen to anyone. The lines between self-improvement and destructive delusion, self care and self-deprivation, tight-knit community and fringe faction look surprisingly blurry when you start looking at them too closely. If you’ve ever taken a workout class anyone has off-handedly described as “culty,” you know what I mean—the phrase ”push through your discomfort,” feels innocuous when said in the context of an ab workout, but it’s hard not to hear it in former NXIVM bigwig Nancy Salzman’s voice once you’ve seen the ways language like that can be weaponized.
The NXIVM story is insanely compelling because it seems so unlikely at first—all of these people moved to the least charming part of upstate New York and had sex with that guy? But once you’ve watched enough hours of television about it, the way it ends all seems somehow even crazier than you thought and totally inevitable. Leader Keith Raniere appears so goofy and repellant on the surface, but after watching enough video clips of him proselytizing, it’s clear he’s a manipulative psychopath.
That tension between the tragedy of what he did to so many people’s lives and the comedy of his approach makes for incredible television. A sad little man in sweatpants saying “Albany, it’s the Rome of the 21st century” is just funny. The room full of people nodding enthusiastically around him is terrifying. I keep watching because I want to understand where people lose the plot.
What’s simultaneously compelling and frustrating about The Vow is its glacial pace. The series does an incredible job at dragging you through the narrative as if you were riding along on one of the subject’s shoulders, witnessing all of this stuff for the first time. But during its nine-hour run, it can get too caught up in the minor melodramas of the central characters without actually doing that great of a job at putting NXIVM into a larger context. It’s almost like the producers got so caught up in maintaining the mystery of it all that they forgot to explain what was actually happening to these people, and why it worked.
This is not to say that I didn’t love The Vow. I did, but it left me wanting more. And not in a “I can’t wait for season two!” way, but in a “I need to learn every single thing I can about what the hell happened here, right this second” way. The night my boyfriend and I finished watching the finale, I remembered that one of my coworkers, Brooke Marine, had mentioned that there was another NXIVM documentary on Starz. We signed up for the network’s streaming platform and started the first episode of Seduced: Inside The NXIVM Cult five minutes later. And if you just finished The Vow and are jonesing for more, I highly recommend that you do, too.
In The Vow, former member India Oxenberg is presented as a kind of brainwashed bogeyman figure—we never see or hear from her aside from archival footage and images of her text exchanges with her mother, the actress Catherine Oxenberg. One reason is timing, since most of The Vow was shot years ago, while she was still ensnared in Raniere’s net; the other is that she’s been busy executive producing and starring in her own version of the story.
Seduced follows India as she tries to piece together her life after NXIVM, but it’s as much her personal narrative as it is a sharp, coherent explanation of the cult’s machinations and how they fit into the history of “high control groups.” In just four episodes, you learn more about what actually happened in DOS (the “sorority” of NXIVM women who were coerced into becoming Raniere’s sex slaves) than you do in all nine hours of The Vow.
India’s calm, frank, confessionals are interspersed with unseen archival footage (which is somehow even crazier than what HBO got their hands on), testimonials from other former members, and interviews with a bunch of “cult experts” (including one named Rick Ross, which I just think is a great detail) who break down the psychology behind how Raniere-designed NXIVM’s Executive Success Programs to manipulate and indoctrinate participants. The show also features extensive interviews with the FBI agent who built the case against Raniere as well as the local Albany journalists who had been on top of the story way before the New York Times got involved.
Basically, Seduced takes a more traditional documentarian approach to the subject, which makes for a really satisfying companion piece to the drawn-out meta commentary of The Vow. If you feel like mainlining cult content for another few hours, go ahead and sign up for the 7-day Starz free trial to keep the craziness going. I myself might need a break, though, since I caught myself accidentally quoting a line from a “JNESS Track” seminar during a lover’s quarrel the other night. (But I’d still watch another 13 hours about this thing, in case any other networks want to get in on the game…)
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