The Vow, and Non-Religious Cults

Photo by Johannes Plenio on

Recently I had finished watching The Vow, a documentary series on HBO. It told the story of several people who had joined the NXIVM company in search of making the world a better place. Although the company had no overt religious focus, much of the abuses of its leader were familiar. In this organization, the leader, Keith Raniere, practically broke down members and rebuilt them into loyal members.

At time, some of the footage and conversations were difficult to watch. Raniere said things to people – recorded on tape and video – that were outright unconscionable. Things like men only wanting to be aggressive protectors, like women could only act like children, like everyone is responsible for their own suffering at all times. During the course of the series, I could watch as people went through their denial, followed by fear, to a point where they could get a sense of what dark things were going on.

Some of the things that happened seemed too incredible to be believed. How could a person let themselves be branded like cattle? How could people sit and take hours of abuse couched as loving discussions on ethics? It should have been obvious to them, right?

The thing about manipulation is that it comes in incremental forms. There is never the full, vile, glimpse at what someone wants to do to subjugate others. It starts with maybe a joke, or a simple message of kindness. Over time, things change bit by bit until people are doing things they never dreamed of on their own.

Then, one day – if they are lucky – people will get a clearer picture and realize what’s going on.

That clearer picture isn’t a guarantee. Some people will love the chains that bind them. Nothing productive can be done about this. All who are lost aren’t necessarily wandering.

Ultimately, I think the value of the show is that it highlights how human power dynamics affect groups of well-intentioned people. Any time this power dynamic becomes unequal, there is a risk of religious-type cult behavior. The only thing stopping such groups from terrible acts is the moral fiber of the group’s leader.

Moreover, this is not an exoneration of all religious behavior. If anything, it shows why certain faiths (Christianity in particular) are able to function the way they do. It also shows how different congregations can have different behaviors and core beliefs. Replace comments about ethics with comments about salvation, and NXIVM could have been another Christian denomination.

I am saddened by the fact that some people could not and cannot get out of the NXIVM organization. Some of its members have been convicted of felonies. Others still act at the request of Mr. Raniere. The ones who got out have to live with physical and emotional scars of their ordeals. I hope they will find some measure of peace.

They are not less than for having been manipulated. It can happen to anyone unfortunate enough to meet a person like Mr. Raniere. One can only hope that when that times comes, others will be as strong as the people who escaped NXIVM.