The Vow and Seduced : That Guilty Feeling and The Cult Series
Lines Blur between Victims and Perpetrators in these " Guilty" Binges
How many of us have watched the HBO Max series ‘The Vow’ about the self help cult NXIVM and chased that with four episodes of Starz’ ‘Seduced’ also about the same cult? If you haven’t I suggest you do. For me it was the perfect pandemic panacea. By escaping into the sordid world of an unputdownable cult-saga I could forget my pandemic induced troubles for an hour- and for that, I say thank you, cults. But that’s where the good news about cults ends.
The Vow on HBO Max and Seduced on Starz both talked about a ‘ self help’ group gone very wrong. NXIVM pretentiously named, had at its top, a charismatic leader called Keith Reniere who drew people into his fold with the idea that he had scientifically figured out how to free them from their fears and then somehow make the world a more ethical place. Only, 'ethical' he himself was not, and as for the ‘science’ part, turns out his was just a borrowed mash up of unoriginal self help methods and a dose of marketing spin.
But no power hungry 'leader' gets to call the shots without his loyal aides. Keith Reniere had his A team of coaches who taught courses and kept the myth of his legend and brilliance alive. He then had break out groups for women and mens’ ‘self empowerment’ which turned out to be misogyny marketed as personal growth, embellished with penance, physical punishment, branding on the body plus mental control, and blackmail. Through a layered hierarchy he controlled young women who were groomed to be part of what expert commentators called his harem.
Catherine Oxenberg, part royalty and the beautiful star of Dynasty had to deal with the guilt of introducing her then 19 year old daughter India Oxengberg to NXIVM as a way to bond with her. Alarms when off for Catherine when her coaches would not tolerate any questioning of their methods. She stopped taking courses but India her young daughter just wouldn’t stop and stayed on for 6 years only to become a shadow of her former self, on a deprivation filled diet plan dictated by a female slave ‘master’ who was ostensibly merely helping India by keeping her aligned with her higher ‘goals’.
Catherine Oxenberg had to pursue legal action to get her daughter out of the cult but she could not do so without exposing the leaders of the cult first and bringing media attention to the insidious practices there with the help of defectors Marck Vincente, his wife Bonnie Piesse and fellow defector pair Sarah Edmondson and husband Anthony 'Nippy' Ames many formerly high ups in NXIVM’s power structure.
As India Oxenberg’s recounts, Keith Reniere performed sexual acts with her all under the guise of helping her with her intimacy problems. It is no doubt that India was a brainwashed victim. She was also financially dependent on the group who had taken all her money for expensive coaching and for whom she worked odd jobs and taught in order to be able to pay for boarding, lodging and more courses. Yet she too rose in the organisation's hierarchy and was made to take ‘ slaves’ of her own which she did.
By her own admission, it was her mother's relentless and timely intervention that saved her being in the cult long enough to attract prosecution for actions there which might have hurt others.
The main point that emerges from so many of these stories of cults is why the victimized, many of whom are spending money to stick around would stay for so long. Worse, why do they then become coaches and teachers ( or in the case of NXIVM ‘ Proctors’) who actively recruit others to join the fold.
While much of this is explained very sympathetically by experts in cult psychologies who shed insight on the mechanisms by which leaders chip away at their recruits’ own instincts for self preservation, there still remains one part that doesn’t convince me.
The men and women who were powerful in the group and then had a eureka moment, don’t fully explain how they themselves benefitted from gaining status within the cult’s unhealthy hierarchies.
They don’t fully convince me why despite their misgivings and I am sure they would have had a few, they recruited people in.
Does the holy dip of a tell-all show where they bring down the monster they served, wash away their own culpability for what they made others endure? One feels the pain of their guilt, expressed here by Mark Vincente but even if the law exonerates defector like him who did their part to bring the cult down, can we really let him off the hook fully in our minds?