If a criminal enterprise is accused of wrongdoing and it doesn’t make it into the New York Times, does it make a sound? At the end of the last episode of The Vow, Barry Meier, reporter extraordinaire for the Times, explained to Catherine Oxenberg that the NXIVM exposé he’d been working on wouldn’t be running anytime soon. His reason? It’s an “evergreen” story, which is journalism-speak for “there’s no reason we have to run it today so we’re going to hold onto it, no matter how that affects the subjects or sources.”
Then suddenly, sparked by the extraordinary reporting of Megan Twohey, Jodi Kantor, and Ronan Farrow about Harvey Weinstein, it was fashionable to write about physically and sexually abused women. So en vogue! So out trots Meier’s story about the binding, branding, manipulation, emotional violence, and utter grotesquerie of Keith Raniere and his crew of female cronies. That look — “abuse as a trend piece” — isn’t exactly the most flattering one, but hey, better that it saw the light of day.
The American impulse (and necessity) of going to the press is the loudest theme running through “Honesty & Disclosure,” an episode that finally catalogs the backlog of other accusations levelled against Keith & Co. for almost a decade. (I’m still waiting for the episode that gets into his personal backstory and explains the other pyramid scheme he created in the early ’90s.) And if you noticed the wild abundance of female co-conspirators and victims here, you weren’t off the mark.
Before Sarah and Mark were hoisted up the corporate ladder at NXIVM, there was Barbara Bouchey, a self-made millionaire who joined the group early on and found tremendous release in Nancy Salzman’s techniques. It’s worth pointing out that, like so many others in ESP, Bouchey had a rocky childhood — her father died when she was young and her father was an alcoholic. So when she found a new “family” as an adult, they likely understood that she’d feel indebted to them and attached to them. For all their blather about only finding strong people to join their team, it’s a classic cult move to seek out the troubled and the lonely.
And what Barbara says is that Keith and Nancy offered some good with the bad. Keith preyed on her intimacy issues, but also “he helped me work through a lot of that … [and] to receive love.” That sort of mixed-up tonic kept her enthralled to him for nine years.
The backstory of exactly how NXIVM, most crucially the Bronfman sisters, cut Bouchey’s life to pieces when she left the group is chilling. Money money money. Every time the Bronfmans’ faces flashed on the screen I imagined them Scrooge McDucking it through their piles of inherited cash, tossing a few stacks over to Keith whenever he needed one to keep Barbara (and her friend Susan Dones) under water. Hundreds of legal motions filed, $700,000 in legal fees. And all this because Keith Raniere needed to keep his little gaggle of sex partners obsessed with him.
Is it shocking that he kept a coterie of devoted women around him who knowingly slept with him despite his other relationships? No, and if everyone is a consenting adult, well okay. But the point is that he created a system that was impossible to leave and based upon those women doting on him like the second coming. “There’s something about me,” he coos in a pathetic little voice as he literally lounges on a couch surrounded by Pam and Kristin and the others, “that I can carry on a very odd life.” I’m just a magnet, he basically says, as if that relieves any responsibility for lying to Barbara for years and running an organization that slowly drained her bank accounts.
The ongoing question of The Vow is how culpable a victim can be, and more particularly, whether a woman who’s been sucked into a cult can also be responsible for what she inflicts upon other women. Sarah was branded and tied up, but she also sucked 2,000 women into the organization. Barbara was deceived and then viciously pursued by a team of attorneys, but she also fed Keith $1.6 million and watched his weird infatuations with other women play out for years.
In her radio interview after the Times story comes out, Sarah explains that she’s often asked “What man did this to you?” But, “technically, it was the women. The women who pinned me down, who scarred me, it was the women who did the manipulation. But it was under the direction of a man, and it was, in my opinion, for a man’s pleasure.” The women who would intercept Barbara’s calls to Keith when they were dating and act like a phalanx of 14-year-olds, preventing him from reaching him until she could play by his rules. The women who then were swept out of the organization when they put up with Keith’s mystical bullshit for 11 hours straight in “mediation.” The women who held each other down but also suffered through the singe of their flesh on fire.
It turns out, of course, that there was more than one attempt by the women of NXIVM to get the attention of the press, to puncture Keith’s reign. And even the story on the front page of the Times isn’t enough to convince the public. Sarah is still dealing with comments (never read the comments, Sarah!) pointing out, “I know we’re not supposed to blame victims but… c’mon.” Then again, she’s wondering herself about how much blame she deserves.
And inside the group, women like India Oxenberg are still swallowing Keith’s head fakes and voodoo lectures. Until, that is, his bad legal karma comes back to get him.