Your guide to the sex cult, the HBO docuseries, 'The Vow,' and other must-see specials.
NXIVM, a personal development company founded by Keith Raniere, garnered national attention in 2017 when multiple outlets exposed it as a pyramid scheme and cult that forced its female recruits into sexual slavery. In the years since, Raniere and various members, including former Smallville actress Allison Mack, were arrested and later indicted on federal charges, with the founder convicted of racketeering and sex trafficking.
Now, HBO is diving deep into the world of NXIVM with The Vow, a nine-part docuseries directed by Emmy-winning and Oscar-nominated Jehane Noujaim and Karim Amer. Premiering Sunday, Aug. 23 at 10 p.m. ET/PT, pulls back the curtain on a world of lies, deception, coercion, extortion and abuse. Through unprecedented, real-time access to NXIVM defectors and insiders, the series exposes new allegations against Raniere, Mack and the organization as well as show what former members risked by joining and later leaving the cult.
Viewers wanting to get the full story about NXIVM and learn about the many others who have since escaped or were involved in exposing the cult, have plenty of options to pull from. Here’s everything to watch, read or listen to in addition to the HBO docuseries.
Last fall, Dynasty actress Catherine Oxenberg, who also appears in The Vow, turned her true story of losing her daughter, India, to the cult and her long fight to rescue her from the clutches of Raniere into a Lifetime movie, Escaping the NXIVM Cult: A Mother's Fight to Save Her Daughter. Based on Oxenberg’s 2018 memoir, Captive: A Mother's Crusade to Save Her Daughter From a Terrifying Cult, the film condenses seven years of “a horrendous, nightmarish ordeal” into 90 minutes. But despite that, Oxenberg told ET that “as far as highlighting and showcasing the most salient points and really exposing the grooming process and how women like my daughter were recruited and the level of deception and coercion involved, they’ve done a magnificent job.” The focus of the film, she added, “is really how Allison sucked in India.”
Accompanying the movie was the Lifetime documentary, Beyond the Headlines: Escaping the NXIVM Cult With Gretchen Carlson, which features interviews and firsthand accounts with people not portrayed in the film who helped her take down the group. “You have a lot of behind the scenes and it completes the story really well,” said Oxenberg, who helped open the last season of E! True Hollywood Story with the special, “NXIVM: Self Help or Sex Cult?,” which focuses on the recruitment of women into the organization and the impact it had on their lives. Former recruiter and early NXIVM member Barbara Bouchey also opens up about what it was like to live within the group.
Additionally, there are a few specials with dedicated episodes to exploring the NXIVM cult, including ABC’s 20/20 and the A&E series Cults and Extreme Beliefs, both of which are streaming on Hulu, and Vox’s Netflix series Explained, which kicked off season two with “Cults.” Narrated by LaKeith Stanfield, the episode explores how NXIVM and other groups lure people in and exert control over its followers -- oftentimes resulting in them doing horrible things.
In December, Investigation Discovery debuted the two-hour special, The Lost Women of NXIVM, which explored the lives of Kristin Snyder, Gina Hutchinson and other women who were members of the cult and either vanished or died under mysterious circumstances.
In addition to Oxenberg’s memoir (see above), which serves as the source material for the Lifetime movie, readers should also check out Sarah Edmondson’s recently released book, Scarred: The True Story of How I Escaped NXIVM, the Cult That Bound My Life, which recounts the Canadian actress’ harrowing experiences from inside the cult and the gruesome branding that was required of new members. “Nothing could have ever prepared me for the feel of this fire on my skin,” writes Edmondson, who became widely known in the press as one of the key whistleblowers of NXIVM. Coming out on Sept. 24 is The Program: Inside the Mind of Keith Raniere and the Rise and Fall of NXIVM by investigative journalist Chet Hardin and Toni Natalie, a former girlfriend and business partner of Raniere who provides jaw-dropping insider perspective.
Beyond the firsthand accounts by survivors of the cult, it’s worth going back and reading the major exposes and various news coverage of NXIVM as Raniere and his illegal practices were exposed. Among them are the 2017 New York Times article, “Inside a Secretive Group Where Women Are Branded,” and the 2018 NYT Magazine article, “Inside NXIVM, the ‘Sex Cult’ That Preached Empowerment,” that followed. Years prior, Vanity Fair published an investigative look at Seagram heiresses Sara and Clare Bronfman who became victims of the cult, “The Heiress and the Cult,” in 2010. The magazine has posted ongoing coverage since, including “Inside the End of the NXIVM Sex Cult,” when Raniere was finally convicted. Meanwhile, Rolling Stone takes a look at the practice of cults and how people who leave one may get sucked into another.
For those into true-crime podcasts, there are two worth listening to. The first being Uncover: Escaping NXIVM, an acclaimed investigative series from CBC. It’s hosted by Josh Bloch, a producer and childhood friend of Edmondson’s; he touches on his own feelings about seeing a friend’s life unravel under the influence of Raniere. The podcast is accompanied by a fascinating interactive online story that’s worth checking out as well. The other is NXIVM on Trial, which is a weekly discussion with Times Union managing editor Casey Seiler and justice reporter Robert Gavin, who talk about the major developments in Raniere’s trial as it happened over the summer.
Inside the NXIVM Cult: 'Dynasty' Actress Catherine Oxenberg on Bringing Her Story to Lifetime (Exclusive)