TV actress Allison Mack has pleaded guilty in a case involving a cult-like group based in upstate New York. (April 8)
HBO’s “The Vow” takes viewers on a deep dive, exploring NXIVM, an organization that marketed itself as a way for people to become their best selves. In reality, the leaders and teachers of the cultlike NXIVM manipulated members, even hoodwinking some into getting branded with a symbol featuring leader Keith Raniere’s initials and engaging in sexual acts with him.
Raniere, who turns 60 on Aug. 26, was found guilty of racketeering, sex trafficking, forced labor conspiracy and other felony charges in June 2019.
“The Vow” begins its nine-part journey Sunday (HBO and HBO Max, 10 p.m. EDT/PDT), introducing those formerly at the helm of the org – Raniere, who wanted to be addressed as “Vanguard,” and Nancy Salzman, dubbed “Prefect.” The docuseries also introduces former members whose enthusiasm for the organization has been replaced with disgust, shame and an unwavering desire to take Raniere down and rescue other members under his spell.
Here’s what to know ahead of the show’s premiere:
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How did NXIVM get its start and who is Keith Raniere?
Raniere and Salzman created Executive Success Programs, a business presented as a method of self-improvement, in 1998. Later, it also came to be known as NXIVM. Members wore short, different colored sashes around their necks indicating their place in the group and their progress along what they called “the stripe path.”
Sarah Edmondson, a former NXIVM member featured in “The Vow,” holds up her sash to the camera. (Photo: Courtesy of HBO)
In 2003, Raniere was on the cover of Forbes’ October issue, which dubbed him “The World’s Strangest Executive Coach.” The article told of Raniere’s now-defunct Consumers’ Buyline, describing it as “a multilevel marketing program … that promised lucrative commissions to old customers for recruiting new ones.”
Per Forbes: “In 1993 the New York attorney general filed a civil suit alleging Consumers’ Buyline was a pyramid scheme. Without admitting wrongdoing, Raniere settled for $40,000.” At the time of publication, Forbes reported Raniere had “paid only $9,000.”
But Raniere’s possible criminal activity wasn’t limited to the world of business. In 2012, Albany’s Times Union reported Raniere had multiple alleged sexual relationships with underage girls as an adult.
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Keith Raniere, co-founder of a secretive self-help group founded in 1998 in the Albany, N.Y., area, is shown in the 1990s. (Photo: Courtesy of Toni Natalie)
What is DOS?
DOS, also referred to as “The Vow,” was introduced as a secret sorority-type group within NXIVM aiming to help women reach their highest potential, but labeled its recruits “slaves” who were assigned “masters.” DOS stood for “dominus obsequious sororium,” which The Daily Beast, citing court documents, said a member stated translates to “master over slave women.” The Guardian reported it to mean “master of the obedient female companions.” Actress Allison Mack, known for her long-running role as Chloe Sullivan on “Smallville,” served as a top-level “master.” She reported to Raniere, the “grandmaster,” who had sexual contact with some of the members.
Allison Mack leaves court following her bail hearing on May 4, 2018, in Brooklyn. (Photo: Jemal Countess/Getty Images)
Before the women could join, and as members, they were asked to provide “collateral” showing their devotion to the group. These items included nude photographs as well as other items from their personal lives that would be embarrassing if they were made public. Members of DOS also adhered to severe calorie restriction. A former member testified in 2019 that India Oxenberg, daughter of actress Catherine Oxenberg, known for her role as Amanda Bedford Carrington on “Dynasty,” was at one time allowed just 500 calories per day.
In addition, members were branded with a symbol combining Raniere and Mack’s initials on their pelvic region. Recordings played in a Brooklyn courtroom in May 2019 revealed that Raniere directed Mack to have the women strip nude before being branded.
“Almost like tied down like a sacrificial whatever, and the person should ask to be branded,” Raniere said. “(They) should say, ‘Please brand me, it would be an honor’ or something like that. ‘An honor I want to wear for the rest of my life.’ And they should probably say that before they’re held down so it doesn’t seem like they’re being coerced.”
The New York Times investigated DOS and its branding for a report published in October 2017 that drew notable attention.
“To become effective, members had to overcome weaknesses that Mr. Raniere taught were common to women – an overemotional nature, a failure to keep promises and an embrace of the role of victim, according to (former members),” the article reported. “Submission and obedience would be used as tools to achieve those goals, several women said.”
Former member Sarah Edmondson, who is featured in “The Vow,” told the NYT and other news outlets that women in training “were required to send their master texts that read ‘Morning M’ and ‘Night M.’ During drills, a master texted her slaves ‘?’ and they had 60 seconds to reply ‘Ready M.’ “
Trainees who failed had to pay penalties, including fasting or physical punishment, the NYT reported.
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A photo of a brand featuring Keith Raniere and Allison Mack’s initials. Women who were part of DOS, a secret sorority connected to NXIVM, received the brand on their pubic area. (Photo: US Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District)
Which other celebrities had ties to Raniere, NXIVM?
Forbes wrote of the success of Raniere’s Executive Success Programs in its cover story and his high-up connections, which include a former U.S. surgeon general and the daughter of a former Mexican president.
Mack’s “Smallville” co-star Kristin Kreuk, who played Lana Lang on the series, took to Twitter in 2018 to clarify her participation in NXIVM.
“When I was about 23, I took an Executive Success Programs/NXIVM ‘intensive,’ what I understood to be a self-help/personal growth course that helped me handle my previous shyness, which is why I continued with the program,” her statement read. “I left about five years ago and have had minimal contact with those who were still involved. The accusations that I was in the ‘inner circle’ or recruited women as ‘sex slaves’ are blatantly false.
“Smallville” cast members Kristin Kruek, Tom Welling, center, and Michael Rosenbaum. (Photo: DAVID GRAY/THE WB)
“During my time, I never experienced any illegal or nefarious activity,” she added. “I am horrified and disgusted by what has come out about DOS. … I am deeply disturbed and embarrassed to have been associated with NXIVM.”
Clare Bronfman, an heiress to the Seagram’s liquor fortune, was a high-ranking member of NXIVM who later faced criminal charges. She was accused of helping to lead what was allegedly a criminal enterprise that included identity theft and money laundering.
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Where are the accused now?
Raniere was found guilty of seven felonies in a New York federal court in June 2019. Charges included forced labor conspiracy, wire fraud conspiracy, sex trafficking and racketeering charges, which included underlying acts of child pornography possession, identity theft and child sexual exploitation, among others. He is to be sentenced Oct. 27 and is jailed at Brooklyn’s Metropolitan Detention Center.
Mack pleaded guilty in April 2019, signing a plea agreement, admitting to racketeering crimes that could put her behind bars for years. She had been facing racketeering, forced labor conspiracy, wire fraud conspiracy and various sex trafficking charges in connection with her role. She is also awaiting sentencing.
The same goes for Salzman, who admitted to one count of racketeering conspiracy in March 2019.
Bronfman had long bankrolled Raniere’s leadership of NXIVM, according to prosecutors. She took a plea deal in April 2019, pleading guilty to a count of conspiracy to conceal and harbor illegal aliens for financial gain and a count of fraudulent use of identification. She is also awaiting sentencing.
Contributing: Jon Campbell and Joseph Spector, USA TODAY NETWORK
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