The NXIVM sex cult—led by “vanguard” Keith Raniere and “prefect” Nancy Salzman based in Albany, New York—grabbed multiple headlines with its sordid tales of coercion and women getting branded in their pubic area to prove their devotion. NXIVM had thousands of followers who joined under the guise of a self-help organization, including actor Allison Mack of Smallville, Nicki Clyne of Battlestar Galactica, and Clare and Sara Bronfman, heiresses to the Seagram’s liquor empire, which helped finance the whole operation. Raniere was recently sentenced to 120 years for charges including sex trafficking, forced labor, and racketeering; Clare Bronfman to almost seven years. Others like Mack and Salzman currently await sentencing.
Of the two recent miniseries about the NXIVM cult, Starz’s Seduced: Inside The NXIVM Cult is far and away the more compelling, as The A.V. Club’s Ashley Ray-Harris argues. Whereas HBO’s The Vow meandered while documenting a crew of apologetic former NXIVM followers for nine full episodes, the four-episode Seduced cuts right to the chase, primarily focusing on India Oxenberg, a young woman who was drafted into the cult, raped by Raniere, and then became key to the prosecution’s case against him.
In Seduced’s triumphant and restorative finale that aired tonight, Oxenberg and other former cult members come forward to educate more people about the dangers of NXIVM and other cults. What’s striking is how accomplished and determined these women all are, even after all they’ve been through. They all joined NXIVM as a self-help group in an attempt to better themselves and form a more altruistic world. The aptly named Seduced carefully crafts how this kind of manipulation could happen to anyone.
To find out more about the arduous experience of filming Seduced, The A.V. Club spoke with director Cecilia Peck and editor Inbal B. Lessner, who co-wrote and produced the series, about their continued anti-cult efforts, what aspects of NXIVM surprised them the most, and just what it was about NXIVM that made it one of the most destructive cults in American history.
The A.V. Club: Congratulations on Seduced. It’s not an easy watch, but still a tremendously gripping series. What first drew you to covering NXIVM?
Cecilia Peck: For me, it was a real curiosity about coercion and what is this form of oppression? How is it used to instill fear, whether it’s in a cult or a company or relationship? But I really wanted to study through the firsthand experiences of some of the victims of NXIVM. What these tactics look like, including NXIVM used them so strategically to limit your access to a promotion, to humiliate you, alienating members from their friends and family. So I think one of my main interests was exploring how coercion is used to control members of a cult.
AVC: As you got more into it, were there things that you found out that surprised you?
Inbal B. Lessner: I didn’t have personally much knowledge about cults. I have not researched them. I mean, I watched Wild Wild Country. I watched Holy Hell. But I really didn’t know or had read much about it. So my research really was firsthand from these former members. And it really surprised me to some extent how articulate, smart, capable, educated they were. They were not gullible. They were not weak. There wasn’t anything about them that made them especially susceptible to fall prey to. So I think that was a really interesting place to start to really understand how somebody like me, like you, like really anybody’s daughter, sister, could be susceptible to coercion and manipulation of this kind. And especially with NXIVM, where they turned language that was taken from feminism and female empowerment and used this bait-and-switch tactic to coerce them into something that was quite misogynistic, and they started thinking and operating against their best interests.
CP: One of the things that may have surprised us most was understanding just how extremely skilled their recruitment process was. How they would recognize who might be vulnerable at a certain moment to what particular type of language or invitation or promise they could offer. And it seemed like a very legitimate group on the front. These women were invited to meetings in beautiful homes with celebrities, with prominent people, with successful people. So on the surface, it looked like a very legitimate program that would help you to achieve your goals.
AVC: That’s what makes it so sad, that they all were just trying to improve themselves and build a better world. India Oxenberg’s story is heartbreaking. She just wanted a more purposeful life and got pulled into this thing that couldn’t be more sinister.
CP: Yes, and that’s partly why we called it Seduced. It was a seduction from start to finish, and it’s about being seduced in the original sense of the word, which is “to lead one away from oneself.” They were just so skilled at making it look very appealing and very legitimate and, as you said, appealing to people who were idealistic.
AVC: It’s similar to the multilevel marketing that Keith Raniere had experience with, like the more you build on it, it just feeds on itself. Because when NXIVM then had thousands of people, it seemed just more and more legit. If you think of a cult member from, like, the ’70s, you think of people handing out flowers in airports, or kids who ran away from home. But these women are so impressive throughout the series. They’re all professional, accomplished women who explain that the scary thing is this could happen to anyone.
CP: For us, education and advocacy are a very important part of the documentary process. That scene when those women speak out in the end is really where the whole series leads to—that they can use their voices to educate others, that’s why they all came forward. That’s how we got to meet this incredible group of women. They believe that their stories could help other people recognize the red flags of groups like this.
IL: It’s hard to tell, perhaps from the brevity at the end, but every single woman who participated, including India, had a really hard time coming to the decision to participate and being associated with something that was labeled in the media as a sex cult. So that stigma is still prevalent for cult members and people who fall prey to these groups, as well as retaliation from loyalists and former members and people who told them to shut the fuck up and not speak out about these things. And maybe they weren’t high enough in the organization to know what was really going on, but all of them struggled with the decision to come forward and to tell their stories, and they needed a lot of support.
We realized even once they made the decision and we scheduled the day to film them and do their interview or follow them around, it was not easy. Even with all our sensitivity, that wasn’t enough for what we felt they needed. So we set up a special fund in collaboration with FACT (Families Against Cult Teaching), which is a 501(c)(3) organization, and to provide counseling and therapy services for them before, during, and after they were filming, now still supporting them through the release of the show as their stories are shared publicly with the world. We felt that was really important to create a safe environment and was necessary to tell a story about women by women, to provide a safe space for them to tell the truth and to feel safe throughout the process.
AVC: What about your own safety? NXIVM had these powerful lawyers, and all that Seagram’s money. Did you ever worry about your own safety while you were working on this?
CP: I think we were conscious, especially prior to some of the convictions, that there were still strong factions supporting NXIVM who weren’t in favor of these exposés. But when you think of stories important enough to tell, you do it. You keep at it, no matter what. It was important to us to have the expert voices both advising us and having them on camera to give context to and explain the story we were telling. I guess we felt like if we get the truth out there, that will keep us safe. You know, it’s accurate, it’s investigated, it’s verified, it’s reported. Are we worried that NXIVM is still powerful enough to have their Mexican loyalists come after us at night? [Laughs.] I’m not worried about it. We applied all of our skills to telling the truth and in creating a document of what coercive control looked like within the NXIVM cult. We can’t live in fear.
AVC: Were you surprised by Keith Raniere’s sentence of 120 years? I actually gasped, because it seems so rare that that kind of justice is actually served. What did you think?
IL: We spent some time in the courtroom, Cecilia more than I have, and we listened firsthand to some of the testimonies, including Daniella, the woman who was imprisoned for two years in Albany. So we heard firsthand of the tremendous abuse in DOS [the subset of women in NXIVM who were branded], but also in the many, many years before DOS was even created. Personally, I was sitting in the court and everything I heard, I just went, “Motherfucker.” I just couldn’t believe how evil this was and so intentional and manipulative and just pure evil. So knowing how carefully and skillfully the prosecution built its case, how much evidence was against him, for me the only surprise is that it took 20 years of this cult operating in plain sight to finally bring them down. So I think it’s well-deserved punishment. I’m glad the jury and the judge were seeing straight through the manipulative explanation that Keith and his lawyers were trying to mount. There was no defense. Once it was turned for the defense to state its case, they just rested. There was not much to say on the other side.
CP: Same. It was such a huge victory and such a tremendous validation, and the judge made sure that even if time is reduced on some of the counts, that he won’t get out of jail, which I think makes people feel safe.
And he’s not remorseful. He doesn’t admit that these victims were sex trafficked, that he raped them. They were alienated from their families, these abuses were very extreme, and the judge did a tremendous job in delivering such a strict sentence.
AVC: It’s also so shocking at the end of Seduced to see that Raniere still has followers. It’s like people who still vote for Trump, like what are you seeing that I am not seeing? Watching the show, Keith Raniere seems like the least charismatic person on the planet. And yet all these people are continually drawn to him.
CP: One of our experts we interviewed, Dr. Christine Marie Katas, explained the principle of loss aversion, which means that the more time and resources you’ve devoted to a belief system, the harder it is to give up on it. So that even when you’re proven wrong by a verdict or a mountain of evidence, you tend to dig in deeper because it’s too hard to admit that you could have been wrong. So he does have loyal followers still. You know, unfortunately, CBS This Morning gave them a platform which was hard for us and the survivors in our show to understand. I don’t think they’d give a platform to loyalists of Harvey Weinstein. So I think the media needs to be pretty careful about airing their voices. And it’s just sad that they haven’t woken up yet.
IL: The other thing that I think is important to understand about charisma and especially about Keith… With charismatic leaders, he doesn’t necessarily have to be handsome or like a George Clooney type with some magnetism. It’s really the circle around him that was really attractive. There were people of prominent families, celebrities, successful people, wealthy people, people who knew how to be his not only enablers, but how to attract more and more people.
So people were attracted to this idea of this community that seemed like they were special, that were carefully chosen. People who came into the organization were showered with what we call love-bombing. There was something about them that was special and they were carefully chosen to be these leaders in this ethical organization that was going to have some kind of leadership position in changing the world. So I think that was what was really attractive more than Keith himself.
AVC: What is your follow-up project? This was so intense, did you need to take a break for a while?
CP: Well, as soon as we delivered the series, we went to work with two of the former members who are in the series, Naomi Gibson and Tabby Chapman, on creating a website called seduceddocumentary.com. It’s a resource for anybody who thinks they may be in a cult or controlled group, and it provides a forum for people to share their stories and seek support. This was really designed by two of the former members, and we worked with them on launching it.
We brought a lot of our understanding and built from Brave Miss World, our previous film to this one. We learned the stories of rape survivors and learned how to develop that sensitivity and work with victims of trauma, especially women who wanted to turn those experiences into activism. And we’re always looking for projects that have those kind of stories at the heart of them.
IL: I think it’s a really good question that doesn’t get asked much. And it’s really a new conversation in the documentary community about mental health of the people behind the camera. So the same people on our team who have watched hours of Keith Raniere’s quote unquote meetings and lectures, and Nancy Salzman… We had people screaming at their monitors like, “How come nobody is standing up and objecting?” Or feeling like they need to take a walk. Something in their brain was starting to shift as the word salad was washing over them, so that they almost didn’t notice those moments were really damaging or potentially harmful. Messages were inserted into those lectures.
So we had to do weekly meetings with the staff and kind of talk it through with everybody, how they’re feeling, what they’re watching, how they’re reacting to the footage. We offered the same kind of counseling we offer our subjects to the people on duty on the editorial team to make sure that they can talk to a professional in case they feel triggered or uncomfortable. I personally, as an editor, worked on other sort of true crime shows that were not sensitive to that, and I saw people having a really hard time handling watching difficult material day in and day out. You develop a thick skin or the ability to compartmentalize your work. But it is difficult. And you have to keep being inspired by the ability to educate and bring these stories to light that the positive impact that could do. But it does take its toll. And I think that’s a conversation that we need to keep having.
AVC: Just based on some things we saw in Seduced, there must be so many more horrific things that didn’t even make it to the documentary. Like in the first few minutes of the first episode, you put in his line about “Do you understand how you could rape a baby? I could make it a baby that’s very rapable.” And you just have to wonder, why is anyone still in that room? He’s obviously deranged. Why was anybody giving this guy so much attention?
IL: I mean, “rapable baby” in the first minutes of the show, that was not an easy editorial decision. The network [Starz] wanted us to paint a very clear portrayal of who is the villain in the story and how far it’s going to get. But obviously that did not come in an intro session. That did not come in the first 16-day introductory course. That came after years in the upper-level courses, after years of tampering with your thinking.
When we first talked to India about potentially joining us and appearing in the documentary, Cecilia asked, “How are you doing?” And she said, “I’m still trying to figure out the difference between what really happened and what I was made to believe happened or what was I indoctrinated to believe happened.” So I think that set the tone for the narrative spine of the documentary, with the experts telling you what was actually happening as India and the other women are giving their firsthand accounts of what they thought was happening at the time, what it felt like, and that tension between. The viewer is really understanding what cult tactics are at play or what is the manipulation that’s going on when Nancy says something like, “Oh, men think and women feel,” and everybody laughs it off.
We wanted to kind of put an accent on that, make sure people understand that these are the kind of building blocks of the indoctrinations that you may ignore or you may not even see if you’re presented with an hour-long lecture. So I think in the editing we did focus on pulling out those moments where you’re shocked that this was there, and yet you come to understand that it was a very direct threat, slowly heating up that pot until you’re swimming in soup.
CP: Of course we would have loved to have more episodes to explore this, the destination, NXIVM’s methods, and different people’s experiences, but, you know, we were working for Starz. They gave us four episodes. We needed to compress a lot of information into those four. And we had certain marks we needed to hit. Like Inbal said, Starz wanted us to set the stakes early on. We needed to include a certain amount of water cooler moments in every episode, but we found ways to use those to tell the story and really present how Keith actually was and how he used the entire organization ultimately as a system to deliver him sex slaves.
AVC: What do you think Keith Raniere’s ultimate goal was? He already had a ton of money and power and people. Just making his sex cult bigger? Or was he going for total world domination?
CP: Yes, I think he did have goals of world domination and of having NXIVM members in elected office. He was thinking on that level. But at the same time, he realized that he could use his inner circle of enablers and in what he called his first line of slaves to bring women into DOS, the slave masters society that could be controlled and told to do him sexual favors under the guise of becoming stronger as women. I mean, again, the way he corrupted feminist language: These women were told that if they faced doing something that was extremely uncomfortable to them, they would become stronger, which would make them more able to achieve goals in all areas of their lives.
IL: I have in front of me the 12-point mission statement that they had to recite. And it says, “People control the money, wealth, and resources of the world. It is essential for the survival of humankind for these things to be controlled by successful, ethical people. I pledge ethically to control as much of the money, wealth, and resources of the world as possible.”
So it’s also one of the ways they explained why the courses were so expensive. Because some people said, “Well, we’re trying to change the world. If we remove this paywall, we’ll make it more accessible to more people.” But they said, “No, we’re focusing on leadership and then the people that are wealthy and have access to power and then that would trickle down.”
CP: There were a lot of practices like physical punishment and the humiliations that are used in terrorist training. And the readiness drills, for example. We really wanted to examine, what was he doing with those? What was he preparing for? And fortunately, he was arrested and NXIVM’s no longer operating, but some of the experts in our film weigh in strongly feeling that it would not have ended well.
AVC: Thank you for all you’re doing for these women and for other people who are going to need the help to recover from this. One of the experts in Seduced said that in all her years of studying cults, this was the most dangerous one she ever saw. What was it about NXIVM that made it so dangerous?
CP: I think it was their strategic ability to control and abuse the members of the cult with the use of the prominent members and the financial backing that he had been able to accumulate. The Bronfman money that was used to silence, threaten, or harass any journalist or potential defectors who tried to speak up against the cult. I think she was referring to his overall ability to create a system of control that is unequaled by almost any other cult.