Three months have passed since Keith Raniere, founder of the defunct self-help company NXIVM, was convicted of sex trafficking, racketeering, and wire fraud conspiracy. Among other things the accused cult leader was found guilty of taking graphic sexual photos of a 15-year-old girl and conspiring to confine her older sister in a room for 23 months.
Just in time for what should have been Raniere’s sentencing (that’s delayed to 2020 now, FYI), Lifetime has put out a made-for-TV movie based on the experience of a mother who tried to free her daughter from Raniere’s secretive blackmail scheme involving nudes, near-starvation, indentured servitude, and human branding.
Lifetime—the network also bringing you a ripped-from-headlines college admission scandal movie next month—has built a reputation pumping out cable-ready reenactments of everything from the Amanda Knox case to the Elizabeth Smart story in an unsettlingly short amount of time.
Dynasty actress Catherine Oxenberg is the hero mom in Escaping the NXIVM Cult, played by Andrea Roth. Jasper Polish plays India, Catherine’s daughter who was swept up in NXIVM’s bizarre and expensive self-actualization classes in 2011. Smallville actress Allison Mack, played by an unsettlingly smiley Sara Fletcher, befriends India and invites her to join a secret women’s society that turns out to be a sex trafficking operation. Peter Facinelli plays Keith Raniere, aka Vanguard, the now-convicted mastermind behind it all.
The movie is a fictionalized version of Oxenberg’s memoir, slated to air for the first time in Canada this Sunday, September 29. Having read Oxenberg’s book and attended all seven weeks of the trial, I was curious to know how closely Lifetime’s reenactment stuck to the facts of the case. As it turns out some of the most batshit lines are ripped verbatim from the trial transcript, while the stuff the network changed seems to be an effort to make it coherent.
The movie is incredibly faithful to the aesthetic of NXIVM. Suburbia and athleisure feature prominently, with some outfits made for a Christian Girl Autumn meme. The cast is familiar enough that you might recognize them from something—a teen vampire series you never saw? maybe a soap opera?—but distant enough from memory that their mannerisms easily blend into those of the real-world subjects. Fletcher has clearly studied the YouTube videos where Allison Mack gushes about NXIVM’s empowerment mission. If I had to quibble about casting, I’d say Facinelli is too conventionally attractive for the Raniere role. I’ll just have to assume Dave Coulier was not available.
The story begins in a beachfront multi-million dollar home in Malibu, where the Oxenbergs are baking muffins, eating ice cream, going to the beach, FaceTiming with Yugoslavian royalty—your typical happy family stuff. India tells her mom she’s feeling a little lost, and Catherine suggests they both try NXIVM’s “executive success” seminar she heard about at a yoga class.
Within the first ten minutes Catherine and India meet many key NXIVM figures, including recruiter-turned-whistleblower Sarah Edmondson, witness for the prosecution Mark Vicente, and NXIVM cofounder Nancy Salzman, who pleaded guilty to racketeering conspiracy earlier this year. Vicente’s wife Bonnie wears an intensely wide smile as she talks about removing cognitive errors and helping people get out of their own way. (The facial expressions remind me of Kate McKinnon doing an unhinged Hillary Clinton.)
The logos, the brightly-coloured silk sashes, and the over-the-top honourifics are all in keeping with actual NXIVM classes. Catherine and India read a snippet of NXIVM’s 12-point mission statement. “There are no ultimate victims, and therefore I will not choose to be a victim,” the room says in unison. This was recited at the beginning of every session, along with some stuff about purging envy-based habits and acquiring as much of the world’s wealth as possible. Vicente testified in May that he’d probably read these words a thousand times, and that he now thought they were “evil.”
There were more rules and rituals that didn’t fit into the Lifetime version of the workshop. NXIVM trainers would clap at the front of the room at the beginning of each session, which was a signal for students to stand, clap, and bow to the teacher. They also learned complicated secret handshakes, and huddled in a circle before class to say “We are committed to our success!” in unison. I guess they didn’t want to go full SNL with it.
Oxenberg world tour
In the movie, Catherine is almost immediately freaked out by the NXIVM community, while India is excited and wants to stick with it. Just like in her memoir, Catherine reveals that she was sexually abused by an uncle when she was very young, and feels some catharsis when a NXIVM “exploration of meaning” session helps her connect that trauma with her current-day fear of auditions.
At a women’s workshop later on, Allison Mack introduces some of Raniere’s more obviously misogynist teachings. “Men are more loyal than women,” Mack declares to a circle of women in their shiny scarves, apparently hoping to overcome gender barriers. “When a man cheats, he goes back to his wife. When a woman cheats, she tends to transfer her affections.”
At Raniere’s trial this summer, prosecutors played video of Nancy Salzman reading something like this in the Albany headquarters’ “Jness room,” where men were not allowed to enter. The fact that Raneire dictated these “disquisitions” was usually concealed from the group. In the Lifetime version Raniere barges into the room to defend his ridiculous philosophy. That never happened IRL, but any workshop was always filled with enough Raniere defenders anyway.
In the movie Catherine bails when she finds a woman sleeping on the floor as “penance” for being defiant to her husband. She leaves Albany for good, while India settles into the community, eventually spending $50,000 of her inheritance to enroll in “NXIVM University.”
In reality Catherine was given VIP treatment and stuck with the higher-level NXIVM classes with her daughter for much longer than the movie suggests. According to her memoir Oxenberg travelled to sessions in Canada and Mexico as well as Albany and Los Angeles. She stayed in Sara Bronfman’s house, recruited other members of her extended family, hosted Jness sessions, and earned stripes on her sash.
It’s always sunny on Vanguard
In a bizarre and jarring scene, India goes on a walk with Raniere at Vanguard Week, the annual summer camp-like celebration of his birthday. “Every time it rained, the raindrops would fall on other people, but never on me,” Raniere tells India. The conversation quickly transitions to something else without much explanation.
This is a nod to testimony by convicted DOS master Lauren Salzman at Raniere’s trial. Multiple former members testified about Raniere’s claimed mystical powers over weather and technology. “There were these things that happened to him that he couldn’t account for, and that there was something really unique or special about him,” Salzman told a Brooklyn jury. “It was something about his energy or his impact on the world somehow.”
Raniere told a story about rain clouds helping him prove a point to one of his followers, according to Salzman. During a walk, he apparently told this person to stop and see how the rain was falling. “It was raining, but it wasn’t raining on him. It was raining on them,” Salzman testified. She clarified that this wasn’t a metaphor—it was proof Raniere was right. NXIVM’s inner circle helped perpetuate the idea that strange weather was usually a sign of Raniere’s energy and power.
The DOS pitch
One of the most mind-bending elements of the NXIVM case is the coercion and misdirection that led women to hand over blackmail material. The Lifetime movie doesn’t have time to get into the “collateral” details, so Mack introduces the scary parts of DOS up front. “It means lord master over obedient female companions,” she tells India. “If you ever betray us, there will be real consequences.” The scene ends with a giggly high-five.
According to testimony, the more harrowing elements of DOS were only revealed after women were bound by the threat of life-destroying blackmail material being released. Years before that, they were guilted and gaslighted into not trusting their own judgment.
No wine, thanks
In one scene, Mack, India and Raniere are all dancing together drinking red wine. It’s a small thing but most of the NXIVM community viewed alcohol as a “crutch” to be avoided. NXIVM extended this logic to most medications, too. Antidepressants, sleeping pills, and even Benadryl were seen as crutches for the weak willed.
When India goes to the bathroom, Raniere tells Mack about an “assignment” he has for India. “I think she should take off all her clothes, and pose for me in the most revealing way,” Raniere tells Lifetime Mack.
This bit of script comes from an email Raniere sent to Mack in March 2016. “Does India know to complete her assignment she needs to take all her clothes off, while I am clothed, pose in the most revealing way, and have me take a picture of her, with her phone, to be immediately sent to you as proof?” he wrote, according to court records.
“Wahoo… :)” real-life Mack replied.
Meanwhile Catherine goes to the New York Times and the FBI, then confronts her daughter about her brand, which doesn’t go well. They have an argument about brainwashing, and then there’s a montage of Catherine doing the daytime TV circuit, sounding the alarm about the cult. Raniere escapes on a chartered plane to Mexico, and finally the feds move in.
The storytelling starts to really fall apart at the end, with Mack, Nancy, Lauren, and liquor heiress Clare Bronfman reading guilty pleas in a dark studio under a spotlight. The lines are ripped right from court transcripts, but they don’t bother with a courtroom scene—just a sparse room with a chair.
One of the last scenes is Raniere in a jail cell, which as of today, is 100 percent accurate.
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