The Vow: Ep. 4 “Building Character”

In the last episode Sarah, Nippy, Mark and Bonnie were now out of Nxivm/ESP.

We open with Sarah telling us that her first goal in regards to leaving Nxivm/ESP was just to get out. Her concern was for her family and herself. But, knowing how many women were in DOS, because Sarah had brought them in first through ESP, “that was a whole different level of what the fuck.”

We cut to scenes of Sarah calling people on the phone to get them out of ESP. She also tells some people in DOS to demand their collateral back. Her hope is to prevent anymore brandings. She and Nippy (in Vancouver), Bonnie and Mark (in LA) are working as a team, calling people up and encouraging them to leave. Mark and Bonnie decide to call Catherine Oxenberg, whose daughter India is in DOS, to let her know what is going on. Break for Intro.

Catherine Oxenberg

After intro, we open with an exterior shot of Catherine Oxenberg’s house in Malibu. Many people probably already know who she is or have a vague inkling at least. It’s been a long time since she was on Dynasty in the 80’s. I think she did a reality TV show with her husband (now ex), Casper Van Dien. That was most likely in the early 2000’s when every other D-list celebrity was doing a reality show. Let me take a look at her IMDB to see what she has been up to over the years…

Oh, it looks like she is 1,387th in the line of succession to the British throne. Fingers crossed, Catherine! She was a model, wears a size 7 shoe… went to school with Judd Nelson. She seems to have worked steadily enough. Nothing of note except the Dynasty gig, but she lives in Malibu. I am sure she is doing fine.

Before we get started on the heavier stuff, let me just say that Catherine Oxenberg looks great. She’s had subtle good work. She’s not trying to look like a twentysomething year old. Why would you want to when you look better than most twentysomethings anyway?

Interior shot and Catherine is talking on the phone to her mother, Princess Elizabeth of Yugoslovia. As one does. Catherine tells her that she got a call from Bonnie informing her that India needed to be saved from DOS. She gives her mom a succinct summary of the DOS stuff, except leaving out the sex with Keith aspect. Which she may not have known about at that point. Catherine says none of it sounds like the kind of thing the child she knows would do. She is shocked.

We see footage of India as Bonnie tells us about their friendship. I guess Bonnie saw herself as like a mentor-type for India. She said that initially India was shy and living “a small life” (in Bonnie’s opinion anyway). Bonnie felt that India had blossomed while in ESP. But Bonnie started to see concerning behavior. Counting calories, starving herself, lying sometimes… and then India told her she was moving to Albany for a secret project with Keith and Allison.

Bonnie and Mark are now at Catherine’s house as Catherine looks through some personal stuff of India’s to see if it reveals anything. Catherine makes a point of telling us she has a strict policy of respecting India’s privacy, which is good of her, but the circumstances have made it necessary to go against that policy. A work sheet India had filled out contains the usual mission talk that was typical for an ESPian.

Question: Understanding what you know now, what are the principles you swear to uphold for the rest of your life? India wrote: Willing to put in the effort to make things better for the future. Willing to put in the work now, because you have a vision for the world…

The next question is: What is the most important value in life to you? Why do you exist? Why live? Worst job interview ever. No pressure with these questions, wow. India didn’t write anything for that one. Maybe she should have written something like, I’m only in my early twenties, ease up. What are these bullshit questions?

“How will I use the tool of a low-cal diet to build the me that I want?” India wrote in some of her notes. Then there is a reference to Keith. “K.R. talk. Vow” then “K.R. Intimacy” There is also a reference to the chain India would wear as a symbol of her vow to Keith.

Catherine looks through some pictures of India. “Pre-ESP”, she says showing a picture, “and then cult”, showing another picture of a distracted India texting on her phone. Catherine has been wracking her head trying to figure out why India would even be drawn in. “I thought she was the happiest, most evolved, well adjusted child…” Bonnie says that is precisely why. She says that people keep telling her it’s because she is deficient, weird, damaged and vulnerable. (Who are these people, Bonnie?!) But she thinks it’s the opposite. They want successful, easy to get along with types. She’s probably right.

We cut to Bonnie telling us that people don’t understand how anyone can get sucked in to a cult and that’s why it’s important for those that have experienced it to be able to share their story.

Jane Doe

We then cut to a shot of the back view of a young woman on a beach. It’s Jane Doe. In voice over she tells us she doesn’t want to give her real name, because she doesn’t want to be judged for the choices she has made. There are complexities to having been involved with DOS that she is still trying to work out. “What is manipulation and what is consent? What motivations are pure?” Jane believes that “anyone can make the decisions that I made. Anyone can be Jane.”

This begins what I thought was one of the most interesting segments of the entire series. But it is also an example of why “The Vow” was criticized as being plodding by some. Jane is articulate, insightful and everything she says is worth hearing, but… the editing is done… in such a way… that every sentence she utters… is followed by a pause… to extend the footage… as long as possible. It becomes a bit maddening.

Jane was living in New York, she tells us, and working as a freelance filmmaker. She was doing pretty well, but she felt lonely. “Struggling with certain friendships with women… ” She was making a documentary on urban farmers which is how she met Rachel. Jane was drawn to her because she was open and confident. “Comfortable in her own skin” as Jane describes her. They became friends.

And then–you know where this is going–Rachel told Jane about a life changing group she was involved in. But before she talked more about it–and you know what is coming next–she had to get collateral as proof that Jane would not tell anyone about it, because it was a secret group. Jane thought she was kidding, but Rachel was like, if you trusted your own word, collateral wouldn’t be a big deal. In fact, Rachel said, this inability to commit might be exactly why Jane was failing in other areas of her life. Oh, that’s pretty good, Rachel. That is some quality manipulative sales tactics right there. “You can’t trust yourself,” Rachel says.

So, Jane handed over some videos, photos and a letter to her brother where she informs him that his girlfriend is cheating on him. Her brother watching this must have been like, what the fuck, Jane? She handed over even more stuff, too and then Rachel was ready to tell her about DOS. Or “the vow” as she called it.

“The vow was to grow beyond your excuses and challenge all of your fears” and to accept Rachel as Jane’s teacher and guide. But under the name of master and slave. Rachel is Black so Jane was like, what the fuck, Rachel? But Rachel said she had worked through her emotional reactions to it and was fine with it.

To Jane, Rachel was offering her a way to be really happy with her life. She felt it was an opportunity she couldn’t let pass. So she headed to Albany. Initially for only a few weeks, but she ended up just staying on there.

Step one was make a list of goals. One of them was to lose weight. So predictable, zzzzzz. Rachel, and you will not be shocked to read this, thought that was a great place to start, because “it offered a tangible way to see [Jane’s] limitations.” A doorway to growth.

Jane had to text and ask for permission for every calorie she ate. So if lunch was 350 calories it was, “Master, may I have 350 calories?” And so on, all day. Food was not to be used as a means to escape emotional discomfort. Jane also had to get up at 5am, take a cold shower, meditate and/or journal, do her real life work and throughout the day be ready for what was called readiness drills. Rachel would text her at any hour of the day or night with a “?” Jane had one minute to respond “RM” for “Ready, master.” Supposedly this was about being accountable to someone and having a strict routine of things that needed to get done throughout the day. And initially, Jane liked it. She said it was like Jedi training.

We hear things she has written in her journal. The usual Nxivm mumbo-jumbo about advancing as a human-being and living outside of one’s comfort zone. A lifelong commitment. Jane is told that after proving herself she will get to meet her Grandmaster.

We cut to actress Allison Mack talking with Keith in what looks like a promo-type video. Allison yaks about how if there was just one thing she could do for the world it would be to help women or some jazz. We see some more footage of Allison where it looks like she is about to cry. Which, not to be mean, is kind of her natural state. She is a very emotional woman. Jane says in voice over that she found Allison to be interesting, self-aware and honest about her own flaws. They became buds. Kind of an older sister/younger sister type thing.

No, India you cannot go to McDonald’s.

Jane had figured out that Allison was her Grandmaster (and therefore, Rachel’s master), but she hadn’t met any other women in DOS. Except India Oxenberg, because she was revealed to be an “auntie” of Jane’s. Allison was India’s master. The pyramid of masters and slaves.

Jane tells us in voice over that she liked India and was relieved to have somebody to talk to about DOS. We see footage of India cooking, dancing and giggling. She’s cute. Comes across as likable and looks so young. She looks like a teenager.

In interview footage, India talks about how her background is different, because she’s related to royalty, but some of her family is in show business too. India feels her background is a privileged one, but don’t stereotype what that means! She’s just your average every day cult-member out here hustling.

We cut back to Catherine’s house. Catherine tells Mark and Bonnie that she had just spoken to India on the phone and she said basically, back off mom. Her life, her choice. Catherine asked her if she was branded. India said yes and that it was wonderful. “I’ve never felt so happy and purposeful in my life,” India added. Catherine holds up her arms like, so now what do I do?

Jane Doe tells us in voice over that she pretty much felt the same about being in DOS. Doing something purposeful and meaningful. I don’t mean to be rude, but other than dieting and cold showers what exactly were any of them doing? And how did anything they were doing impact the world?

Anyway, at the end of every day Jane had to do a failure form. How those failures affected your master, Grandmaster and your community of people. “And if you did something bad, you made a breach,” Jane tells us. I think doing something bad was like, having a cookie or gaining a pound. Minor shit. But then you have to do some form of penance. In one text, Rachel threatens to give her a spanking. (To which I would have said, good-bye Albany! And called it a day.) But mostly the penances ranged from annoying things like having to ask permission every time Jane wanted to send a text or spending the day fasting.

This may sound familiar, but Rachel kept asking for more and more collateral which prompted Jane to say, “this isn’t what you said it was.” But Rachel told her that by accepting to be her slave she was therefore agreeing to do whatever Rachel demanded. Which also included telling Jane to lose even more weight while she was at it. This is a life commitment, Rachel told her, get used to it.

Jane was starting to feel like the whole thing was ridiculous, so she had a talk with Allison. Allison told her feeling this way was the result of her own fears and limitations. Jane was so conceited, Allison said. “Your pride is like cellophane across your eyes and everyone can see it except for you.” If she could get beyond her own ego, Jane would discover a whole new world. Jane basically surrendered.

We cut to video footage with Allison who is sitting and chatting with Keith. He is just talking crap about how pain is good and something about having a relationship with human pain. Allison has this look on her face like what she is hearing is so profound.

Much deep. Very genius.

We then see a quick video clip of a dead-eyed, lank haired India wishing her family a Merry Christmas.

We cut back to Catherine who tells us that India had texted her. Her hair was falling out and she hadn’t had her period in a year. So, India went to the doctor who told her she was compromising her health and that she needed serious psychiatric care. Catherine’s face reveals the pain she is feeling.

We cut to Sarah and Nippy who are heading out to California to see Catherine. She asked them to come out and they want to do what they can to help. Over lunch, Catherine tells them that Keith had planned all along to get India into his bed and Allison Mack helped him do it. Sarah promises Catherine that they will get India out, but Catherine feels doubtful.

Allison meets Keith, 2006

We cut to footage at the gym where Keith has been playing volleyball and Allison is brought in to meet Keith for the first time. They have a seat and Keith asks her why art is important to her. She says that everything about who she is is wrapped up in art. Keith, paying close attention, asks for more detail. On the verge of tears, Allison says that whenever she experiences art–a movie, a painting, whatever–something happens to her “that is so wonderful and exciting. Blissful. Joyful.”

Keith gets down to business. There are methods she can learn where she can create those types of feelings whenever she wants. They have an intensive for that. What’s it called? he asks his dutiful worshipers, literally sitting at his feet. “Civilization and Humanity,” they tell him. What if art is bogus? Keith asks Allison. What if she could create those joyful feelings for herself whenever she wanted to? It’s like a form of self-condemnation to be dependent on art to create joy, Keith tells her. Allison gets very emotional and like a therapist Keith asks, “Why is this emotional for you?”

Honestly, who cares? He is so full of shit, my God. Art is a way we connect to each other as human beings. There is nothing self-condemning about experiencing joy from it. I know the point isn’t really that, it’s that he’s selling her the idea—I can fix you, take one of my intensives!—but he really annoys me.

All choked up, Allison says she is used to that self-condemnation. At this point, she isn’t even talking about joy and art anymore. Probably as an actress, she is used to feeling very emotionally dependent on things beyond her control. It goes with the profession pretty much. I bet Keith intuitively knew how to push those buttons. If it wasn’t this angle he probably could have come up with dozens of others. Allison was fish in a barrel.

She asks him, “Will you give me an EM?” Keith tells her he’s not usually the one to do that. They have an exchange that is sort of gross where Allison is kind of flirting with him a little bit and Keith pretends to blush. It’s too stupid to recap.

We cut to Jane telling us that Allison is the one who introduced her to Keith. She encouraged Jane to find the opportunity to sit and talk with him. We hear a very short recorded conversation between them where they seem to hit it off. We see footage and hear recordings of Keith’s blathering about this or that. Overcoming fear, building character… I can’t really follow it, because it’s bits and pieces taken out of context. Jane tells us that she admired him and wanted to be his friend.

We hear more of the recording from one of their talks. Keith: There is that definition of hell, which I’ve come to love. Jane: Which is? Keith: Oh, I thought you knew. The definition of hell is you, on the day you’re going to die… meeting the you you could have been. Jane: Ohh, that’s a really good one. Me: Ugh, no, it’s not. Keith follows that with: Each moment we fashion that difference. I follow that with yet another eye roll. Doesn’t matter though, Jane felt like she was learning a lot from Keith and the various curriculum she was taking.

Nxivm is the umbrella company/organization of all these other smaller orgs.

Jness

We cut to footage of Nancy in a Jness seminar reading “Our understanding of ourselves as women has been muddled, because our culture and our language has been dominated by the male principle.”

Jane was told about Jness by Rachel. “It was offered solely to women to explore how gender influences our role in society,” she tells us. Jness was about teaching women “what female empowerment looks like outside of a male-dominated world.”

Pam Cafritz, Keith’s first groupie.

We see what looks like a promotional video where a woman by the name of Pam Cafritz tells us a bit more about Jness. Understanding the conflict between men and women… understanding women will need to fight for their point of view… Pam thinks that is new “languaging” for women. Is it, though?

Jness was created using Keith’s ideas (shocker), but Pam was the one who really started the whole group. Jane describes Pam as a “life partner” to Keith. Keith asked Jane to film Pam; she was dying of cancer at that time. Jane also filmed the memorial video of Pam that included the women of Jness in a gathering talking about her. In the footage, Lauren Salzman says that Pam had “100% trust” in Keith and that she knew everything he was doing was good.

Also in the memorial video Keith tells us how he met Pam 30 years ago on a ski slope. She was 26. We hear her say in voice over that she sensed that he was different; he talked of all the things he wanted to do in his life. “Follow me,” he said and Pam said, “Okay.”

I know that Pam was the daughter of wealthy socialites and had a sizable trust fund which is what enabled her to follow Keith around while he worked to make his grandiose dreams a reality. There is more to the story of the various ways Pam enabled Keith, but that is coming up later. But in short, Pam was utterly devoted to Keith and thought he was an exceptional man.

We see footage of Keith addressing a large group as he talks about how as a child he would read about the heroes of history and wish he could do the kind of things they did. But he has recognized that now is such a time “and we’re here. And we are doing it.” He finishes with, “if you believe I have done something good, that’s important, because I always want to earn my authority. Thank you so much.” I only included this bit because I think it’s a good example of how smooth Keith was/is when it comes to his faux humility.

Jane tells us with a bit of awe (a smidge) that Keith was “the leader of a philosophical movement where men and women alike are looking at him with admiration, because he really had changed their lives.” But she tells us, she did not see Keith as a god-type or a guru. Instead, “he felt familiar.”

Keith charmed Jane by telling her that she understood things faster than other people and that he enjoyed that. Jane felt flattered and special. As was intended. We hear a recorded conversation where Keith is rapping to Jane about love concluding that “love is a very demanding morality. You know?” “Yeah” says Jane, sounding like she is in a bit of a daze. Or really impressed with what he said. The whole clip sounds like a Professor seducing a naive student. This is not a putdown of Jane at all. In this case, the Professor had hordes of people who worshipped him. Good leverage for a seduction.

It was after a volleyball game that Keith let Jane know that he wanted a physical relationship with her. But he didn’t sleep with her until she lost a certain amount of weight. They’d have sex in his study on a loft bed. (We see footage of the room which is loaded with books.) Afterwards she’d feel loopy, kind of nauseous and shaky. Keith told her that was because she was really sensitive to his energy. Allison, who knew about their relationship, said he had sex with women to help them overcome their body issues and to help them. Spare me.

Keith let Jane know that he was aware that she was in DOS, he knew she had given a lot of collateral and he told her he was the head of the group. He also told her that Allison was his slave and that “technically” he was Jane’s great Grandmaster. Jane wanted to know if that meant he could command her to do stuff. Keith said yes, but that he wouldn’t.

Keith went on to explain that he created DOS to empower women and mobilize them to apply what they had learned in the outside world. By doing what?? I have questions. Jane was aware that the whole thing could be used to harm women, but she admits to us that she wanted to believe. She wanted to believe that Keith was a well intended, good guy.

We cut back to Catherine Oxenberg’s house and she is saying that she doesn’t know how to get India out of DOS if Keith has this “Sevengali hold over her.” But she still believes there has to be a way, she just doesn’t know what it is. Catherine says what’s so tricky about it is how it’s presented as “human growth, character building, bonding…”

Frank Parlato

Catherine tells Mark in a phone call that she has talked to Frank Parlato. Frank had worked for Keith at one time and it ended badly. Keith went after Frank legally so he set up a website, “The Frank Report”, with the intention of bringing Nxivm down. Partly in revenge I guess, but also because if he managed to bring down Keith, he wouldn’t be harassed through the legal system by Keith. Keith had a lot of money at his disposal (thanks to the Bronfman sisters’ inheritance) to use lawyers and the courts to go after people he didn’t like.

The website kind of served (and still does) as a gossipy/newsy place to get the latest goings-on in the cult. Catherine told him about DOS which he had never heard of. She tells Mark she found him supportive. By telling Frank about DOS, he would write about it on his website and word would get out in the Nxivm community about what was going down.

Sarah decided to share her story with Frank. Because her name would not be used, Sarah felt okay about doing so. The intention was to get people to leave Nxivm and to prevent anymore women joining DOS. Or for those still in, to leave before they were branded. Jane was one of the people who heard about what had been posted on The Frank Report.

Jane was shocked. She had not known anything about branding. She was starting to question what she was involved in. More so when she heard about a member of DOS who was assigned the task of seducing Keith. She freaked out.

Keith called her to see if she was okay and Jane said no, she wasn’t. She felt unsafe and that included feeling unsafe with Keith. She wanted answers from him. Keith blamed some situations on “different masters [having] different approaches with their slaves.” He told her she needed to respect that. Jane did not find that to be a satisfactory answer. She had more questions, but Keith kept flipping it to being an issue of Jane’s wants versus her fears. “He’s such a good salesman” she says “and the longer I talked to him, the more I realized the depth of the deception.”

Jane talked with one woman that she knew was a part of DOS. She told her everything. The woman was horrified by what she was hearing and Jane realized then how traumatized she was by the whole experience. Jane asked her what they should do. “We fucking leave,” the woman said.

Jane was scared about her collateral, but she wanted out. The two woman decided to leave together. Jane went for a walk with India before she left. India told her that despite what everybody was saying she was still happy to be a part of DOS and felt she was benefiting from it.

We cut to watching Jane on the beach (just her back view) while she tells us how hard it was to lose all that she thought was important while she was in DOS, including her friends and sense of community. But that she has learned that the only authority anyone can have over her life is her own. And that it feels good to take that power back.

Back in Malibu. We see a text conversation between India and her mother where India says that Frank is being paid to write slanderous things and the people Catherine is working with are accused criminals. India texts that she will no longer be talking to her mom. Catherine says that the daughter she knows would never condone the types of things that have been going on in DOS. “This organization has taken my child and I will do whatever it takes to get her back,” Catherine vows. End of episode.

The outro song is Son Lux “Lanterns Lit”. I don’t think it fits the mood of the ending, but no big deal.

Next episode, “Class 1 Data” – Catherine and company go to the New York Times to expose Nxivm and hopefully get the attention of the authorities. We also learn the countermeasures Nxivm attempted to repair Keith’s shitty reputation.

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