The Vow: Ep. 3 “At Cause”

At the end of the last episode we learned a little about a secret women’s group that Sarah was a part of.

We open with a recorded phone call between Sarah and Lauren Salzman. We haven’t met Lauren officially yet but we will. Lauren is yakking about the secret women’s group DOS. Secret woman’s organization to better the world. Kind of like a sorority, except more badass. Cannot be thwarted, because the group is underground. “The women who were doing it were experiencing wonderful things about their commitment and they wanted to memorialize it permanently,” Lauren says. Oh, no. Branding was decided to be the means to do so, because some line about “building a principal of self is you choose self above fear.” So I guess they decided to scare themselves by branding each other as a means of celebration? They could have just gone to a bar, gotten hammered and ended the night getting regrettable tattoos like a normal sorority. But, self above fear! Onward.

We will be jumping back and forth in the timeline throughout this episode, so I will try my best to be clear where we are. We cut to hearing a recorded phone call, that is more towards present day, between Sarah and Mark. He is telling her that this secret group is really about having sex with Keith. Sarah is a combination of shocked, but not shocked. We see footage of Keith flirting and hanging on various women.

Sarah is mad at herself for not seeing the truth sooner, but Mark tells her that waking up comes in stages. For himself, he is done with Nxivm and is officially resigning. For Sarah, it’s complicated. She has been running an ESP center in Vancouver and that is the source of her income. Some on the ‘net have accused her of knowing the organization was bad news earlier, but staying in because the money was good. I don’t see how you can draw that conclusion when she leaves shortly after she wakes up. But not before she gets branded for God’s sake.

Nancy’s hairstylist needs an EM. STAT!

We cut to video footage of Nancy Salzman sporting a tragic perm as she tells us about what it means to be “at cause.” Sarah sums it up for us: when you are at cause you accept that everything you feel, you cause. When you are in charge of your emotions, you can choose to feel whatever you want, at anytime.

Sarah worked really hard to climb her way up the stripe path and she was eventually able to earn commissions on her recruits. Keith himself taught Sarah all his tricks to get people to sign up. In footage we can see that Keith really enjoys sales and is good at it. Keith taught them that the tactics were a manipulation, but the good kind of manipulation. I guess good, because what they were getting people to buy was gonna save the worrrrrld! But it sure was sold like any other product. Kind of sleazy and indeed, manipulative.

Sarah definitely got into being a successful salesperson and earning a living. She felt really good about being the number one recruiter for Nxivm. She was really proud of that achievement. But I don’t think, like some people on the internet seem to, that you allow yourself to be branded if you’re thinking solely about your bank account. That doesn’t make sense.

We cut back to the recorded phone call with Mark and Sarah. She is conflicted as to what to do. She tells Mark if she hadn’t trusted him she never would have gotten involved with ESP. I’m not blaming you, she says, but she kind of is. To his credit, Mark says that he knows he fucked up. Which he did, but kind of didn’t, because he thought he was sharing something positive at the time. It’s tricky

Sarah doesn’t know who is trustworthy and who isn’t. She trusts Mark, but she also trusts Lauren and she feels torn between those still in and those that are out. Mark just tells her to record everything.

Lauren Salzman

Lauren is Nancy Salzman’s daughter. Sarah tells us that she and Lauren hit it off right away. They were like family, Sarah says. Lauren was a combination of best friend, therapist and boss. Weird mix, sure, but Lauren was who Sarah trusted the most.

We see footage of Lauren as Sarah tells us she was the most talented EM (Exploration of Meaning) coach in the joint. In the clips the filmmakers show, she seems genuinely likable. She also comes across like she could have been a talented therapist of some kind. If she had followed the above board route, gone to school for it and had been licensed. But instead she ended up working for an organization run by her mom and a sociopath.

We cut to hearing a phone conversation between Sarah and Lauren. Lauren is complaining about the members that have left and the hassles that has caused. One woman left and then told Mark and Bonnie about DOS, Lauren gripes. Then Bonnie and Mark left. Now they have been talking about branding and DOS and saying “defamatory things that will destroy business.”

Sarah kind of struggles to tell Lauren that she is having a lot of doubts about being involved in DOS herself. She is wondering if maybe there is fucked up shit going on that Lauren herself may not be aware of. Lauren is annoyed that only now is Sarah expressing these concerns. Sarah points out that as soon as she says anything negative Lauren wants her to get an EM. “I’m just scared of what I have on the line.” Lauren says. Sounds like you need an EM, Lauren!

Anthony “Nippy” Ames

Sarah met Nippy in Nxivm and I think they joined about the same time. Nippy is American, but they are both actors so they had that in common. He got involved with ESP, because he was struggling during auditions and needed help with that. He and Sarah hooked up at the event known as Vanguard week.

Ugh, Vanguard week. A week long celebration of Keith’s (a.k.a Vanguard) birthday. Held annually at the YMCA resort in the Adirondacks. Sarah tells us it was really like adult summer camp and quite a lot of fun. All sorts of activities during the day, singing and dancing at night. “Support the mission. Build community. Celebrate Keith. Celebrate his birthday” Sarah says. “It’s all for you*, for your birthday,” we hear Lauren say as we watch footage of Keith blowing out candles on many cakes.

*I made The Omen joke in the 1st recap so I won’t repeat myself.

A couple of years after they first hooked up, Nippy and Sarah got married. It was a huge ESPian celebration and Lauren was Sarah’s maid of honor and officiant. Nippy smashed the glass in honor of Sarah’s Jewish heritage while everyone cried “Mazel Tov!” Allison Mack sang.

Sarah wore a white strapless cocktail dress with a feathery skirt and oh, I hate it when women choose to wear cocktail style wedding dresses. This is the one time when it’s appropriate to where a grand white floor length gown. Switch to a shorter dress for the after-party if you must, but please, no feathers! Her hair and make-up were really on point though.

Anyway, Sarah felt incredibly fulfilled during this period in her life. She decided she wanted to open an ESP center in Vancouver. Which she was able to do with Mark Vicente as her business partner. The advantage of that is she and her fellow Canadian ESPians could create that New York community, only in Vancouver. Better than flying across the continent every weekend to go to Albany. We see footage of actresses Nicki Clyne (who?), Kristin Kreuk (snore), Grace Park (seems vaguely familiar) and Allison Mack (ditto). I think Hollywood does a lot of filming in Vancouver which is why there was this intermix of Canadian and American actors coming in from that location. Anyway, the center was a hit.

Some of Sarah’s friends outside of Nxivm would joke asking her how her cult was doing. How’s the cult? But Sarah would say “well, if it’s a cult… it’s a cult of happy successful people so, what’s the problem?”

We cut back to another phone conversation between Sarah and Lauren discussing Sarah’s brand. “What if [Nippy] wants me to get it removed?” Sarah asks. “Can I get it removed?” Lauren, sounding mildly annoyed, says, “It’s a scar so, I don’t know.” Then Lauren gives her this claptrap about how it’s totally okay to have something of her own (a brand? Really, Lauren?) and it wasn’t about Nippy. Besides, Lauren says, Sarah’s self-esteem has been really wrapped up in her husband. “Anything I can do to support you and not feel fearful…” Oh yes, the problem is that Sarah is feeling “fearful”.

Sarah and Nippy had a son (year? I am not sure), and shortly thereafter she was promoted to green sash (senior proctor). It’s a big deal to be level green, because that’s like the highest level a person can go within the organization. Also at this time, Sarah and Nippy were being pressured to move to Albany. Even though Sarah had that whole set up in Vancouver. We cut to footage of Keith joking that Albany was “the Rome of the modern world.” Sarah never wanted to move there, but she didn’t want to “stagnate” in her growth and Nippy wasn’t all that happy living in Vancouver. And, as head of SOP, he felt he needed to be in New York.


Society of Protectors. Basically a men’s group where men learn to be honorable. Or at least Keith’s definition of what it means to be honorable? God, I hope not. Though you know many hours were spent with Keith prattling on about the issue of masculinity and the role of men in society. Nippy, Mark and another guy named Jim were the head of the organization.

Oh, here we go. We cut to footage of Keith yammering about masculinity. The group was supposed to be about men learning how to be good leaders. And good men are needed to be leaders “So we don’t have a presidential election like the last one”, Keith says referring to Trump. Well, you got me there, Keith.

We then hear a recorded therapy session with Nippy, Sarah and Nancy as coach/therapist. I only include it because it’s such a good example of the superficial stereotypical notion Nancy and Keith have on what it means to be a man. The session was in regards to Nippy and Sarah’s struggle over whether to stay in Vancouver or move to New York. After telling Nippy he’s “the alpha”, Nancy says, “maybe you don’t like Vancouver because, on an unconscious level, it’s her thing. …in Vancouver, you’re not the guy, she is.” “…I don’t know people [and] I don’t feel resourceful,” Nippy replies. Whoop, there it is. No need to bring any alpha bullshit into it.

Dominus Obsequious Soroium or DOS

You have to speak Latin to translate that properly I think, because I have heard all sorts of versions of what that is supposed to mean. Master over slave woman, Dominant Over Submissive… Oh, okay, Wiki says it doesn’t mean anything. At least not in Latin. It’s more like an attempt at Latin. If you are interested, here is a link for some info: Wiki

At the end of January of 2017, Lauren came to Vancouver to lead an intensive at Sarah’s ESP center. While she was there, she talked to Sarah about the next step she could take in her progress as a human being. Lauren told her that this was something she could do to move forward on the stripe path. I thought Sarah had progressed to green sash by now, which is about as high as you can go unless you’re Nancy or Keith. So, I am very confused about the sequence of events. It’s fine, though. It doesn’t really take away from the story.

Anyway, this could be the thing that would take Sarah to the next level of success in life. With everything. But, before Lauren could really explain what she was talking about, Sarah had to swear to secrecy and give collateral as back up. Sarah was curious and the word collateral didn’t faze her, because as she tells us, it was part of the Nxivm vernacular.

Cut to footage of Keith twaddling on about how commitment has to be collateralized, because your word isn’t enough. But then he says “your word is your bond.” I’m kind of taking it out of context, but my eyes, they roll.

The collateral needed from Sarah before Lauren would tell her anything had to be intense. The kind of stuff that would be very damaging if it ever was revealed. Lauren recommended Sarah make something up if she didn’t have anything scandalous to share. So she did. She was videotaped saying awful things about her husband and family. Once that was taken care of, Lauren told her about DOS.

It’s like a sorority, but for badasses. It’s like the Freemasons, only for women. A force for good, only secret. A group of women, but like, super disciplined women who live outside of their comfort zone. Cool, said Sarah. But then Lauren added that “it’s a vow of obedience and a lifetime commitment.” Which wasn’t an issue, because Sarah already saw herself as being a part of Nxivm for life anyway. But wait, there’s more. Lauren described it as like a heightened version of the ESP coaching relationship. And it’s called master/slave. It’s pretty much a pyramid scheme of slavery. See pic.

Pyramid of slaves and masters.

Not hard to understand, just stupid. But Sarah had internalized a lot of stupid for years now so, this was not a problem. She did think it was a little weird, but so much is weird in Nxivm. The master/slave thing is like a metaphor; it’s an exercise, Lauren told her. Sarah handed over some more collateral (nude photos) as requested and was in. Lauren was now her master and Sarah was accountable to her “all the time.” This was fine by Sarah, because she liked the daily contact with Lauren. They were usually so busy they would only talk every few months before.

The initiation

Six weeks after joining, Lauren asked Sarah to come to Albany for a secret initiation ceremony. Lauren told her they were all getting a tattoo and it would be based on the four elements. Sky, mountains, river, something else, I forgot.

During the ceremony the “slaves” were blindfolded and driven to a secret location. Sarah cheated and peeped though. She recognized the secret location as Allison Mack’s house. They were taken to a bedroom where it was revealed that instead of getting a tattoo, each woman, one by one, would be held down, naked, while getting branded with a cauterizing pen. While being filmed. The procedure would be performed by Dr. Danielle Roberts a member of Nxivm and an osteopath.

I heard in an online podcast (I think?) that the stench of burning flesh was unbelievable. It took a while too, because there were pauses while Lauren read some ceremonial words or something.

Sarah had not wanted to go through with it, but Lauren was like, you’re green (senior proctor). You have to set an example. Sarah felt like she wanted to run, but at the same time she felt like she was being weak. This group was supposed to be about being strong. A badass. Living outside of your comfort zone! Overcoming fear! Lauren started “EMing” Sarah to help her overcome the panic she was feeling. Sarah says she was able to do it by basically disassociating. She impressed everyone, because she didn’t even react to the pain. That’s how far gone she was mentally.

Once the ceremony was over, Sarah did feel like a badass. It was so scary and so painful that getting to the other side of it felt like an accomplishment. There are a shitload of hormones and chemicals released in the body to handle traumatic events, too. Otherwise, I don’t think Sarah would have experienced such a 180 degree turn in feelings. She literally went home on a high.

Now it was time for Sarah to get some slaves of her own. She got one, but she tells us in present day that she never knew what to do with her. Which is kind of funny in a macabre sort of way. Lauren wanted more collateral, too. Every month as a matter of fact. Like, how about the deed to Sarah’s home? What?! Sarah was getting concerned about where all this stuff was being stored. “You don’t need to know,” Lauren told her. “That’s just your control issues.” This was not what Sarah signed up for. But she was “at cause.” That stupid ESP term for never being a victim. Being in DOS was her own choice, after all. Okay, that’s true, but somehow that translated to never being allowed to have second thoughts or change her mind?

Lauren was really pressuring her to enroll more women into DOS as well. Preferably skinny, pretty girls. Just “recruit, recruit, recruit”. Sarah did not like this and tells us that she was starting to put things together. In part, because she took a good hard look at her brand and realized that it was not the symbols for the elements; it was the initials A. M. (for Allison Mack). And if you looked at the brand from the side, it read K.R., (Keith Raniere).

We cut to a phone call between Sarah and Lauren: “I didn’t make the brand,” Lauren says somewhat defensively. “I have Keith’s initials beside my vagina”, Sarah says, just a wee bit pissed. What’s her husband going to think? Is Keith the one who organized DOS? Sarah has some questions. “It’s not something we discuss, Sarah,” Lauren says in a tone that manages to be both haughty and sheepish.

Lauren admits that Keith knows about the group (he gave permission to use “his tools” she says) and he knows about the branding but he didn’t um… cause it or anything. Sarah asks Lauren to please delete all of her collateral. She kind of pleads rather than demanding it. Lauren says she will. Sarah’s like, I don’t care if Keith wants to have sex or whatever, but I am not down with having sex with him. Lauren laughs at the idea and says in a somewhat mocking tone, “You don’t have to have sex with Keith… and it’s not something I am doing.”

Sarah tells us that in hindsight she realized that she was brought in to DOS not to be part of Keith’s sex ring, but to recruit, because she’s so good at it. Plus, she had the connections to women in the entertainment field who tend to be very attractive.

In a present day phone call with Mark, Sarah says she feels really responsible for bringing so many people into the organization. Mark is like, yup, I relate. Mark is the one that brings up the fact that they both had connections to the entertainment industry filled as it is with pretty women. Though Mark used the word “girls” instead of saying “women” and that pissed off some internet commentators to no end.

Sarah and Mark speculate that lots of women have probably been invited to join DOS, not to mention been hit on by Keith. But, they were probably too scared to say anything. Mark and Sarah are upset thinking about it. Then Sarah says, “Can you please tell Nippy?” There is something kind of funny (as in haha) about the fact that Sarah sends Mark in to tell her husband what has been going down. Mark says he will, but he doesn’t sound too thrilled about it.

We cut to Nippy talking to one of the filmmakers. He tells us that Mark was the one who told him about Sarah getting branded. At first, he didn’t think Keith was a part of it and he blamed Bonnie. I’m not sure why. I mean, Bonnie was the first of their friends to leave, but how was she to blame for Sarah’s involvement with DOS? Nippy was struggling to accept the truth about Keith and was doing some mental gymnastics, I guess. But once he did face the truth? “I’ve been out there peddling this fucking shit for how many years?” Nippy says sounding disgusted. One of the filmmakers asks him how he felt after realizing the truth about Keith. “Pissed and scared,” he says. “But mostly scared. If this isn’t true, what I was doing… Then what’s real?”

We then cut to a recorded confrontation between Nippy and Lauren. Nippy recorded it on the sly with his cell phone, I heard later in an interview. He tells her branding his wife with Keith’s initials “in her fucking crotch” is some fucked up shit. Between that and the collateral it sounds illegal to him. They go back and forth. Lauren says that he’s upset because he doesn’t fully understand the situation. Nippy says that he doesn’t want to understand it. Lauren snots, “I am sorry you feel that way.” Then Nippy gets really pissed and shouts, “I’m sorry you branded my fucking wife!” He softens a bit and says, “You’re my good friend and I love you, but if you can’t see how this is bad…” And what’s sad is, she can’t. He resigns from SOP and says he is OUT.

Cut to a phone call between Lauren and Sarah post confrontation. What did you tell him? Lauren asks. That I had the brand, Sarah says. Lauren insists that Sarah needs to explain what DOS is to Nippy and if she did that, he would understand. Sarah’s like, I don’t have the time for this bullshit. I have to focus on my family. Though she says it in a gentler way, I’m paraphrasing.

Sarah tells her that she just doesn’t feel good about DOS, no matter what Lauren says. She wants to go back to how things were between them before all of this. “Okay,” Lauren snits. Did you delete all my collateral? Sarah asks. Nooo, of course she didn’t. “You made a vow which I view as a sacred vow”, says Lauren, sounding mildly insane. And Sarah “violated” that vow by “disclosing” to Nippy. Sarah starts to sputter because it’s so nonsensical. Like, what was she supposed to do? She has a fucking brand next to her vagina! For the love of God, Lauren, use your head. <—That’s me talking.

Then Lauren goes next level batshit. She tells Sarah that she “understands” if she wants to “choose Nippy” and that is “okay” with her. Naturally she says it in a tone of voice that sounds like a disappointed mom. Lauren continues, “You and I did discuss this before you came in and you promised… to uphold our relationship above your relationship with Nippy.” Sarah gets totally exasperated and tells Lauren that she’s not going to choose her over her husband. The whole thing isn’t actually real. It’s an exercise, a metaphor. She is not Lauren’s actual slave. “Okay,” says Lauren, again in that snitty tone. “I don’t think you have bad intent about this,” Sarah adds, “but this is not what you said it was.”

Then we cut to a shot of a text conversation between Lauren and Sarah. Most of it is blurred out, but we can see that Sarah texted, “Hey Laur, I hear you are telling people I am “unhinged.” DON’T FUCK WITH ME. I WON’T FUCK WITH YOU.” Preach, sister. On the one hand, when I saw that, I was glad Sarah put Lauren in her place. On the other, it’s sad that it got so fucked up between them.

We cut to present day and Sarah is looking at footage of Lauren on a laptop with one of the filmmakers. In the footage, Lauren is saying some pretty wise words (for real) about the nature of friendships. Then Lauren says something about helping people sometimes by saying things that are hard to hear, but how that can be done in a way where the person feels supported, not abused. Sarah looks heartbroken and starts to cry.

We cut back to Nippy and one of the filmmakers asks Nippy if he feels like he failed to protect Sarah. This is kind of a pointed question, since Nippy was once part of that men’s group “Society of Protectors.” He says he doesn’t, because he stood up for her once he knew what was going on. He had trusted Lauren; he had trusted the whole Nxivm thing.

We see some past footage of Nippy and hear recorded conversation where Nippy talks about how much he wants to bring some good into the world. We hear Nancy tell him he is the most principled person she has ever met. “I know,” Nippy replies. It’s kind of funny.

We cut back to present day Nippy and he says bluntly, “I was the jackass.” Which makes me like him. He then says that once you have accepted that you have fucked up, you fix it.

Summer 2017

The date really shows you how fast shit went down. It was the end of January 2017 when Sarah first heard of DOS.

Present day and Sarah goes to the airport to pick up Mark. They go to the Vancouver ESP center and Mark films her (with a cellphone it looks like) while she tells a couple of staffers in a hurried almost frantic voice about the kind of shit that has been going down. She is leaving Nxivm and she advises them to not enroll anyone else into the program. “It is illegal, unethical and immoral,” she says. The staffers say they understand, but one woman looks too stunned to fully process everything she’s hearing. Eh, you can’t really blame her. Sarah grabs some files from the office and the stunned woman looks like she is near tears. No snark, I feel bad for her. [ETA: Turns out this woman remains a Keith loyalist as of 2023.] Sarah tells them about the collateral and says she doesn’t give a shit if everyone sees it.

Back at Sarah and Nippy’s condo, she and Mark talk. Both of them are near tears and Mark feels like everything is his fault, “because all these people came in through us, you know?” Sarah’s like, we brought them in, we’re gonna get them out.

I believe the tears and the guilt they feel and that’s my gut reaction to this. Some on the ‘net don’t agree. It just seems like on the discussion sites that I have read talking about this series, people come down really harshly on Sarah and Mark believing they are more culpable than they are portrayed. It’s not my job to be their internet defenders, but I do want to be honest about how I feel about this or that. They have plenty of supporters too, though. I don’t want to distort what’s out there. Anyway…

Next week: “Building Character ” We meet Catherine Oxenberg whose daughter India was still in DOS at the time of filming. And we meet “Jane Doe” who tells us about her experience being in the secret group.

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