The Vow: Ep. 2 “Viscera”

We open with a phone conversation between Mark and Bonnie who is now on her way out the door of Nxivm. Problem is, her husband Mark is still very much under the spell of Keith. Bonnie says that she is noticing things that just aren’t right. Mark says she has bad “data” (Nxivm lingo) and there must be some kind of misunderstanding. Bonnie says that she knows that there is no good way to leave because the group goes after their enemies and former members. Which is an example of not just a red flag everyone must have chosen to ignore, but a huge red banner. What a great organization I am in! Okay, sure, it seeks to harass and destroy anyone that leaves or criticizes it, but that is just an example of… Okay, I have no idea how one would rationalize that. Anyway, intro.

It’s a new song. Dream State (Brighter Night) by Son Lux featuring none other than Bonnie Piesse. It’s kind of a creepy and sad song at the same time and fits perfectly. The opening shots work too. Arty and moody pics interspliced with footage of shiny happy people from last episode. Everything has a gloomy tinge to it now.

Here’s the one thing that drove me mad about this documentary: the timeline. It’s hard to know what happened when, so I am going to do my best to roll with it.

Bonnie is talking to the camera and saying that, “Keith head fucked us. The girls that were in that group specifically, in a way I don’t know that everyone got head fucked like that.” Which group? I wonder.

Then we hear in voice over Bonnie talking to Mark on the phone about her issues with Nxivm. Mark is like, well, I talked to Keith about how to support you. Ugh, wrong move, Mark. But it shows how enmeshed he is with Keith that he doesn’t hear how unhelpful that would be. To his wife. Who is clearly not first on his priority list. Bonnie’s like, um, really, no need. She also tells him that she thinks Keith is going to work hard to hold onto Mark. You can hear how defensive Mark is in response to that. He’s a friend, Mark basically says. “I feel a certain sense of responsibility.” I say, what about your wife??

Ew.

When Bonnie first met Keith in 2010 she thought, “Ew. Something’s a bit gross.” Keith kisses everybody on the lips for one, which Bonnie found unpleasant. She decided to overlook that, because she had loved the 5 day ESP intensive she took and well, Keith was the creator of that. So, she decided to ignore her gut reaction to him and focus on the positive things he had done for people and still wanted to do. Keith played the piano for Bonnie and asked her to sing for him. He suggested she join the ESP singing group Simply Human and practice three hours a day.

The singing group is where Bonnie met actress Allison Mack, who was already in the throes of her Keith worship. Allison was very devoted to “the mission.” You know, the mission to save the world through Keith’s tech/tools/programs. We then see a video clip of Allison looking like she has just come from a yoga/meditation retreat saying how much better the world would be if just a small percentage experienced the love that comes from Keith’s programs (I am paraphrasing).

Allison Mack: Nxivm is just another word for Namaste.

Bonnie was just amazed by the EM tech of ESP for real though. It took her 2.5 years to be promoted to orange sash (proctor) which required recruiting people into the program, volunteering to give people EMs, running workshops and taking expensive courses to overcome her “disintegrations.” She was barely getting by financially and was so busy she barely had time to sleep. But Keith kept pushing her and others, promising that if they kept working, soon they would be making great money. The promise being that if they all got to a certain point on “the stripe path” they would start earning commissions and could make their work in Nxivm their career. But instead Bonnie’s workload just increased and she felt more obligated to do volunteer work. She was working from 5am to 2am and Keith was still pushing her to do more.

It was all about being productive, pushing through, becoming comfortable with being uncomfortable, because comfort is the enemy of growth and all that bullshit. Which isn’t bullshit when done in moderation that this clearly wasn’t. It’s for your good and the good of the world!

Bonnie felt suffocated by the pressure. She was burnt out and unhappy. When she looked around nobody else looked happy either. She couldn’t say specifically what was wrong, but it was just a growing feeling she had that things weren’t right. However, and you will be shocked to read this, members were trained to overlook their gut feelings. Feelings were just “visceras” (I have no idea, because “viscera” means internal organs like the intestines, according to google) and that feelings were to be controlled.

We see video of Keith saying, “We want to empower people. Particularly the way our will interfaces with our body, our neurology, our viscera.” Yeah, I have no idea what that word vomit means other than basically it’s a pretentious way to say the goal was to become less emotionally reactive through using Keith’s tech, I guess. Honestly, I don’t know.

Bonnie tells us that they were taught that emotions could be stretched like muscles can be in a yoga class. By expanding their emotions, they could release feelings that were holding them back from growth. We hear then audio of an emotion stretching exercise and it’s creepy. Bonnie found the concept of emotional control empowering, but at the same time, she saw how that could lead to a person being inclined to ignore gut feelings.

Bonnie was starting to fall apart from working so hard and she began having blood sugar crashes. One night she was supposed to perform with Simply Human, but had to bail because she felt unwell. Later she met with Keith who asked her what happened. In recorded conversation, we hear Bonnie explain that she thought she was going to pass out. Keith is like, yeah? So? “When you’re ser-ving hu-man-ity”, Keith says in this choppy affected way, “you’re serving your higher self.” He tells her she’s blowing it and that she’s enslaved to worry, pettiness and materialism. Thanks for the pep talk, asshole!

Bonnie decided she needed to leave at that point and who can blame her? Before she left she had a chit-chat with Allison Mack. Allison was very underweight and Bonnie confronted her about that. Bonnie told her she needed to start eating. Allison said that Keith was monitoring her calories and he said that as long as she had her period she was fine. She showed Bonnie her belly chain that symbolized her complete submission to Keith and the vow that she had made to him. Ooo, gurl. Bonnie says that, at the time, she thought it was weird, but she didn’t see the darkness in it. How about the grossness in it?

You’re tempted, right?

Before she officially packed it in, Bonnie reached out to a former member to talk about Nxivm. The ex-member basically told Bonnie that she was in “a high control group.” That’s just another way of saying, you’re in a cult, dude. Bonnie called Keith and told him that his organization was built on abuse, obligation, guilt and coercion. She could no longer support it and she was out. Keith responded with some bullshit about how Bonnie liked to see herself as a victim.

We see video footage of Nancy Salzman talking about fear. When we’re making decisions based on fear, she tells us, it’s not your psyche controlling your decision making, but your body and the world controlling your psyche. Again, no denying there is truth in that, but within this organization, it’s completely distorted.

Then we see video footage of Keith babbling about joy versus misery. Misery, Keith tells us, is self-pitying.

Once Bonnie left Nxivm she was no longer able to talk to people still in because she was perceived as dishonorable and weak. Bonnie questioned herself. She had a lot of self-doubts about whether or not she had done the right thing. You can imagine given that she had walked away from basically what had been her entire life for seven years.

We hear a recorded message from Sarah Edmonson where she tells Bonnie, somewhat passive aggressively I might add, that she is putting her husband in a tough spot. Though she respects Bonnie’s decision.

Bonnie was sent a form from the legal department of Nxivm. By signing she would be committing to remaining on good terms with the company with no ethical or unresolved issues. They also wanted to have a formal “exit interview” with her. Bonnie refused both.

In a recorded phone call we hear Mark say that he doesn’t think “they” (the Nxivm legal department and Keith presumably) are going to be okay with her refusing. Bonnie basically says, tough shit. She adds that Mark needs to keep in mind that it’s his friends that are pressuring her. We hear more recorded conversation where Bonnie says to Mark that he is going to have to do the Nxivm part of his life without her.

Mark and Keith

We are going back all the way to 2004 to understand the development of Mark and Keith’s friendship. This is what I mean when I say this documentary is not linear. We jump around a lot in the timeline.

Keith asked Mark to come to Albany, New York (from LA where Mark lived) and he agreed. The purpose being they could talk about potential film projects that Mark could do or whatever. Keith lived in a suburb of Albany called Clifton Park and so did lots of Nxivm people or ESPians as they all called themselves. They all were within walking distance of each other so it was like this community hub.

Bizarrely, at night everybody was expected to go to a place called The Sports Barn to play volleyball. Yup, volleyball. Keith would show up around 11:30 pm or so and everyone would play until the early morning. Mark explains that it was because it was a great opportunity to get together, and between matches, everybody would circle around Keith to listen to his pontificating on this or that.

Keith holding court.

In 2005 Mark started a project where he would basically record Keith and the various goings on at Nxivm. This film, Mark believed, would serve as an archive of the man who was going to change the world. More people got involved in filming and writing down Keith’s every utterance so it became this big ass project. Mark, at the request of Keith, started recording his phone calls so he wouldn’t miss anything important.

We see night footage of Keith walking with Mark at like, 3am in the morning, because along with volleyball all night, Keith loved to go for long walks. I mean he liked to walk for hours. And always in the dead of night. He’d call up anybody at 2 or 3am and ask them to go for a walk and they all obeyed like it was a privilege.

In this footage Keith is yammering on about how the world offers no safety net for people and “we” have to be that safety net. I’m not saying this wasn’t a noble idea, but how exactly was this being done? By charging a small fortune to experience Keith’s magical methodology? Regardless of what I think, this moved Mark a great deal. “I yearned to be like him,” Mark says.

Mark and Keith started writing a screenplay together called “Carbon Crimes” and I am not going to get into it, because I don’t think it’s necessary. The overall point is that Mark was doing what he had always wanted to do. Make movies that he believed would impact the world in a positive way. He was like an eager student and “for seven years of my life, I call Keith every. single. day.”

We see a lot of clips of Mark and Keith chatting and it’s clear that they enjoy each other’s company. It’s especially obvious that Mark has put Keith on pedestal higher than the Washington Monument. He feels incredibly flattered that the man with the highest IQ in the world (have mercy) has chosen him to be his buddy. He is besotted.

Mark goes on to explain that he had all of his closest friends, including Sarah Edmonson, within the ESPian community. Basically all his needs were being met in this one group. “For the first time in my life I had the feeling like, I am with me and I love me. Omigod, this is what self-love is. This feeling is the feeling that every human being in the world wants. It’s priceless.” Magic 8-ball says, outlook not so good.

I think the filmmakers do a good job of letting Mark tell us in his own words that the problem with his feelings of self-love are that it all came from external affirmation from Keith Raniere. He felt validated through their friendship because he genuinely believed Keith was this more evolved superior human being who had chosen him to be his closest friend. What an honor! He had this great sense of purpose in his life, because his work was focused on Keith whom he believed was going to change the world. What important work! His romantic partner and closest friends were all in the same organization, too. Keith was running the engine of Mark’s life. That artificial high of self-love couldn’t last. Welcome back to the human struggle, Mark.

We cut more to present day and we hear a phone conversation between Sarah and Mark. Bonnie has left Nxivm, so this would be around 2017. Sarah wants to know what’s going on with Bonnie leaving. Are Mark and Bonnie still together? Mark admits that he has some concerns “about various things [within the organization], but I’m still here.” He doesn’t know what that means about his relationship with Bonnie.

“Questioning him felt like I’d question everything about myself.” But Bonnie was insistent and pushing him to wake up and see what she was seeing. She even gave him cult books to read. Buuuuut, Mark was still talking to Keith all the time and he still had Mark wrapped around his finger.

We hear a recorded conversation between Mark and Keith where Keith does a good job emotionally manipulating Mark by implying that he (Keith) is the one who is the most vulnerable in the friendship. “I don’t know if you realize it, but I sort of took you on… what I am talking about is friendship. It’s a vulnerable risk thing. That’s why I don’t have many- take on many people as friends.” Aw, my heart breaks.

DOS

Mark wants more “data” (proof) of the bad shit in Nxivm. Bonnie, having talked to another ex-member, has the person give Mark a call. During the phone call we hear an unnamed woman’s voice tell Mark about being invited by her ESP coach to join a secret group. It’s only for women. One of the requirements to join is to provide “collateral”. Deeply personal and private info that if revealed, would be very hurtful. In other words, blackmail material. “That’s fucking creepy!” the woman says. She also tells Mark that she asked her coach if the group was started by Keith, but the answer was no. The woman goes on to say that her coach has changed a lot. She’s lost a lot of weight, seems tired… The woman says that she peeped at her coach’s phone and saw that she had texted, “I love you my master” to someone. Mark tells us, “I’m like, what the fuck is going on here? There’s something wrong.” Mark still thought Keith was amazing, but he at least admitted to himself fucked up shit was going on.

Mark called Keith to ask if he knew about this secret group. So many women are becoming underweight and zombie-like, Mark tells him. Keith responds with the most bullshit spiel that I am not even going to type it out, because it’s so absurd. Mark says that he is worried, but he backs off. “There’s no hard data,” Mark says. Keith promises that he will look into it for him.

For Mark it was tough to go against Keith “who has had 12 years working his way into my psyche.” He was torn between trusting Bonnie, who was considered a “suppressive person” by the organization at that point, or Keith.

Mark calls him one more time. Keith tells him that he has investigated what they had talked about last. There is a group of women using his “technology” with his blessing, but other than that, he doesn’t know much about it. Mark says pretty much that he doesn’t believe him. Keith never loses his cool though. He’s too smooth for that. He continues to deny he has anything to do with this secret group. But Mark knows at this point that Keith is lying. And if he is lying about this, what else is he lying about? The damn had cracked, Mark tells us. He told Bonnie that he was leaving Nxivm.

Mark submitted his resignation letter to the executive board, saying he needed to focus more on his film career. Before he left though, he talked to Sarah Edmonson. We hear a recorded phone call between them. After telling her how he is basically cracking up and feeling borderline suicidal, Mark is like, I have some [more] fucked up shit to tell you. There’s a secret group of women that have signed a vow and have given collateral. “They are under strict orders as to how much they can eat… And they are trying to recruit other women to do this. That’s fucked up shit.” He makes a good point when he says that if this was a secret group where people were feeling more fulfilled he’d be totally cool with it. But if they are part of a group where they are coerced by fear then that’s “a whole different level of shit.” Right on, Mark.

Sarah says, “Well, you understand that it wasn’t presented that way. It was presented as something else.” And further, whoever is part of the group can’t speak of it. So now Mark knows Sarah is a member. “Did you give collateral?” he asks her. The recording ends there, because Sarah asked him to turn it off so she could speak freely. Mark tells us that Sarah told him about the group which is called DOS, that she gave damning collateral and she was branded. Mark’s like, they did what!? She texts him a pic of her brand and it is not pretty.

The episode ends with a close up of Sarah’s face smiling/smirking as ominous music plays. While Sarah is a good looking woman, it’s a creepy shot with that music.

Outro music is “Hit Me Where It Hurts” by Caroline Polachek.

Next week: Episode 3 “At Cause” Sarah tells Mark and us more about DOS, we meet her husband Nippy and her best friend Lauren Salzman, The EXSPians, as I have decided to call them, figure out what they must do next.

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