The Vow: Ep. 1 “The Science of Happiness”

We open with Keith Raniere blathering about what ESP can do for you. Imagine someone who has the traits that you wish you had for yourself. Well, with Keith’s magic methodology, you could pretty much become the idealized version of whatever you want to be. Cut to intro.

A gentle sounding song– “Safe with Me” by Soap and Skin– plays as we see lots of clips of shiny happy people doing what shiny happy people do. Laughing, clapping, hugging, dancing etc. as the song plays, “No love can be safe with me. No love can be safe with me.” Well, that sounds ominous.

2017

Ex-Nxivm cult member Mark Vincente is explaining why he put up cameras in his home. He was afraid he would be attacked by ESP. It was never his intent to destroy the organization, he explains. Rather, he saw what was going on and it fucked with his head. “But I never thought it would lead to this,” he says in voice over as we see a courthouse in Brooklyn, New York and headlines on newspapers talking about sex trafficking and so forth. “Why didn’t these women see that he was harming them?” one headline reads. Cult leader Keith Raniere is in court and is asked if he understands the charges against him and he answers that he does.

Sarah Edmonson

We meet ex-cult member Sarah Edmonson who got introduced to Nxivm when she was about 27 or 28. An actress located in Vancouver, Canada, her career wasn’t going how she had hoped it would and she was feeling a bit lost. She had had visions of becoming successful enough to be able to use her celebrity as a platform to have a positive impact on the world in some way. Instead she was living in a basement apartment and doing beer commercials.

Her boyfriend at the time, a filmmaker, had been invited to Spiritual Cinema Circle Festival, a film festival taking place on a cruise. Why a cruise? I have no idea. It was a film festival for new-agey spiritual type films and one of the judges was Mark Vicente. Mark, as it turns out, directed a film called “What the Bleep Do We Know?!”, the top grossing documentary of all time. Never had heard of it myself, but Sarah had and she was excited to find herself seated across from Mark at dinner that first night.

Sarah gushed about his film and coughed a lot (“like a seal” she said in an interview I heard) because she had a bad cold. Oddly, Mark asked her what she had to lose if she no longer had that bad cough? In that moment, Sarah had the insight that she saw sickness as a means to get attention. Her cold was an attempt to get her boyfriend’s attention. She started to experience an ease in symptoms and within 24 hours felt cured of her cold.

She talked with Mark the next day and he told her about Keith Raniere. How he was the smartest man in the world and shit and ran a self-improvement organization called Nxivm. Mark was super casual about the whole thing, but Sarah was intrigued. Feeling like maybe she was getting some direction as to what to do next with her life, she wanted to know more about it.

We cut to footage of Mark Vicente talking to a group of people about ESP and how it helped him overcome a great many difficulties. Mark explains that Nxivm was the umbrella company of ESP. Then we cut to video footage of Keith Raniere, who gives us the spiel about Nxivm being a methodology for human growth and reaching your full potential blah blah blah and then we cut to a video of a woman explaining what ESP is.

“Executive Success Programs is a human potential program” she tells us. It is not just for executives, rather it’s about executing or following through on what we set out to do. Being proactive in our lives.

The 5-day intro to ESP cost thousands of dollars, but Sarah went ahead and made the leap. In another interview I heard with Sarah, she said that she had second thoughts, given the expense, and called to see if she could get her 500$ deposit back. She told the customer service rep that she really couldn’t afford it and that she should be at home in case her agent called about a job. The rep then asked her if she wanted to spend the rest of her life waiting by the phone for her agent to call or did she want to be in control of her own destiny? I think I would have demanded my money back at that point just because I don’t respond well to such hokey attempts at hard sells, but Sarah caved.

Sarah expected a Tony Robbins type set up with a large crowd and plenty of enthusiasm, but instead the intensive was held at a run-down Holiday Inn. The leaders of the group played a video where a woman gave a cheesy introduction, “Hello. I’m Nancy Salzman and welcome to your first “origins” class…” Sarah sat silently judging Nancy’s 80’s style grooming and her badly tweezed eyebrows thinking, “This is bullshit.” She did like that one of the first things the attendees are told is that they will be uncomfortable, because growth happens outside of your comfort zone. Still, as the daughter of therapists, Sarah had doubts that this group had anything to offer that she hadn’t heard before.

Nancy Salzman and her eyebrows

Everyone had to learn about the rituals of the organization on Day 1. How to give a proper handshake according to your rank. What the colored scarves mean that everyone wears. How to bow and say thank you to Keith (“Thank you, Vanguard”) and to Nancy (“Thank you, Prefect”) even though neither of them are in the room. We see footage of a group of people huddled together shouting “We are committed to our success!!”

Sarah thought the whole thing was nuts. She called up Mark Vicente to complain. “What the fuck did you get me into?” But Mark assured her that if she stuck it out, day 3 is when the program gets good. And that is exactly what happened. Day 3 is when Sarah had her first “holy shit” experience. Though she does not say what exactly happened.

We see video of Nancy explaining what the ESP definition of self-esteem is since, according to her, few people truly know what self-esteem means. The ESP definition of high self-esteem is when you are able to see numerous possibilities in any given situation. People suffer from self-limiting beliefs or “disintegrations” as ESP calls them and that prevents them from being all that they can be.

It wasn’t just one self-limiting belief that Sarah unlocked on Day 3, but many. She realized that if she could overcome the doubts and fears she had she could basically write her own character. She could become exactly the kind of person she had always hoped to be. Nancy says that once a person gets rid of all their self-limiting beliefs they will become fully integrated or unified. ESP she explained, was a tool set to help you get there. Sarah was hooked.

Mark Vicente

Mark got hooked into the program through Nancy Salzman, too. The success of his documentary “What the Bleep Do We know!?” had opened up a lot of doors for him in Hollywood. I take it that he was at a bit of a crossroads as to what to do next for his career. Out of the blue he received an email from a woman named Barbra Bouchey (pronounced boo-shay). She wanted to speak with him about an organization run by a man named Keith Raniere. Curious, Mark called her and she asked if she could come to LA and meet with him. Mark agreed and she arrived by private jet, which impressed Mark. Clearly this organization was doing pretty well.

In their meeting, Barbara asked what Mark would like to do next as a filmmaker and he told her that his hope was to make movies that have a positive impact on the world. She told him Nxivm could help him do that. They had the resources, the connections and the money. Mark (who was born in South Africa) tells us in Afrikaans that “it was like his ass had landed in butter.” I say if it sounds too good to be true… Barbara asked him to come to New York to take the ESP 5-day intensive so he could check out what they do. Mark agreed.

Mark met Nancy whom he describes as sharp, energetic and warm. Mark was impressed because everyone he met in the organization was so kind. Nancy told him about something that Keith developed called Rational Inquiry, a measurable scientific technology, designed to help people become their highest selves or some jazz. The point is that Keith claimed that the stuff that happened in ESP sessions was scientific and measurable. Exploration of Meaning, or EM for short, was designed to rid people of their fears. A big step in becoming the highest version of yourself.

They gave Mark a demo. That is, he did an EM with Nancy in front of the group of other attendees. He told Nancy that he had intense anxiety every time he had to go on the LA freeway. From what I have heard, so does every Los Angeleno, but I digress. Nancy explained to him at some point during the EM session that he would disconnect from his surroundings. Indeed, that is what happened. Mark seemed to go into a hypnotic state. When he came out of it, he didn’t really remember what had just happened. But sure enough, next time Mark was on the freeway he felt no anxiety at all. It’s gone for good, Nancy tells him when they meet again.

These breakthroughs make you feel high

Mark was sold on Nxivm, Keith, Nancy and ESP. Mark called the breakthroughs “peak experiences” and that they made you feel high. Sarah said the same, calling it like a “secret potion of understanding.” Both Sarah and Mark enjoyed not just experiencing breakthroughs, but watching other people have them, too. Sarah describes it as so much faster than therapy. Mark wondered if Keith had discovered some map of understanding where a person could finally fully understand him or herself in explainable ways. People would no longer be a mystery to themselves.

We see footage of Keith explaining that his technology was not grounded in mysticism, but was simply a unique set of tools.

Mark was now very eager to hear about Keith. Nancy tells him that Keith is in the Book of World Records for the highest IQ in the world. That he spoke like, 5 different languages by the time he was a toddler. He earned a triple major at RPI (Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute). He created a new system of math. He became a concert level pianist as a child and a black belt in Judo by the time he was eleven. That he changed his own diapers as a baby and read Dostoevsky while was he was potty-training himself as a two year old. He could fly. You know, totally believable stuff that for whatever reason did not make Mark skeptical at all. But ultimately, Nancy tells him, he is a scientist whose science was about helping people. Mark can’t wait to meet him.

Nxivm leader Keith Raniere enters the building.

This is the guy?

Mark was surprised. This is the guy? This the dude? Keith was short with a bouncy walk and odd. But Mark reasoned that you never know where wisdom comes from. They ended up chatting for five hours discussing all sorts of science-y stuff like quantum physics and dark matter. Keith mentioned casually that he developed a new system of math. But he was like, totally chill about that and other accomplishments, says Mark.

Keith asked Mark about himself and Mark told him about how he had always wanted to help people. Mark grew up in apartheid South Africa and witnessed a lot of horrible things. As a result, he felt a deep sense of responsibility to humanity. Keith gently asked him if what he witnessed as a child prevented him from “going hard?” (I think that means pushing himself artistically.) With that, Keith pretty effortlessly wrapped Mark around his finger. “At that point he had me,” he says.

We hear an audio recording of Mark weeping as he tells Keith how special he thinks Keith is. Mark tells us that after that first year, he envisioned himself being a part of Nxivm forever. He is told that the organization will help him with his dream of using media to change the world. Well intentioned, but grandiose as fuck, right?

The Stripe Path

The Stripe Path is the ranking system within the company. A white sash represents a new-comer and means “student.” Keith wears a white sash always because he is a “student of life.” (Kill me.) Yellow sash means “coach.” Orange sash means “proctor.” Green sash means “senior proctor.” Each color requires earning a certain number of stripes before advancing to the next color. You do so by getting people to enroll and take courses (read: spend their money on Nxivm), taking courses yourself (read: spend your money on Nxivm) and getting rid of your disintegrations (more money, more money, more money for Nxivm) Some courses cost as much as 20,000$ to enroll. I take it that nobody thought to ask Keith that if he wanted to help people so much why he didn’t make the courses more affordable? Perhaps some thought about it, but were so hooked they decided to ignore that red flag.

Sarah and Mark were all in now. To Sarah the sashes came to mean her own growth and progress as a person. She loved sharing ESP with people. She found it rewarding. “That’s why”, she says, “ESP became more important to me than acting.” Mark found it really rewarding too. It gave him a deep sense of privilege to be part of a group of people that helped other people.

Bonnie Piesse

Mark met Australian actress and singer Bonnie through friends. She was a fan of his what the bleep documentary, he was a fan of the Star Wars movies she had been in and they developed mutual feelings for each other fast. Bonnie was very frustrated in her career at the time as she was having a lot of trouble with her record company. She wanted to give up music and she was dealing with a lot of fear and anxiety. Mark asked her to take the ESP 5-day intensive and then decide if quitting music was the way to go.

In 2010, she took her first 5-day ESP intensive. She found the probing questions spot on and helpful. Like Mark and Sarah, she was hooked right away by the EM tech (as they call it). Bonnie wanted to become a coach so she too could share “the tech” with other people. She moved to New York to learn the methodology. New York, I will add, was where Keith lived and where Nxivm headquarters was located. Albany, New York to be specific. She got on the Stripe Path and loved working with other people. She found the vibes really good, especially compared to the music industry.

We see footage of Keith babbling about the mission of creating ethical human beings. More footage of Keith babbling about what causes all the problems in the world. You will be shocked to know that the root cause is human beings! This is brand new information! Keith says that their job as members of Nxivm is to be as ethical as possible and to be the change they want to see in the world.

Curing Tourette’s

Mark Elliot was a young man with a severe case of Tourette’s. We see footage of Mark really struggling with the twitches and spasms. After working with Keith and Nancy he was cured of the problem. For real. They also helped a young woman named Isabella. The whole process was filmed and a documentary made called “My Tourette’s” that was released in 2018. That was after the fall of the cult, so the doc died on the vine. Nobody is interested in talking up a film involving a cult leader helping people, but I want to see it because I am curious.

Anyway, the people of Nxivm really hoped that by curing some people of Tourette’s it would give Keith validity in the scientific community. Footage is shown of Keith (playing at) humbly explaining that curing Tourette’s seems like a miracle, but the tech was just a tool and that in some cases when the conventional way doesn’t work maybe the unconventional way of thinking does. Sarah calls it a heightened version of what they all do in ESP.

Famous people! Kinda.

Some famous people started coming in for intensives because Sarah and Mark were both in the entertainment business, more or less, and had reached out to invite people they knew in the acting community. Maybe instead of calling them famous people I should say working actors. Kristin Kreuk, Grace Park, Nicki Clyne, Allison Mack. Mack was on the TV show Smallville and is, I think, the most famous of the lot that came in. Or maybe Kristin was, but she bailed on the program a couple of years after she joined and no one knows why. She refuses to discuss it beyond a few neutral statements. She must be so fucking relieved that she got out before the shit hit the fan. Grace Park got out before the fallout too, but she is less famous than Kristin so nobody cares. Nicki Clyne is still in and is as brain washed as a Manson chick, but I had never heard of Nicki Clyne before this doc so I am kind of like, should I care? Allison Mack is staring down a possible 40 years in the clink and well… that’s all coming up a bit later.

Then there were the Bronfman sisters. The heirs to the multi-billion dollar Seagram’s fortune. They joined in the early 2000’s and basically bankrolled the whole organization. They spent hundreds of millions on Keith. More on that later, too. But Clare Bronfman is still a Keith loyalist and received an 8 year sentence back in October for whatever crime she committed. I can’t recall what it was.

Look at me, Keith! It’s all for you! Clare Bronfman mugshot

Allison Mack

We see footage of Allison Mack talking to a small group of people and telling them about her life pre-Nxivm. Superficially her life looked perfect, she says, but she was in search of meaning. Or something like that. Like many actors, she gives off that desperate-to-be-liked vibe. I’m not judging. I’m just saying.

It’s Sarah who introduced Allison to ESP. She was considered a VIP so there were no cheesy videos in her 5-day intro. Nancy Salzman and her daughter Lauren were there in the flesh to lead the intensive Allison took. She was so immediately hooked, she flew to New York to meet Keith the very next day. She was a real get, I would think. Like Scientology, Nxivm understood the power of celebrity.

Expansion

As the years went by, more sub-groups, or companies as Keith liked to call them, sprouted under the Nxivm umbrella. Different things for different people’s needs as Mark explains it. Jness, a woman’s empowerment group. SOP, a men’s empowerment group. Exo/eso, a group for people who wanted to work on their fitness, lead by Bonnie. The Source, a group to improve public speaking and performance, lead by Allison Mack. More ESP centers were opened all across America, Mexico and other countries. Nxivm became very popular in Mexico among the wealthy elite and is, I think, still thriving there.

Rainbow Cultural Garden was a daycare group for educating children that became a complete fuck up. The goal was to teach children from a very early age a shit ton of different languages. But children cannot absorb a multitude of different languages when they are switched from one to another and another week by week. The end result was that some children that were in that group are now developmentally delayed in language altogether.

For Mark there was a lot going on in the 12 years he was in Nxivm. He and Bonnie decided to get married and Keith wrote their vows. It was all Nxivm people at their wedding except Bonnie’s mom. They were too busy with their various jobs within the company to go on a honeymoon.

We cut to Mark present day who chokes up saying that he feels his life with Bonnie was stolen and he wants to get it back. “Bonnie got there first [wanting to leave]. It took me longer,” Mark says. We end the episode hearing a recorded phone call between Mark and Bonnie. That everything was recorded and/or filmed is explained later. But mainly it was because Keith thought every utterance that came out of his mouth should be recorded for posterity. Because Mark talked to Keith a lot, Keith asked him to record their phone calls which became a habit for Mark. Later, he did it for security reasons as he explained at the opening of the episode.

We hear Bonnie tell Mark that her gut is talking to her and she thinks there are some things within Nxivm that just aren’t right. Mark sounds like he can’t believe what he is hearing when he replies, “Come on, come on, come on…” “Some things are going to crumble,” Bonnie says. End

Outro music is “Dreaming” by Dustbowl Revival.

Next week: Episode 2 “Viscera” It’s been 7 years in Nxivm and Bonnie wants out.

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