Seduced: Inside the NXIVM Cult compellingly explores mechanics of brainwashing and foregrounds survivors' stories

Over the course of four hour-long episodes, the docuseries delves into the trafficking and psychological and physical abuse of women that occurred at NXIVM, not just at the hands of its founder Keith Raniere, but also his most devoted acolytes, like Smallville actress Allison Mack.

Rohini Nair April 06, 2021 19:59:33 IST
Seduced: Inside the NXIVM Cult compellingly explores mechanics of brainwashing and foregrounds survivors' stories

NXIVM member and Smallville actress Allison Mack making a court appearance. Still from Seduced: Inside the NXIVM cult

"Seduced" is both an apt and odd choice of title for the docuseries on American "self-help" cult NXIVM, currently streaming on Lionsgate Play.

Over the course of four hour-long episodes, the docuseries delves into the trafficking and psychological and physical abuse of women that occurred at NXIVM, not just at the hands of its founder Keith Raniere, but also his most devoted acolytes, like Smallville actress Allison Mack. Certainly, members were "seduced" into joining NXIVM by the projected persona of Raniere, as also the promise of becoming better, more successful versions of themselves, but once lured in, they were systematically brainwashed into giving up any control over their own lives.

Specifically, it focuses on the story of India Oxenberg — the daughter of Dallas star Catherine Oxenberg — and her seven-year involvement with NXIVM, that began with attending one of their Executive Success Programmes (ESP) in 2011 and ended when Raniere and Mack were arrested in 2018. During this time, India spent nearly all her time doing unpaid work as a coach for NXIVM or in one of the many round-the-clock extra-curricular activities deemed necessary for members, exhausted her entire inheritance on attending their "educational" programmes, became a slave to Mack (who controlled how many calories she could consume in a day, sent her on "seduction assignments" to Raniere, and even had her branded), and nearly lost all contact with family and friends.

Seduced Inside the NXIVM Cult compellingly explores mechanics of brainwashing and foregrounds survivors stories

NXIVM founder Keith Raniere. Still from Seduced: Inside the NXIVM cult

India is an executive producer on the series, which means not only is she narrating her own story but also reaching out to others who became or were part of it, including her mother Catherine (who went public with her efforts to extricate her daughter from NXIVM's clutches), professionals who helped her come to terms with the experience, other NXIVM members who spoke out. While India and Catherine's accounts and those of other survivors gives the docuseries its narrative flow, the expert voices — which include cult scholars, journalists and the prosecuting attorney who investigated NXIVM and Raniere — provide the context in which these events were unfolding.

More illuminatingly, Raniere (who preferred to be addressed as "Vanguard" by NXIVM-ites) was apparently a man who loved having his every utterance recorded, and there was always a camera crew that followed him around at NXIVM events and even otherwise. So there's a wealth of footage of Raniere hobnobbing with members, Raniere espousing his philosophy on stage or in class, Raniere being paid tribute to by his followers on his birthday, Raniere with the three women who propped him up most: Nancy Salzman, with whom he set up NXIVM; and the Seagram heiresses Sarah and Clare Bronfman who poured hundreds of millions of dollars into buying him credibility (among other things, by arranging photo-ops with the Dalai Lama, suing critics, and currying favour with local authorities). There's also a lot of Raniere with Allison Mack, who quickly rose up the ranks in NXIVM and was among a close-knit group of supporters who procured women for her Vanguard.

Directed by Cecilia Peck, Seduced: Inside the NXIVM Cult is a fairly by-the-numbers docuseries and there are few moments that stand out as being particularly well made. Instead of aesthetic or creative flourishes, it simply foregrounds the survivors and gives them a chance to tell their stories. Its intentions are earnest, and Seduced is informative in the manner in which it lays out the mechanics of a cult: How people are initially drawn into this idea of bettering themselves and the world or by a sense of finding a community, the kinds of individuals that targeted by cult leaders, how control is gradually extended over all areas of a member's life, how they're isolated from their friends and families or any semblance of a life outside the group until the cult is all they have, how they're steadily desensitised to their boundaries being violated time and again, how their thoughts and personalities are made anew.

Seduced Inside the NXIVM Cult compellingly explores mechanics of brainwashing and foregrounds survivors stories

India Oxenberg. Still from Seduced: Inside the NXIVM Cult

What's also interesting is the light in which it presents Raniere and NXIVM: other cult founders may have borrowed their ideas from philosophers, spiritual leaders and texts, but Raniere used a mix of pseudoscience and self-help jargon combined with the hallmarks of pyramid/multi-level marketing schemes that was quite... innovative. He was less innovative when it came to his ends: he was a predator, rapist and pedophile, ravenous for power, prone to mythologising himself, and enabled at every turn by his inner circle.

Raniere was sentenced to 120 years in prison for charges including sex trafficking, while his enablers like Allison Mack, Nancy Salzman, and the Bronfman sisters face anywhere between 20 to 40 years for their roles in NXIVM's crimes. While this may seem as happy an ending as possible given the circumstances, for survivors like India Oxenberg, recovery remains a long and painful road. The scars are both obvious — like the 'KR' burnt into the skin of their pelvis — and hidden. India, for instance, who was only 19 when she joined NXIVM, had to be eased into eating regular meals, into not having her every thought and action pre-approved by her "masters". She must deal with the guilt of nearly bringing two other women to the same fate as hers. But as Seduced shows, she and other survivors are intent on reclaiming their narrative, speaking up for trafficking victims and for legislation that penalises the kind of coercive control they were subjected to at NXIVM. After being told what they were worthless for so long, they're finding out that they do indeed have — and have always had — worth.

Seduced is streaming on Lionsgate Play.

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