Actress Sarah Edmondson, a former member of NXIVM
Actress Sarah Edmondson, a former member of NXIVM © 2020 Home Box Office, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Mark Vicente was immediately smitten on meeting Bonnie Piesse, a musician and actress with a couple of Star Wars films to her credit. After wowing him with a song, she explained she was struggling with anxiety and thinking of giving up music. He begged her to give him five days of her life first, and enrolled her on an introductory course run by the NXIVM organisation (pronounced Nexium). Its ESP — Executive Success Programs — had worked magically to cure him of phobias and hang-ups by a process called “EM”. Who wouldn’t want “executive success” in all areas of their life?

In a later episode, we discover that members of NXIVM were pressured into attracting new members in order to rise through the ranks, but Vicente, director of a 2004 pseudoscientific documentary called What the Bleep Do We Know, genuinely believed he was helping bring about a better world, one recruit at a time. NXIVM was led by Keith Raniere: a judo black belt and concert-level pianist who promoted himself as one of the top three thinkers of the world, though Vicente was initially underwhelmed. “He was like an odd guy . . . this is the dude?” Raniere’s “tech” was designed to “optimise experiences and behaviour”, delivering a clear route — the “Stripe Path” — to self-actualisation, with participants’ progress marked by coloured scarves. Naturally, rising on the path cost money. 

The nine-part series introduces us to NXIVM’s dizzying lexicon: “viscera”, “at cause” and “collateral” all take on esoteric meanings, with “you need to EM that” becoming the stock response to any critique of the organisation. At one point Raniere scoffs at the comparison that the group is “just like Scientology”, but instead of outer space and aliens, Raniere simply hit on a more rational-seeming narrative of mathematics and data, diagrams and flow-charts. 

The sheer length and leisurely pace of Karim Amer and Jehane Noujaim’s nine-part series mirrors the gradual, sticky process of indoctrination. It helps that as well as interviews, there’s tons of original footage and recorded phone conversation; Vicente and Piesse in particular seem to obsessively self-memorialise. Raniere also felt, Messiah-like, that his every pronouncement should be recorded, and enlisted Vicente as his personal documentarist. At Raniere’s side is plausible therapist Nancy Salzman, whose daughter Lauren charges top dollar for an EM. It’s Lauren who tells Vicente's friend Sarah about a secret cell of women within the organisation.

By now, “WTF?” seems the only possible response, but bizarre as the NXIVM project was, the message here is that there’s no immunity to cultish thought and behaviour. Women who found Raniere — a long-haired schlub with a fondness for tiny shorts — “a bit gross” fell just as hard. It’s only a short step to sleep and food deprivation, slave labour and coerced volleyball sessions at 3am.

★★★★★

On Sky Documentaries/Now TV from November 7 at 9pm

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