• Jennifer Barnick

HBO's The Vow—Nobody Joins a Cult

Photo Source: Wikipedia

On August 23, 2020, HBO debuted its series The Vow. The Vow is a docu-series based on the self-help group NXIVM, founded by Keith Raniere. Over time, what began as a pretty standard executive training program grew into an increasingly dangerous and destructive cult. Its founder had posed as a rare genius who had unlocked the secrets to creating a perfect self and living a perfect life and (of course) creating a perfect world but revealed himself to be a sex-obsessed psychopath. The Vow is rated TV-MA. Usually, I'm a little conservative regarding ratings and think many TV-14 things should be TV-MA. However, in this case, I think this series should have been TV-14.

One of the main threads throughout the series is following Catherine Oxenberg's attempt to save her daughter India Oxenberg from the grips of the cult's leader Keith Raniere. Catherine Oxenberg was surprisingly real in this series, and one could easily forget she was a famous actress. She was a desperate mom who was focused on getting her daughter back. We would learn throughout the series that losing a loved one or losing yourself to a cult and the charisma of its leader is dark, and it is extremely difficult to save your loved one or yourself. The reason I believe The Vow should be viewed by kids 14 and older is that I think the most powerful aspect of the series is the exclamation one of the ex-members said in a kitchen while everyone was talking about how creepy Keith Raniere was and how horrible NXIVM was and that they could not imagine joining such an awful thing. The ex-member said, "Nobody joins a cult."

One can make all the judgments they want regarding the members and ex-members of NXIVM as they watch the series; however, it's important to note that the NXIVM crowd was highly educated, idealistic, and talented. It was the very successful that were drawn to take courses on how to improve their performance at work, their level of happiness, and their participation in helping the world. After I watched the series, all I could think about was the line Nobody joins a cult. I genuinely believe that is the most crucial lesson in this series, and kids should learn and talk about it. Nobody tries drugs or cigarettes to become lifetime addicts. Nobody goes on a date with an abusive, controlling partner. However, we all have found ourselves bound into destructive paths only to look back, as we fight to disentangle ourselves, and think, wtf? What was I thinking? Anyone trying to quit a substance or leave a bad relationship or job certainly can understand the line Nobody joins a cult. It would be a good thing to watch this series with your teen and talk about giving away your power and how to sense when you are in a bad situation. It is not enough to say, don't do drugs, don't date a bad person, or don't join weird groups. The truth is most destructive paths look completely okay at first. Usually, the dark power comes so imperceptibly one is already lost when they recognize danger—if they ever can recognize the danger. What's a crucial thing to stress is the idea that nobody joins a cult. They join something cool or interesting or pleasing, and that one must learn how to keep accurate tabs on one's gut. I had a gut feeling was another pivotal line made by an ex-member in the series. The first member to catch on to the darkness of NXIVM knew not so much by overwhelming physical evidence but with a combination of evidence and what she called her gut feelings. Gut feelings became an important narrative spoken by many ex-members as Keith Raniere and other top leaders under NXIVM increasingly began to tell its members that their gut feelings were corrupt, immoral, and not to be trusted. Trust Keith—and not your gut.

According to Wikipedia, HBO has announced they will be doing another season of The Vow. I think that is exciting, as the series leaves you off at the federal capture of Keith Raniere (who had fled to Mexico). Most likely, the second season will cover the court case and (hopefully) more of the ex-members, as they were the most moving and informative aspect of the series. If you think only weirdos or feeble-minded people could find themselves wrapped up in the horrific grips of Keith Raniere and the other leaders of NXIVM, I believe you will see otherwise and learn from them how you can let your power get slowly leeched. The Vow should be on your must-see list—it is as informative as it is gripping.

Jennifer Barnick is a painter and writer. She studied painting at the San Francisco Art Institute. She founded Twenty-two Twenty-eight. “One of the most exciting aspects of Twenty-two Twenty-eight is building a channel for artists and writers to share their work with the world.”

Check out Jennifer’s book. You can read the first short story for free on Amazon here.