There was a moment a few years ago when I couldn’t help but cringe a little every time I heard the word story, so wantonly was it being bandied about. This was during the Trump administration, when lots of people still sweetly believed that culture could counter raw political power, that protest art could engender a sense of shame among the shameless, even that satire might have the capacity to save the republic. It was no longer enough for novels or TV shows or musicals to be engaging, transporting, even transcendent. They also had to have a kind of radical, inherently noble energy. Things seemed to come to a head in early 2019, when Apple announced its new streaming service with a spiel so solemn and devout that it was as though Jesus Christ himself had signed on as a creator. (Or as, I suppose, a Creator.) Stories, a fleet of onstage executives said oh-so-earnestly, can “change the world,” connecting us to one another and new ideas.
Here’s the thing: None of this was wrong. But we—and I did my part—presumed that the winning stories of the era would naturally have some kind of moral valence, or at least intentions no more nefarious than making money. In truth, though, that just hasn’t been the case. Stories are everywhere today, and they’re more contagious and virulent and influential than ever. They can indeed connect us, show us new ideas and worlds. One of the dominant storytelling genres of our time is conspiracy, which claims to clarify chaotic reality through a kind of multiplayer shared experience. QAnon is a choose-your-own-adventure tale. “The story of a ‘stolen election,’” the literary theorist Peter Brooks writes in his new book, Seduced by Story: The Use and Abuse of Narrative, “led to the violent invasion of the U.S. Capitol a few months later.” The “good” stories, you could argue, might have succeeded in enhancing our conception of the world. But for a dizzying number of people, the “bad” stories have subsumed reality altogether.
As humans, we crave stories. We instinctively divide the world into heroes and villains; we apply the logic and structure of storytelling to the disorder of life and express frustration when they don’t fit. “We don’t simply arrange random facts into narratives,” Brooks writes. “Our sense of the way stories go together, how life is made meaningful as narrative, presides at our choice of facts as well.” That can mean that, sometimes, the way a story is told can be almost as leading as the elements within it. The HBO series The Vow—which recently returned for a second clutch of episodes about the cult that grew around the convicted con man Keith Raniere—is a primer on how our fundamental desire for narrative can be manipulated. That the series can seem just as susceptible as the alleged villains and victims it’s profiling only makes it more fascinating, and more troubling.
If the first season of The Vow was an attempt to sweep viewers into the experience of apostates fleeing what was apparently a cult, the second is fixated on the manipulative potential of narrative. All cults exploit language. But NXIVM, the Albany-based corporation founded by Raniere and Nancy Salzman in 1998, seems to have been truly adept at weaponizing the human desire to storify our lives. Part multilevel marketing scheme selling quackish personal-development “technology,” part personality cult in which Raniere groomed women to sleep with him and other men to perpetuate his mythology, NXIVM told its followers that reality is fungible, and that we all have the power to change our lives simply by changing the stories we tell about them. Over six new episodes, The Vow reveals how the group’s remaining defenders cling to imprinted versions of its teachings, and how NXIVM’s accusers try to make sense of their own identities after leaving.
Raniere and Salzman seem to have cobbled together their founding modules out of Ayn Rand books (she, like Raniere, fostered a sexualized cult of personality that punished dissent), conversational hypnosis, and narrative therapy, a school of psychotherapy that encourages patients to “rewrite” their identity. Through seminars, NXIVM coaches told people that victimhood was a choice—that anyone could choose not to be hurt by things that had happened to them. In the beginning of the third episode, Salzman explains that people impose their own meaning on certain experiences. This is a particularly ingenious form of gaslighting: If someone’s behavior makes you feel enraged or heartbroken, it’s your fault for feeling that way when you could choose to react with a different emotion.
That The Vow Part Two takes place against the backdrop of Raniere’s criminal trial for offenses that include sex trafficking, racketeering, and fraud (and Salzman’s sentencing for racketeering) is particularly apt—its director, Jehane Noujaim, spends significant time with both Raniere’s lead defense attorney, Marc Agnifilo, and the prosecutor on his case, Moira Penza, witnessing how both parties try to use storytelling toward very different ends. In Seduced by Story, Brooks dedicates a chapter to the role of storytelling in legal proceedings: “In pleadings and arguments and judgments,” he writes, “law makes use of narrative constantly—yet rarely with any recognition that its narrative commitments need analytic attention.” Penza’s job is to gather evidence (often in the form of narrative testimony from witnesses) to convince a jury that Raniere was a manipulative cult leader who sexually, emotionally, and psychologically abused many of his followers, and persuaded them to commit crimes in turn. Agnifilo’s job is to reshape that raw testimony into an entirely different, but equally compelling form.
In its most intriguing moments, The Vow follows the defense lawyer as he tries to figure out which kind of story might save his client. After one woman testifies that Raniere imprisoned her in a bedroom for two years after she expressed interest in another man, Agnifilo is filmed outside the courtroom as he processes what she said. “Certainly, her story … was a very dramatic story of her being locked in a room against her will, and being put upon in all these different ways, and [being] the recipient of attention she didn’t want, and the question is whether that’s the whole story, whether that story’s even valid,” he says. He wonders whether it’s relevant that her father, “who seems to be a very capable, intelligent, successful man, was on board with this.” You can almost hear his mind whirring as he tries to compute the substance of her statement, to spin it into different material.
Telling their own story, no matter how much of a recalibration it is, or how it might clash with others’ versions, seems to be the major preoccupation of virtually everyone interviewed for The Vow Part Two. Speaking about the last group of hard-core Raniere defenders, the former member turned outspoken apostate Anthony “Nippy” Ames says, “They’re just lying, and in order to maintain their narrative, they have to make so many people’s truth, abuse, and stories fiction.” One of those women, the actor Nicki Clyne, talks on camera about the ways in which she feels her personal experiences—including having a sexual relationship with Raniere, and having her body permanently marked while part of a secret women’s group within NXIVM—are being taken out of context. “You could say, ‘This was a cult where women were branded,’ right? And that sounds horrible. And I would never want to be part of that. Or you can say, ‘There was a group of women who, in an act of solidarity, chose to get a brand.’” She shrugs.
Another Raniere supporter who is interviewed engages in an act of creative redirection that’s striking to behold. Being a member of DOS, the “sorority” Clyne was a part of, in which some women were branded and specifically groomed for sex with Raniere, “is not what has brought hardship to my life,” she says. Rather, it was people finding out about her involvement in something investigated as a “sex-trafficking operation,” and judging her accordingly. It’s hard not to wonder if the reason NXIVM recruited so many actors, directors, and creative professionals was because they have a predisposition toward making someone else’s fanciful ideas feel entirely real.
Stories are never neutral. “The vehicles of truth and untruth are the same,” Brooks writes. Being skeptical in the face of a self-interested narrative is key, and this is where The Vow seems to falter. It’s too openhearted, too credulous. In Season 1, Salzman was something of a void—openly discussed but never deeply addressed as a subject. In Season 2, Salzman agreed to substantial interviews with Noujaim, but her version of events is given so much space that it threatens to engulf the last few episodes. Salzman tells us she was “terrified of Keith” and “purposely disempowered” by him. In her words, her desire was simply to make the world better with what she thought was groundbreaking “technology” to empower people in their own lives. Here, the show’s lack of external context means it leaves out crucial information in much the same way as Season 1 did, namely the money that Salzman made during her two decades in NXIVM. (When police raided her house in 2018, they found more than half a million dollars in cash on the premises.)
The Vow also omits victim-impact statements against Salzman from the former NXIVM member Ivy Nevares and others. In a letter to the judge presiding over Salzman’s sentencing, Nevares described Salzman as “not only instrumental, but essential” to the company and to Raniere’s abuses. Nevares also accused Salzman of forcing her to work extremely long hours for little pay because of her immigration status, entrapping her with debts to the company, and punishing her for “an ethical breach” against Raniere when she failed to meet his desired weight for her of 95 pounds. Salzman, Nevares says, “was in it for herself from day one in an unrepentant pursuit of power—she wanted the money, the clout, the prestige, the connections.” Nevares also alleges that Salzman used an intermediary to threaten her against speaking in court. (At her sentencing hearing, Salzman apologized “to everyone I hurt, intentionally and not.” In footage shot immediately after she was sentenced, she sobs while refuting the judge’s assertion that she was to blame for her own daughter being victimized by Raniere.)
Why would The Vow leave so many accusations against Salzman out? Why would it allow Salzman to portray herself on the show predominantly as a carer for her elderly parents, an altruistic and insecure former nurse bruised by her mother’s harsh critiques? I’ve been grappling with these omissions for a few weeks, and with whether the show might have given similarly open-minded treatment to Raniere had he agreed to a sit-down interview. Noujaim doesn’t demand accountability from her subjects, at least on camera; we don’t hear any questions designed to poke holes in their belief systems, or even their version of events. “We’re living in this time of takedowns and one-sided storytelling, and not a lot of discourse,” Noujaim told The Hollywood Reporter in an interview about the show. “People are not listening to each other, and I don’t think that’s helping. So my hope, as a filmmaker and as a human, is to take the time to listen to viewpoints that are very different than my own sometimes. And I think if you disagree with somebody, it becomes very important to try to understand how that perspective formed.”
This attitude is well-intended reasoning. It’s also strikingly naive, because it assumes that everybody is speaking honestly all the time. “Story is powerful,” Brooks writes, “and for that reason it demands a powerful critical response.” Still, it’s easy to see why Salzman was a fascinating enough subject to merit so much unchallenged airtime. Not because of who she is, but because of what she represents: a person who for decades told herself a particular story about NXIVM but is now being confronted with a very different one. “It’s not very interesting to film somebody who is set in their ways,” Noujaim said. It makes for a far more compelling story arc, for sure, to feature someone who may be grappling with repentance and the weight of their sins. It might even be compelling enough that it doesn’t quite matter whether that repentance is sincere or expertly crafted. The final moments of The Vow Part Two are given to Salzman, arguing that what happened to her could have happened to virtually anyone—that, despite everything, “it’s not as strange a story as one might think.”