There is a scene early in “The Vow,” HBO’s documentary series on Nxivm, where an eager recruit meets the group’s mysterious leader for the first time. After being described in near-godlike terms by his acolytes in Albany — who rhapsodize about his supposed world-record I.Q., Judo mastery and concert-level piano skills — Keith Raniere finally emerges at an intimate gathering. He is revealed to be a squat man with a dweebish presentation. In a home video, he stalks artlessly around the room, flipping his feathered, center-parted hair and pecking everyone on the lips. “There was a part of me that was like, This is the dude?” said the recruit, a filmmaker named Mark Vicente, after leaving the organization. “But you never know where wisdom comes from. You know?”
What did so many people see in Keith Raniere, the founder of a professional development and women’s empowerment organization that functioned as cover for a pyramid scheme and skin-branding sex cult? Raniere’s crimes have been documented extensively in newspaper exposés, true-crime podcasts and federal indictments. (In June, he was convicted of sex trafficking, forced labor and possession of child pornography, among other crimes.) But the appeal of “The Vow,” directed by Jehane Noujaim and Karim Amer, lies is how it finally reveals Nxivm’s leader as a fully embodied character fit for the internet age — one with a curious void of magnetism, which only produces its own fascination.
Raniere, like many cult leaders before him, has been described as “charismatic,” but his onscreen presence is perplexingly thin. He talks like the most annoying guy in your freshman philosophy class. Footage of him practicing Judo and playing piano reveal a middle-school proficiency. In scenes of Raniere on the volleyball court, the farcical epicenter of Nxivm social activity, he bounds around in a mousy ponytail, thickly armored kneepads and an exercise headband while followers like the “Smallville” actress Allison Mack angle for his attention from the sidelines. This is a guy who cribbed his cult title, “Vanguard,” from an arcade game.
Former members of Nxivm (pronounced “NEX-ee-um”) seem baffled at how they fell under his spell — and how some women fell so hard that they began identifying as Nxivm “slaves,” adopted starvation diets, submitted sexually to Raniere and branded his initials on their pelvises. And yet, in “The Vow,” he is oddly watchable, like a “Saturday Night Live” recurring character set loose in upstate New York.
The charismatic cult leader is both a sociological phenomenon and a pop-culture archetype, and much of his mystique — for the gawking outsider — comes from how he manages to amass power in spite of his self-evident absurdity. In “Going Clear,” Lawrence Wright describes L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology, as “comically self-important, a parody of himself.” As he worked a crowd, “His eyes rolled, his body language was inappropriate and weird, and his hand flew around meaninglessly in odd directions.” The skeptical public processes the cult leader as a clown.
Raniere’s sincere following was not large, but since he has been exposed, he has been inflated into a looming pop figure, partly because of how readily he conforms to that comedic role. Rainere — much like Ghislaine Maxwell, another bizarrely enigmatic figure accused of sex trafficking — has the sublime appeal of an internet meme, which is how he has been cast since “The Vow” premiered last month. The gulf between Raniere’s serious crimes and his ludicrous persona translates easily to the ambivalent culture of the internet, where the ridiculous generates its own form of influence and even the vilest ideas are circulated under the disarming cover of ironic jokes.
The word “charisma” originated as a purely religious idea, referring to divine powers ascribed to mortal beings. In the 1920s, Max Weber redefined the term to describe leaders who are seen to possess exceptional, even superhuman powers that originate not from God but from human social dynamics. Though “charisma” later came to also mean a pure personal charm, in the context of the charismatic cult it often presents as antisocial, narcissistic and sociopathic. Much of the work of the cult leader is to obscure himself from public view, outsourcing his charisma to his followers. Recent cultural representations of Charles Manson — including Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood” and Emma Cline’s fictionalized novel “The Girls” — sideline the leader himself, instead drawing out the appeal of the lithe young women who orbited him.
Raniere’s endorsers included television stars like Mack, deep-pocketed believers like the Seagram heiresses Sara and Clare Bronfman and affable, normal-seeming guys like Mark Vicente. Many of the women who joined Nxivm’s most alarming circle, the faux women’s empowerment group DOS, did not even know that Raniere was the ringleader behind its network of obedient “slaves.” They were unaware that DOS stood for “dominant over submissive” or that the initials “K.R.” were hidden in the obscure symbol they branded into their skin. They thought the group was built by and for women.
Raniere’s coercive activities were cloaked in the passions of his time. If the Manson Family of the 1960s took the form of a drugged-out hippie commune and the Branch Davidians of the 1990s represented a new religious sect with a libertarian appeal, Nxivm was a professional development company fused with the trappings of tech. Raniere’s lectures had the energy of a TED Talk, his women’s groups adopted the blandly feminist sheen of “Lean In” and his enforcement of extreme diets echoed the Silicon Valley obsession with “biohacking.”
The cult had echoes of Scientology’s pseudoscientific fixations, but razed of all the intergalactic religious business. It is a data-driven cult. Raniere claimed to have developed a “new mathematics” and called his manipulative techniques “the tech.” His network of female slaves was cloaked beneath what he presented as a highly rational and emotionally mature practice of polyamory. When Vicente finally confronted Raniere, relaying some troubling anecdotes about Nxivm’s treatment of women, Raniere responded that he couldn’t work on testimony; he needed “hard data,” he said. When Vicente’s own wife, fellow ex-Nxivm member Bonnie Piesse, first raised alarm bells, Vicente parroted Raniere-speak back to her: “You have bad data going on here,” he said. Raniere’s flat affect only enhanced his worldview, elevating his pseudoscientific, faux-rational ideas over his followers’ own feelings, experiences and needs.
Nxivm was a cult for the age of the corporate internet, mass surveillance and the nerd kings who rule it all. Members seem to have constantly filmed their activities and tape recorded their conversations. Raniere’s command of his subjects was enforced via smartphone, with “slaves” forced to respond to text messages from their “masters” within seconds in order to prove their unflagging attention. Nxivm spawned a web of internet “companies,” including The Knife, a website ostensibly dedicated to rating news reporting for objectivity. And since the cult blew up, it’s been processed through the lens of internet culture. The Manson Family was built atop the old Hollywood lore of Spahn Ranch (where many Westerns were filmed), and Scientology is cast with the explosive drama of the blockbuster, complete with disciples like Tom Cruise and John Travolta. But Nxivm represents the cult as internet spectacle.
Despite the gravity of his crimes, Raniere has been giddily tossed around the internet, his persona milked for absurdist humor. Sunday releases of new episodes of “The Vow” inspire fresh rounds of jokes about Nxivm’s a cappella group, its mundane Albany setting and (above all) its brutally uncool volleyball practice. As the writer Kaitlin Reilly put it: “Imagine seeing Keith Raniere’s volleyball outfit and still being like ……… ‘smartest man alive’……”
Raniere’s exposure in “The Vow” comes on the heels of the memeing of Ghislaine Maxwell, the Jeffrey Epstein pal who is locked up in the same Brooklyn jail as Raniere. Both so conform to the appetites of online conspiracy theorizing that they feel like inventions of paranoid message boards; they come across as somewhat unreal. At a time when the most successful cult leader of the moment exists only as an online mirage — Q, the shadowy pied piper behind QAnon, is a series of anonymous premonitions posted to message boards — real-life charismatic leaders take the form of online products. The Instagram account @celebswithghislaine, which has publicized photos of Maxwell at a costume party with Harvey Weinstein and peeking out from the pews at Chelsea Clinton’s wedding, intuits that Maxwell is such a slippery networker that her image appears as uncanny as Photoshop itself.
And Raniere? Once and a while, Twitter will be spontaneously commandeered by some random self-appointed expert who commands everyone to “buckle up” because “it’s time for some game theory.” These people promise to lead their followers to some revelatory truth bomb, but dozens of tweets later, they have produced only a fog of conventional wisdom, conspiracy theory and self-aggrandizing personal branding. These people attract attention not because they are preternaturally attractive gurus but because they have figured out how to hack the attention economy and are craven enough to exploit people who feel lost. Raniere is the all-caps Twitter thread come to life: absurd, manipulative, totally mesmerizing.