St. Anthony Messenger

Culture Review: ‘The Vow’ and ‘Truth and Lies’

Television Show of the Year

The Vow (HBO)

When Keith Raniere founded NXIVM (pronounced necks-ee-um) in 1998, his self-professed motivation was to help individuals realize their full potential. On October 27 of this year, Raniere was sentenced to 120 years in prison for sex trafficking and racketeering—just to name a few. HBO’s nine-part series The Vow plunges into this multilevel marketing cult, its mysterious leader, and the survivors who brought the organization to the ground.

The series focuses on three people primarily: Mark Vicente and Sarah Edmondson, NXIVM leaders-turned-whistleblowers, and Dynasty star Catherine Oxenberg, who struggles to free her daughter from the cult. NXIVM expats have charged Raniere, among other leaders in the organization, with facilitating a sex ring—and with good reason.

Deep within the NXIVM structure is a secret society of women called DOS (dominus obsequious sororium). Managed from afar by Raniere, the women in DOS submit to a master-slave dynamic, must provide damaging collateral, and are branded with the leader’s initials on their skin.

The series addresses important questions, such as: Why would anyone sacrifice their personal freedom to achieve personal greatness? The women and men recruited by NXIVM are not naive. They are independent, successful, and formidable. But Raniere seemed to instinctively identify cracks in their foundations. Using his intellect, he gained entry and, ultimately, control.

We’re introduced to survivors, family members, attorneys, and cult experts who guide viewers through the NXIVM maze. But the one to watch for is Edmondson, former executive and member of DOS, who bears both the physical scars of her branding and the emotional scars that cut much deeper. Her descent into the cult was precipitous; her emergence is a study in reclaiming one’s power.

Early in the series, Vicente says something sobering: “Nobody joins a cult,” he says. “They join a good thing.” The Vow shows us that even the strongest can lose themselves to the siren song of a pied piper.

Podcast of the Year

Truth and Lies: Jeffrey Epstein (ABC Audio)

When Jeffrey Epstein died by suicide on August 10, 2019, in a Manhattan jail cell, the financier and prolific sex offender took his secrets with him. But this much we do know: Accusations against Epstein were filed as far back as March 2005 in Palm Beach, Florida. In fact, wherever he traveled, crimes of a sexual nature soon followed. His residences in New York City; Santa Fe, New Mexico; New Albany, Ohio; and the US Virgin Islands became houses of horror for many young women.

The sheer scale of his crimes is unimaginable—but they are researched, documented, and deconstructed with authority by ABC News in Truth and Lies: Jeffrey Epstein. Hosted by Mark Remillard, who is supported by a team of investigative journalists, this 10-episode podcast explores Epstein’s early life in Brooklyn and his mysterious rise to power, as well as his crimes and the network that aided and abetted him.

Truth and Lies introduces listeners to a dizzying number of Epstein survivors who recount their experiences. Among them is Maria Farmer, who was a promising New York artist before her life was upended by Epstein’s “patronage.” Michelle Licata and Courtney Wild came from humble backgrounds and were groomed by Epstein and his network of helpers. Indeed, many of the victims came from broken homes or abject poverty.

The survivors’ testimonies can be draining for listeners to endure, but that pales in comparison to the horrors they faced. These witness testimonies, bubbling over with righteous anger, are part of their healing journey. It’s our duty, those of us on the periphery, to listen.

Epstein’s death left far more questions than answers—and survivors were denied a measure of justice. For some, though, hope remains. Theresa J. Helm, one of many Epstein accusers, had this to say at a New York hearing in 2019: “The last 17 years has been a dark corner in my story. I’m here today because it is time to bring light to that darkness, and it’s time to replace that darkness with light.”

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