The 9-part series The Vow focuses on the people swept up in the web of abuse by Keith Raniere, Allison Mack and others

By Laura Barcella
August 21, 2020 12:34 PM
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Allison Mack, Keith Raniere

The new docuseries The Vow (premiering Sunday on HBO) explores the intricate web of abuses behind NXIVM — a purported self-help organization that prosecutors said was actually a sex cult operating for more than 20 years in upstate New York.

Focusing partly on Sarah Edmonson, a high-ranking former NXIVM leader based in Vancouver; and Mark Vicente, Edmonson’s ex-business partner, the series takes a deep dive into the inner workings of the multi-level marketing-style organization founded by self-described “visionary” Keith Raniere (known as “Vanguard” to his legions of devoted followers)  in 1998. 

In June 2019, Raniere was found guilty of federal sex trafficking and racketeering charges. His conviction followed the April 2019 guilty plea by his top lieutenant in the group, former Smallville actress Allison Mack, to racketeering conspiracy and racketeering charges.

Keith Raniere

Drawing on recordings, interviews, primary source footage and more, The Vow traces the evolution of the group, showing how Raniere’s “leadership” escalated, over time, into the launch of a frightening secret subgroup called DOS.

It’s DOS that attracted the bulk of the group's public notoriety after former member Edmonson spoke out to the New York Times in October 2017 with accusations of DOS members being forcibly branded with Raniere's initials, turned into sex slaves and more.

Sarah Edmondson
| Credit: George Pimentel/WireImage

Perched at the helm of NXIVM's pyramid-like organization, Raniere allegedly required DOS members to provide “collateral” — such as nude pictures or incriminating, sometimes-faked, emails — as a form of blackmail upon entrance, in the hopes of  preventing the women from leaving the group or revealing “Vanguard’s” secrets.

Albany, NY headquarters of NXIVM
| Credit: Amy Luke/Getty

He also organized DOS members into “master/slave” arrangements in which certain women -- like Mack, who was recruited into NXIVM in 2010 -- would become “masters” of their new recruits, forcing them to do menial tasks and bizarre drills, as well as allegedly pimping them out to Raniere for sex, sometimes against their will.

Allison Mack (Jemal Countess/Getty)

Raniere reportedly required female members to follow strict starvation diets to adhere to the body type he preferred. Authorities have said Mack forced DOS "slaves," including a woman identified as Jane Doe 1, to have sex with Raniere, noting that Mack “groomed DOS slaves for sex with Raniere by requiring [them] to adhere to extremely restrictive diets and not remove their pubic hair (in accordance with Raniere’s sexual preferences) and by requiring them to remain celibate and not to masturbate.”

At the time of Raniere's conviction, CNN reports that US attorney Richard Donoghue said, “Raniere, who portrayed himself as a savant and a genius, was in fact a massive manipulator, a con man, and the crime boss of a cult-like organization involved in sex trafficking, child pornography, extortion, compelled abortions, branding, degradation and humiliation.”

Raniere is currently awaiting sentencing in Brooklyn.

Keith Raniere
| Credit: Patrick Dodson

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Mack pleaded guilty to one count of racketeering and one count of racketeering conspiracy, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District confirmed to PEOPLE. She is also awaiting sentencing.

The Vow premieres on HBO Sunday at 10 p.m.