The cult continues: what does another series on Nxivm add to the story?

<span>Photograph: Starz</span>
Photograph: Starz

Since a front-page New York Times exposé in October 2017 detailed a horrific secret society of coercive sex and human branding under the guise of female “empowerment”, the unraveling of Nxivm – an insular organization that recruited actors, heiresses and the former first family of Mexico – has blazed through an endless trail of sensational headlines.

The Vow, the HBO series on Nxivm and its vindictive leader, Keith Raniere, expanded the blunt accuracy of the headlines – sex cult, human branding, forced starvation, TV’s girl-next-door turned “slave” master Allison Mack – into nine hours of deeply unnerving context on the human capacity for denial and manipulation. Seduced: Inside the Nxivm Cult, a four-part Starz docuseries from Cecilia Peck and Inbal B Lessner which premiered on Sunday, instead uses the one-word distillation of Nxivm– cult – as an anchor, a clarifier rather than signal flare.

Related: 'This is about abuses of power': the shocking true story of the Nxivm cult

The series’ main narrator, India Oxenberg, is the daughter of Hollywood and literal royalty (her mother, Catherine Oxenberg, was a star on the 80s TV show Dynasty and a descendant of British royalty). Her visibility made her a prime target of legitimacy for Raniere, and likely that viewers already know the public version of her story.

By this point, the saga of Nxivm and its “master-slave” subset DOS (which stands for “Dominus Obsequious Sororium”) has seeped through several cultural formats: the podcast Uncover from CBC Radio, a Lifetime movie produced by Catherine Oxenberg, a memoir by former coach turned whistleblower Sarah Edmondson, numerous long-form articles, The Vow. Given all this and a recently announced second season to the hit HBO series, to cover Raniere’s 2019 trial, it seems fair to ask: what can Seduced add?

The answer is, perhaps surprisingly, more insight to the concurrent theme that joining a cult could happen to anyone. Despite its titillating title, Seduced is not simply a more salacious retelling of The Vow’s destabilizing first-person narratives of Nxivm’s insidious allure, gradual sanding of intuition and weaponization of self-doubt. The two are not so much diametrically opposed as curiously complementary; Seduced inverts India Oxenberg’s psychological imprisonment by DOS, Raniere and, in particular, Mack – the black hole driving the subjects of The Vow, including Catherine Oxenberg, into a public and legal campaign against the group – into the narrative backbone of abuses within a cult.

Whereas The Vow couples shocking details of the group’s abuses with extensive, smiling footage of life within Nxivm to humanize the magnetism of a destructive organization, Seduced takes a more clinical approach to why so many overrode all the red flags. Oxenberg’s disbelieving, shellshocked and at times withholding account of her seven years in Nxivm (only two years and 50-plus hours of therapy removed, it’s clear she’s still grappling with something truly unfathomable) is paired with assessments from not one but several cult experts. If you ever had any doubts the group was a cult, or that Raniere wasn’t in any way original, Seduced will quickly dispel them.

Seduced does, like The Vow, take a chronological approach to its subject’s involvement, dissolution and disillusionment with Nxivm, although it classifies each step according to studied practices of small coercive groups – Jonestown, the Branch Davidians, Children of God, etc – throughout history. Isolation, collateral, indoctrination of victim-blaming and blind faith in a single leader are presented both as Oxenberg’s watery memories and as clearly identifiable, established cult practices.

Related: The Vow review – unsettling Nxivm cult series burrows under your skin

Although The Vow’s protagonists, married pairs Sarah Edmondson and Anthony “Nippy” Ames, and Mark Vicente and Bonnie Piesse, appear as characters in Seduced, and both series share Catherine Oxenberg as a main narrator, the Starz series also speaks to several women who occupied lower rungs in the organization, and can thus testify to the daily manipulation of leadership. The series also, in alignment with its unsparing clinical approach to classifying Nxivm as a cult, adds more gruesome and galling details to the already substantial river coursing through The Vow: how one 15-year-old girl, whose family moved to Albany from Mexico to deepen their involvement in Nxivm, was confined to a bedroom for two years. How a medical doctor performed experiments on women as part of the men’s “Society of Protectors”, photographing their facial expressions as they reacted to horrifying images of violence, including dismemberment. How the millionaire Bronfman sisters, heirs to the Seagram’s liquor fortune, paid the Dalai Lama $1m to grace Albany with his presence and sheen of legitimacy.

India Oxenberg in Seduced
India Oxenberg in Seduced. Photograph: Screen Grab/Starz

Oxenberg, now 29, also executive-produced the series, and appears intent on being known for being more than a headline about a sex cult; her interviews with therapists, lawyers and former members, however filtered by the presence of a camera, reveal a reconciliation very much ongoing. Onward, too, goes the appetite for understanding what the hell happened with Nxivm: Seduced concludes with eerie social media footage of Raniere loyalists, still believing, as they dance outside his prison cell; the final minute of The Vow teased potential interviews with Raniere and with co-leader Nancy Salzman, and a new trailer for the second season, to be released in 2021, suggests several new interviews with former Nxivm members.

Certainly for some viewers, the point that joining a cult could happen to you is enough. But Seduced ultimately argues for giving time to one woman’s story, already Google searchable, in her own words, as she reckons with a double-edged truth viewers, on some level, already understand: that one’s capacity for self-delusion, self-improvement, belonging and purpose can be unrecognizably, terrifyingly bottomless – and our fascination can be, too.

  • Seduced: Inside the NXIVM Cult airs on Starz in the US on Sundays with a UK date to be announced