Peeling back the layers of secrecy surrounding a cult is a tough endeavor since a cult by design is isolated from the outside world. But it's a challenge journalist Elizabeth Vargas is taking head-on for A&E Investigate's new series debuting May 28, called Cults and Extreme Belief.
The first episode of the show, hosted by Vargas, presents a harrowing look at the headline-grabbing alleged sex cult NXIVM, led by a self-proclaimed "genius" named Keith Raniere. Smallville actress Allison Mack allegedly helped build the group and is accused of helping recruit women who effectively became sex slaves.
Hinging largely on the first-person account of former member Sarah Edmondson, the first episode of Cults and Extreme Belief walks through how attending an event billed as a business-focused self-help seminar can morph over time into a dangerous cult. Edmondson describes giving NXIVM the most damaging information possible about herself in exchange for access to a secret part of the group. In the end, she alleged, it resulted in her going to Mack's house and having Raniere's initials branded on her leg over 45 excruciating minutes.
Vargas, a longtime reporter and anchor for ABC News, chatted with Newsweek about the process of making the show. The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Telling these stories about cults, what did you learn about these sorts of groups that you might not have known going in?
I had done a little bit of coverage of cults when I was at ABC News, so I came into it with some knowledge already about these groups. I think what I didn't realize was just how many of these groups still exist. People sort of have this impression that these kinds of groups were big in the 1960s and 1970s and 1980s, of course the horrific attacks and incidents at Waco and Jonestown. People don’t think these things exist today.
I think the other thing is, there seems to be an impression out there about the kind of person who joins a cult or some sort of extreme group as being gullible and easy to sway. Actually, many of these people are very, very bright and well meaning.
And many of the people we spoke to were born into these groups and were never given the chance to make a choice about whether or not to join. [They] grow up so isolated from real society. And when they do finally break free of the group, they have enormous difficulty trying to adjust to life on the outside.
I found it fascinating, seeing the episode about NXIVM, the way you went over how people get brought into these groups slowly. It’s kind of a slow shift from “I’m learning about myself” to these very extreme actions. How did you go about trying to display that nuanced look at how people get brought into cults?
Well, Sarah Edmondson is an amazing character. And we as an audience get to know her and see that she’s a very beautiful, very smart actress, wife, mother. This was somebody who was doing well in the world—wasn't a disenfranchised outsider deeply resentful of everybody and losing at everything he or she tried. She was working, she was doing well. She just wanted to better.
She is absolutely mortified about what, eventually, she agreed to do. The brand. Joining this group and giving this damaging collateral which is really nothing else but blackmail. And she recruited so many other people. Those were the people she tried to track down and say, “I’ve made a terrible mistake.”
She used the analogy of the frog in the water. You can’t throw a frog into a boiling pot of water. But if you put a frog in a pot of water that’s cold and slowly turn up the heat, the frog won’t jump out, because it won’t notice the difference. And that’s what’s happening. Sarah was in NXIVM for 12 years. And it took 12 years of indoctrination. [They are] slowly cut off from the outside world. They see less and less of their family and friends who aren't part of NXIVM, and pretty soon you’re in something of an echo chamber. Every time there’s some critical thinking that occurs, there’s a whole Greek chorus of people standing around to say, “Don’t be silly. This is just fine.” Or, “The problem is you.… Whatever conclusion that’s worrying you is an incorrect conclusion. Let’s change your thinking.”
That relates to something you asked that I’ve always wondered about these groups. From the outside, it’s very hard to see Keith Raniere’s charisma. But it seems that if people were around him long enough in that world, they started to see a certain charisma. How did you dig in to trying to see what people saw in him?
Well, it’s interesting. One of the other episodes we do about a church, about a descendant of the Moonies. His son has started a church, and I interviewed him. He’s a graduate of the Harvard School of Divinity, very smart. And I can see why maybe his followers would find him charismatic.
I didn't have a chance to meet Keith. Maybe there was some sort of charisma there or force of personality that I don’t see watching him give interviews on video. That’s why I asked Sarah the questions. And other followers that I interviewed. Because I don’t get it.
But these women—there was this thing in NXIVM [Keith] loved to do called "midnight volleyball," where he and all the guys would go out and play volleyball from midnight until 3 a.m. And all these women, according to one of the men playing volleyball, would hover on the sidelines. [They were] waiting for a break in the game to flock over to him to listen him sort of expound on something. And then they would spend weeks saying, “What do you think he meant by this? What do you think he meant by that?” This man had followers, particularly women, who were obsessed with him. When you have people who feel that way, it is possible to take advantage.
Is that what happened with Allison Mack?
Allison Mack is now under house arrest in California, charged with very serious crimes and, according to her own lawyer, negotiating a plea deal. She’s not talking. But clearly this woman, she was one of the rare few who actually had a big career in Hollywood. And gave it all up to move to Albany and follow Keith Raniere. And start, according to a federal indictment, a secret sorority of women that was nothing more than a sex cult. Somewhere along the way, something happened to this woman. Clearly Keith Raniere has some bizarre hold over these women if these allegations in the federal indictment are true and if the stories from Sarah Edmondson are true. It’s extraordinary what he was able to get these women to agree to do. And [it’s] deeply disturbing.
I noticed in the first episode you’re balancing these sensational details—stories that are almost impossible to believe—but also going through the nitty-gritty of how cults work. How do you strike that balance telling these stories?
Our job is to go deep into a story. NXIVM has made a lot of headlines lately and has been covered by a lot of news outlets. We want to go deeper into the story, explain how on earth this happens. Why this happens. What is the appeal that makes promising, pretty, bright young men and women follow somebody and agree to do things that would make anybody on the outside go, “Whoa, whoa, whoa. That’s not right, that’s not normal, that’s not legal.” We wanted to figure out why that happened because otherwise we’re just telling you a sensational story.
A bunch of episodes look deeply at other groups. Did you find a common thread among these groups?
Almost every one of these groups insists on some kind of isolation from the outside world. I think every single one of them insists members cut off contact.
In every single one of these groups, the isolation is extremely dangerous. In that echo chamber, your critical thinking stops. The judgment we all use every day hopefully, to do the right thing, is suspended after a certain point.
I was surprised—NXIVM wasn't one of these groups—but I was surprised how many of these groups have been accused of abusing children either physically or emotionally, psychologically and sexually. There is some sort of power complex that begins to develop in this isolation, where somebody reveres a leader who becomes monarch-like in that group. Godlike in that group. And then that person says, “You beat that child for simply playing with a Barbie doll, or you work that child all hours of the day and night, or—in one group—we show love by having sex, and that includes sex with children.”
It’s amazing how many of these groups end up abusing children.
The stories are difficult to hear but also difficult to tell, because these are secretive groups. What drew you to take on this project?
I find the psychology behind this whole thing fascinating. Why people go in search of greater fulfillment. What makes people say, “My life isn’t enough right now, I need more, let me go find more.” That’s not necessarily a bad thing—in fact it’s often a very wonderful attribute. But how it gets hijacked by these groups and leaders … to instruct them to do things that nobody should be doing.
And I find the phenomenon that [cults] continue to exist even today disturbing. And it’s something we need to shine a light on. People don’t realize that these groups are in their communities.
The story of NXIVM was shocking. I think some of the recruiting was going on in Brooklyn, a few miles from our offices.
Yeah! But it was a different name, only those of us who had been reporting on this group and former members of this group recognized it for what it was. But that’s how they hook you in. And they have a very appealing shtick, according to everybody [who joined], because I don’t know. You can’t just walk into their classes, which is another big red flag. If it was really a legitimate self-help group, why can’t anybody take a class? You can’t—you have to be referred. For example, when I first thought of this, I thought, “Hey, I’m doing a story. Why don’t I take one of their classes and see what it’s all about?” Can’t do it. Have to be invited.
How do you begin the work of getting inside these groups? Is it finding somebody like Sarah, a source you trust?
In each of these groups we were investigating, we found somebody who had left the group and was able and willing to talk from firsthand experience. We then, because we can’t just take somebody at face value, had to investigate and fact-check and make sure they could verify their story was true.
Many of these groups have been on the radar. The Moonies for many decades were derided as a cult. Reverend Moon’s son is now leading this group and arming his members and putting all this stuff online. So it was quite easy to verify what he was doing. And he, unlike any of the other group leaders, agreed to an interview.
Jehovah’s Witnesses were in the news because [the group] incurred millions of dollars in fines instead of turning over a list of accused child molesters in its membership ranks. And it is quite honest and open about the fact that—it has said, “We prefer to deal with these matters ourselves and not turn it over to authorities.”
So a lot of this was finding our character, our ex-member, verifying his or her story, and then doing as much other reporting as we can about that group.
What do you hope viewers will get out of this show?
I think people in general have a perception of a cult or a cultlike group, that it has members who have all been brainwashed because they’re all gullible, and that they’re living someplace else far away. The fact of the matter is they’re living right in our neighborhoods.
Even though they may be working in secret and maybe insisting on isolation, they can still be in busy cities and suburbs. And according to all our former members, these groups do great damage.
Something I’ve learned—with your show and some of the other recent coverage of cults—is that people have this perception that you walk into a cult, and on day one they open a book that lays out, “OK, here are all the crazy things we do, come join!” But often it starts off positive and slowly there are levels, like the frog in water, where eventually you see something’s not right here.
Right. Exactly. They don’t lead off with, "We’re going to cut you off from the family and the life you know now. We’re going to insist you move in with us and have no contact with the outside world. We’re going to maybe insist you buy an assault rifle and bring it to church every Sunday. Maybe we’ll insist you sell all your belongings and give all your money to us. Maybe we’re going to insist your children work long hours in violation of child labor laws."
Nobody would agree to that if they told it on the first day. It doesn't happen like that.
More from Newsweek