The Vow: A Complete Timeline of the NXIVM Cult's Disturbing Activities and Collapse
HBO's true-crime docuseries The Vow takes on the unsavory case of NXIVM, a multilevel marketing company that, on the surface, promoted personal-development classes. While claiming to offer self-help, NXIVM has become associated with a disturbing sex cult and a pyramid scheme in recent years. At the center of NXIVM's chaos is its leader, Keith Raniere, a self-proclaimed genius who, with a cadre of top associates, preyed on women. Not long ago, NXIVM members faced multiple charges of sex trafficking and racketeering. To complement your viewing of the HBO documentary, read ahead for a timeline that gives a detailed look at the events that mark NXIVM's rise and fall.
- 1993: The New York attorney general files a lawsuit against Raniere's business, Consumers' Buyline, accusing it of being a pyramid scheme. A multilevel marketing company, Consumers' Buyline promoted commissions to existing customers for recruiting new ones. When served with the lawsuit, Raniere admitted to no wrongdoing and settled for $40,000. He then started another MLM, National Health Network, which eventually collapsed in 1999.
- 1998: Raniere and psychiatric nurse Nancy Salzman establish NXIVM (pronounced "nexium"), headquartering it in Upstate New York. They started the organization as a self-improvement multilevel marketing company that offered "Executive Success Programs." Roughly 16,000 people enrolled in these personal-development classes and workshops to overcome "psychological and emotional barriers." The community referred to Raniere as the "Vanguard" and Salzman as the "Prefect."
- October 2003: In a Forbes piece on NXIVM, Edgar Bronfman Sr. tells reporters that he believes that NXIVM is a cult. Bronfman's daughters, Sara and Clare, were in the group, and Clare funded it.
- 2009: The "NXIVM Nine" confront Raniere. The group cited concerns about the organization's unethical practices and Raniere's abuse. It included Barbara Bouchey, Raniere's former long-term girlfriend.
- February 2012: Cult experts say that NXIVM is a cult. In a Times Union piece, some pointed out that the terms and rituals in NXIVM were very cult-like. One expert even likened Raniere to David Koresh, claiming the leader directed one of the most extreme cults he had ever studied.
- October 2017: The New York Times posts an exposé about NXIVM. The article revealed how women were branded as part of an initiation process for DOS, an inner "sisterhood" of NXIVM. Former women in the cult spoke on the submission and obedience practices in the cult, consisting of "masters" who would recruit "slaves." At the top of the pyramid was Raniere, who the FBI alleged coerced women into sleeping with him and took advantage of recruits for free labor. Women who did not pay penalties for breaking DOS rules were punished through fasting or other physical means. After the article was published, Raniere fled to Mexico as the Justice Department investigated the group.
- March and April 2018: Raniere and Smallville actress Allison Mack are arrested on multiple charges, including sex trafficking and racketeering. Raniere was found hiding inside a closet in his Mexican villa. Mack was considered to be Raniere's right-hand person in recruitment for DOS.
- May 2018: Mack claims that she started the branding ritual. In an interview with The New York Times, Mack said that she came up with the idea for branding women in the DOS initiation process, comparing it to getting a tattoo. She touted DOS as a sort of women's empowerment sect.
- June 2018: NXIVM suspends its operations. The message on the company site (now defunct) read: "While we are disappointed by the interruption of our operations, we believe it is warranted by the extraordinary circumstances facing the company at this time. We continue to believe in the value and importance of our work and look forward to resuming our efforts when these allegations are resolved."
- July 2018: Authorities arrest four of Raniere's accomplices, who are charged with racketeering conspiracy in connection to NXIVM. Among the arrested were heiress Clare Bronfman, cofounder Nancy Salzman, her daughter Lauren Salzman, and former NXIVM bookkeeper Kathy Russell. They were accused of recruiting and grooming women to have sex with Raniere.
- March 2019: Raniere faces child pornography charges. Prosecutors said that his first "slave" was a 15-year-old girl. They also accused him of possessing child pornography between 2005 and 2018. The same month, Nancy Salzman and her daughter pleaded guilty to their charges.
- April 2019: Mack pleads guilty to racketeering and racketeering conspiracy. The same month, Clare Bronfman pleaded guilty to harboring an undocumented immigrant for NXIVM and to enabling credit card fraud. Russell, too, pleaded guilty to falsifying a visa application for a person associated with NXIVM.
- June 2019: Raniere is found guilty of sex trafficking and forced labor. After a nearly six-week trial, Raniere was convicted of sex trafficking, sex trafficking conspiracy, racketeering, and conspiracy to commit forced labor. He is to be sentenced in October 2020.
- January 2020: NXIVM faces a lawsuit. Plaintiffs (some 80 individuals) alleged that they'd been lured in by false scientific claims before paying thousands of dollars for classes, becoming victims of a pyramid scheme. They also cited the emotional and verbal abuse that made them stay in NXIVM. While the company promised members could have careers within it, very few top members made money. The rest were pressured into recruiting students while spending their savings on personal-development classes.