The Vow — Gender, Therapy, and Manipulation

I’ve been watching the HBO documentary series “The Vow”, which is about the cult known as NXIVM and the horrible things that happened, all under the oversight of founder Keith Raniere. The series is powerful is how it presents the seductive nature of the cult, appearing first as a program to improve self-efficacy in business, then as an intensive therapy program, then as a way to transcend your human limitations, before you’re so indoctrinated into a certain way of thinking and doing things that horrific beliefs and actions don’t even phase you. I won’t get into too many specifics here, but the most obvious of these atrocities is the branding of women near their genitals.

As someone who struggles with their mental health and has benefitted a lot from therapy, the series is particularly harrowing and visceral for me. The “EMs”, or explorations of meaning, that coaches give to participants as a part of the programs in this cult feel far too similar to my own therapy experiences. Therapy in which I explore my thoughts, emotions, and where they have come from in my life has been incredibly meaningful to be in my life. These EMs use the same tools, but they are twisted in such subtle ways to serve as manipulation. The line is blurred between therapy that has genuinely helped me and the tactics of this cult, and it makes me viscerally uncomfortable.

Within NXIVM, there are groups for men and women, although they are all in the end controlled by Keith. Although they groups purport to be about empowerment and better understanding each other, they are far more sinister than that. One way that this manifests is the aforementioned branding, and a sickening master-slave dynamic, but I won’t address that here. My own experiences led me to being affected extremely strongly by the way that these groups deal with gender, and what it says about gender in society in general.

Gender has always been part of my life that I have been hypersensitive to. From a young age, I always picked up of subtle signals about what was expected of me as a boy, how girls were different, how different people are treated based on their gender, and how social acceptance was contingent upon understanding this code.

Keith Raniere is a sociopath. He manipulates people in his persuasive style, abuses people’s insecurities and frames this manipulation in eloquent ways that makes it seem benign, even beneficial to those who listen to him. Gender is something that he uses to control and manipulate. He is certain open and honest about his feelings on gender, a tactic that makes him seems trustworthy — he is “cutting through the bullshit” that other people “won’t talk about”. In doing so, he lays bare how fucked up and open to exploitation people’s relationship with gender is. How societal assumptions about gender, when laid bare, essentially encourage a culture of abuse, hatred, and violence. How pseudoscientific justifications are used to justify horrible beliefs and actions on the basis of gender. He repeatedly from up the Stanford Prison Experiment to describe gender relations, with men as the guards, and women as the prisoners. Women are oppressed because they believe themselves to be oppressed. He gives a pseudo-Freudian explanation for why men naturally hate women and can not take them seriously.

As a trans person, I have picked up on these little societal cues about gender my whole life, and they have fucked me up so badly. Because if women are weak creatures who control men to gain protection, what the hell does it mean if you feel connected with womanhood or femininity as a “man”? Why don’t you feel this aggressive, protective, emotionally closed-off masculinity that is supposed to be natural to you? You have to try it, or you’ll be hated, ostracized, feel like you are a failure. This all becomes such a barrier to understanding yourself.

It’s so hard to break through and see what was real about gender, and what about gender that society told you is nothing more than the ideology of a cult writ large across all of society. There is no doubt that within this cult, this ideology around gender explicitly serves to prop up a sociopathic but persuasive leader. It serves the same purpose on the scale of society, leaving every person touched by it in its wake hurt, especially those whose relationship with gender is more complex and intersects with other divides in society.

Pseudonymous Canadian under the trans* umbrella. They/them