Seriously, how is it that otherwise intelligent people end up in a position where they not only become brainwashed but they also voluntarily give up their own individual personality, all so that they can belong to something that doesn’t make much sense. Myself, I’ve always been fortunate in that not only am I very confident in my talents and my beliefs but I’ve also never felt the need to have a mentor or any other type of life guide. Fortunately, I value my independence above all else. I’m also lucky enough to have ADD so severe that there’s no way I could actually spend more than 5 minutes listening to a lecture designed to brainwash me. I did go to one self-help seminar in college that seemed to be kind of a cultish but I was so bored that I left about halfway through. (Add to that, I was also annoyed by how much everyone else seemed to be enjoying it.) I’m immune to brainwashing, or at least I would like to think that I am.
Unfortunately, that’s not true for everyone. We tend to think of a cult as being a group of weird people living in a compound but the truth of the matter is that there are cults all around us. Basically, any organization that demands that its members sacrifice their own individual thoughts in order to “serve a greater cause” or please a certain being is a cult. Go on Twitter right now and you’ll undoubtedly be able to find several different cults fighting with each other. Cults appeal to people who, otherwise, feel empty. They provide a home and a group of ready-made friends but, of course, they also demand complete obedience and punish any hint of individuality. There’s no room for dissent. You see that a lot today and it’s a shame. People no longer think for themselves and instead, they believe whatever they’re told to believe. People have lost their damn minds over the past few years, both figuratively and literally. Sadly, it seems that once someone loses the ability to think for themselves, it’s gone forever.
I found myself thinking about this last night and this morning as I watched the latest “ripped from the headlines” Lifetime film, Escape From The NXIVM Cult: A Mother’s Fight To Save Her Daughter. NXIVM, which was founded and controlled by Keith Raniere (played, in a wonderfully creepy performance, by Peter Facinelli), presented itself as being a “personal development company” but, as everyone now knows, all of the self-help seminars and corporate doublespeak was actually a cover for a pyramid scheme that also served as a recruiting tool to supply Raniere with sex slaves. Among those who worked with Raniere was former Smallville actress, Allison Mack (played by Sara Fletcher in the film).
The film focuses on the true story of actress and minor royal Catherine Oxenberg (Andrea Roth), who spent a year helplessly watching as the NXIVM cult brainwashed her daughter, India (Jasper Polish). The film shows how the cult (and, more specifically, Allison Mack) preyed on and manipulated India’s own insecurities and used them to take her away from her family and her friends. In perhaps the film’s most disturbing scene, India returns home on her birthday and spends the majority of her own birthday party trying to recruit people to join NXIVM. It’s disturbing because we all know someone like India, someone who has become so obsessed with politics or religion or fandom that they view every occasion as just being another recruiting opportunity.
The film follows Catherine as she uncovers the truth about NXIVM, which is that it’s essentially a large-scale criminal racket that, because it’s targeted the children of the rich and famous, has also become immune to prosecution. When Keith is informed that Catherine has been publicly denouncing NXIVM and threatening to expose them, Keith smugly just says that they’ll sue her until she’s silent, just “like the others.” All of the sordid details are presented here — from the branding of Keith’s and Allison’s initials on their slaves to NXIVM’s casual and infuriating misogyny to the way that Keith used blackmail to manipulate both his followers and those who he considered to be a threat. But what makes the film ultimately memorable is not just the portrait of how NXIVM operated but also the film’s celebration of Catherine Oxenberg’s refusal to give up when it came to rescuing her daughter.
All in all, it’s a well-done movie and certainly one that has an important message. Be vigilant and beware any organization that claims that the key to happiness is sacrificing your own individual spirit.