The Word of the Year Is “Gaslighting” and HBO’s The Vow Can Help Us Better Understand It
If the dictionary definition won’t do it justice, watching it play out on screen will.Photo Courtesy of HBO TV Features
“Abuse is a made-up human construct,” NXIVM founder Keith Raniere asserts to a room of women. Anyone watching HBO’s docuseries The Vow knows those women are likely victims of his abuse. The video clip is labeled “Government exhibit GX 1003” as part of the evidence for his trial. In it, Raniere disputes age of consent like a thought experiment while his followers sit in a circle around him and hang on his every word.
This, of course, is gaslighting. And there’s a lot of it on The Vow. By coincidence, it’s apparently a term on a lot of people’s minds. Merriam Webster called it the “most searched word of 2022,” defining it in short as “to grossly mislead or deceive someone for one’s own advantage.”
The word comes from the 1938 stage play Gas Light, better known for the 1944 movie adaptation that starred Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer; it took seeing the on-screen portrayal play out for audiences to coin the term “gaslighting” we still use today.
These days, many associate it with red-flag phrases that people sometimes say, like “that never happened,” or “you’re crazy to believe I did that.” But more often, gaslighting is done in the nuanced way The Vow shows—by planting seeds of doubt—until people no longer trust the validity of their own thoughts, feelings, and experiences. It upends their sense of reality and wellbeing. For anyone who is still trying to understand the manipulation and how it plays out in real life, it may help to look beyond the dictionary and watch The Vow.
The docuseries, which recently aired its second and final season, chronicles the disintegration of a cult called NXIVM. For two decades, it promised self-improvement and a more joyful existence to anyone who bought into its costly motivational seminars known as “ESP” (Executive Success Programs). There was a coaching opportunity for those who were particularly enlightened, with sashes and a “stripe path” to rank their success—and skill for referring new members. From the outside, it seemed normal enough for people to join. That is, until word got out that women in a sub-group known as “DOS” were being branded.
Short for “Dominus Obsequious Sororium,” DOS was a secret sisterhood within NXIVM that operated under the guise of women’s empowerment. Really, it was anything but that. It was operated by Keith Raniere, a fact that was kept secret from most of its members. When met with skepticism, he made sure it was covered up and denied. This was Raniere’s ultimate gaslighting tactic, further manipulating his most devoted female followers to partake in a master and slave micro-society, in which he was the “Grandmaster.”
To join this group, which like much of NXIVM sounded pretty honorable from the outside looking in, women had to first prove their loyalty with “collateral.” This involved submitting naked photos or scandalous information about loved ones that could be used against them as blackmail. Once they were in, members had to ask their master’s permission to eat or sleep. In DOS’s organizational chart, each master had several slaves, and each slave had to be on constant standby to respond to daily “readiness” text messages to prove their commitment.
The Vow tells the stories of several women who had been groomed to join DOS. Many were at some point tasked to “seduce Keith,” and coerced into various sexual acts with him. This was a sign that you were moving up in the ranks. So was being branded. But at the top of DOS, some of the highest ranking “masters” who felt they were consenting and in love with Raniere were further gaslit. They received empty promises from him over the years of bearing his children that were held against them—past the age of fertility for many. DOS was the opposite of female empowerment. It took over and stole years of their lives.
How could anyone fall for any of this? Or agree to it? For someone who’s been gaslit, the answers to those questions may be cloudy. Or even inextricable. NXIVM’s followers were primed for the abuse from the beginning, as the programs preyed on their insecurities and desire for self-improvement. Members were taught the importance of being “at cause.” As ex-member Sarah Edmundson put it in the docuseries: “When you’re at cause, everything that you feel, you’ve caused. No one else can make you feel any way. I can change my state.” This is particularly insidious because it teaches people to doubt their negative reactions to things that are done to them, and convince themselves to feel differently. This tracks with another key teaching at NXIVM: that there are no “ultimate” victims. As in, people are only victims if they decide to be. If you’re surrounded by people who believe and enforce that, it’s easy to understand how someone could divorce their intuition and start believing whatever you tell them.
When gaslighting wasn’t actively inflicted on its followers, it was used as a defense to thwart skepticism from the outside. NXIVM had been called out for being a cult long before filming The Vow, but those accusations were denied (and heavily litigated against). If anything, it got used as ammunition for yet another teaching moment, shown to viewers in a video narrated by NXIVM’s co-founder Nancy Salzman: “If you get involved in a group, what is the word that people use to invalidate the group? Cult, right? People use the term cult because they want to devalue a group, but they have no way of doing it except by putting unsubstantiated doubt in the minds of unsuspecting, non-critically thinking people.”
Sometimes seeing evidence—real, undeniable evidence—can be the only way for people to recognize that they’ve been gaslit. The docuseries lifts the veil on Raniere’s deception as told through text messages, audio, and video clips, turning his constant need to be revered and recorded as collateral against him. The second season is especially incriminating, with its access to the evidence and participants of his trial. There are appalling texts like this one sent at the inception of DOS, where he asks for women to be groomed as his slaves, saying: “How many attractive, not socially defective virgins would give their life to someone like me at my age?”
Even the physical evidence—Keith Raniere’s initials branded on women—operated under a layer of deception. Many of the women who had it cauterized above their pelvis didn’t know the truth of what it was: Raniere’s initials turned sideways. Some were told otherwise: that it was a representation of the four elements, or something to do with chakras or greek lettering. That’s why it is powerful to hear the recording of Raniere dictating his plans for its design to the high ranking DOS member, Smallville actress Allison Mack, whose initials were also a part of the brand: “ … the person should ask to be branded. Should say ‘please brand me, it would be an honor.’ Or something like that … And they should probably say that before they are held down so that it doesn’t seem like they’re being coerced.”
What is particularly interesting about The Vow is seeing former NXIVM members come out the fog of what they’ve been made to believe. Everyone who has left it hangs on the question: How did this happen? It’s like waking out of a nightmare. There are women in the docuseries who say they thought they were in love with Raniere and would do anything for him, men who looked up to him as a mentor and friend, couples who had met and built a life and career at NXIVM, only to realize they had bought into an abusive sham. Even Nancy Salzman, who co-founded and ran NXIVM alongside Raniere, begins to come to terms with the abuse. She admits: “Everything is so blurred because we trusted that he was teaching us something that we didn’t know about being ethical and living an ethical life.”
To be free of gaslighting is to see clearly again. As The Vow shows, it doesn’t always mean liking what you see. It’s finally seeing the truth of what you’ve experienced, as you understand it—not as someone else wants you to. In the face of gaslighting, The Vow holds up more than enough truth to lift the smoke and mirrors that allowed coercion, sexual assault, and various manipulations and abuses to happen. Gaslighting doesn’t just exist as a way to manipulate people, it also exists to avoid accountability. To convince victims that they have made up and imagined the harm that was done to them. But when the facts are all there, and people can finally tell their stories, The Vow reminds us how satisfying it can be to watch victims take the power back.
Freddie Moore is a writer and figure skater based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in Electric Literature, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Hazlitt, and Quartz, among other places. You can follow her on twitter @moorefreddie.
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