As seen in HBO’s docuseries The Vow, alleged cult NXIVM twisted techniques of psychotherapy to abuse and control its members. Perhaps because good therapists would have identified the exploitation of therapeutic approaches, the group banned therapists from joining. Our Senior Therapist Kelly Scott is quoted in a second article in Insider that delves into how therapists may have questioned and interpreted NXIVM’s methods.
In the article, Kelly reiterates that the group “absolutely fetishized vulnerability” and turned it into “highly valued currency,” encouraging group members to expose more and more traumatic experiences in front of others. Kelly appears alongside former NXIVM member Sarah Edmondson who reflects on why she believes NXIVM leader Keith Raniere didn’t allow therapists into the group: “Really, I think it was: Keith knew that if a therapist came, they’d be able to see through it.”
While not in the article, Kelly also had the experience of watching The Vow and immediately, from the perspective as a therapist, recognizing the vulnerability of the participants, as well as the way that was being monetized literally and metaphorically. Since Raniere wasn’t a therapist and didn’t want his methods challenged by anyone, especially someone who was trained in the field he was trying to co-opt, it was self-protection for him to keep therapists away from the organization. It was his way of holding on to his hierarchy and persona as the all-powerful Oz.
Because the group considered Raniere as infallible, you could see the women (and the men) give away their power and agency hand over fist. With the power Raniere amassed, he was able to get people to disarm themselves in really dangerous ways (and any good therapist worth their chair would be able to see through this).
Take, for example, the scene in the final episode in which former member Bonnie recalls her late night walks with Raniere. He would violate her boundaries by asking her to walk with him at 3 A.M., interrupting her sleep. She was aware that this was a test that could be passed or failed. On one walk, Raniere asked Bonnie to run toward a tree and then criticized her for not allowing herself to smash her face into it. He also asked her to drink from a dirty puddle on the street to prove she wasn’t a slave to her fears. In doing so, he was asking her to dismantle her self-protective structures. Not being willing to smash your face into a tree doesn’t mean you’re controlled by your fears; it’s an indicator of sanity.
A smart therapist would recognize this–growth isn’t achieved by destroying our ability to protect ourselves. We need to be able to keep ourselves safe. Though therapy often focuses on maladaptive self-protection and looks to either substitute or adapt these existing defenses, we need our defenses! When our defenses are working adaptively, they keep us out of unhealthy relationships, help us avoid being taken advantage of or treated badly, and make sure we can remain emotionally intact.