Watching HBO’s The Vow, which documents the evolution of self-help lifestyle brand turned secret sex cult NXIVM, it’s hard to look away. America loves a cult narrative, a sinister sub-genre of the cultural monolith that is true crime. The story of Keith Raniere and the ultimate fall of his brain child, NXIVM, fed that fetish, just as Netflix’s Wild, Wild Country had before it. Seeing behind the scenes of what could turn regular people into cultish fiends is addictive. Everyone wants to watch wondering to themselves, “could that ever be me?” One unexpected person in the NIXVM saga who unfortunately has answered a big YES to that question is actress Allison Mack, who was sentenced this week to three years in prison and a $20,000 fine for her role in NXIVM.
Mack most popularly played Chloe Sullivan on the WB’s Smallville, but those familiar with her part at NIXVM will be hard pressed to shake any other association. The Vow detailed Mack as a follower turned absolute devotee of Raniere. NXIVM often targeted people in the entertainment industry in Los Angeles, New York and Canada, promising to zen them out to the perfect state to attain their loftiest career goals. Raniere had ulterior motives in doing so though, wanting more to populate his flock with the beautiful, young women that the entertainment industry is rife with.
From there is where things got downright insidious as he would begin sociopathic manipulation of the women, breaking them down to their most vulnerable and weak states where he might be able to pray upon them. Bonnie Piesse details in The Vow a night when Keith pulled her out of bed in the middle of the night (sleep deprivation was one of his tactics) after sensing that she might be trying to leave NXIVM with her husband, former NXIVM recruiter, Mark Vicente. During the walk they then went on, Raniere tries to convince Piesse that she is weak if she can’t withstand the NXIVM protocols and convinces her to lick a dirty puddle in the road.
It wasn’t just sex Raniere was after though, it was a hierarchy of sex slaves and masters, all women, whom would control one another on his behalf. The masters had to recruit their own slaves, while all answering to someone above them. They made one another ask permission for calories — Raniere was obsessed with making all of the women as thin as possible — and to do anything really at all, even sleep. Masters were to put their slaves through frequent, sporadic tests as well to make them prove their loyalty. Slaves also had to provide incriminating “collateral” to their masters, which was requested in the form of anything from illicit photographs to letters accusing family members of unspeakable things that weren't true. Even the most high up masters had to answer to someone, and ultimately that was Allison Mack—the grand master below Raniere at the top of the sadistic pyramid.
While The Vow depicts Raniere as a megalomaniac psychopath, Mack seems rather normal in the documentary. She’s quiet and follows the rules. She seems eager to please Raniere in some scenes, and is clearly enthralled by the high praise and attention he lumps at her, but you never see whatever it is in her character and moral code that would lead her to run such a terrifying sex trafficking ring with Raniere. Love obviously is one answer — it makes people do crazy things. But Mack was the one convincing women to participate in initiation ceremonies at her home once they became slaves, where they were held down, sodomized and then branded with an eerie emblem of Mack and Raniere’s initials combined. It’s hard to believe in that context that Mack could be manipulated to carry out such evil deeds on women, some as young as teenagers.
While it isn’t clear how or why Mack participated at such an involved and malicious level, what we do know is that she is guilty. In order to get such a lenient sentence Mack cooperated with the government in their case against Raniere. While she didn’t testify, she provided recordings of the aforementioned terrifying initiation ceremonies that helped to sentence Raniere to 120 years in prison. What the two did together is horrifying, and it is a little shocking that in just three years the still relatively young 38-year-old Mack will be out and in a position to potentially do something like this again.
NPR reported, that in a letter to the court, Mack wrote "I am sorry to those of you that I brought into NXIVM. I am sorry I ever exposed you to the nefarious and emotionally abusive schemes of a twisted man. I am sorry that I encouraged you to use your resources to participate in something that was ultimately so ugly." That doesn’t sound like the apology of someone who understands the full scope of their actions to me.
It sounds like she is blaming Raniere for what happened to all of the women she coerced, and lumping herself in a victim as well. I don’t think it’s fair to label her that in any way. She was a sentient, willing participant in the sexual manipulation and mutilation of women, and she deserves to go to prison for a much longer time. It was reported last fall that after leaving NXIVM and the arrest of Raniere, Mack was taking gender studies courses at UC Berkley where she was a vocal member in the Zoom classes and tried to be friendly with other students.
I can’t think of something more dangerous than a person like Mack inserting herself on college campuses. One student told Vice that in a particular class students discussed deep traumas. The student recounted, “She’s taking classes with women who are the age that she used to seek people out to recruit — we were all just unknowingly exposing ourselves to this person.” Unfortunately it doesn’t appear that Mack will be labeled a sex offender and have restricted access to environments like these in the future, as she was only charged for the racketeering NXIVM was led into by Raniere. All I can say is that I hope for Mack it’s a long three years to finally understand the scope of what she participated in.