Ah yes, yet another podcast about cults. But really, this is nothing like your average podcast about cults. Produced by the CBC, UNCOVER: ESCAPING NXIVM is far from just a couple of guys reading from the Wikipedia page about a cult, and it’s not even about some obscure cult from 40 years ago. No, NXIVM is a modern cult, and while it may not have the shock-factor of Heaven’s Gate or Jonestown, anyone familiar with cults and their tactics will be genuinely disturbed by the distinctly 21st century nature of NXIVM. Part multi-level marketing scam, part self-help bullshit, with an ominous sex harem hidden from the public, NXIVM sounds like a cult someone you know might actually join.
For Josh Bloch, the host of UNCOVER, his friend actually did join NXIVM. This is the major thing that sets the first season of UNCOVER apart from all the other cult podcasts I’ve heard, Josh was childhood friends with Sarah Edmondson, the main subject of this series, who suddenly bolted from NXIVM after she realized that she had unwittingly been branded by the leader of the cult, Keith Raniere. Yes you read that right, she got branded with his initials but didn’t realize until after the fact.
Trust me, his initials are in there
This podcast is almost a year old, but I haven’t been able to stop bringing it up in conversation since I heard it. The insidious ways that Keith Raneire used the language of female empowerment to convince a group of women to join a secret sorority, only to then pressure them into becoming his lovers is truly the stuff of nightmares. The way that Bloch tries to empathetically listen to his family friend, while also following his responsibilities to verify her stories is truly fascinating. It’s all rich fodder for podcasting, but what has made it stick with me for months is that NXIVM just seems like the logical conclusion of so much of our post-recession world. If the notorious cults of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s were the result of a spiritual void left behind after the Vietnam war, NXIVM is a cult based around the void left behind from the total collapse of the global financial system. Multi-level marketing scams are rooted in the lack of access to real, sustainable careers, and self-help is often a salve for a failing mental health care industry. NXIVM dealt in a dangerous combination of the two; but it feels as though it was inevitable for an entity like it to arise out of our historical circumstances.
Start from the very beginning of this podcast, take it in episode by episode. If it seems as though they’re favoring one side of the story too much, let it simmer until you hear the whole thing. It’s remarkable how even-handed Bloch is, despite reporting on the life of his friend. Despite the ludicrous subject matter, UNCOVER never feels sensationalistic. It’s a surprisingly even-keeled podcast for extremely uneven times.