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‘The Vow’ Where Is Nancy Salzman Now

'The Vow' Where Is Nancy Salzman Now

NXIVM co-founder Nancy Salzman’s interview concluded in the explosive Nov. 21 finale on “The Vow, Part Two.” After two and a half years of interviewing Salzman, survivors of the NXIVM cult and current believers — and editing all of that material together for the series’ six-episode second season — director Jehane Noujaim sat down for Variety‘s “Doc Dreams” series, presented by National Geographic. In the interview, Noujaim broke down the major revelations from this second installment.

“The Vow” first premiered in 2020 on HBO, exposing the inner-workings of the NXIVM cult through the eyes of surviving couples Mark Vicente and Bonnie Piesse, and Sarah Edmondson and Nippy Ames. It was Edmondson who blew the doors of the secret cult-within-a-cult crafted by co-founder Keith Raniere. Inside this “sorority,” as Raniere liked to describe it, women were forced to give up damaging “collateral” to enter, and once inside they were subjected to a range of atrocities from sexual abuse to branding. The survivors were able to get the attention of the New York Times, which published an investigative story in October 2017 — featuring Edmondson as a whistleblower — that exposed Raniere and the inner workings of NXIVM.

For Part Two, director Noujaim turned her lens to Salzman, who agreed to talk, but with the caveat that her interview wouldn’t be released until after her sentencing (she’s currently serving her 42 month sentence in a West Virginia prison). Over the course of several days and interviews, Noujaim captured Salzman’s grim acceptance (and sometimes dismissal) of her role as Raniere’s enabler.

Why did you shift the focus away from Mark, Nippy, and Sarah, and what story did you want to focus on for Part Two?

Mark, Nippy, Sarah’s story was pretty much over by the time they had brought the case to lawyers and the FBI and the prosecution. They really didn’t even know about much of the discovery that came out later in the trial. We followed their story really to the end of it, which was when Keith got arrested. And then going from that point forward, the story was really about the people who were arrested, about the lawyers and the trial that was going to happen.

The big end reveal of the first part of “The Vow” was that you landed an interview with Nancy Salzman. Why did Nancy agree to do this?

We spoke for a period of time. We spoke with her and her lawyers. When she was deciding, her lawyers were quite firm on the fact that they didn’t want anything to be released until after her sentencing, so that it wouldn’t affect her sentencing in any way, positively or negatively. I thought that was a great idea, actually, because then you’re sitting with somebody who is really just speaking with you about their experience and not worried about whether they’re going to say something that will affect their sentencing. She was allowed to be a lot more open knowing that.

Why did she do it? I think that answer is in the first episode: Here the world has this view of you that you know is not you. Or if it is, how did it come to be? And so, the series answers that question.

She felt like there was a view of her out there that she was a monster, and she felt like there was another story to be told. I agreed that she could take us deep inside this story in a way that nobody had seen before.

In the first episode, Nancy is much more defensive, and defends Keith. As the episodes go on, you reveal a lot more about her past with him and her real feelings about him. What happened from that first episode to the last?

Time — discovery [in the criminal case], where she was reading text messages, letters in his own words, so she knew that to be true. There was a process that she went through, I think, of discovering for herself information that she didn’t know, and reevaluating her experience and her decision-making with a fuller set of facts. I think it was a combination of being away from the community — I mean, she had a lot of contact with her two daughters. But she was away from Keith. She had time to think, process and reevaluate the last 20 years that she had been through.

Nancy says openly, I was making excuses for this person, but I wasn’t fully hurt until he started having sex with my daughter. It’s a heartbreaking scene to watch, but it’s hard for me to understand how those two things coexist. Why would you keep working with him and how would you not assume that your own daughter has been wrapped up in this?

Keith was very skilled at sharing information on a need to know basis. If it wasn’t helpful for Nancy to know certain things, then she didn’t know them. There was a lot of compartmentalization of information and secrecy. It’s hard to believe that Mark Vicente and Bonnie and Sarah and Nippy didn’t know about Daniela being in a room for two years. But, they didn’t! They found out afterwards, because everybody was put on these tracks of improvement, self-improvement, self-improvement, self-improvement. In the curriculum it was, “Never speak negatively about another person. That’s damage to another person if you speak negatively about them.” There was extreme care about not speaking negatively about another person, especially somebody like Keith.

I constantly asked the question, “How’s it possible for all of these breaches to be happening? People not knowing why people are breaching? How is there not more questioning? How is there not more holding Keith to account?” That’s why we show the story of her when she questions Keith, and when Keith comes back to her and says, “Don’t you ever question, because I know many things that you don’t know and you don’t know how I work with people.”

I was shocked by Nancy’s response when the judge said she “enrolled” Lauren into this group. She has a visceral reaction to this. Especially since she had been saying things like this about herself. Unpack that moment for us.

I think she feels terribly guilty about involving Lauren in the organization. I also think that she adores her kids, and I do believe her when she says she would never have enrolled her if she didn’t think that it was something that she felt like she could benefit from. In terms of the judge, I think she felt judged as a mother that she had had put her daughter in this situation purposefully with bad intent. I think that that is what made her very upset. But absolutely she had gone through it in terms of talking about the guilt that she felt about it. She said many of the same things in terms of finding it very difficult to live with the idea that her daughter lost her ability to have a child, because that’s the thing that she most wanted at that time. I think she feels very guilty about that.

And I think she was surprised by the sentencing. She had watched as her daughter had gotten a lenient sentence — or not a lenient sentence, but she hadn’t gone to prison. She herself had gone through this transformation, and thinking about things through the filming of this process and talking with people. If you followed the trial, the judge had a lot of interaction with Lauren and knew exactly where Lauren stood, but had had zero interaction with Nancy, so really didn’t know where Nancy stood in the whole situation. She’d written a letter, but he hadn’t had the same kind of interaction with her on the stand. Neither had the prosecution. A lawyer friend of mine said that they would find it interesting to know the thoughts of the prosecution and the judge after seeing the show. But I would be curious about that as well.

Before we started, we had a very frank conversation where we said, “There’s no point in doing this if you aren’t going to be able to dig deep and be honest about things that are difficult to talk about and things that you’re also not proud of.” She said, “There’s no point in me doing this unless I’m going to really talk about everything.” I think that she does go through a transformation as we’re speaking. I think she’s gone through a further transformation since being in prison. Some of the letters that I have gotten from her about reevaluating and continuing to reevaluate what she went through and what happened, she is putting it in an even darker light than she was when we were speaking.

What does “darker light” mean?

When I say darker place, I mean, when she’s looked back on things, she’s written that, “There were parts of the curriculum that I did not even realize was doing the damage that it was doing.” Where she got to in our story was really understanding what Keith was doing, understanding that she caused damage, understanding that she felt immense guilt for pulling women in, coaching them, having them continue on this path. After she went to prison, she’s continued to look back at everything that happened and looked at her role in it. It was an ecosystem.

When you go through a court case, you have to find the people that you’re going to prosecute. Those people were those five people: Nancy, Lauren, Clare [Bronfman], Kathy [Russell], Allison [Mack]. But there was a much bigger ecosystem of people involved, and it was an ecosystem of abuse and manipulation. It wasn’t one person or two people or three people, it required a whole group of people to have different roles. I think as she goes back, she’s looking at both her role and how this all happened. It’s taking advantage of people’s vulnerabilities when they’re in the most vulnerable state, coming to a place which is supposed to be a safe place.

Why didn’t Lauren want to participate in the documentary?

I think Lauren was seriously traumatized by the events, and I don’t think she was ready. She wanted to get as far away from being associated with NXIVM and this whole story as possible, even though she did feel it was important to shed light on the story and felt like she really could, probably more than anybody else, as she’s been on all sides of this. She wanted to remain very focused on the trial at that time and then she questioned whether she wanted to continue to be associated with NXIVM in a documentary for the rest of her life.

It’s pretty obvious the effect Lauren’s story had on everyone in the courtroom.

Yeah. She wrote me, actually, and she said, “I might be open to doing something, but I would never want to do something just for entertainment value.” She said, “I didn’t understand what it meant to be in an abusive, narcissistic relationship. And if I could do something that would help other people shed light on how this happens, I would be open to doing it.” She wants to do it because she feels like she’s adding to the information or the ability to help people understand what they’re looking at. Because she feels like she never really understood what she was looking at.

Have you also reached out to Allison Mack?

We did reach out to Allison Mack, but we did not get a response from Allison Mack.

There’s chilling piece of footage with Allison Mack and Raniere, when they talk about the branding. He asks her opinion, and then calls her narcissist. Why was that a clip you wanted to showcase, and how many videos and audio clips did you find that were similar to that?

Because watching this whole story, I personally don’t think that any of these women would’ve been involved in what happened without that manipulation and without that targeting of vulnerabilities. I thought that it was very important to show that. The women that are going to jail, I do not believe are evil people within themselves. I don’t think that they would’ve done much of what they’d done without being influenced and without their vulnerabilities being targeted.

I think that it’s such a microcosm of a story that all of us are faced with all the time. Big decisions. You’re constantly asked, “What are you willing to trade?” Especially when it comes to work decisions, sometimes marriage decisions. And that’s what Nancy’s saying at the end. It’s a crazy story, but it’s not such an unusual story in terms of the elements of it and what it means for humanity when you keep trading your values and you keep trading and you keep trading and you keep trading. And then all of a sudden you’re in a situation where you’ve really crossed the line.

This is where it is similar to Mafia, where you’re pushed to make these decisions. I mean, even in our discussion with Keith as to whether he was willing to be filmed, there was a constant negotiation about what the contract was going to be. And when you start speaking with somebody for so long, we spoke with him for a year about being in the project, nine months of speaking with somebody, you’re starting to make compromises where you say, “I wouldn’t have made that compromise six months ago.” But now you’re so deep into this negotiation.

And ultimately we didn’t make the compromises, because we thought it was very important to have a raw interview with him where there was no ability to cut things out. We weren’t willing to make some of the compromises that he was asking us for.

Were you surprised to find out that Nancy had a sexual relationship with Keith?

I wasn’t totally surprised, no. Just because of his history, because of the admiration that she obviously had for him. But I did find it interesting that they had this relationship and then he cut it off. I thought that was interesting in terms of knowing what to use to manipulate somebody and how to play on their weaknesses.

The conversation about Nancy continues to rage online after every episode. A lot of people are very upset with her, “Is she a victim or is she an enabler?” Where do you stand on that?

Look, at any type of abuse, hurt people hurt. And abuse is repeated, and victims become victimizers. I feel like if you come down very hard on people who are victimizers after they have really come forward with what they know and been remorseful about it, then how are we encouraging people to take responsibility for the serious mistakes that they make? We are all human, we all make mistakes. I think one of the biggest problems in our society is that we don’t take enough personal responsibility for our mistakes.

The first part of “The Vow” did talk a little bit about what was happening with sexual abuse and trafficking and grooming, but very vaguely and not as in depth as it does in Part Two. Then another documentary was shortly released after part one that really dives into these accusations and allegations. Why didn’t you dive into that as much in the first season?

Well, we’re vérité filmmakers, so we follow an unfolding story. In Part One, we were following Bonnie, Mark, Sarah, Nippy as they were uncovering what they found out, what they learned. It was interesting, because when we went to trial we had a number of journalists ask us, “How did you not in Part One show all of this crazy sex stuff that was happening?” And Mark, Bonnie, Sarah and Nippy were not involved in any of the sex stuff that was happening, so they didn’t know. We only knew as filmmakers what they knew, what they had heard about. But it was a discovery for them to hear about Dani in the room. They had inklings of things that were happening, but they really didn’t know.

It wasn’t until we got into the trial and the discovery came out and we began to film with the prosecution and the defense and Emily [Saul], the journalist, [that we saw] where there’s two spines of this story of Part Two. There’s the spine of the trial, and there’s the spine of Nancy’s opening up and thinking about her involvement. Our purpose was to go through what was happening in the trial and understand how that happened by going back to Nancy and going back to other people who were at the core of the organization. It wasn’t until Part Two when we really got to what was actually happening behind the scenes that we started to understand much more about the sexual abuse and the grooming that had happened.

You sent the episodes to RAINN for a sensitivity watch, right?

Yes. We worked with two groups. We worked with the Dart Center, and they’re amazing at working with people that have been through trauma — and they’re journalists. How do you maintain journalistic integrity while also working with people that have been severely traumatized? Then we also sent all the episodes to RAINN to have them review them for sensitivity.

Is there a “Vow: Part Three?

I think it’s time for me to get out of NXIVM land. But there’s a fascinating story to be told in Mexico, and if Lauren is open, perhaps we’ll go down that route with her. But other than that, I think that I’m ready to move on.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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Monica has a BA in Journalism and English from the University of Massachusetts and an MS in Journalism and Communications from Quinnipiac University. Monica has worked as a journalist for over 20 years covering all things entertainment. She has covered everything from San Diego Comic-Con, The SAG Awards, Academy Awards, and more. Monica has been published in Variety, Swagger Magazine, Emmy Magazine, CNN, AP, Hidden Remote, and more. For the past 10 years, she has added PR and marketing to her list of talents as the president of Prime Entertainment Publicity, LLC. Monica is ready for anything and is proudly obsessed with pop culture.

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