Something I have long known about myself is that I have the heart of a follower—I am really a prime target for the right cult leader. I find decision making very taxing and deep down would love nothing more than to have someone I trusted implicitly tell me what to wear, what to believe, what percentage of my life savings (currently at $457) to hand over.
So it’s with great interest that I’ve been watching the HBO documentary The Vow, about the now-notorious, alleged sex cult NXIVM, headed by a rather Hobbit-looking guy named Keith. Obviously I am desperate to know what leads a bunch of beautiful women to follow a guy named Keith so that I may avoid the same fate. I already have two incredibly embarrassing tattoos, I really couldn’t pull off getting branded with the initials of a man who ran a multi-level marketing scheme.
What I’ve been struck by most, however, is not how members were encouraged to “work a path” from initiate to teacher, or how each level is assigned its own colored sash, or even how so many people were convinced to move to Albany, New York. No, it’s something so entirely strange and unexpected that it has haunted me from the first episode: It’s the fucking volleyball.
NXIVM’s leader Keith Raniere apparently loves volleyball and all the alleged cult members would regularly bring new recruits to indoor volleyball games played on their compound. Why volleyball? Why did the sex cult play so much volleyball? These questions keep me up at night.
The only answer I’ve been able to muster so far is two-fold: First of all, indoor volleyball is a very disarming sport. It is, and I’m sorry to any fans out there, quite possibly the dorkiest sport an adult could play. Beach volleyball is of course a very sexy thing for very sexy people to do, but indoor volleyball simply reminds you that you are not on a beach watching people in small strips of fabric run in the sand. No, you are watching guys in sweatbands run around a gymnasium that the local Alcoholics Anonymous group has booked in 45 minutes. If my new friend invited me to come play volleyball with her and some people she thought had interesting ideas about the cosmos, I would in no way suspect I was being recruited.
The second part of the answer to “Why volleyball?” has to do with Keith Raniere himself. He is, quite frankly, not a guy anyone would find physically inspiring. It’s hard to imagine anyone thinking he had all of life’s mysteries solved after watching him take a jump shot or run around a soccer field, sweat-soaked and panting. If years of playing volleyball myself as a teen taught me anything, it’s that you don’t need to be that good at volleyball to seem okay at volleyball. Especially when you’re playing with a bunch of women you’ve put on years-long, calorie-restricted diets. Like any good cult leader, Keith Raniere knows how to play to his strengths.
I find myself disappointed with these answers, though; like there should be something more compelling, more mystical about the volleyball. Perhaps one day a nice group of people outside an airport can explain it to me.