Here’s a story documentarian John Wilson thought he would never tell: When he was in college, he was in an a cappella group that feuded with another a cappella group. After the two groups had an explosive confrontation that bled into an online war of words, Wilson was told he’d be expelled unless he issued a formal apology to the head of the other group. The twist? The rival a cappella group was run by Keith Raniere, the disgraced founder of the sex cult NXIVM.
He finally told the shocking story on Friday night’s episode of How To With John Wilson, his idiosyncratic HBO docuseries. “I feel like I’m just sitting on this bomb,” Wilson told Vanity Fair ahead of the episode’s release. “I’m excited to see how people receive it.”
The theme of the episode is “How to Appreciate Wine” and features the show’s creator (and main character) trying to fit in with a group of seasoned wine lovers. He then dovetails into a story of another time he tried to fit in—back when he was in college at Binghamton University.
The singing group he joined, known as the Binghamton Crosbys, was invited to a summit called A Cappella Innovations in upstate New York, hosted by Raniere and his group, Simply Human. Allison Mack, an actress and key member of NXIVM—which was then not yet publicly known as a cult, but rather as a multilevel marketing company that offered personal-development seminars—was the emcee of the event.
Wilson’s revelation is remarkably bizarre and disturbing, a previously untold story in the broader NXIVM narrative. In the episode, Wilson claims Raniere “lurked around the venue all evening, giving lofty speeches about the transformative power of a cappella,” and later allegedly asked the students for their Social Security numbers. (The summit, Wilson claims, was a front to draw impressionable undergrads into NXIVM.)
At the summit, Wilson and other members in his group researched Raniere. They learned that he was on a number of cult watch lists, and that people who had joined NXIVM had died by suicide. At the closing party, they confronted NXIVM. “We screamed at Allison Mack and Keith Raniere in front of the rest of the a cappella groups and scrawled the names of the suicide victims on the white boards they had set up on the walls,” Wilson recalls in the episode. Mack allegedly retaliated by accusing the students of defacing the hotel room with urine and feces. The feud reached the office of the dean of Binghamton, who allegedly threatened to expel Wilson if he didn’t call Mack and personally apologize to her. Wilson eventually did as the dean asked.
Years later, NXIVM was finally brought down after the cult’s nefarious activity was made public. In 2020, Raniere was sentenced to 120 years in prison for charges including sex trafficking, racketeering, and wire fraud conspiracy. Mack, who played a key role in grooming and manipulating women into becoming sex slaves for Raniere, was sentenced to three years in prison.
“I was texting with my a cappella friends when that started,” Wilson told V.F. of the Raniere trial. “We were like, ‘Oh, my God!’ We just felt so vindicated.”
Wilson originally thought about sharing the story in the show’s first season, which aired in 2020, but decided against it because he “didn’t think that enough people really knew or cared who [Raniere] was, or what that organization was.” That changed when The Vow, HBO’s true-crime docuseries about Raniere and the making of NXIVM was released in the summer of 2020, pushing it into the zeitgeist. “People began to think this story is as psychotic as I do,” Wilson said.
Rehashing that period of his life was difficult, Wilson says. Through the show, he’s gotten more comfortable sharing extremely personal details about his life, even if he finds certain elements—like being in an a cappella group—mortifying. “It was something I wasn’t really fully prepared to broadcast yet,” he admits. He also had to relive the feud itself, recalling some of the more unpleasant moments from that period.
“I did have to have a frank conversation with the dean of my college at the time and try to explain to her who these people were and why they were so malicious,” Wilson recalls. “She just didn’t believe me. I’ve had this weird shame ever since. All the alumni of the a cappella group were just like, ‘Why did you get yourself involved in something like this?’” He pauses, laughing. “It’s just this insane drama that I never thought I would ever resurrect.”
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