Two Crimey New Releases: Death on Ocean Boulevard and Don’t Call it a Cult

Death On Ocean Boulevard: Inside the Coronado Mansion Case, by Caitlin Rother. Published April 27 by Citadel

The story of what happened to Rebecca Zahau and her boyfriend Jonah Shacknai’s son, Max, is both a mesmerizingly compelling puzzle and deeply sad. No matter how you puzzle over its innumerable oddities and curious details, and the heaps of evidence and information provided here, two people who still had so much life ahead of them — one a six-year-old child — are still dead.

Max seems to have fallen over a banister in the Coronado Mansion in San Diego, and Zahau was unable to revive him. There are a lot of questions about how he fell and what transpired afterwards. Two days later, police were again called to the mansion, where Rebecca’s body was found hanging. Tragic, of course, but this is also where it starts to take a turn for the very weird. The only other person in the house was her boyfriend’s brother, Adam Shacknai, a somewhat odd guy to begin with, and the question arises of whether Zahau’s death was murder or suicide.

Caitlin Rother is an established investigative journalist and followed the story from its beginning, attended Adam Shacknai’s trial, and researched heavily into Zahau’s background and her relationship history with Jonah Shacknai.

It leans a bit too heavily on trial and police transcripts, which may sound odd because of course that’s where the information is, but it feels like rote recitation of that data. When Rother analyzes deeper, it’s better. What I found most interesting were its disprovals of some of the fixed details or assumptions, like about who watched Asian bondage porn the night before Rebecca’s murder. That seemed like a telling clue but turns out it really isn’t. I admit I haven’t followed this case closely, only watched a documentary and read a bit when it first happened, but not all of the common narrative or details were correct which surprised me, that these have been allowed to remain accepted facts.

A few times I found myself somewhat irritated with observations and assumptions, however. Jonah’s brother Adam stayed in the mansion’s guest house the night of Rebecca’s death, discovered her body in the morning and made the 911 call, and was judged “responsible” for her death in a civil trial. When the author ran into Adam’s girlfriend in the bathrooms of the courthouse, she notes, “She seemed quite normal and sweet, not the type of woman who would date a sexual deviant.” What kind of observation is that? This is the kind of throwaway comment that makes me distrustful, because that’s obviously a slant based on emotion that doesn’t belong in an objective facts story. It also connects to a more old-school style of true crime which is why I didn’t love the genre in the first place, until in the last decade or so it became more literary in style and accountable in content.

Rother’s ex-husband committed suicide after a troubling path of substance abuse, mental illness, and threats, factors which she compares to Zahau’s lack of them all. Still, she says what she learned “is that you can’t apply reason or reason or rationality to an irrational act like suicide, because the person committing that act is not of sound mind.” I agree, and this is worthwhile for its presentation of that idea in context.

Nevertheless, it’s disorganized in structure, long sections address parts of Rebecca’s past that have nothing to do with what came later, information is repeated too often, and totally unhelpful detours taken — like a psychic who examines the bed used to anchor the rope Rebecca was hanging from. This is completely ridiculous and unacceptable and not worthy of a serious journalistic endeavor.

If you’re deeply interested in this story of course read this – it has a few worthwhile insights. Zahau’s biographical story of immigrating first to Germany and then to the US is told respectfully, but elsewhere I felt it skirted the line of acceptable speculation or insinuation. And worth knowing that if you prefer clear, organized narrative, it’s all over the place with too much information to always separate what’s important and what’s superfluous, and leans toward an older style of sensationalist true crime. If that’s not your taste (as is the case for me) this can be frustrating.

Don’t Call it a Cult: The Shocking Story of Keith Raniere and the Women of NXIVM, by Sarah Berman. Published April 20 by Steerforth

I haven’t read any of the memoirs from ex-NXIVM members yet, and I’m glad I didn’t and read this broader account first. There was a lot new here even if you’ve watched the documentary series (I think I finished them both but they were really long and involved so I’m not completely sure).

Vancouver-based journalist and former VICE contributor Sarah Berman has written a comprehensive account that still incorporates much of the women’s own words and stories, to extraordinary effect. She shows how deep cult manipulation goes — Sarah Edmondson, who started the group’s Vancouver center and who you’ll immediately recognize if you’ve followed any coverage, as she blew the whistle on the branding of women in the secret offshoot sex cult DOS, is the one who lends the title phrase. Even after she’d left the group with her husband and shown remarkable bravery in what she exposed at great personal risk, calling it a cult in the face of NXIVM’s extreme litigiousness was a step too far.

It shows how much the Albany-based NXIVM was a copy-paste job of Scientology, essentially. “Over two decades Raniere had successfully ruined the lives of several people who tried to expose him, usually through lawsuits, private investigators, and criminal complaints in several states. Some of these people, usually women, were bankrupted and even jailed.” Sound familiar?

Or that NXIVM used “unified”, a word used in the same way that Scientology uses “clear”. Raniere wasn’t even original in any of his ideas, just cribbing Scientology’s “teachings” under new terminology and adding in the element of a multilevel marketing scheme as part of its moneymaker, and devastating sexual abuse to heighten his manipulative grasp over vulnerable women.

As well written and compelling as it is, by the end I felt a little sick; it was a lot to take. The second part of the book focuses heavily on what some of the women suffered, especially Daniela, who remained locked in a room for two years after confessing to Raniere that she’d fallen in love with someone else. Berman rightly describes her as being used as “his caged emotional punching bag.” She eventually is able to leave and reclaim her life, but her relationship with her family remains fractured as they’re still loyal to Raniere, something that’s just so hard to hear. It’s fucked up and heartbreaking.

And the abuse is just hard to consider. Raniere is so manipulative and exercises coercive control, a concept that will be familiar to anyone who’s endured a controlling relationship. I’m not one for trigger warnings and the research around their efficacy is inconclusive at best, but maybe worth warning here. He cruelly gaslights and controls them and then demands blowjobs. I felt queasy.

Raniere also encouraged highly disordered eating, namely urging women to be anorexic: “Raniere had shared his theory about energy exchange during sex, claiming body fat got in the way.” Go fuck yourself. Whatever extent of awful you knew about this cult, it’s worse and more disgusting and heartbreaking.

All that said, as long as you’re prepared, and able to handle this kind of information when you read it, the book is outstanding: clearly organized, empathetic to the women’s unimaginable experiences, and never shying from the kind of painful truths that need to be told about these groups. As of last year supporters were still dancing outside of Raniere’s Brooklyn jail. The power of these kind of figures is nothing to scoff at, as gross and laughable as they themselves are. Berman’s account is comprehensive, transparent, informative and emotional exactly where it needs to be.

I received advanced copies of these titles courtesy of their respective publishers for unbiased review.

19 thoughts on “Two Crimey New Releases: Death on Ocean Boulevard and Don’t Call it a Cult

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  1. Thanks for the warning about Death on Ocean Boulevard. I watched the Dateline segment and this case is so bizarre. I was hoping this would be more.

    I also watched the Dateline and 20/20 segments on Keith Raniere and his shady cult (yeah, I define it as a cult). What he did didn’t surprise me. What does are the people that fall susceptible to this kind of psychobabble. That’s a more interesting story as he’s just a con man.

    Thanks for two excellent reviews💜

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I guess it is more than what you’ve seen in documentaries and segments, it definitely cleared up a few questions or misconceptions I’d had, and it made me feel much less sure that the brother killed her, which I had felt made more sense. The author doesn’t come down hard on one side or another but she did do a really good job of showing other possibilities. It was just a bit jumbled and too much information that wasn’t relevant, it felt like every bit of research made its way into the book.

      Don’t Call It a Cult was excellent, and it might help clear up some of your curiosity around the types of people. They’re generally searching for something, either in their career, relationships, feeling stuck in life in general, etc. I guess the same reasons many turn to religion. Raniere basically repackaged Scientology principles about communication skills and self-confidence or improvement techniques, which Scientology apparently sells really well, and promoted it all with this self-mythology of himself as a guru/genius. I think for vulnerable people it was reassuring and offered some much needed direction.

      The sex cult offshoot within it is what blows my mind. It was so extreme and unbelievable, and you can see in the docs how many of the women struggle to make their reasoning for participation clear. He had manipulated them so throughly to that point though. It’s just really sad.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. In the two segments I watched about Raniere, much of it focused on the sexual angle and the women participating in the interviews did their best to explain how they fell prey to it all and my brain just couldn’t understand the how. Some things just don’t fit the logic wired in my head😏

        Liked by 1 person

      2. It is really hard to fathom. Especially because he just telegraphs utter creepiness. In one that I watched, his main sidekick Allison Mack was crying the first time she met him and he was just saying…a bunch of nothing?

        Liked by 1 person

  2. The NXIVM book sounds fascinating! Actually, you might be a good person to ask about this. I realized recently I know next to nothing about Scientology and have been wanting to read a book about that–Leah Remini’s memoir always comes up first when I search, which seems like it could be worth reading, but I’m looking more for a book like the NXIVM one that’s a broad overview, do you know of any?

    Death On Ocean Boulevard sounds interesting enough but that “not the type of woman” comment was enough to turn me off. Ugh, no, gross.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You MUST read Going Clear, by Lawrence wright! It’s definitely the broad, comprehensive look at Scientology and it’s beginnings, and totally readable, often terrifying, just really gripping. I love his journalism style in general but that one’s a favorite.

      I liked Leah Remini’s book and I like her in general but I found it to be much more of a general memoir than a deeper look at Scientology as a whole. She did write some really interesting stuff about some of their weirder bits, like their nonsensical healing techniques, but if I understood correctly she, at that time at least, still believes in the “tech” of Scientology, so essentially she still followed the practices for the most part and just didn’t buy into the bullshit of the organized structure. It seemed a bit like a Christian who doesn’t go to church, who still might not be the most accurate or unbiased source on its goings-on, you know what I mean? But Going Clear sounds like what you’re looking for. I’d love to know what you think of it!!

      And ugh, yes, I couldn’t even believe I was reading that about the type of woman she perceived her to be. Like near outraged. Thankfully it was near the end otherwise I would’ve given up right there. I just hate this tendency to be like “I FELT it, so it must be the truth” and I thought we held journalists to a higher standard. And then throw in the psychic and I was done!

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  3. It’s shocking to me the way people fall prey to cults and/or get stuck in horribly unhealthy relationships. My kids are 18, 18, and 20. I feel like they have good heads on their shoulders but I have to avoid reads like this for the time being if I want to sleep at night. They sound interesting but maybe a bit dark for me at this moment in time (especially on the heels of a pandemic). Thanks for your reviews and warnings. [That said, I may check the documentaries.]

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think these kind of stories would be so much harder to learn about if you’re a parent. I can’t even imagine. One of the NXIVM documentaries followed a mother who was trying to get her daughter out of it while coping with the guilt of introducing her to the cult in the first place and it seemed completely harrowing. But it didn’t actually hit as hard as the book did – her daughter is out and processing the experience and speaks very movingly and eloquently about it, and her relationship with her mother, so it had that kind of resolution arc. Some of the details in the book were just really hard to sit with.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. That’s good to know. I really feel for the mother though and I’ll bet the daughter has a lot of guilt to deal with in addition to coping with the manipulation that she fell victim to. Your post intrigued me to the point where I needed to learn more and I started listening to a CBC podcast on the matter. Pretty rough but I guess I’d rather know than be naive about such things.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Yes, the daughter seemed like she still had such a long way to go in her healing. But she was incredibly strong and resilient, especially after the kind of brainwashing and coercive she’d gone through. This was the series called Seduced, from India Oxenberg’s perspective. It is a really intriguing story, I’ll have to check out the CBC podcast. I’m like you, I’d rather know than be naive about it, and I think it’s why we’re drawn so heavily to stories like this. There are a lot of lessons to be learned from it, and warnings to pay attention to.

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      3. Ocean Boulevard could have been so great, what a shame it wasn’t! And “She seemed quite normal and sweet, not the type of woman who would date a sexual deviant.” ???? Because normally they walk around at all times even in court in bondage gear with stuff strapped on and whips etc?? The cult thing is terrifying, I can see my 20 year old is searching for something, some path ahead so I can see why people would be vulnerable to these evil people. I think we would all like a blueprint for life and an easy way to make decisions but..awful that these predators make use of this.

        Liked by 1 person

      4. It really was a shame. She had tons of documents and materials but it felt like it was all mostly just thrown at you. And yes, my thoughts exactly – just a really pointless and inappropriate, judgmental but nonsensical thing to say.

        And yeah, I think that’s why these cult stories are so scary. It’s that time of vulnerability and insecurity that everyone hits at some point, if not more than once, considering career, relationship, etc. and then some demon monster realizes how much he can exploit it for financial gain and his own repulsive sex obsessions.

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    1. I kind of avoided learning TOO much about it when it started coming out because I really wanted something like this that covered it all without speculation and whatnot. It was worth the wait, this one is really good!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Death on Ocean Boulevard sounds like everything I don’t like about true crime, so I think I will give it a miss. Don’t Call It A Cult, on the other hand, does sound important and compelling, even if the subject matter is hard to read.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It was the same for me, just not what I prefer in true crime at all. It’s a bizarre and compelling story, but I think it could’ve gotten a better and more organized treatment. Don’t Call it a Cult did everything right in handling a very tough story, on the other hand! It’s well worth the read.

      Liked by 1 person

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