Sarah Edmondson thought she’d joined a self-help group. It was actually a disturbing cult whose sociopathic leader kept sexual slaves and dealt out torture. She tells Martha Hayes why, despite escaping, she’s still living with the physical and emotional scars.
For the past two years, 42-year-old Canadian actress Sarah Edmondson has been slowly and painfully unpicking her past; trying to understand how she ended up being brainwashed by a cult. And how she became such a key figure in NXIVM that she ended up personally enrolling 100 new members; from that group, women were tricked and coerced into joining a sorority where some were branded like cattle with white hot irons and forced into sexual slavery.
Today, welling up as she begins to speak, Sarah is visibly nervous. ‘Every now and again I’ll get someone who’s, like, “You’re a stupid idiot, why didn’t you just walk away?”’ Trying to answer this question for herself has been a long, harrowing journey. She spent more than a decade as a devoted member of the now infamous NXIVM (pronounced ‘nexium’) cult, climbing its ranks and reporting directly to its founding members Keith Raniere and Nancy Salzman, along with their key associate, actress Allison Mack, best known for starring in the TV series Smallville. Two and a half years ago, Sarah escaped the cult – then helped to bring it down.
Founded in Albany, in New York State, in 1998 by Raniere, a failed businessman, and Salzman, a former nurse, NXIVM purported to be a personal development organisation and offered popular self-improvement workshops called Executive Success Programs (ESP). Now a married mother of two, Sarah was 27 when she met Mark Vicente, a filmmaker and member of NXIVM, who told her about ESP, convincing her to sign up.
‘I jumped on board – without research,’ Sarah recalls, shaking her head. ‘What resonated most was that this was a community of like-minded humanitarians who wanted to change the world. I hadn’t reached where I wanted to be in my career. I was working enough to say, “I’m an actor” but it wasn’t meaningful.’ Lots of people in their 20s are searching for purpose – but they don’t necessarily join a cult. ‘A lot of people say cults prey on vulnerable people but it’s a very normal, human thing to want community, belonging and meaning.’
What was this group promising that was so enticing? ‘Being a leader was a huge promise, and skills for business. I came for the personal development; I stayed for the skills for business. I’ve always been interested in personal development – my mum’s a therapist and my dad’s a counsellor – and I believe that you can evolve and work on yourself.’
Before she knew it, Sarah had handed over £1,200 for a five-day training programme, cleverly designed so she was left wanting more. The course was challenging, but any discomfort she felt was explained away. ‘The method of teaching involved asking lots of questions,’ recalls Sarah. ‘They’d say, “If you’re uncomfortable, it’s because you’re used to a different type of learning.” It would always come back to your own issues.’
The cult leaders used a ‘bait-and-switch’ approach (where customers are ‘baited’ by something advertised at a low price, before discovering it’s not available and ‘switching’ to a high-priced item) to reel in members. Sarah signed up for a further 11 days of Explorations of Meanings which focused on a different emotional theme – for example, anger or fear – each day. ‘Ultimately those 11 days stripped me down to highlight what they call “the deficiency”,’ she explains. ‘My deficiency was “like me” disease, because I cared so much what people thought. They made me feel bad about pursuing acting, saying, “You feel like you need it because of this deficiency”, but what I understand in hindsight is that by saying, “don’t be dependent on acting”, they were switching that dependency to the cult.’
Once Sarah was introduced to NXIVM’s ‘stripe path’ – a hierarchy where members earn different-coloured sashes to wear as they gain seniority within the cult – she finally found her purpose, and there was no going back. ‘I knew if I was going to go up the stripe path, I had to recruit others, and I knew I’d be good at it. Keith would say, “If you want to be successful in anything in life, you have to be a good enroller.”
Sarah’s first impression of Raniere was underwhelming; he was ‘weird and not that special’, she says. ‘Whenever new people met Keith, Nancy Salzman would come in and go, “Wasn’t that amazing!” If anyone said, “He’s kind of just normal,” she’d go, “Isn’t that incredible that he can make himself accessible?”’ Raniere’s behaviour was often at odds with the mirage constructed by those around him. Inconsistencies were rampant. ‘We always talked about “keeping our word” and being on time, but Keith was never on time. Ever,’ says Sarah. ‘Someone would come to Albany for a business meeting and they would wait for days. Sometimes the meeting would happen at 3am. I remember thinking, “That’s not professional,” but then of course [the response] was, “Do you not think Keith’s time is worth it?”’
Unlike other women who enrolled, Sarah wasn’t made to move to Albany (running programmes in her hometown of Vancouver instead) and was spared becoming intimately involved with Keith, which she would later discover was commonplace. She struck up an intense friendship with Nancy Salzman’s daughter, Lauren, who quickly became her best friend. ‘I looked up to Lauren and admired her. I loved her coming to Vancouver to train our five-day programmes; my friends would come and relate to her. She was funny and told great stories.’
Over the years, as her connection with Lauren grew stronger, Sarah thrived professionally and personally, becoming a valued member of NXIVM and meeting her partner, Anthony Ames, who was also a member. They married in 2013 and had the first of their two children while still in the cult (their second son was born earlier this year).
Then, in 2017, Lauren invited Sarah to join the cult’s most inner sanctum, called DOS. It stands for dominus obsequious sororium, which roughly translates to ‘master over slave women’. To join this ‘secret sisterhood’, female cult members were coerced into handing over damaging and humiliating information which was held against them. ‘I had to give this collateral just to hear about DOS,’ recalls Sarah.
She submitted a naked photo and a letter detailing past indiscretions. ‘Imagine your boss asks you to do something you don’t feel totally comfortable with, but you know if you do it, it will propel you to the next level in your career,’ she says, trying to explain why she went along with it. ‘I thought it was weird the whole time. I felt nauseous. [Lauren] said the nausea was good “because it means you’ll never stray from the path”.’
What did she think DOS involved? ‘The way she pitched it to me was that I was entering a commitment with somebody I love and trust [Lauren] who was going to help me grow to the next level. She would be coaching me.’ Even when Lauren started using the words ‘master’ and ‘slave’, Sarah didn’t panic. ‘Lauren said, “It’s just a metaphor. I’m the person leading you, and I’m going to lead you to the better version of yourself.” She was tapping into what she knew were my highest values – [that this is] a group of women who were going to change the world.’
Sarah arrived for her DOS initiation in March 2017 believing she was getting a small tattoo. Nothing could have prepared her for what came next. She and four other women were told to undress and take it in turns to lie down on a massage table while the other women held them down. Then they were branded with Raniere’s initials on their hip with a cauterising iron. Each branding could take up to 40 minutes.
‘I saw what happened to the women who moved – it was more painful and took longer – and I just thought, “I’ve got to get this thing over with,”’ says Sarah. ‘So I went into a deep meditative state, thinking about my son, and disassociated. When that hot tip touched the first woman’s body, she flipped off the table like she was being tortured. It was horrendous.’
Sarah didn’t know what the branding spelt out until six weeks later when she figured out Allison Mack was involved, who was a DOS master and an important figure in the cult, as one of Raniere’s ‘spiritual wives’. Mack has since admitted the branding was her idea. ‘She had a dark side,’ admits Sarah.
‘I think Keith saw that in her. That’s why he gave her the power he did. Being able to basically abuse other women and lie to them, I think she enjoyed that.’
Ironically, it was Mark Vicente, the man who first brought Sarah into the cult, who encouraged her to escape. By the time Vicente left in May 2017, Sarah had the full picture of Raniere’s involvement in DOS. ‘When people ask, “Why did you get out?” it wasn’t the branding, because I was still indoctrinated and could justify how it was a good thing,’ she explains. ‘It was when I figured out Keith’s initials were on my body and women were having sex with him; that this was not empowerment but slavery, and it was all built on lies.’
Before she could be subjected to sexual abuse from Raniere, Sarah and her husband quit NXIVM, and in October 2017 she went public with the shocking details of DOS, appearing in an explosive front-page story in the New York Times. Raniere, Mack, the Salzmans and other senior figures in the cult were arrested a few months later.
It wasn’t until Raniere’s trial earlier this year that Sarah learned all the sordid details – that women were sent on ‘assignments’ where they were blindfolded and had oral sex performed on them, that Keith took close-up images of their genitals and collected the pictures in a library. Sarah also discovered that she was being lined up to have Keith’s next child. ‘Lauren admitted that Keith was excited when she locked me down [in DOS], because if she’d said I had to have another man’s child, I would have had to. It would never have got to that,’ she shudders, ‘but just knowing that was his intention…’
Sarah shows me her hallway – it’s covered in photos from her wedding day. Lauren is in every picture, blanked out with a red heart. ‘I don’t want her energy in my home and yet I haven’t scratched out her eyes,’ she explains. ‘I was so angry, I obsessed over what I would say to her. I couldn’t sleep at night.’ And now? ‘I forgive her in that I’m not holding anger any more. I do think she’s a victim; everyone around Keith is a victim. However, she tricked me and lied to me, and she needs to be held accountable.’
In June this year, Raniere was found guilty on seven counts including sex trafficking, racketeering and conspiracy. He is due to be sentenced on Thursday (25 September), and faces a possible life term.
Somehow Sarah’s marriage has survived the whole ordeal. ‘It was incredibly stressful. We still talk about it daily.’ Regular therapy to de-programme and a supportive family helps. ‘My mum couldn’t believe how quickly I went from, “Keith is amazing” to “I’m out”. But my base assumption was that Keith was good. When you pull that out, everything else isn’t good any more.’ Despite how petrifying it was going public – ‘I put extra locks on my doors; I wouldn’t go anywhere alone; I was hyper-aware that something bad could happen to me’ – it seems whistleblowing gave Sarah the sense of purpose she had been looking for all along. This month she publishes a memoir of her time in the cult. ‘I debated for a long time whether to write this book,’ she says. ‘But I have a responsibility, considering how many people I enrolled. I’m trying to help people heal, get into therapy and get them their money back.’
And as for the haters – those who claim she was stupid for not realising what was really going on? ‘I’m part of a small group of people who took down a very powerful, sociopathic, narcissistic douchebag and put him in prison, so I’m going to focus on that,’ she deadpans. ‘If I stop just one person from getting into a cult, then great. That’s all I need.’
Scarred by Sarah Edmondson with Kristine Gasbarre is published by Chronicle Books, price £12.99