Sarah Edmondson once believed the self-proclaimed personal development program known as NXIVM was the answer to finding true fulfillment and happiness —but as she delved deeper into the organization and uncovered its darkest secrets, she would become one of the organization’s most outspoken opponents.
Edmondson played a pivotal role in NXIVM’s downfall, speaking out in an October 2017 New York Times article about the disturbing branding ritual she had participated in as part of a secret sisterhood within the group.
“I wept the whole time,” she said of nearly 30-minute procedure to sear a symbol below her hip. “I disassociated out of my body.”
Keith Raniere, the group’s leader would be arrested in Mexico months later, in March 2018, for operating the alleged “sex cult.”
Raniere was ultimately convicted in June 2019 on seven charges, including two counts of sex trafficking, racketeering and forced labor conspiracy, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Eastern District of New York.
Edmondson—who estimates she helped recruit 2,000 members during her 12 years with NXIVM—is now haunted by her role “pushing that BS” to others.
“I have a lot of guilt about the people I brought in, but if there’s one thing I can hang my hat on, it’s that I never lied. I thought Keith Raniere was the greatest, wisest, most brilliant man on Earth,” she told Refinery29 last September. “I had no idea what was going on with the women and everything that came out in the FBI’s investigation.”
The Allure of NXIVM
Edmondson—who shared her story in the new HBO docuseries “The Vow”—may have helped bring down one of the nations’ most shocking cults, but when she first joined the group in her late 20s she was searching for purpose.
The actress had found some success on the small screen, but was also living in a $400-a-month basement apartment, struggling to make ends meet.
“I was challenged in my relationship, challenged in my career,” she said in “The Vow.” “I had this idea that maybe I’d become a famous actor and use my celebrity to have a voice or have an impact on the world. That wasn’t happening.”
When her filmmaker boyfriend got accepted at a cinema festival at sea, she decided to go along and “figure out my purpose in life,” she said.
It was there she first crossed path with Mark Vicente, a writer, director and cinematographer who had been on the creative team behind the spiritual documentary “What The #$*! Do We (K)now?!”
Vicente was already immersed in NXIVM at the time and sat at the same table with Edmondson, who had a persistent cough.
Vicente asked Edmondson what she would lose if she stopped coughing.
““I had the awareness instantly that I had linked sickness and attention,” Edmondson recalled in the docu-series. “I was trying to get my boyfriend’s attention. I was like ‘Oh my gosh my whole life I’ve been so sick as a means for attention.’”
She felt better the next day and discovered she “really liked and respected” Vicente—who began casually discussing his connection to NXIVM.
“He underplayed it,” she said. “If anything, I was more interested in working with him and doing whatever he was doing.”
Edmondson soon enrolled in one of NXIVM’s five-day Executive Success Program training sessions.
“At the time I was living in a basement suite where my rent was $400 a month, so for me to spend thousands of dollars on my personal growth was obscene, but I really wanted to change and I really wanted to make that leap, so I put it on my credit card and signed up for the next training,” she said.
But it wasn’t love at first sight. Edmondson—now a mother to two boys—said she found the run-down Holiday Inn where the training was held “underwhelming” and said the aesthetics and presentations had a “totally ‘80s” vibe.
She had a breakthrough, however, on the third day of the session when the topic turned to self-esteem and how “limiting beliefs” could be holding an individual back from living their best live.
“I didn’t have love for myself. I didn’t have belief in myself,” she said in the docu-series. “I thought that was just the way that I was and then all of a sudden, I was like, ‘Oh, I can systemically evolve to be the ideal version of myself to write my own character' versus ‘Well, this is who I am.’”
The Secret Sorority
She soon immersed herself in the self-help group, rising through its ranks to eventually become the co-founder of a Vancouver chapter and begin teaching the group’s strategies to others.
“I feel like I was soaring. It was almost like a magic,” she said in the docuseries. “I felt like I was getting downloaded a book of knowledge about people, about society, about the world in general. I really felt like I had this secret potion of understanding.”
Edmondson told ABC News she eventually formed a close bond with Lauren Salzman—the daughter of Nancy Salzman, one of the group’s co-founders and top leaders.
“She’s like my therapist and in the ranking system, she’s also above me,” she told the news outlet of her relationship with Lauren.
It was through this connection that Edmondson—who had to call Lauren “master”—got invited to an initiation for a secret sorority within the group that required each participant to give Salzman some expensive collateral to gain entry.
Salzman promised she had something “really amazing” to share and described the odd request this way, according to The New York Times: “It’s kind of strange and top secret and in order for me to tell you about it you need to give me something as collateral to make sure you don’t speak about it,” Edmondson recalled.
Edmonson, who was known as the “slave” to her “master,” agreed and provided naked photos of herself.
Each slave in the group, known as DOS, would pledge obedience to their master and was required to send her “Master” text messages within 60 seconds during training drills to demonstrate her devotion.
The initiation ceremony took place in an Albany home. The five women in the initiation group were ordered to take off their clothes and sit naked in a semi-circle; they were told they’d receive a permanent reminder of their membership in the secret sorority. Edmondson thought they’d be getting small tattoos, but instead each girl was branded with a 2-inch square symbol just below the hip. Edmondson would later realize the symbol looked like “KR” or Raniere’s initials.
“It was worse than childbirth,” Edmondson told ABC News. “Imagine a hot laser, dragged across your flesh for 30 minutes without anesthetic.”
Edmondson would later describe the trauma in the opening of her memoir “Scarred.”
“Lying there completely naked, I am at my most vulnerable but determined to prove my strength. I try to keep my legs closed as my body wills itself to protect my most private area,” she wrote. “I tell myself: I am a warrior. I birthed a human. I can handle pain. But nothing could have ever prepared me for the feel of this fire on my skin."
After Edmondson’s husband Anthony Ames, who was also a NXIVM member, learned about the brand, they both decided they wanted out and Edmondson began to speak publicly about her harrowing ordeal and the slow “indoctrination” she said led her deeper and deeper into the organization.
“If this hadn’t happened to me, I would have been the first to say, ‘What an idiot. Why didn’t she just leave?’ The answer is that indoctrination is incredibly powerful,” she told Refinery29. “If you look at the branding ritual as an example, they convince you that you are triumphing over your own weakness.”
Her story was also featured in the first season of the podcast Uncover.
Finding New Joy
With the experience behind her, Edmondson has gone on to find a new sense of joy.
She continues to act and do voice-over work, taking on roles in Hallmark movies “Wedding of Dreams” and “Welcome to Christmas.”
Her latest role in the television movie “The Sisterhood” has an eerie parallel to her own life. She plays a reporter in a story about a cult-like group of women who are forced to participate in questionable and dangerous activities.
Edmondson, who lives in Vancouver, also regularly posts photos of life with her husband and two young sons on Instagram.
But the mom of two hasn’t completely left her years with NXIVM behind. Earlier this year, Edmondson, her husband and nearly 80 anonymous claimants filed a lawsuit against the leaders of NXIVM, including Seagram’s liquor heiresses Sara and Clare Bronfman, for emotional and financial harm they suffered as a result of their time with the group, according to CBC.
The lawsuit describes NXIVM as a “Ponzi scheme and coercive community” designed to financially and emotionally abuse its followers.
Edmondson also continues to work to restore past relationships that suffered from her involvement in one of the nation’s most perplexing cults.
“As I work to regain my personal power and move past what happened, there's a special message I have for the friends and people close to me whom I became distant from or lost contact with over the years I was a proponent of NXIVM's practices: I'm deeply sorry," she wrote in her memoir. "Hopefully, my actions and all that I share in this book will be a step towards making amends as I begin to repair the impact my 12-year journey had on those around me."
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