'I feel like my brain has been wiped': As NXIVM leader awaits trial, stunned former members ask, 'What now?'
About 1,200 Vancouverites took NXIVM-related courses before group suspended operations amid scandal
NXIVM calls itself a humanitarian community. Experts and critics call it a cult. Uncover: Escaping NXIVM is a CBC investigative podcast series about the group, its leader, Keith Raniere, and one woman's journey to get out. Read about the impact the story has had on the everyday members who made NXIVM's Vancouver chapter a success.
- Listen and subscribe to the podcast at cbc.ca/uncover or on iTunes.
- Look for new episodes every Wednesday.
Gabrielle Gendron met Keith Raniere only once.
The Vancouver woman knew him as Vanguard then, the brains behind NXIVM, the self-help training organization that had recruited hundreds of West Coast followers, Gendron among them.
Raniere's courses had transformed the 33-year-old homemaker's life, giving her confidence and a new outlook on issues she'd been grappling with since childhood.
Gendron and her family were in New York in 2016 for V-week, the annual celebration of Vanguard's birthday.
"He waved me over," she said. "I remember that feeling of, 'Oh my God, he wants to talk to me. He wants to see me. That's amazing.'"
They became friends on social media. She had his email address.
And ever since learning about Raniere's other female friends, an inner circle allegedly branded with his initials as part of a master-slave relationship, Gendron has wondered about something she didn't do.
A letter she didn't send.
"I almost wrote him to tell him the story of my life and my trauma," she said.
She thought about sharing events from her youth that left her constantly feeling the need to please men — the insecurities that brought her to NXIVM and its promise of radical self-empowerment in the first place.
Looking back, she wonders how Raniere might have received that message. Would it have served as encouragement for him to ask her to join DOS, the secret women's group within NXIVM whose Latin name — dominus obsequious sororium — roughly translates to "master over the slave women."
And how might she have responded?
"If I would have sent that email and that message to him, that would have been the perfect way to have me come in to be in this DOS group," she said.
"I look, and I think — Oh my God, I was only one phone call away from being, like, 'I'll do this. Let me try it out.'"
'What is good or bad? What is right or wrong?'
It remains a "What if?" — one of many facing Vancouverites like Gendron who sank money, time and emotion into NXIVM and Raniere in the years before U.S. authorities arrested him on multiple charges, including sex trafficking and conspiracy to commit forced labour.
The FBI claims the organization he founded has "features of a pyramid scheme" as participants paid thousands of dollars for courses and were then encouraged to recruit others.
NXIVM acted as an umbrella organization for all manner of workshops and programs.
And unbeknownst to the vast majority of members, authorities say, its ranks also provided Raniere with DOS recruits.
Raniere has pleaded not guilty to the charges, as have others in his inner circle facing accusations of extortion, money laundering and racketeering conspiracy.
The sensational allegations have drawn reams of publicity.
But what has received far less examination is the impact of the scandal and NXIVM's subsequent implosion on everyday members like those in Vancouver.
The ones who weren't in an alleged sex cult or secret sorority.
The ones still asking questions such as: "What if?" and "What now?"
"I feel like my brain has been wiped, and I'm back in this confused state of a kid again," Gendron said. "What is good or bad? What is right or wrong?"
'Vancouver was the real breakaway'
The fortunes of NXIVM have been very much reflected in the state of its Vancouver chapter.
The organization flourished in the city's acting and self-improvement communities.
And it was Sarah Edmondson, co-founder of the Vancouver centre, who led an eventual exodus with revelations about being branded with Raniere's initials.
Listen to Sarah Edmondson recount how she and her husband tried to break free of the group in Episode 5:
"Vancouver was the real breakaway that destroyed NXIVM," said Frank Parlato, a New York-based former NXIVM publicist who has dedicated himself to exposing the group.
Parlato was the first to break the news of DOS and the ritual branding.
"If Vancouver hadn't acted so virulently ... the cult might not have cratered," he said.
The organization has suspended operations.
That has left a deep sense of psychological dislocation among those who agreed to speak with CBC.
They paid thousands of dollars for intense courses that saw them reach deep into their minds to disrupt lifelong thought processes they were told were holding them back.
Women signed up for a group devoted to empowerment, called Jness, whose core curriculum Colorado-based cult expert Roseanne Henry says appears to have been designed to reflect the kind of woman Raniere found attractive: subservient, self-critical and bone-thin.
"Just like they made a commitment to years of therapy, they made a commitment to these workshops and to these programs that Raniere developed that they thought were really going to help improve their lives and move them to a more advanced place psychologically," said Henry, a counsellor who has worked with about 20 former NXIVM members.
'It can't possibly be true'
Henry says Vancouver's culture — open, seeking, physically active — made it fertile ground for the organization's influence: "It's that focus on beauty and thinness and self-improvement."
People came looking for spiritual and physical betterment.
And what is — and is not — a cult was openly discussed.
"During your first intensive, you're going to talk about why they're not a cult," said Candee Clark, a graphic designer from Squamish, north of Vancouver.
"And they're going to discuss that they have media attention … And the fact that there were already stories about Keith having sex with stars and sex rings and all this stuff. But it sounds so completely ludicrous that you're like: 'It can't possibly be true. It's too unbelievable.'"
Clark describes NXIVM as being "like a gym for personal improvement."
She took a variety of courses over a few years, and like Gendron, was also a part of Jness.
"It's not like the signs weren't there," she said. "It's just I wasn't wanting to put them together and understand them, because I just wanted to keep doing it."
Gendron says the courses forced her to root deep into the past to unearth how events triggered behaviours she thought she couldn't change.
"It's like years of therapy in five days," she said. "You are mentally drained afterwards. You're crazy, but you've challenged everything in your entire life."
Clark says she heard about NXIVM from a personal trainer at a time in her mid-30s when she lacked motivation and ambition.
"They really talked about it like it was a scientific thing, like, 'We've studied and researched, and we've figured how to grow the person, how to be happy,'" she said.
"And there's certain points in your life where you — where I — want to be told what to do."
'The person that Raniere needed them to be'
NXIVM has been described as a mishmash of philosophy, therapy and New Age teachings.
"The environment is so intense, and you're working these programs with very little sleep and nothing but a lot of peer pressure," said Henry, the counsellor.
"They were basically socialised and manipulated into wanting to become the person that Raniere needed them to be."
Henry says the exorbitant cost made adherents all the more invested in NXIVM's success.
Parlato, the blogger, says Vancouver was a cash cow for the organization. Particularly through attendance at V-week, the annual Vanguard birthday bash.
He broke the story of Edmondson's ordeal weeks before the 2017 celebration. The news spread through the Vancouver NXIVM community like a virus.
Parlato says a slew of defections cut the numbers for that year's Vanguard week.
"It was missing, in large part, the Vancouver contingent," he said. "When Vancouver bolted, the cult cratered."
'Everyone there wanted to be better'
Today, what remains of that community is locked in a file in a downtown Vancouver law office: addresses, credit card details and private information of about 1,200 individuals.
Edmondson petitioned the B.C. Supreme Court last December to place the information out of NXIVM's reach after her high-profile split with the organization.
According to sworn affidavits, she claimed NXIVM had already approached Vancouver police to file a complaint against her in a bid to seize the files.
"In this sense, there are over 1,200 potential claimants," Edmondson's lawyers argued.
"[She] believes NXIVM is a brainwashing cult and is misleading people. She does not trust NXIVM and does not want to give the property and private information to them."
Gendron says she still hasn't fully accepted what happened and what it meant.
She started crying after hearing the first episode of CBC's podcast Uncover: Escaping NXIVM.
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"I realized what we would sound like to others," she says. "It really broke me down, thinking, 'Oh my God, this is way worse than I thought it was.'"
She and Clark are still trying to deconstruct their experiences, to separate the good from the bad.
Clark says she can see how they were manipulated. But she says the public shouldn't judge the group's followers by the alleged actions of its leaders.
"It wouldn't work on people that are already horrible, selfish, cruel people," she said. "It worked because everyone there wanted to be better and help people and change the world."