From NXIVM recruiter to whistleblower: Sarah Edmondson tells her story
In her new memoir Scarred, Edmondson details her indoctrination into, and escape from, the cult
There were already red flags the first day that Sarah Edmondson joined NXIVM, a self-help group that has been described as a cult.
"The sashes, the bowing, the excessive tributes. Those are very clear red flags and earmarks of a cult," she told CBC B.C. recently, "but at the time, having no education in cults, were just weird things."
In June, the group's leader Keith Raniere was convicted on seven charges including sex trafficking, racketeering and forced labour conspiracy.
Among the troubling details of the investigation, Raniere had blackmailed women into having sex with him, and coerced some into being branded with his initials.
Edmondson detailed her experiences with NXIVM, and its splinter group DOS, in the CBC Podcast Uncover: Escaping NXIVM. She's also documented her story in a new book, Scarred: The True Story of How I Escaped NXIVM, the Cult that Bound My Life.
Edmondson spoke with Day 6 host Brent Bambury about her time with the group and the subsequent criminal investigation. Here's part of their conversation.
How could you not have known that [NXIVM] was a cult?
Because right from the beginning they said, "If you feel uncomfortable, it means that there's something that we need to work on there; it's pointing to an issue." And I was there to work on issues.
I was there to enter a personal and professional development program and that meant looking at myself and having an open mind, and I immediately went to Mark [Vicente] at the end of that day — the person who brought me in — I said, "What on earth have you introduced me to?"
He said, "Just stick it out to Day 3. I know it's weird." And by Day 3 I'd been indoctrinated enough to let those things go, even though I didn't like them.
But on Day 1, you're already shutting down some of your critical faculties.
Yes. Day 1. And in my 12 years, every five days there'd be at least one person who would leave.
But, as you say, you stayed — and you were there for 12 years. And as the years progressed, those red flags got even bigger, because you described being publicly humiliated in seminars.
You do say that you are deeply uncomfortable with all of these things that were going on in your life, but you stayed. So you must have been getting something out of this. What was it?
Absolutely. I mean NXIVM at that point became, I wouldn't say my absolute everything, but it was my community.
It was the business that I had built: I opened the centre, I put everything into it, and that sense of belonging filled a lot of different voids for me, I think. And that always trumped any doubts.
When you look back — this is 12 years of your life — are there times you say, "I was an employee of NXIVM," or do you see it completely differently now?
I was. We thought it was a company, and I believe that the company was the bait on the outside. And then what was happening on the inside was what we now know has been revealed in the trial.
You know, everyone knows about it now who's been following it. Like, really really dark, awful stuff.
A criminal enterprise, you call it in your book.
Yeah, a criminal enterprise was behind the scenes, and it feels like we were the front people operating the store.
So you're a recruiter for a criminal enterprise. You didn't just enrol people in courses that cost tens of thousands of dollars. You recruited women into DOS, and this is the secret group that you describe.
This is the group where women were being branded. It's the reason why you decided to turn against it finally. But these women that you brought into DOS, they were your slaves.
I actually didn't, myself, recruit two out of the three. I don't know if that matters to anybody, but Allison Mack and Lauren Salzman did it for me and put them under me as my slaves, which I was very uncomfortable with.
But what I had signed up for was this exercise to be obedient to Lauren. So once I'd committed to that, that's what she demanded of me and used the collateral as leverage.
Before you were allowed to join into the secret group, you had to give up collateral including evidence that could be damaging to the people you care about most in your life — including explicit photographs of yourself naked.
Did you ask any of the women you recruited, or the one woman that you recruited, to give you collateral?
It wasn't actually me, it was my master who demanded it. And yes, she gave it and I'm doing whatever I can to take care of her.
We're actually close friends to this day and she didn't get branded — none of the people I brought in got branded. I shut it down before they even [got branded], so I'm very protective of those women.
Are they freed of any ties that they had to the organisation, to DOS or to NXIVM now?
Yes, they're totally free and out, and that was my first thing as soon as I figured this out. Before I went public, I called all of them and said: "We're not doing this anymore. You're not a slave, I'm not your master. Like, we're just friends." And it was a huge relief.
What was the most difficult thing you learned at the trial that you didn't know before?
There was a lot of difficult things I learned at the trial. Almost on a daily basis, I'd find out a new thing that Keith did to a different woman, many of whom I knew. And really, terrible, abusive — ruining people's lives from things I don't think, I don't know how they'll ever recover from. All of that happening from the time that I joined [and] that was going on even before I joined.
So to know that we're out in Vancouver setting up continental breakfast and putting out binders with people's names on it, and Keith is back in Albany abusing women in the most horrific ways. That was really, really difficult and horrific.
And my husband and I reading these things about people that we know and going "Wow, how could this — what?" I mean, we just really underestimated his capacity to lie, and everyone around him.
This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. To hear the full interview with Sarah Edmondson, download our podcast or click Listen above.