The Current

Arrest of alleged cult leader 'better than my wedding day,' former NXIVM member says

The leader of purported self-help group NXIVM was arrested this week and charged with sex trafficking

After being branded, Sarah Edmondson blew the whistle on the purported ‘self-help’ group last year

Sarah Edmonson says she was convinced to join a secret group of women, but had no idea that the initiation would include a painful 'branding' ceremony. (Harold Dupuis/CBC)

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Sarah Edmondson was overjoyed when she heard that Keith Raniere, the leader of an alleged cult, was arrested this week.

The former member of NXIVM, a so-called self-help group, described it as the best day of her life.

"This is better than my wedding day," she said.

Raniere is the leader of NXIVM and is accused by some former members of leading a cult.

The group came under fire last year for allegedly promoting cult-like behaviours, including the branding of women who were part of a splinter group known as DOS — Dominant over Submissive.

Raniere was arrested Monday at a $10,000-per-week villa in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. He has been charged with sex trafficking and forced labour in connection with the group.

Keith Raniere is the founder and creator of NXIVM and its offshoot, Executive Success Programs, which is a marketing arm that sells self-development courses and seminars. (Cathy Pinsky/Pinsky Studios)

Recruiting sex slaves

According to FBI documents, female members of DOS, known as masters, recruited other women to serve as sex slaves. Those women were then allegedly forced to have sex with Raniere.

NXIVM officials offered no comment about the charges to the CBC.

Edmondson left the group last year and told CBC News about her experience. Now, she's the subject of CBC Original Podcast Uncover: Escaping NXIVM, produced by The Current's Kathleen Goldhar and Josh Bloch.

In a clip from the first episode, Edmondson describes the branding of another group member.

"She takes the cauterizer and it just touches ... her skin and she jumps," Edmondson said. "Her whole body jumps off the table like a dying fish. She just flops and flips and screams."

Sarah Edmondson shows the scar she says was left after she participated in a branding ceremony at a private residence with a small group of other women. (Supplied by Sarah Edmondson)

According to Edmondson, she was branded with a crude letter K and R — the initials of Keith Raniere.

Two and half months after the event, Edmondson left the group.

A charismatic leader

Before joining DOS, Edmondson was skeptical. But after being coerced by a trusted friend, she relented and flew to Albany, N.Y., where the group met.

"Sarah had been in NXIVM for 12 years. It's a really slow process and by the time she was invited to join DOS she's fully indoctrinated — she's told us — into what NXIVM wants its members to think," Bloch told The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti.

Daniel Shaw, a psychoanalyst who works with victims of cults, said this is common.

"In the group, they've been subjected to constant shaming and humiliation," Shaw told Tremonti.

"This is what these leaders do ... They intimidate, they belittle and humiliate. This is their means of control."

Members were required to call Raniere "The Vanguard." In interviews for Uncover: Escaping NXIVM, they described him as "extremely charismatic" and an excellent listener.

Raniere once claimed to hold an IQ of 240 and that he could speak by age one and read a year later.

While those claims are now in dispute, there's a reason Raniere presents himself in this light, Shaw said.

"The only mission in a cult is the glorification — the deification — of the leader."

Recovering dignity

When Edmondson left the group and her role at the Vancouver NXIVM centre, a significant number of members left with her, said Goldhar.

"We've been told that NXIVM's membership has dropped a lot since the scandal broke," Goldhar said.

"But on Monday night, the Mexican contingent put out a press release saying that they believe Keith Raniere is innocent and it's business as usual there."

Sarah Edmondson said her work with Executive Success Programs helped her find strength, but she has cut ties since a high-placed leader invited her into a splinter "social" group, which ESP says it has no connection to. (Harold Dupuis/CBC)

Shaw told Tremonti that anyone can fall victim to cult-like behaviour and leaving presents a wide set of challenges for the victim.

"People need to recover their dignity," he said. "They have really been, in a way, stunned and shocked and abused and controlled in ways that have left them feeling as though they've lost their dignity."

Ultimately, it's a challenge to break victims of the shame that comes along with their involvement, and often, that's linked to the leader.

"People who leave the groups are still unable to believe that their leader doesn't have the kind of power that they gave him, that they projected onto him and so they feel terrified."

Subscribe to Uncover: Escaping NXIVM on the CBC Podcasts page, or on iTunes.

Written by Jason Vermes. This segment was produced by The Current's Kathleen Goldhar and Josh Bloch.