September 5, 2018

NXIVM calls itself a humanitarian community. Experts and critics call it a cult. Uncover: Escaping NXIVM is a new CBC investigative podcast series about the group, its leader, Keith Raniere, and one woman's journey to get out. Read about what drew Sarah Edmondson to Raniere and his followers and how she ended up turning on him.

Sarah Edmondson knew the thought was absurd as soon as she said it. But there it was nonetheless — the persistent, almost instinctual self-doubt.

"What if I made a mistake?"

The actor from Vancouver was speaking to CBC News on April 13, just hours after Keith Raniere, the 58-year-old founder of the self-help organization NXIVM (pronounced nex-ee-um), made his first court appearance in New York City on charges of sex trafficking and conspiracy to commit forced labour.

These were circumstances Edmondson had helped bring about.

A courtroom sketch depicts Keith Raniere, second from right, leader of the secretive group NXIVM, during his court appearance in New York on April 13, 2018. (Elizabeth Williams/Associated Press)
A courtroom sketch depicts Keith Raniere, second from right, leader of the secretive group NXIVM, during his court appearance in New York on April 13, 2018. (Elizabeth Williams/Associated Press)

Six months earlier, on the front page of the New York Times, she blew the whistle on what she says was a secret, sorority-like women's group within NXIVM.

She shared details about the group's master-slave hierarchy and the brutal initiation ceremony she says she underwent in a private home near Clifton Park, N.Y., just north of Albany, and where many in NXIVM's inner circle reside. Edmondson says she and four other naked women took turns holding each other down on a massage table in the middle of a spare bedroom while a doctor used a cauterizing pen to sear a strange symbol on their pelvises — with no anesthetic.

Her realization two months later that her scar was not a symbol representing the four elements but what appeared to her as a mash-up of Raniere's initials and those of his alleged co-conspirator, 35-year-old Smallville actor Allison Mack, was the final piece of the puzzle that led to Edmondson's decision to leave NXIVM after 12 years and go public with her story.

Sarah Edmondson shows the scar she says was left after she participated in a branding ceremony at a private residence near Clifton Park, N.Y., with a small group of women. (Sarah Edmondson)
Sarah Edmondson shows the scar she says was left after she participated in a branding ceremony at a private residence near Clifton Park, N.Y., with a small group of women. (Sarah Edmondson)

An FBI investigation followed, and authorities now allege the secret society pitched to Edmondson as a sort of Freemasons for women was actually a cult-like group created to recruit sex slaves for Raniere. Both Mack and Raniere have since pleaded not guilty to sex trafficking and forced labour conspiracy charges. Mack is out on bail, but Raniere is currently in jail awaiting trial.

In July, prosecutors brought new charges against Raniere and Mack, as well as four other top members of NXIVM, including co-founder Nancy Salzman, 64, and Clare Bronfman, 39, heir to the Seagram’s liquor fortune. The accused have all pleaded not guilty.

The expanded list of racketeering allegations against Raniere and his inner circle includes extortion, money laundering, sex trafficking, and conspiracy counts related to identity theft, wire fraud and forced labour. Prosecutors call it an “organized criminal enterprise.”

NXIVM has suspended its operations.

"The details of these alleged crimes become more and more grim as we continue to dig deeper into the conduct of the organization and its intended mission," William F. Sweeney, Jr., assistant director-in-charge of the FBI's New York field office, said in a statement following the announcement of the new charges.

Yet, back in April, despite everything she helped set in motion, Edmondson couldn't shake her nagging self-doubt.

She still questioned whether she'd done the right thing. "It's amazing," she says. "That's the brainwash. That's the f--king indoctrination."

Listen to Episode 1 of Uncover: Escaping NXIVM. Sarah Edmondson describes her frightening initiation into what she thought was a self-help sorority.

The lure

Headquartered in Albany, NXIVM billed itself as a personal development training organization with a humanitarian mission that, according to the FBI, operated similar to a pyramid-shaped multi-level marketing business. It relied on its members to recruit new members and to convince them to continually sign up for expensive training based on Raniere's teachings.

Its stated mission was to save the world by training ethical leaders.

It recruited members in Canada, the U.S. and Mexico, including a pair of wealthy heiresses, Clare and Sara Bronfman; Emiliano Salinas, the son of former Mexican president Carlos Salinas de Gortari; and several young TV actors, including Mack.

The courses preach an individualistic philosophy that seems inspired by Russian-American novelist and activist Ayn Rand. The intense introspection is reminiscent of Scientology.

Edmondson, 41, says the training gave her a sense of purpose and drive, which she harnessed at one point to earn up to $20,000 a month recruiting members and running the Vancouver centre. (This was after she'd spent tens of thousands of dollars on courses to rise up the ranks.)

NXIVM provided the sense of connection and community she'd always sought, she says.

One of Edmondson's photos showing her with Smallville actor Allison Mack. Mack has pleaded not guilty to charges of sex trafficking and conspiracy to commit forced labour for her alleged role in what authorities say was a sex cult within NXIVM.
One of Edmondson's photos showing her with Smallville actor Allison Mack. Mack has pleaded not guilty to charges of sex trafficking and conspiracy to commit forced labour for her alleged role in what authorities say was a sex cult within NXIVM.

Filmmaker Mark Vicente first told Edmondson about NXIVM in 2005, when she met him on a spiritual-themed film festival cruise.

She was a struggling 27-year-old actor living in a basement apartment at the time. She was feeling unfulfilled by roles in beer commercials and vampire TV shows, and was looking for a way to change her life.

So she paid $2,000 US for a five-day intensive introduction to the Executive Success Programs (ESP) at a hotel in Burnaby, B.C. — a decision she would regret almost as soon as she opened the conference room door.

"I literally thought I was walking into like a Tony Robbins-type of arena — you know, like a 'Rah-rah, we'll change your life!' But there were nine people in my training ... I was so skeptical."

Her doubts only intensified when the training started.

Before new members find out how to make their dreams come true, they must learn a series of rules and rituals, she says. These include:

  • THE SASHES: Each member wears a sash around their neck. The colour-coded ranking system is based on how many courses a member has completed and how many members they've recruited.
  • THE CLAP AND MISSION STATEMENT: Meetings start with a thunderous clap, followed by a recitation of the 12-point mission statement, which takes several minutes to complete.
  • THE VENERATION OF VANGUARD: Raniere, who claims to be one of the smartest people in the world, is to be referred to as "Vanguard," and his co-founder, Nancy Salzman, as "Prefect." Salzman, a former nurse and expert in an unproven form of psychotherapy popular in the self-help movement known as neuro-linguistic programming, developed the NXIVM training with Raniere. Their photos hang on the wall of every classroom, and members must thank them at the end of each class.
Some of Edmondson's sashes from NXIVM's Executive Success Programs. (Kathleen Goldhar/CBC)
Some of Edmondson's sashes from NXIVM's Executive Success Programs. (Kathleen Goldhar/CBC)

"What the f--k did you get me involved with?" Edmondson says she asked Vicente in a phone call after Day 1.

He told her he knew it seemed strange but to hang in there. Most people have a breakthrough during the second half of the course, he said.

That's when students are introduced to two of ESP's most important ideas:

  • YOU ARE "AT CAUSE": Students are taught they are responsible for everything in their lives — all successes and failures, all feelings and reactions. There's no blaming anything or anyone else.
  • YOUR BELIEF SYSTEM IS FAULTY: Students are taught their way of thinking is deeply flawed due to bad "programming" accumulated since childhood. They're told Raniere's "rational inquiry" system can help fix these flaws and rebuild their foundational beliefs.

Edmondson says Vicente was right: Something clicked on Day 4.

It happened during an exercise known as an exploration of meaning, or EM, where an instructor asks the student a series of questions about some emotional trigger in their life.

An admitted neat freak, Edmondson told her instructor about how she becomes furious at the sight of her boyfriend's dirty dishes in the sink.

The instructor kept drilling deeper into Edmondson's past, eventually bringing her back to when she was a toddler, before her parents divorced, and the memory of them fighting over dirty dishes. The line of questioning led Edmondson to conclude she'd subconsciously linked dirty dishes to divorce.

According to ESP's teaching, she was to blame for her anger — not the dishes. She was responsible for giving the dishes meaning.

"Months went by, and I realized, you know, he was still leaving dishes in the sink and … it doesn't trigger me."

Edmondson demonstrates NXIVM's secret handshake. The higher-ranked member's hand goes on top. (Kathleen Goldhar/CBC)
Edmondson demonstrates NXIVM's secret handshake. The higher-ranked member's hand goes on top. (Kathleen Goldhar/CBC)

Rick Ross, a cult expert who was once sued by NXIVM after posting details of its courses online, sees something darker at work with such thought exercises. Unlike clinical psychology, there are no professional standards, ethics or licensing and oversight, he says.

"When you go to see a therapist or a clinical psychologist, typically they aren't interested in embedding you in a group in which they have authoritarian control and which they hope you will stay in for the rest of your life," Ross says.

By encouraging the student to share all their secrets and pain, the instructor is actually uncovering cracks in the student's life that can be exploited, Ross says. What seems like a breakthrough to the student is actually a deliberate form of control known as an "engineered epiphany."

The goal is to make the student believe the training holds the answer to everything, he says, that "it can resolve all of your dilemmas, your family issues, your business issues — whatever is bothering you."

That belief makes the student vulnerable to suggestion and eventually control, he says. It makes it easier for the student to justify spending thousands of dollars on more training — and dismissing aspects of the organization and its leader they may find troubling.

The hold

NXIVM has been the subject of several major magazine profiles, including a Forbes cover story in 2003 that quoted Canadian billionaire Edgar Bronfman Sr., who'd witnessed NXIVM up close and whose daughters remain members. "I think it's a cult," he said at the time.

The piece also reminded readers that Raniere made national headlines in the 1990s with the implosion of his first business, Consumers' Buyline. State regulators across the U.S. launched investigations because they suspected the discount buyers club was a pyramid scheme. New York's attorney general accused the company of as much in a lawsuit, and Raniere agreed to a $40,000 settlement without admitting wrongdoing.

The late Canadian billionaire Edgar Bronfman Sr., seen at a 2005 meeting of the World Jewish Congress in Brussels, once described NXIVM as a cult. (Thierry Charlier/Associated Press)
The late Canadian billionaire Edgar Bronfman Sr., seen at a 2005 meeting of the World Jewish Congress in Brussels, once described NXIVM as a cult. (Thierry Charlier/Associated Press)

More bad press followed, including a Vanity Fair article in 2010 titled, "The heiresses and the cult," which explored how the Bronfman sisters had allegedly spent tens of millions of dollars bankrolling Raniere's investment schemes and lawsuits against his critics.

A series in the Albany Times Union in 2012 included allegations that Raniere had sexual relationships with girls between the ages of 12 and 16 when he was an adult in the mid-to-late 1980s and early '90s. (The allegations were never tested in court, and Raniere's lawyer denied them to CBC News, but federal prosecutors cited them in April as a reason to deny Raniere bail.)

The Times Union stories also explored the devotion of his followers, most of them women, who lived near one another in Clifton Park's Knox Woods neighbourhood. Raniere's followers would reportedly hang on his every word and cater to his every need.

Vancouver's Anthony Madani, 37, read some of the negative coverage online, but it didn't deter him from pursuing training and climbing the ranks in the organization.

From Day 1 of the introductory course, he says, the instructors heap praise on Raniere and arm students with ready-made rationales for dismissing allegations of the group's cult-like behaviour. They point out, for example, that "cult" is simply a derogatory term that's often misapplied to groups doing positive work.

Plus, Madani says, the negative depiction of Raniere didn't match his own experience.

"The entire community just revered this guy and all had their different experiences of meeting him, and of how smart he was and how full of integrity he was," Madani says. "So, my impression of him was bolstered by what I'd heard other people say about him."

Raniere is the founder of NXIVM, which sells self-development courses and seminars. (Barbara Bouchey)
Raniere is the founder of NXIVM, which sells self-development courses and seminars. (Barbara Bouchey)

Daniel Shaw, a New York-based psychoanalyst and psychotherapist who has helped cult survivors and their families for 20 years and has spoken with more than a dozen ex-NXIVM members, compares the recruitment by a charismatic leader to falling in love.

"There are red flags, but you don’t want to see them," he says. "And you learn to sort of put those things somewhere in the back of your mind.

"And the more you want to stay involved … the more you have to disassociate, so the mind becomes very disconnected."

Edmondson says they were trained to view the negativity as nothing more than a smear campaign — a conspiracy against Raniere and his "little group of humanitarians" who were trying to bring ethics to an unethical world.

"All the stuff that was said about him that was negative, it was just instantly erased by this brilliant setup that Keith put in place for us."

Edmondson's mother was deeply concerned about NXIVM's influence on her daughter, but she was desperate to maintain a connection and knew better than to challenge her beliefs too strongly.

"I really didn't know what could happen," she said to her daughter during a joint interview with CBC. "But … there was a line beyond which I couldn't go. And you were very clear."

Listen to Episode 2, which chronicles how Edmondson went from NXIVM recruit to top recruiter to whistleblower.

The flip

For many people, listening to Edmondson's story provokes some version of this question: How does someone like her — so bright and seemingly normal — join a self-help group and wind up in an alleged sex cult with the suspected leader's initials seared on her pelvis?

But to experts Ross and Shaw, the story is all too familiar.

Ross says he considers NXIVM a "destructive cult," which can be defined as a group that inflicts harm with a leader who controls followers by way of thought reform.

And according to Shaw, it makes sense for such groups to target people like Edmondson.

"Everybody would like to believe that they wouldn't be vulnerable, and I'm sure there are many people who would not be," he says. "But the truth is, people who get involved ... on average, are middle class, college-educated people, because they are looking to recruit the best and the brightest so that they can propagate."

In the early stages, Shaw says, the teachings are usually more or less nicely packaged but fairly standard "pop psychology."

People sign up because they're searching for solutions to better themselves, and sometimes to feel connected. Many former NXIVM members who spoke with CBC said the courses helped them advance in their careers and make tangible improvements in their personal lives.

"You're solving a lot of problems for yourself just by walking in the door," Shaw says. "You're finding a community that you feel contains like-minded people. You're seeing success stories that model the kind of success you yourself might be able to attain."

Mack leaves after a court hearing in New York City. She and Raniere are charged with coercing women who joined NXIVM into becoming part of a secret sub-group where they were allegedly expected to act as 'slaves' and engage in sex acts. (Bebeto Matthews/Associated Press)
Mack leaves after a court hearing in New York City. She and Raniere are charged with coercing women who joined NXIVM into becoming part of a secret sub-group where they were allegedly expected to act as 'slaves' and engage in sex acts. (Bebeto Matthews/Associated Press)

The changes that follow are gradual.

Ross says to imagine if someone had met Edmondson before she took her first course and held up a picture of Raniere and said, "I want you to submit your life to this man. No matter what he says, you will obey him. And in the end, your flesh will be branded with his initials. Does that sound like a good thing for you, Sarah? Are you willing to actually pay for that?"

Ross guesses Edmondson would have said something along the lines of, "You must be crazy. I'm going to call the police."

But with each intensive course, the leader's self-serving, thought-altering ideology gets more ingrained in his followers' heads, Shaw says.

They become more devoted and more isolated from outsiders, including family.

Their boundaries keep getting pushed a little further, and their ability to think independently becomes increasingly diminished. Over time, behaviour that might have seemed absurd before is accepted as normal, even beneficial.

As members advanced in the Executive Success Programs, for example, they'd be assigned a coach to help them reach their goals — and even punish them should they come up short, Edmondson says.

"So that became very normal. Like, you know, I'd go to someone's house and they're sleeping on the floor for a week because they didn't do their goals."

In Edmondson's experience, the same logic that could zap her negative reaction to things such as dirty dishes could also be used to convince her to accept and engage in increasingly bizarre or extreme behaviour, always in the name of self-improvement.

If something made her scared, angry or uncomfortable — be it the cost of courses or even the idea of being someone's slave for life — it's because her faulty belief system was looking at it the wrong way. In NXIVM lingo, she was missing "data."

"And she also said to me, 'You're the highest rank here. Show them how.'"

Many former members who spoke with CBC call this the NXIVM flip — a logic trap where every issue gets turned back on the individual.

Anybody who quit NXIVM, for example, was dismissed as weak and lacking commitment to their personal growth, Edmondson says.

"I was taught that gut instinct is linked with all this bad programming we've got from childhood, and we've got to work through it," she says. "So it is almost like creating an internal alarm system, because if you leave, then you didn't push through."

That internal alarm was put to the test in January 2017 when Edmondson's best friend, Lauren Salzman, daughter of NXIVM "Prefect" Nancy Salzman, invited her to join the secret women's group, she says.

It was called DOS, after the Latin term “dominus obsequious sororium," which roughly translates to "master over the slave women." Edmondson says Salzman explained it was a sort of "bad-ass bitch boot camp," where women from around the world would help each other reach their goals.

But to join, Edmondson says, she was told she had to commit to being Salzman's "slave" for life and to provide her "collateral" — material such as nude photos and taped confessions, of sins real or imagined, that could be used to ruin her life if she ever left DOS.

She also had to recruit slaves of her own who were to be at her beck and call and to perform tasks for her.

(CBC has tried contacting Salzman multiple times but has yet to hear back. She was charged in July with racketeering conspiracy and is accused of various offences including extortion and forced labour. The FBI alleges Salzman and Raniere confined a former lover of Raniere's to a room in Clifton Park for nearly two years "as punishment for having romantic feelings for a man who was not Raniere." She has pleaded not guilty to the charges.)

Despite her mounting concerns, Edmondson says she went along with it, stalling along the way. She trusted Salzman. She was flattered she wanted to be her mentor. And she didn't want to back out.

In its initial complaint against Raniere, the FBI says in many cases, masters would "use NXIVM techniques" to convince prospective slaves that any hesitation to join was the result of their own weakness and "that hesitation itself was evidence of why they needed DOS."

Those same NXIVM techniques and teachings will likely play a role in Raniere's defence. In an interview with CBC News, Raniere's lawyer, Marc Agnifilo, offered a preview of at least part of the defence strategy.

Raniere's lawyers, Marc Agnifilo, left, and Paul DerOhannesian, speak to reporters following a court hearing in New York City on May 4, 2018. (Brendan McDermid/Reuters)
Raniere's lawyers, Marc Agnifilo, left, and Paul DerOhannesian, speak to reporters following a court hearing in New York City on May 4, 2018. (Brendan McDermid/Reuters)

If you subscribe for years to a philosophy that says you are responsible for everything in your life, including all the choices you make, and that nobody is a victim of circumstance, then how, Agnifilo asks, do you then claim to have been coerced by those same teachings and teachers into doing things you didn't want to do?

"These are not poor, put-upon people who are desperate for a better life and will make choices against their self-interest," he says. "These are actresses and models, and successful people and business people … And these are choices."

He says his client had no part in running DOS, though it did clearly use his concepts.

Collateral, for example, is a common principle in NXIVM. Agnifilo described how he met a member who told him about how he once tried to lose weight. He's a guitar player and told his NXIVM coach he'd hand over his guitar if he failed to meet his weight-loss goal.

"That was his version of collateral," Agnifilo says. "It's a way of putting something behind a promise. And the whole kind of concept behind NXIVM is promises matter."

The same idea of collateral is at work in DOS, he says. "It's a little edgy, but you know, that's what they wanted."

The bottom line, he says, is the members of DOS chose to participate.

"They weren’t branded; they branded themselves."

There was no brainwashing, he says.

Edmondson has a different perspective.

She says her internal alarm became fully activated two months after her first conversation with Salzman about DOS, when she and four other women found themselves naked in the spare bedroom of a home near Clifton Park, for their initiation ceremony.

She was expected to lie down on what appeared to be a massage table in the middle of the room and let a doctor burn her flesh. But her every instinct was screaming: Run!

She thought she'd be expected to get a tattoo, she says. But she didn't want a tattoo — and she certainly didn't want a brand. She hated the design. She was petrified of the pain.

Lauren Salzman, right, was Edmondson's maid of honour. Years later, Edmondson says, Salzman became her 'master' in what authorities allege was a criminal enterprise designed to groom sex slaves for Raniere. (Sarah Edmondson)
Lauren Salzman, right, was Edmondson's maid of honour. Years later, Edmondson says, Salzman became her 'master' in what authorities allege was a criminal enterprise designed to groom sex slaves for Raniere. (Sarah Edmondson)

But Edmondson says Salzman, who was overseeing the ceremony, used a NXIVM flip to help shift her thinking.

Salzman, she says, told her she was looking at the situation all wrong: A brand isn't a painful scar; it's a permanent symbol of her commitment to personal growth.

"And she also said to me, 'You're the highest rank here. Show them how.'"

Edmondson then recalls how her NXIVM training — including its not-so-subtle misogyny — started flooding her thoughts and drowning out everything else:

Sarah, you said you were going to do this.

You committed.

You always back out.

You don't follow through.

You know you're looking for the back door, just like Keith says women do.

LIKE, JUST F--KING DO IT!

"And I did," she says. "I lay on the table."

When the excruciating process was over, about 20 to 30 minutes later, she says she actually felt a sense of achievement. She had ignored her bad "programming" and pushed through.

"I had a moment, like, 'Yeah, I can do this, I can do anything.'"

But two months later, after she'd learned other details about DOS's inner workings and became convinced she recognized initials in the symbol, the meaning of the experience — and of many other experiences of the past 12 years — changed completely.

"I just lost my shit," she says. "It was like everything made sense."

What she realized, she says, is that Vanguard isn't the smartest man in the world, with a plan to save humanity with his teachings. Vanguard is just Keith, a middle-aged guy from Albany who likes to control women.