Why I joined a secret society that branded me

BY SARAH EDMONDSON, AS TOLD TO SARAH BERMAN | VICE.COM

Last month, a New York Times article exposed abuses of a secret society of women within a “philosophical movement” called Nxivm. The Times spoke to former society members who described coercive master/slave relationships and an initiation ceremony that branded the initials of Nxivm’s leader on their bodies. Since the story came out, former member Sarah Edmondson has been called stupid and blind for believing in Nxivm’s personal development programs and submitting to mutilation. New York authorities declined to pursue charges against Nxivm or leader Keith Raniere because the brandings were deemed consensual, and Raniere filed a mischief complaint against Edmondson in Vancouver, where she lives and works as an actress. In response, Edmondson recounts over ten years of manipulation tactics she claims to have endured that made it nearly impossible for her to leave or question abuses. VICE reached out to Nxivm—they released a statement after the Times report—but did not hear back.

I met a director named Mark Vicente who made a film called What the Bleep Do We Know. It came out at a great time in my life when I was seeking a certain path of bettering myself. And when I met him at a film festival I said I loved your film—just gushing. He said if you like the film you might like this program I just took. He had just taken a 16-day program with Nxivm a few months prior. I actually remember standing with him and talking about this really smart guy named Keith [Raniere] who was a humanitarian and really changing the world. And that appealed to me. That whole concept appealed to me. I ended up taking my first five-day training just a few weeks later.

I’d say for my first couple days I was very closed. Like, my parent’s are therapists, what are you going to teach me? On day one I came home and googled the company, which I hadn’t done before I signed up. And I called Mark Vicente and I said, “What did you get me into?” He was like, “Yeah, well, anyone can write anything about anyone online. Of course there are smear campaigns and haters and stuff like that.” I said “OK” and I trusted Mark more than anything. [Editor’s note: Vicente left Nxivm after allegations of the secret society within the organization came out.]

The company brilliantly preempts this whole concept of being triggered and being uncomfortable by saying if you’re uncomfortable—and you will be—that means you’re doing it right, and that means we can bring issues up that you can look at in the class. And if you can’t talk about it here, where are you going to talk about it? We had these “issues”—the thing that is your pattern. Your problem in life. Whether you’re an accommodator or you’re a control freak or a victim—we all have certain patterns. If I went up and I tried to express concern for something it was thrown back in my face.

So on day one, we bow to a leader named “Vanguard.” [Editor’s note: this was Keith Raniere.] You know, that’s a red flag. Easily explainable. Everyone has titles, doctors have titles, sensei has a title. We refer to people based on what they’ve earned. Vanguard’s earned this title and it means leader of a philosophical movement. Nothing weird about that. We wear sashes. But sashes are just like in martial arts. Nothing weird about that. So everything that I had an issue with was easily explained away.

By the third day I got really cracked open, had some big “a-has” and big “integrations,” is what they call it in Executive Success Programs (the personal development stream of Nxivm). And by the end of the five days I thought: This was amazing, all my friends need this, I want to bring this to Canada. (There was no school in Canada at the time.) I definitely felt like a veil of fog had been lifted: I had more clarity, I was making better decisions, I understood people better, I thought this was the key to success and happiness. But there was also this nugget that they left you with—that was this problem with you that you had to resolve, and of course, that required more trainings. So even though I felt empowered there was always this recognition that I had to evolve this thing within myself to be fully happy. It almost created a dependency.

Sarah Edmondson’s Nxivm name tag.

There’s a momentum to being committed to a group that you think is good, and there’s a certain amount of cognitive dissonance to make your choice a good choice. Especially when people—this happens all the time—when they spend $3,000 on a five-day training, you want to make it good, you want to make it a good choice—yeah I got something out of it. Yeah, it was amazing, really good. Same thing, a psychological phenomenon, you stick to it, and I think there was part of me wanting to be right that it was good.

I took my first training in 2005, and I spent between 2005 and 2009 traveling between New York and Tacoma/Seattle where there was a centre at the time. And every quarter or so we put on a five-day training on and people would fly up from New York and teach the training. And I was the main producer of that, and loved it, and brought a lot of people in. I was really good at it. Not to pump my own tires but I was. And they nurtured that in me. They gave me training, and would fly me to Albany to get trained personally with Keith, and I got a lot of sales help from him directly. I was very gung ho about bringing this to Canada, especially all my actor friends who needed personal development more than anyone, I thought. And people loved it. I did that until 2009, and Mark Vicente and I became business partners and we opened the Vancouver chapter.

The concept of collateral actually came into Nxivm, the whole company, in a program they taught called Human Pain, which they started I believe in 2011 or 2012. That curriculum was an eight-day level two training—so after people had taken the basic training—and started with these concepts of collateral and penance. People were encouraged to put down collateral as weight to their word for their commitments. I personally didn’t really do this, but it was part of the program—if you didn’t complete your goals or something you said you were going to do, people were literally sleeping on the floor, or taking cold showers for a week.

Sarah Edmondson and her husband.

My husband had committed to recruit a certain number of people for the men’s group he was part of, and if he didn’t he was going to give away his letter jacket from being a quarterback. For women, penance was largely about calories. I remember there was one woman I saw once on a 300-calorie diet, because of some breach she had done. She was eating mashed frozen zucchini and tomato stew. Just nothing. This was not what I signed up for. But I was a leader and being a leader you had to take all the new trainings. So when that was introduced I just took what I wanted from it.

The naked photos came much later when I was recruited into the secret society. Lauren Salzman is the daughter of the president of the company. She came to Vancouver this last January, stayed with me. Lauren was like my best friend. She was my maid of honour, she actually married us in our wedding party. She’s our son’s godmother and she was very much my confidante. She was my therapist. She basically said to me, “I want to invite you to something really amazing that will totally change your life. It’s totally changed mine in ways that nothing’s ever changed my life before in all the work I’ve done. Before I can even tell you about it I need to get something from you, to prove you’ll never talk about it. And you don’t have to do it. You don’t have to say yes, but I’m going to hold whatever you give me for the rest of your life, to make sure you never speak about it, because it’s top secret.”

I asked, like what? And she was like, “Oh, I don’t know, a nude photo or a family secret or something like that.” I was like, “Well I’m not going to give you a nude photo, but OK, and I just felt super uncomfortable. So again, red flag. And I even talked to her about that, and she’s like “That’s good, it should be something you feel nauseated about because you want to feel really sick to your stomach so that you have weight to your word that you’re never going to speak about it.” What I wrote wasn’t bad enough, not damaging enough. So I had to write more things that I did—in fact I lied. Because I didn’t have a lot of indiscretions.

She told me what it was: an international women’s group, nothing to do with Executive Success Programs or Nxivm or Keith, a worldwide group of women. “Badass bitch bootcamp”—I can’t believe that made it into the New York Times, so embarrassing. Women that were going to be a secret society, sort of like the Freemasons, as a force for good. And we were going to be able to change the world.

Every step of the way I had huge concerns. And when Lauren explained to me what it was, the first step was a commitment to her, a lifetime commitment, which I already had with her being my best friend. The second thing within that was a vow of obedience to her, in terms of a master/slave relationship. I had those red flags with the history of Nxivm and what everyone in the world thinks of it, compared to what I felt with her, it was just always that kind of, Well I’m going to trust you here. You’re saying this is good and it will help me. So I did.

In the last curriculum we’d taken that was a gender-based relationship, sex and identity program, Keith had actually taught us that one of the strongest imperfections of the female gender is among other things, we’re weak and we have no character, we’re indulgent emotionally and we’re princesses—and I can see all this now is just fucking bullshit, excuse my language. One of the things he taught us was women are always looking for the back door. Even if we get married we can think oh, we can still get divorced. We’re always looking at a better opportunity. Which now I see in my opinion is Keith’s view on women.

The tricky way I believe he got that indoctrination in, is he wasn’t saying these are his views, he was saying this is how women are perceived and this is why women aren’t equal in the world, because they’re perceived this way. This is how men see you. He was pretending, it seems to me, now that I’m out, to be an ambassador for women. An ambassador to help women get over these things so they can be strong. I did ten eight-day trainings. So 80 14-hour days on this particular topic. That’s a lot of time. And there was a lot of information plugged in there that I’m just sorting out now, like what do I believe, what do I not believe.

Sarah Edmondson’s brand.
I flew into Albany in March. I was getting my special initiation and what I was told was a tattoo. I had heard months prior, and that was actually my main sticking point. Master/slave was weird, but the main thing was that I didn’t want to get a tattoo. I don’t have any tattoos, I don’t have any piercings other than my ears—I don’t want to get a tattoo. And she’s like, “We’ll work with you on that, you just have some fears.” She brings me up to her guest room, says take off your clothes and put on a blindfold. And I was like, “What?” She’s like, “Just do it. You took a vow of obedience. It’s just me, Sarah. C’mon, just take your clothes off.” She’s seen me naked before so I was like, OK, whatever.

I put the blindfold and I hear movement in the house. I know the other girls are coming. And then there I am sitting with four other women. All of them I knew from Nxivm. Not well, I hadn’t seen them naked. And now we’re just sitting there cross-legged, very much exposed, and very vulnerable, and we were just like oh, this is weird. She’s like, “Guys, get over it, get over your body issues, no big deal. We’re a sorority, we’re a sisterhood—relax.” Everything was just normalized. That’s one of the things: if you were uncomfortable with it, it was just your issue. It was really hard to speak up and go hey guys, this isn’t right, why are we doing this?

And then Dr. [Danielle] Roberts came in, who I also knew from Nxivm. We took turns holding each other down—three would be on them and the fourth would be filming. This is all on camera somewhere. The first woman lay on the table and then me and the other women were sitting on her holding her legs down. With the first cut of her flesh—they burned her flesh—we were crying, we were shaking, we were holding each other. It was horrific. It was like a bad horror movie. We even had these surgical masks on because the smell of flesh was so strong and burning. I felt petrified, I felt, every part of my body was like: get out of here. Run.

And I was thinking, I don’t have a car, I’m naked, I’m in Knox Woods Clifton Park, what am I going to do, text my husband? Then I’m going to blow this thing up and I can’t do that, because I made a vow of secrecy… How do I do this? And then I just said, fucking do it, just do it. So I watched two other people, then I went. I really believe that the only way I did it was I disassociated. I wasn’t present, I went somewhere else. I thought about giving birth to my son, I thought about how much I loved him, and I thought about that I am strong, and I just focused on that. I just brought up a loving state, a really strong loving state. And the pain oh my god, imagine someone taking a lit match to your crotch and drawing a line with it.

I felt fear after I was in, after I committed, and when I gave more collateral to commit—that’s when I gave a nude photo and video testimonials. Trash talking all the important relationships in my life. That’s what I did to collateralize. Which by the way was nothing compared to what other women gave. I didn’t find that out till later. Other women gave full frontal videos of themselves. Wonder where those went. I didn’t want my collateral to be released. Which is how they kept us quiet. So many women are in there and they want out.

Now my mentality has completely changed. I had to do a whole bunch of therapy just to figure out the shame about it and the guilt for bringing so many people in. Missing the red flags. It’s a lot. I’m definitely on the healing end of things to even be able to talk about this. There are women who are out who are branded who cannot do this. Literally cannot get out of bed they’re in so much pain, not just physically, but like, they’re lost. It’s really destructive what they did.

The best metaphor I can use to explain it is the frog and the pot of water. If Lauren had said to me hey, wanna join this group? You’re going to have Keith’s initials burned into your crotch. I mean of course I would have said you’re crazy, get yourself to a psychologist. But it didn’t happen that way. It happened in very incremental stages, with more and more commitment and more on the line, and more coercion and blackmail. A lot of people say you could just run out, you could leave. I didn’t feel like that was an option at the time.

Story has been edited for length and clarity.

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