When I wake up in the morning, here are some things I generally don’t think about: I don’t imagine my future self giving naked photos to someone I call “master.” Nor do I expect to one day get the initials of a man branded just below my hip. I haven’t thought about making videos of myself trash talking friends and family either, and even if I try to fathom these possibilities, I certainly don’t see myself submitting to it all in the name of empowerment, self-fulfillment, or a wish to change the world for the better.
But these are the allegations Vancouver actress Sarah Edmondson and others have levelled against the leaders of a secret society based in Albany, New York, and precisely the reasons they went along with it. I don’t say this to undermine Edmondson’s intelligence or judgment. When we recently met for an interview, she agreed that what happened to her earlier this year still sounds unbelieveable and obscene.
Edmondson never got out of bed expecting to be branded either, but through more than a decade of business and coursework she did with a personal development organization called Nxivm (pronounced “nexium”), she believes she was manipulated to a point where she simply couldn’t turn back. Edmondson has alleged she was blackmailed with naked photos and other damaging information, and branded with a cryptic symbol near her crotch. The so-called self-help group is also accused of bringing in dozens of women “slaves” from all over North America using coercive tactics, allegedly taking millions of dollars from some high-profile members.
Since we sat down for that conversation last month, I have been turning over many questions in my head. The main thing I’ve been trying to resolve is the contradiction between the group’s “empowering” and “humanitarian” goals and the actions of burning skin and threatening to release nudes. How can a group that enforces master/slave relationships and starvation diets also be a “global force for good”? And while we’re asking the tough questions, why is former Smallville actress Allison Mack reportedly one of the “masters” orchestrating the alleged abuses?
To better understand Edmondson’s experience with Nxivm and the secret society known as DOS, I enlisted the help of experts as well as a former close confidante of the group’s leader Keith Raniere. They walked me through the tactics groups like these use to produce life-changing, profound experiences for people seeking fulfilment, as well as the ways peoples’ will and critical thinking can be used against them. I also got some insight into why New York’s Attorney General may now be taking another look into Nxivm’s dealings, after more than a decade of hands-off acceptance.
Right out the gate two experts told me it’s common for cults and similar organizations to boast humanitarian goals. Rick Alan Ross of the Cult Education Institute calls them “large group awareness trainings”—a relatively benign label reserved for intensive, immersive self-help trainings like Landmark Education or the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California.
“The universal appeals are improving yourself, becoming more effective as a communicator, more effective as a human being, having better relationships, and making the world a better place,” Steven Hassan of the research organization Freedom of Mind told VICE. “They’re things virtually everybody would sign up for.”
Executive Success Programs, the self-help and career coaching stream of Nxivm that offered five- and 16-day courses, is no different. According to one psychologist who studied the entry-level training, the course aims to “change the way people think, make decisions, react and perform” and to “develop the emotional and intellectual skills necessary to reach their maximum potential in all areas of life.”
Nxivm’s literature even suggests that humanity’s survival may be at stake—that students must “develop an integrated ethical framework of human experience to stop the destruction of value in the world.” Now, here is where the program’s seemingly altruistic aims intersect with the capitalistic interests of its targeted demographic. The study found the goal of participants is actually to control as much of the world’s wealth as possible so that they can use that money ethically. Nxivm’s recruiting-focused structure presents its own opportunity to make money. Edmondson herself was a talented recruiter, who opened a Vancouver chapter and sold trainings.
Nxivm claims over 16,000 people have taken their entry-level course. That includes celebrities and Fortune 500 CEOs like Richard Branson, US Surgeon General Dr. Antonia Novello, the editor of Oprah magazine, and acting CEO of Enron Steven Cooper, Raniere’s ex-girlfriend and former Nxivm board member Barbara Bouchey told VICE. Hassan says groups like this seek out people who are idealistic, educated, powerful, creative, wealthy, and charismatic. “Because they can recruit more people of that level or higher,” he said.
The trainings themselves are long days, filled with extended eye contact and as much self-examination as a human can handle. Edmondson told me she felt “cracked open” at her first one, seeing her own “patterns” in a new light and feeling ready to make changes. According to Bouchey, participants often report profound and life-changing experiences. “Keith developed a questioning technique that lets you peel back layers to get to where a negative pattern came from, why it’s controlling you,” she told VICE.
According to Ross, Raniere’s underlying philosophy is combo of the Socratic method, Ayn Rand, multi-level marketing, and some language borrowed from Scientology. Bouchey agrees there are certain words Nxivm shares with Scientology, like “parasites” and “surppressives.” But having observed behind the scenes for many years, Bouchey says Raniere has developed much of his own material—thousands of hours of it, in fact—and that she still recalls taking some good away from it.
For example, Bouchey said she was personally prone to anxiety around being late for appointments. She claimed her training with Keith helped her get to the bottom of what that meant about herself and other people. “I worked on that, had some ‘ahas’ and was able to get rid of that pattern,” she said.
Hassan explained how groups start to become sinister when they take some steps to control behaviour, information, thought and emotions. “The major components to watch out for is when you allow a person or group to control your sleep, tell you what you should say or who you can talk to, instill phobias in people’s minds—like if you question the leader or think about leaving, then your life or world will fall apart,” he told VICE.
“When session after session goes for 12 to 14 hours a day, you’re mush.”
Hassan says the trainings themselves also create a bubble where a new standard of normal behaviour is set. “What’s happening frequently with someone coming into any mind-control type of group, is people are exposed to strange-ish kinds of behaviour, but the ratio of believers to non-believers is usually something like three to one. So the established norm is the cult behaviour as opposed to normal behaviour,” he said.
Edmondson said she saw weird behaviour from the beginning—like wearing coloured sashes, and bowing to a leader everyone called “Vanguard.” Seeing so many people getting something out of it, she chose to reserve judgment and try to figure out their deal.
This is where someone’s natural curiosity and can actually push someone deeper into the group. A will to understand brings people in, and then cognitive dissonance theory keeps them in that lane, according to Hassan. “The concept is that we as human beings like to think we’re doing things in a consistent way—we’re not doing things that are hypocritical or dissonant,” he said. In other words, people keep choosing things that align with what they did before.
One of the other tools Hassan claims Nxivm is using to manipulate thoughts and emotions is neuro-linguistic programming (NLP). Raniere’s second-in-command, Nancy Salzman, is an NLP trainer. The system of patterned speech was developed by two self-help marketers, based on the research of psychiatrist and medical hypnosis expert Milton Erickson. (Scientists tend to dismiss NLP as pseudoscience.)
“The more effective mind-controllers talk about vague things, but as if they’re really well defined. It invites people to project meaning into it, when there may actually be very little there,” said Hassan, a technique also known as “hypnotic patterning.”
For example, one video of a conversation between Raniere and apparent branded society architect Allison Mack explores the topic of “designer emotions”—the premise being you can practice emotional responses and bring them out as needed. “Designer emotions—is that like designer jeans, or designer drugs? What associations does designer come up with? Special, expensive—different people will react to the word differently,” Hassan said.
Bouchey cautions against hypnotic explanations. In our interview she asked me straight: did I think Edmondson sounded hypnotized? I honestly didn’t think so. Reports of “brainwashing” and starvation diets have certainly grabbed tabloid headlines, but don’t tell the whole story, she said. “I don’t think she was on a 500 calorie diet, I don’t think she thought she was hypnotized—other people used those words.”
Bouchey is also an NLP practitioner, something she learned to better understand the psychology of her financial planning clients. She claimed it’s far less insidious than it sounds. Simply rephrasing a sentence so that the listener feels they have a choice falls under the banner of NLP, according to her.
From the outside, the ideology of a group like Nxivm can appear politically and ethically neutral. Bouchey compared the indoctrination that happens when parents teach their kids whether it’s better to buy a house with cash or with a loan. There’s good reasons to do both—leverage money vs. avoid debt—but being swayed from one side to another is a rearranging of values.
Though her training with Keith, Edmondson identified that giving up and “looking for the back door” was a pattern she wanted to change. And while that seems benign enough as a personal development goal, it also made it harder for her to even consider leaving the group. “When people get stuck in cults it’s usually because their own warning system is overwritten,” said Hassan. Edmondson was training herself not to leave, and not to play victim.
To an untrained eye perhaps the most obvious red flag about Nxivm is that everything is so centred on Raniere’s personality—he often positions himself as the smartest person on Earth (based on a dubious self-administered IQ test in the 80s), and requires students to bow and call him Vanguard. “The defining element is him, it’s all about him—even the branding of these women, it’s about him,” Ross told VICE.
It was many years after Edmondson’s first training that she caught a glimpse of Nxivm’s more coercive tactics. Edmondson already developed a safe sense of community and purpose around her work with Lauren Salzman and others. Bouchey says followers like Edmondson looked up to Keith as they would an author of an uplifting spiritual book, like Herman Hesse and his classic self-discovery novel Siddhartha.
“She’s had 13 years of admiring and respecting these people, she’s read it so many times she loves the book,” Bouchey told VICE. “You don’t expect that in Mr. Herman Hesse’s inner circle they have hidden chapters of the book, and they’re using it against you—you can’t imagine it in a million years.”
Nxivm discredits its critics the way a family might discredit an estranged parent, according to Bouchey. It encourages people like Edmondson to cut off communication, and trust first-hand experience. When people express skepticism, some leaders start bringing in more tough-love tactics—suggesting if you don’t join or commit, there may be business or personal opportunities you’ll miss.
Together these elements create a closed ideological system where leaders can actually start saying one thing and doing another. Edmondson’s best friend pitched the secret society as a global force for good—something that would change her life forever. Up until that point she had no reason to think it was anything else.
Bouchey calls this the “hidden chapters” of the Nxivm story, where women are asked to submit nudes as a proof or pledge that they won’t leave or tell anyone about the group. According to her, the leaders have earned so much trust they can actually cause harm without risk of losing the follower. “You start to think, I don’t like this chapter, that doesn’t belong in the book,” she said.
When it finally came to being branded, Edmondson claimed she wasn’t fully told what any of the rules or rituals were going to be. She had already submitted damaging information about herself before she could even know what the group was about. Now she would have to answer to her master’s every direction. The facts fall way outside anyone’s concept of reasonable “humanitarian” activities, but the personal cost of turning back seemed higher than gritting her teeth and moving forward.
According to Bouchey, there is likely a negative propaganda campaign in full swing smearing those who have left, likely using some of the personal issues they may have revealed in the class. She knows first-hand that Raniere supporters quickly wrote her off as sociopathic, unfeeling, even developmentally delayed.
Bouchey left Nxivm nine years ago, and has since spent hundreds of thousands of dollars defending herself in court. Over that time, authorities have declined investigating the group, and even recently dismissed branding allegations as consensual. Now that tide is beginning to turn, with the New York Attorney General saying they’re opening a new file. Ross said he’ll be watching for when other US major crime, immigration, and child protection agencies get involved.
“This may be the tipping point of this group,” he said. “They’re being looked at and scrutinized in a way that perhaps they never were before.”
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