This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.
The story of Vancouver’s NXIVM chapter, which grew into one of the most active and star-studded centers on the planet, began with a chance meeting on a cruise ship. Nearly 15 years before the FBI alleged top members of the self-help group committed sex trafficking and a bunch of other crimes, actress Sarah Edmondson attended a floating spirituality-themed film festival with her director husband in 2005. That’s where she met What The Bleep Do We Know? filmmaker Mark Vicente, who was apparently still buzzing from his first 16-day NXIVM “intensive.”
As Edmondson recounted on a recent episode of the new CBC podcast Uncover: Escaping NXIVM, the cruise itself felt like an opportunity for the 27-year-old basement-dwelling actress to get her life on track. She was barely making ends meet stringing together voice acting and beer commercial gigs—work she said didn’t feel was meaningful. While seated together at dinner, Edmondson was trying to hide what was probably a nasty cold virus, but her “seal bark” coughs were constantly interrupting things.
Between hacking fits, Vicente took Edmondson aside and asked her a bizarre question she’d never heard before: What would you lose if you stopped coughing? As in: What would be the “downside” if Edmondson wasn’t always so sick? This is the kind of counter-intuitive question NXIVM used to spark epiphanies, and it prompted a burst of self-reflection in Sarah. She realized her coughs were an attempt to get her husband’s attention—she had subconsciously believed that sickness would earn her the care and love she craved. “I remember thinking wow, whatever Mark from What the Bleep is up to, I want to do,” Edmondson told CBC.
This new way of looking at her marriage was the first feel-good hook that would eventually set Edmondson on an unparalleled NXIVM recruiting streak. By the end of her first five-day training, she thought all of her friends needed this, and that she was ready to bring NXIVM to Canada. In particular, Edmondson was thinking about her acting colleagues, who she thought needed personal development more than anyone.
One of those actors was Chad Krowchuk, who still remembers the curious way NXIVM rippled through his social network. He first heard good reviews from Edmondson and her husband over dinner one night, and then from his acting friends Kristin Kreuk and Mark Hildreth a few weeks later. But it was his longtime girlfriend, Smallville actress Allison Mack, who finally convinced him to attend his first five-day training with her in Albany.
Both Krowchuk and Mack were child actors who found each other in their early 20s, and built a steady live-in relationship around their busy schedules. Krowchuk was working at Starbucks and bussing tables at a local restaurant while taking acting gigs when they popped up. He wanted to find more time to develop his career as a visual artist, while she was on her way to becoming a household name as Superman’s best friend in a teen superhero show watched by millions.
Mack and Krowchuk were about three years into living together when NXIVM “became a thing” in their group of friends. Grace Park (Battlestar Galactica) was another big name. Though both of them were skeptical at first, it only took a couple of months for the excitement to rub off on Mack. When she came home from a women’s weekend retreat in 2007, Krowchuk could tell she was absolutely thrilled, and now wanted to share that powerful experience with him.
“That was the part that scared me the most,” Krowchuk says of his girlfriend’s sudden shift in perspective. “Before we had conversations about it, and we both thought it seemed kind of weird and creepy. I don’t necessarily know if she thought it was creepy, but we agreed it seemed a little messed up.” Now Mack was 110 percent on board, but he still had reservations. Krowchuk wondered to himself, if the tools were really so powerful and the leaders were committed humanitarians, then why weren’t they giving away the teachings for free?
Mack was Krowchuk’s most important relationship at the time, so he sucked up all his discomforts and got on a plane to Albany to meet the NXIVM inner circle. He remembers the socratic question and answer therapies being very Freudian. It seemed just about any life problem could be traced back to a few moments in childhood—the apparent root of everyone’s mommy or daddy issues.
By this time Vicente and Edmondson were co-founders of a downtown Vancouver teaching space that hosted regular trainings on Wednesday nights and weekends. “I would recruit people, meet people, and it was all word of mouth,” Edmondson told VICE last year. “I welcomed almost every single training. There was only one I missed in the whole 12 years. At the end when they got their sash, I would put it around their neck and we'd all clap.”
Though the hand clapping and colored sashes were weird, Krowchuk says he really liked people he met through NXIVM. They were generally impressive and kind. Sure, there was an unsettling mood in the room that reminded him of obnoxious acting classes, but he liked that coaches gave a name to things he didn’t have a vocabulary for yet.
Over time, the self-help group really shifted Mack and Krowchuk’s social landscape. Some preferred to keep a blend of company—both people who knew about NXIVM and people who didn’t care for it—but others started to break away from their old lives in favor of surrounding themselves with like-minded people.
Having a dinner party with NXIVM friends meant constantly dissecting your fears and insecurities. If somebody said they didn’t like sharing the food on their plate, for example, other group members would chime in with probing questions in an effort to overcome the block. What would you lose if you stopped the behavior? Is refusing to share holding you back? Needless to say, it wasn’t a welcome conversation style for everyone.
Krowchuk could see some of his friends overcoming their insecurities, like Smallville costar Kristin Kreuk, who battled career-stifling shyness. “I felt like I related more to Kristin than anyone there. I could see what the appeal is,” Krowchuk told VICE. But other acting friends grew more isolated, like Battlestar’s Nicki Clyne. “Nicki I know she was the first example of somebody who had a decent acting career, she was doing quite well, and then she took the courses and went 'fuck it, I want to do this thing instead.'” At the time, Krowchuk thought there must have been a greater good he couldn’t see, and decided to reserve his judgements.
Mack was invited into NXIVM’s inner circle very quickly, and Krowchuk was able to tag along in the beginning. But he soon realized that he didn’t have the money to go much further with the coursework. “Allison paid for a lot of my courses,” he told VICE. “I would slowly pick away at paying her back, but I couldn’t afford to do it. Most normal people couldn’t afford to do this.” All told, Krowchuk says he probably spent between 20 and 30 grand on NXIVM courses, and by then he and Mack were already on the outs. They both had very different ideas about where their lives were headed, and around 2009 they broke things off for good.
At the time, Krowchuk wasn’t concerned for Mack’s well-being—he thought her environment was generally positive, and her only goal was bettering herself. This was nearly a decade before allegations of branding, blackmail, starvation, and sex slaves would surface.
The courses taught that everyone was responsible for their own reactions to the outside word. But that meant a NXIVM coach could turn just about any bad situation around and blame the student for their flawed response. “If a course like this is in the hands of somebody who means well, it’s harmless,” he said. “But I always felt like it would be really shitty if it was used in a negative way… It gets dangerous when you start stripping away meaning from everything.”
Meanwhile, Mack was a go-getter who was constantly pitching the TV industry people around her, even on the Smallville set. Michael Rosenbaum, who played Lex Luthor on the show, recently recalled her talking about the dorky self-help organization she was involved in. “I remember she was a part of something... doing some self-help stuff,” he told Theo Von’s This Past Weekend podcast. “I remember thinking that sounds a little culty, maybe it’s not for me, but I never thought about it… When I was on the show Allison was the sweetest, most professional, just a great actress.”
By this time Sarah Edmondson was building up the Vancouver business like never before. She had personally recruited big names like Nicki Clyne and Grace Park, and their collective success in the film and TV industry was quickly becoming a draw for new actors wanting to connect with them. And as social media sites like Facebook and Twitter began to rise in popularity, the magic follower boost that comes with fame turned recruiting into an easy numbers game.
But unbeknownst to Edmondson, her biggest opportunity would come at the expense of the woman who taught her everything she knew. In 2009 Barbara Bouchey confronted leader Keith Raniere about his secret sexual relationships with both clients and board members, as well as other improper business practices. Eight other women left with Bouchey, which effectively closed down multiple training centers including the one in Seattle. So instead of Vancouverites commuting south of the border for coursework like they did in the early 2000s, American clients started coming to Edmondson’s thriving new center.
Bouchey was about to meet a terrible fate involving harassment and lawsuits, but that meant the stage was set for Vancouver to outpace all the other North American centers—even Albany—in its saturation of a young, wealthy market of liberal creative types. This is why one actress and former member described her 2013 recruitment into NXIVM to me like this: “It was like being invited to an Oscar party.”
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Sarah Berman is a senior editor at VICE Canada working on a book about the NXIVM sex trafficking trial with Penguin Canada. Follow her on Twitter.