This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.
The following is an excerpt from Scarred: The True Story of How I Escaped NXIVM, the Cult That Bound My Life by Sarah Edmondson, published by Chronicle Prism September 2019. Republished with permission.
Keith Raniere was scouring the NXIVM community for members with a high level of expertise to develop curricula. These courses were to be taught by professional actors and actresses, fitness teachers and dancers, journalists, even medical doctors. It was NXIVM’s version of a MasterClass offering, with enrollees willing to pay thousands to participate.
The only problem was that these trainings hadn’t actually been created yet. Students from the various branches, including Los Angeles and Mexico, volunteered to relocate to Albany in order to train with Keith directly and have the privilege of learning from his profound business acumen while developing these trainings with him.
I was invited to help create The Source, for people who wanted to learn skills in performing and presenting. I attended a few meetings in Albany and considered renting a place there but frankly wasn’t eager to make a permanent move from Vancouver. I loved my city. I also wanted to be close to my family, and secretly, I feared that if I settled in Albany, the senior levels would want me to be involved in a way that would cause me to lose the autonomy I possessed in operating my own branch. The Source would eventually become Allison Mack’s responsibility, and from the beginning I was relieved my name was never on it.
All of these courses were selling so well because the company had exploded since 2009. Breaking into Hollywood had opened a lot of doors for us, and the energy at our Vancouver center was busy and fun. Even though he would later deny it, the company used it as a selling point that Richard Branson had apparently taken one of the courses on his private Necker Island. I had spent so much of my life wanting to fit in and feel included, and now I’d proven myself. I believed they were being truthful—and if so, that meant I was among the elite not only in NXIVM, but in the world.
As the executives brought me into their fold, I’d noticed that Lauren and Nancy Salzman had a particular way of gossiping that made it sound like they were concerned only about the “issue” a subject was working in ESP—except that they were really spreading insider dirt. Nancy was privately coaching Hollywood stars who required strict confidentiality contracts, but she would disclose information to us about their divorces, their heartbreak, and their personal traumas. In a way, I didn’t want to know. It felt surreal and a little troubling to be so close to the president of the company and to realize how willing she was to share private information about such public figures. If Nancy betrayed these clients’ trust regarding extremely sensitive matters and when the legal stakes were high, then what on Earth was she willing to say about me? My trust in her started to waver.
But I had to admit, there was something about it that also felt very exclusive. Nancy would share details that tabloids and their readers would have paid a lot of money for. We were the only ones in the world, perhaps apart from their therapists, who knew what was actually going on inside the lives of some of these figures. That actress who broke up her co-star’s marriage in real life? Yep. From what Nancy would convey, she was as crazy and insecure in real life as we guessed.
The gossip was lowbrow, but the information we gathered wasn’t the only exclusive access that came with being part of the inner circle. Once, the Bronfman sisters came to Vancouver to pick me up in their jet en route to a training in Alaska. They had to stop in Vancouver to refuel and called me at the last minute and asked me to join them. This was very exciting—to be flown in a private jet to Alaska! I never could have imagined that this would be my life.
Now I’d become one of the star salespeople within NXIVM. With my thousands of hours of coursework I knew the material inside and out, and I could find the gem in every course that would draw people to enroll. Between my own direct enrollees and all the people they’d recruited, my team and I enrolled hundreds of people. I’d reached the highest closing rate in the whole company.
By now I’d grown obsessed with enrolling people. Every single thing I did had that undercurrent. When my interior decorator came to brainstorm ideas for my new home, I asked myself: Would this person be interested in ESP? But I didn’t see it as doing a sales job on someone. I saw it as growing our community and changing the world while being in service to those new enrollees who wanted to make the most of their lives.
I’d begun a habit of checking in with old friends to ask how they were doing, and whether there might be something more they were looking for. Some shied away from the program or said maybe they’d try it another time; others were curious about how I was doing so well and figured maybe it was worth a try. One friend’s husband stood up and flat-out told me I was part of a cult, and I responded by saying that he was entitled to his opinion but clearly the program was working for me. Another friend turned down my initial invitation to come to a Five-Day, but a couple years later when she and her husband split up, she contacted me and said she’d been struggling in life and was interested in enrolling.
Anyone who took the Five-Day, which we were offering every other month now, almost always registered for the Eleven-Day. Because of all the ways the program had touched and transformed my life, I believed I was delivering a very authentic, meaningful service by inviting people to join us.
This was common in NXIVM. It became a way of living, the lens through which you viewed every relationship and decision. It took five years for my dad to take his first Five-Day, which drove a bigger wedge between my stepmom and me. But I wasn’t going to let that be my problem. My dad had seen the changes in me and wanted that for himself. He saw how I had gained a stronger sense of confidence and an ability to handle conflict with ease. He was hoping to get rid of his negative self-talk and was committed to bettering himself. We agreed that if my stepmother had been at-cause, she’d be aware that her issue with ESP wasn’t about me or my dad—it was her own issues and fears.
Truthfully, I had my own fears and challenges. I could barely keep up with the workload to keep the center running. I hired an assistant to help me stay on top of the administrative tasks. She was very sweet and hard-working, but my center was never her top priority. When she chose to do other things, I would repeat what Mark told me when I didn’t attend something in Albany. “If that’s your highest value,” I’d say, “then go ahead and do it.”
I was tough on my assistant—but I needed to see more hustle. If I’d been given an opportunity to get a salary when I started, I would have jumped through flaming hoops to do whatever the senior levels asked. In fact, I’d done that even when I wasn’t getting paid.
I could feel that I had become more demanding since joining the company because I had raised my standards. But, this was growth, right? My performance and my team’s (and that of everyone at the center) had to be the absolute best because we had big goals in the world. I was responsible for so much within the organization and OK, maybe I was sometimes high-strung about the pace we ran at and what we had to deliver... but that’s because I’d proven I could accomplish a lot.
Bringing new people into this company and inspiring them to stick with their personal growth had become my purpose, and it put me on the radar of all these powerful people in the company. Even my acting career had become secondary. At this point, with that orange sash around my neck, I was focused on making my way to green. NXIVM was everything to me.
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