Sarah Edmondson spent a dozen years as a top recruiter in NXIVM, an executive success and self-improvement program that was later revealed to be a sex-cult catering to the whims of its secretive leader Keith Raniere.
Now Edmondson is baring all in Scarred, a gripping memoir that details her indoctrination into the cult, her psychological enslavement, and the terrifying naked ritual that left her permanently scarred with Raniere’s initials, and determined to bring him down.
“We took turns holding each of the other members down on a table as NXIVM’s resident female doctor dragged a red-hot cauterizing pen across the sensitive area just below their bikini line. The women screamed in pain as the smell of burnt flesh filled the air,” she writes.
The branding felt like a traumatic assault. Her NXIVM superior, and closest friend, Lauren Saltzman, had told her the ritual that would ensure her admission to a secret sorority called DOS — short for Dominus Obsequious Sororium, Latin for Lord of the Obedient Female Companions — involved getting only a small tattoo.
Edmondson knew she had a decision to make: “slip away quietly or blow this whole thing up.”
She chose to blow it up.
“I was determined to fix what I’d started,” said Edmondson of the dramatic actions she took in 2018 to escape NXIVM, and go to the authorities.
As sheets of rain pour down outside the window of her Olympic Village condo, Edmondson offers up her body as a testament to what she has been through. “Do you want to see it?”
She slips down the corner of her pants to reveal the scars where Raniere’s initials were burned into her skin. The initials KR are clearly visible.
Although the scars have faded, they will never go away.
“I thought I was healed, but I’ve got PTSD,” said Edmondson as her husband Anthony Ames brings over their six-month-old baby Ace.
Settling in to nurse her baby, Edmondson says she is willing to share all, and do whatever it takes “to clean up my mess.”
Cleaning up the mess includes going public, making sure everyone she brought into the group is out, trying to help others and establishing a fund for other victims with part of the proceeds of her book.
“I’m learning to trust myself again, slowly,” said Edmondson, who has been through therapy with cult therapists to understand the journey she has been on.
Edmondson said she was the ideal target for NXIVM’s system of indoctrination.
“The system included manipulation and brainwashing, where Keith implanted his own beliefs by appealing to my values, and telling me that when I felt resistance I had an issue I needed to overcome. If I had an issue, his Executive Success program would provide the answer.”
Edmondson’s outgoing personality and natural enthusiasm helped her proceed up the “striped path,” by selling the program to others, and eventually founding a NXIVM centre in Vancouver.
“I had a big network of people, I was very social, I was a good salesperson. They enveloped me, made me feel like family and part of the community,” said Edmondson.
Edmondson credits her Vancouver community of friends and actors for helping her keep “a toe in reality,” during her years in NXIVM.
Her inner voice flagged Raniere as “weird” from the first moment she met him, and although she had been trained to ignore it, a sliver of resistance and independence remained.
In Scarred, Edmondson reveals that she handed over a nude selfie to Saltzman as part of the “collateral” Raniere demanded to prove loyalty prior to her DOS branding. But when she learned that other women had been manipulated into handing over nudes, and that she was expected to recruit “slaves,” alarm bells went off.
“I went into mama-bear mode. I wanted to protect others.”
By November 2017, Edmondson was out of NXIVM, and had contacted the FBI. Her complaint triggered an investigation and culminated in the arrest of Raniere, actress Allison Mack, Seagram’s heiress Claire Bronfman, and other acolytes.
Edmondson chose not to attend the trial, working instead to heal her marriage with Ames, an actor and former NXIVM member. Becoming pregnant with her second child felt like the promise of a new life.
“The birth was an incredibly empowering, amazing experience,” says Edmondson, her eyes filling with tears.
Raniere was found guilty on counts of racketeering, wire fraud, forced labour, sex trafficking, sex trafficking conspiracy and attempted sex trafficking and is slated to be sentenced on Sept. 25.
His lawyers have said they will appeal the verdict.
Edmondson doesn’t yet feel completely free.
“Even though I’m healing, and have a beautiful new child and I’m focusing on family I still have fear. What if he appeals? What if he gets off? He could ruin my life.”
It’s a risk she’s willing to take. “I feel so much responsibility, and I want to do everything I can to help others recover.”
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