Our second-annual 29 Powerhouses ranking is a celebration of Canadians who changed the game in 2019. One of them is actor Sarah Edmondson, who blew the whistle on NXIVM. Below, our conversation with her from September.
In her new memoir, Scarred, Vancouver actress Sarah Edmondson tells the story of her time in the now infamous “sex slave cult” NXIVM. The group, which fronted as a personal development program, made headlines last year after the FBI arrested founder Keith Raniere and several well-known actresses, including Allison Mack and Kristen Kreuk, were exposed as current or former members. Raniere was found guilty of seven charges, including sex-trafficking, in June.
It was an outcome Edmondson never would have predicted when she signed on to take some courses in the early aughts. Over her decade plus with NXIVM, she rose to star recruiter, founder of the cult’s first and only Canadian chapter in Vancouver, and ultimately, to whistleblower. Here, she tells Refinery29 how cults hide the crazy and the pitch that brought in more than 2,000 new members.
Your memoir opens with a branding ceremony that you refer to as the “beginning of the end” of your NXIVM experience. Why did you start there?
I decided to start with the branding because I think that was the craziest thing that happened to me — lying naked on a table, having someone burn my flesh. The goal was to draw readers in right away, and I feel like if I started by explaining that I signed up for a few personal development seminars, it’s like, what’s the big deal? That’s really the nature of how cults get you — by starting slow, promising to help you realize your goals. If someone had said early on, “Hey, Sarah — can we brand you with our leader’s initials next to your crotch?,” I would have said, that’s fucking crazy.
A lot of your experiences do seem pretty bonkers — you entered into a master/slave relationship [with senior member Lauren Salzman], providing naked photos of yourself as a form of collateral.
Hey, I get it. If this hadn’t happened to me, I would have been the first to say, “What an idiot. Why didn’t she just leave?” The answer is that indoctrination is incredibly powerful. If you look at the branding ritual as an example, they convince you that you are triumphing over your own weakness. One of the things that can be helpful in terms of an explanation is to look at the ways in which cults are similar to abusive relationships. Nobody seeks out an abusive partner, but so many people stay in these relationships longer than they should — they make excuses, they ignore red flags, and they allow themselves to be emotionally manipulated.
I have a lot of guilt about the people I brought in, but if there’s one thing I can hang my hat on, it’s that I never lied.
Do you think you were in a vulnerable position when you first joined?
I was in my late 20s at the time, so that stage where you’re not a kid anymore, but not fully an adult and still figuring out what to do with your life. I was acting, but I wasn’t feeling very fulfilled by the work. I was really looking for a sense of purpose, a sense community. I guess you could say that made me vulnerable, but I think those are good things to want. More so than being naïve, I would say I was extremely idealistic, and that’s something Nxivm exploited.
Nxivm was popular with actresses. Why do you think that is?
Well every centre had a different vibe. The one I co-founded in Vancouver was called 90210 because of all of the actors whose TV series shot there. The initial seminars help with a lot of the issues actors struggle with in terms of having confidence and needing to be validated. I can say from my own experience that after those early ESP seminars [NXIVM lingo that stands for Executive Success Program], I felt like things were going really well for me. I went to more auditions, I got off my sleeping pills, I felt like I was a causing agent in my life rather than just being at the whim of the world.
You eventually became one of NXIVM's top saleswomen, recruiting more than 2,000 members. What was your pitch?
Well, first things first: You don’t attempt any kind of a pitch until you have established a rapport. That’s something that has always come naturally to me, just chit chatting and engaging with people. Part of pitching is that you kind of want to tailor the approach to the specific person and what they’re looking for. Are you up for some role-play?
Okay, so you’re a journalist and maybe you’re telling me what you want to achieve in your career. So what would that be?
I guess I would like to earn more money, work on more rewarding projects…
And what is it that’s getting inthe way of that? What are you doing to sabotage yourself?
I could be more organized, better at promoting myself.
Okay, that’s great. So what if I told you that you could take these classes and they would help you get to the root these problems of and how to work past them? You could stop being part of the problem and start being part of the solution, and you would only have to pay $2,500.
I’d say that sounds like a lot of money.
Absolutely. I was an out of work actress living in a basement suite when I paid that money. Did I have it? Absolutely not. Was it worth it 1,000%? Yes. Would I spend $100,000 to get what I have gotten out of training? Definitely. Do you trust me?
Or maybe this isn’t for you. Maybe things are working well in your life the way they are. That’s okay. This part is called the “take away” and just thinking about it makes me feel so manipulative. On the other hand, I really thought these seminars were a wonderful opportunity. I have a lot of guilt about the people I brought in, but if there’s one thing I can hang my hat on, it’s that I never lied. I thought Keith Raniere was the greatest, wisest, most brilliant man on Earth. I had no idea what was going on with the women and everything that came out in the FBI’s investigation.
Can you try to explain Raniere’s appeal? I have listened to some of his preaching on YouTube, and I really don’t see it.
Part of it is the Greek chorus. New members don’t generally meet Keith until they’ve done several levels of training. Some people don’t meet him for two years and during that time they have been worshiping him. We say, “Thank you, Vangaurd,” which is how we referred to him, at the end of every seminar. He was totally deified. It’s not like I thought he was a hot stud or anything. I just respected his beliefs. Or what I thought were his beliefs.
Do you think his intentions were always evil, or was he someone who became corrupted by power?
I would say more of the first, but I do think as time went on and he became more and more powerful, he also got more and more out of touch with reality. Like, “Oh, let’s brand people with my initials.” I don’t know if that’s something he was planning from the beginning. People who knew him towards the end told me he was scared of getting old. And we now know that he has this erectile dysfunction problem, which came out at the trial. I think that maybe amped up [his need for power] towards the end.
You have a permanent reminder of your time in a cult. What do you see when you look at your scar today?
It’s a mixed bag. Sometimes it’s “Fuck you, Keith,” and other times it’s, “You messed with the wrong person,” and other times it’s, “Thank god this happened” otherwise I’d still be in ESP pushing that BS. I’m grateful that I had what it took to wake up, I’m angry that they thought they could get away with that, I’m disgusted to have been a part of it, and I’m proud of myself for standing up to them. It’s all of those things depending on the day.