The Women

29 Nov 2019 | Sarah Edmondson | Kristine Gasbarre

In her early twenties, Canadian actress Sarah Edmondson joined multi-level marketing company NXIVM, won over by promises to help her reach her full potential. Over the next twelve years, she would go on to become one of NXIVM’s most faithful (and effective) devotees – all while remaining oblivious to NXIVM’s true purpose: a cult designed to satisfy the sexual deviance of its founder, Keith Raniere. After a shocking turn of events that left Sarah branded during a “secret sisterhood” initiation, she fought fiercely for emancipation. In this extract from Sarah’s memoir Scarred: The True Story of How I Escaped NXIVM, the Cult that Bound My Life, she introduces us to five women whose friendship she believed and trusted in wholeheartedly until the truth was finally revealed.

“If every city had a leader like Sarah, this company would be unstoppable.”

NXIVM president Nancy Salzman was known to deliver this line to our coaching team and while speaking in front of hundreds of NXIVM students. When she started praising me like this, it was 2009, and the company was booming. Across our four North-American branches, we were enlisting hundreds of new members every month. We’d just enrolled one of the world’s most beloved actresses in one of our coaching programs; a famous Hollywood actor was hosting one of our retreats at his mansion in Los Feliz; and I had recently performed a one-on-one coaching session for an iconic legend of rock ‘n’ roll, whose life choices had been landing him in the gossip columns for decades. I’d led him through our process known as EM (exploration of meaning), and I observed quietly while he suddenly recalled a memory from deep in his past. His gaze, which had initially seemed so worn and exhausted, widened into instant enlightenment. I allowed him a minute to realise that the event he was remembering had led to years of a behaviour pattern that had been unhealthy for him. I broke the silence by asking, “What do you make it mean?” This was a routine benchmark for every EM. I was trained to facilitate shifts like this one every day … but for him? In that moment, we both knew that his life had just changed.

There’s no question we were having an impact. The executives told us that a workshop had just been held on Necker Island, a private resort in the Caribbean owned by Richard Branson. We were making such a difference in the world that the Dalai Lama spoke at a NXIVM event and even agreed to provide the foreword for the book that our founder, Keith Raniere, had written. Some of the best-known CEOs, actors, and spiritual figures on the planet had endorsed him—and we were his megaphone, his tentacles that reached out into the world and drew new followers ever more curious to discover him. I grew up believing that every person has the power to make a change in the world. As part of this company, and now with our Vancouver centre growing faster than I could ever have hoped, I was living that dream.

The progress was profound not only because of what I was part of, but because of how far I personally had come. Just four years before, I’d been a lost young actress searching for everything: my big break, a way to save some money, friends I could connect with, and—more than anything—my purpose in life.

And I believed I had found it, as a salesperson for one of the most ground-breaking companies in the world, where I held the highest enrolment closing rate in the organisation. I didn’t just persuade new recruits that NXIVM’s principles worked; I was proof they did because they’d worked in my own life. I wholeheartedly believed in them. NXIVM was making great strides in evolving consciousness among individuals and promoting world peace.

Nancy Salzman’s praise fell on me like I was a rescued puppy waiting for crumbs. Known to ESP students as Prefect, Nancy had been Keith Raniere’s right hand since they founded NXIVM in 1998. She wasn’t only the self-help group’s highest coach; she was the head of the school, there to motivate the staff (her “pseudo-children,” as she called us) and develop new content to sell. The organisation was known, both internally and to people outside of it, as a community, a corporation, and a way of life.

At the start, Keith had asked a mutual friend to approach Nancy, who we were told was a renowned therapist and who supposedly had worked as a consultant for organisations like Con Edison, New York City’s power authority; American Express; and the State of New York itself. Keith offered Nancy what some therapists might dream of having: an opportunity to shape a personal development curriculum that would totally disrupt all existing psychotherapeutic modalities and self-help systems. In return, Nancy pledged her career to Keith and used her training to create lesson plans that would lead to breakthroughs in people’s understanding of themselves. Nancy’s own specialty was neurolinguistic programming (NLP), a technique for understanding how the brain processes words, which she’d learned from NLP’s two founders, Richard Bandler and John Grinder. Nancy had an over-the-top, zany way of presenting material and was known to go into hysterics at her own jokes, but when it came to growth—personal or within the NXIVM corporation—I didn’t dare question her.

Unfortunately, not even her mastery of these paradigms would be enough to save her from the fate she’d encounter as the president of Keith Raniere’s organisation.

Away from an audience, Nancy could be harshly critical—but over the years she’d pushed me, and she had my respect. I’d earned a degree in theatre and cut my teeth as an actress. I could bear tough critiques, and I was no stranger to hustle. Her recommendations worked; and as I grew my skill in sales and added to the company’s profit, she lavished me in compliments and dangled the carrot of financial incentives. “We’re starting a new curriculum track,” she’d say, “and you could make a ton of money.” The money hadn’t been my original motivation to work for them—the personal growth, sense of purpose, and community had been—but by now, there was no higher compliment for me than when Nancy praised my sales performance and welcomed me into NXIVM’s inner circle of senior-level executives. This team of five women, plus a handful of others, was a growing force.

Barbara Bouchey was an important mentor in my early days. A financial planner who joined Keith and Nancy in 1999, right after they started NXIVM, Barbara said she found the material helpful in overcoming the pain of her divorce. After Keith and Nancy had acquainted her with their new program, she jumped on board to help them grow the company. She had untamed blond hair and was one of the first to coach me in recruiting people to enroll in the Executive Success Program. Barbara was strong willed; intelligent if a bit eccentric, a figure I grew closer with as she went out of her way to show me the ropes. When I first joined and was still earning my way to climb up the system of promotion the company called “the Stripe Path,” Barbara used her airline points to fly me from Vancouver to Albany so that I could attend an important corporate event. She believed in me from the beginning and was one of the first to invest in my potential.

Pam Cafritz had been Keith’s long-time indispensable assistant for almost thirty years and was one of the company’s only two purple sashes on the Stripe Path. She had come from a socialite family in Washington, D.C., and was on a ski trip when she first met Keith. They were both in their twenties. He often told the story of how he had pushed his way through the line to take the chairlift with her. As they exited toward the slope, he told her, “Follow me.” And she did. Often at the centre of the whirlwind around Keith, Pam reminded me of a doe in the woods—lean and quiet, always thoughtfully tuned in to the activity around her. She often suggested I should spend more time with Keith as part of my commitment to grow in the organisation … though, to be honest, I often found myself keeping a little distance from them both.

Barb Jeske, lovingly known as “Barb J.,” held the only other purple sash. We called her Madame Reality because she was so frank and smart—by far my favourite coach. Her candid personality and angular features were offset by a certain softness in her nature. She was the zero-makeup type and had flaxen hair that fell past her waist. It was always as though there were two sides to her. She was no-nonsense but almost maternal. Everything about her came from a place of concern for us as her staff and her devotion to the material we taught and practiced. Barb J. and I shared a similar passion for healthy living—kombucha, coconut water, and green juice. Over the years, we spent many long walks together discussing how to be the healthiest and best version of ourselves.

“Every single one of them thought that Keith had chosen her as his  one-and-only lifelong soulmate while he thought of them all, collectively,  as his ‘spiritual wives’.”

And there was my best friend, Lauren. Lauren was the driven, heart-centred companion I’d longed for since I was a kid—as well as the daughter of my boss, Nancy Salzman. Lauren was the person who had changed my life from the moment I met her. In 2005 when I attended my very first introductory NXIVM seminar, known to us as “the Five-Day,” I’d found myself zoning out from the DVDs they played for us. The turning point arrived when, in one of the videos, I heard Nancy Salzman mention her daughter, Lauren, who she said was also part of NXIVM’s corporation. Nancy explained that Lauren had always been the type of person who would quit any activity that didn’t come easily to her. That’s me, I thought. I never push through anything. In the video, Nancy explained that if I were truly committed to my personal growth, this organisation would arm me with a community of peers and coaches who would support me as I worked my way up the NXIVM ladder, the Stripe Path, likening it to “the martial arts system of personal growth.” That definitely appealed to me, as I’d struggled to stay on target in my acting career. You could go into auditions appearing attractive and performing well—you could be everything a role called for—and often you still wouldn’t get the part. I liked the idea of a consistent standard I could be measured against. The Stripe Path offered that.

That had been four years earlier. By 2009, these women—all high-achieving, free-thinking, and financially independent—had become the people who were closer to me than anyone.

Our job as coaches in this program was to transform thinking in the world, and Nancy’s job was to make sure we were reaching an ever-growing community. Personally and professionally, I was inspired, and there’s no question that I’d grown past so many of my old limitations. It was these women, and a handful of others, who had made me part of this mission.

I’d demonstrated my potential and earned a place, albeit still pretty early on the Stripe Path, among this legion of women—all NXIVM executives—who had all found ways to take me under their  wing to urge my growth. We were our own subcommunity of NXIVM, building our own little culture while helping the larger organisation crush it on a global level.

But for the twelve years I was in NXIVM, I had no clue that every single one of these women was keeping an important secret. Every time all of us gathered into one space, I had no idea there was such a strong likelihood that each of them had at some point been Keith Raniere’s sexual partner. In fact, as these women worked closely with one another over the years to develop new education, sales, and enrolment strategies, every single one of them thought that Keith had chosen her as his one-and-only lifelong soulmate while he thought of them all, collectively, as his “spiritual wives.”

None of us knew that his teachings, which promised to make us leaders, were actually making us followers—his followers. His disciples. He wanted us to worship him. None of us knew how Keith’s machinations and manipulations would come to impact our lives; that we weren’t learning from him as much as we were being indoctrinated and deceived—brainwashed—by him. I would come to learn that while purporting to bond us closer as strong, evolved women, Keith was undermining our relationships to each other in a harrowing, behind-the-scenes way and trying to eliminate the relationship each of us had with ourselves—for his own personal benefit. A self-proclaimed science, literature, and history buff, Keith chose the very name NXIVM when he created the company in 1998 as a reference to a debt bondage system in the time of Julius Caesar. We had been told that NXIVM meant “a place of learning,” but after I got out and started doing some research, I learned that in ancient times, a “nexum” was a person pledging his or her services as collateral for the repayment of a debt, and the person owed the debt (the “master”) was allowed to demand services indefinitely. This included sexual services. Keith loved masterminding terms like this, with a reference to something illicit that only he would understand.

We didn’t know that Keith had created a dangerous psychological hierarchy among us. That he didn’t think of us as the principal leaders of his company—that instead, he thought of us as the most devout followers in his cult and that, as he told Barbara Bouchey in a conversation she videotaped in 2009, “I’ve had people killed for my beliefs.” During the era that I thought was our prime, a few of the women were just beginning to discover that their involvement with NXIVM had been not been a path toward their purpose but the worst mistake of their lives.

In 2009, I was at the top of my game, fulfilled by my work financially and emotionally. I was surrounded by an intergenerational group of women who were mentors, mother figures, and best friends. I thought I was living the dream, making my living by spreading goodness and enlightenment in the world. I believed we were the luckiest—and most revolutionary—women on the planet.

What I didn’t know was that my commitment to these women and this organisation would indeed cause my life to transform and force me to grow stronger, but it wouldn’t be with them at my side. Over the next eight years, some of my close friends would vanish, two of my coaches would lose their lives, and my blind following of this community would eventually be vanquished by my intuition—all shortly after my best friend, Lauren, lured me into her home and instructed me to get naked.

scarred small book cover
All text extracted from Scarred by Sarah Edmondson with Kristine Gasbarre
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