It was supposed to be a self help group, but instead NXIVM (pronounced Nexium) is being described by ex-members as a sex cult, that uses brainwashing and blackmail to coerce members into master-slave relationships.
Josh Bloch, a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation producer, happened to run into a women he grew up with two summers ago on a small island off the coast of Canada.
Thinking she was part of a weird self-help group, Sarah Edmondson told him actually, a month earlier she left a cult.
“At one point she said to me, women in the group were being branded and then a few days later she said, ‘I am one of those women, I have actually been branded on my body with the initials of the group’s leader Keith Reniere’.”
Just how deeply she’d become involved in this group was revealed over time.
“It wasn’t really until we started investigating what was going on and peeled back the layers of this onion that we really learned what was happening at the centre of this organisation.”
Edmondson herself, didn’t realise herself until she got deeper into the cult.
She first got involved in her mid-20s, when she was a struggling actor and felt she was at a crossroads, searching for meaning.
It was at a dinner that she spoke to someone who had just taken a NXIVM course and told who told her about this amazing guy who had a 240 IQ and who was dedicating his life to a methodology to help people fulfill their potential.
“Everything this person was saying really resonated with her.”
She decided to take the course herself, the woman who signed her up gave her a discount off the $5000 price tag and she took a five-day intensive course.
“In those five days she has a series of, what she calls, epiphanies, or revelations about herself, and she’s really moved by it. She said she kind went back and forth at the beginning, there was some really weird things like on the first day they introduce you to a lot of bizarre rituals, you know, handshakes, vows, you had to thank Vanguard – which is the name Keith Reniere requires everyone to call him in the group.”
In some ways it was a way to weed out people who might be critical of what comes next, says Bloch.
The group is set up like a mutli-level marketing company and Edmondson was offered the chance to become a member.
“She rises through the organisation quite quickly, in terms of her ability to recruit people, that’s her skill set. And she becomes their star recruiter so Sarah Edmondson is responsible for recruiting something like 2000 people into the organisation.”
She ended up being one of the few people who recruited enough people to make money - up to $20,000 a month in commissions.
Edmondson is so successful that she opened a satellite centre in Canada, second only to the main centre in New York.
It was pitched as group therapy that breaks through the barriers stopping you from using your full potential.
And people said they got a lot out of it – not everything about NXIVM was bad. Much of the alleged criminal activity only took place within the inner circles, Bloch says.
“There were red flags about this organisation that go back far, things that actually were reported on and members ignored, and Sarah will say she ignored them. There was a very intentional strategy to get members to ignore the sort of bad press about Keith Reniere.”
A local paper even had a large expose about the group in 2010, and alleged that Reniere had sex with underage girls, as young as 13. People would be dragged through the courts and their lives ruined for speaking out against the group.
“Sarah says one of the forms of manipulation was to say you haven’t seen these things first hand, if you don’t have first-hand knowledge of this then you can’t draw conclusions.”
Early on the organisation told its members that there would be push back from the press because they were changing the world and they only needed to look at people like Ghandi and Martin Luther King Jnr to see this.
“People were already inoculated against the bad press that would come out.”
People within NXIVM even now still believe this.
A decade into Edmondson being involved in the group she was asked to be a part of a women’s sub-group.
“This has really become the focus of the FBI’s investigation.”
She was approached by one of her best friends in the organisation who invited her to be a part of a secret women’s group that would allow her to take her development to the next level.
“I have to say that there’s a very strong misogynistic ideology that’s worked into the NXIVM curriculum that says women are inherently less honourable, have less character than men and Sarah in many ways internalised this idea.”
This meant when she was approached, she felt it was something women needed to help overcome their inherent deficit. The woman became Edmondson’s slave, one of six in the pod, and it was a lifetime commitment.
To join the group there were a number of initiations, the first of which required Edmondson to give over collateral. Things that if they were released to the public would ruin her personal and professional life.
“They included explicit nude photos, videos, confessions – in her case false confessions about loved ones. She made a video where she falsely stated that her husband was abusive towards her, she made another video about her mother, the idea being if that collateral is there, you’d be that much more committed to following through with your personal goals.”
The final stage of the initiation was to get your body branded. Edmondson was told this would be representative of the four elements. Over 45 minutes, with a cauterising pen, she and the others in her pod were branded.
“It was incredibly painful.”
She was held down although the doors weren’t locked, speaking to just how far down the rabbit hole she had fallen.
Edmondson realised the brand was actually Keith Reniere’s initials, not the four elements – a discovery that prompted her to leave the group and become a whistle-blower.
It was the beginning of NXIVM's unravelling.
Six of the leaders were arrested, including Hollywood actress Alison Mack, three of them have plead guilty.
Keith Reniere faces charges including sex trafficking.
Who is Keith Reniere?
Keith Reniere, known as Vanguard, grew up in upstate New York in a middle-class family.
“We discovered there were these really early signs of the things that ended up manifesting itself in NXIVM, one of them is that he saw himself as a teenager, and this is according to one of his ex-girlfriends who was with him for many years, he had this vision of himself as being enlightened.
“At the age of 13 he thought he had something really special about him and his dad apparently was concerned…I think he had done really well on an IQ test at a younger age and he suddenly internalised this ‘I am better than other people, enlightened in some sense.”
He was also a big womaniser and became polyamorous, adopting an idea that men were naturally polyamorous, and women were naturally monogamous. At an early age he had multiple partners."
Intent on using his intelligence to gain power and wealth, he saw multilevel marketing as a way to do this. In fact, he was a part of Amway for a while and although he didn’t make any money he decided to devise his own strategy. He had a group of people around him helping to market his charisma and intelligence in a way that would be profitable. In 1989 he was listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as one of the smartest men in the world after taking a high-level IQ test – it became a calling card for him.
The group created Consumers Byline, a company which sold vacation packages and household goods -it was a testing ground of sorts and was eventually investigated for being a pyramid scheme.
In its ashes, NXIVM was born.
Canadian Broadcasting Corporation producer, Josh Bloch tells the story of Sarah Edmondson, and how she got out in the podcast series, Escaping NXIVM.