Sarah Edmondson says it’s hard to sit in a coffee shop – even to leave the house – any more without being recognized. There’s the woman who escaped that cult, the woman who was branded with that guy’s initials on her bikini line. Or, worse, there’s that woman who tried to get me to join.
The Vancouver actor has become inextricably linked with NXIVM (pronounce NEX-ee-um) and the poster child of cult escape, often fielding inquiries from other lost souls in similar situations.
Just that morning, she tells me, after dropping her older son off at school, she received a message through Instagram. It was from a woman looking for advice on exposing a cult she had escaped; the two women ended up on a call to discuss. “This was one of these one-touch, orgasm-based cults,” Edmondson tells me, curled up on her large grey sectional sofa. “Do you know about these cults?”
I did not.
Anyway, this was not the cult we were there to discuss. Her new-found notoriety is the reason we’re meeting in the privacy of her apartment – a lovely two-bedroom, done up in shades of grey with a giant floor-to-ceiling window that offers a view of Vancouver’s False Creek, an ocean inlet. There are neatly stacked piles of books, including Great Yoga Retreats and 365 Meditations; Buddhas sit in the living room and the bathroom.
Edmondson’s notoriety, bolstered in large part by the CBC podcast Uncover: Escaping NXIVM and the high-profile trial of NXIVM leader Keith Raniere (called Vanguard by his followers), is peaking again, with the publication of her memoir. Scarred: The True Story of How I Escaped NXIVM, the Cult that Bound My Life, opens with the horrific scene in which Edmondson and several other women were blindfolded and later branded.
NXIVM’s resident physician enters and the first woman undergoes the procedure – what they were told, Edmondson writes, would be a dime-sized tattoo.
“When the iron first makes contact to her skin, Gabriella’s whole body flips and tweaks, as if she’s being electrocuted,” Edmondson writes. The smell of scorched skin fills the air in the room. “Her mark is raised, red, and inflamed, like a hunk of meat hanging from one of the most delicate places on her body,” she writes. (Gabriella is not the woman’s real name.)
And yet, Edmondson persisted. “You are strong! You can do this,” she told herself. Plus she had supplied NXIVM with “collateral” – nude photos and videotapes of her saying damaging things about family members, which the cult threatened to release if Edmondson didn’t comply.
“Master, would you brand me? It would be an honour,” she was instructed to say. She told herself that having given birth, she could handle the pain. “But nothing could have ever prepared me for the feel of this fire on my skin. … Lying here now, I can feel each millimetre of my flesh singed open,” she writes.
This is the source of my No. 1 question that I ask again and again, in different ways, during our interview. I’m sure this is Cult 101, I tell her, but how does an intelligent, sensible woman get caught up in something like that? And not run screaming from the room?
“That’s a great question and that’s ultimately one of the main reasons that I wanted to write the book,” she tells me. She then moves into recruiter mode, trying out her old NXIVM spiel on me, displaying how she would get people to join what she had thought was solely a personal development organization. “I was really good at it,” she tells me. In her book, she writes that she had the highest enrolment closing rate in the organization.
NXIVM’s Executive Success Program (ESP) was embraced, in particular, by the acting community in Vancouver. Edmondson earned a 20-per-cent commission on the people she enrolled. Enrolment was increasing exponentially; meetings were attracting 80 people a night, she writes, by the fall of 2009. (Chairs from the centre now populate the party room at her condo complex.) Through some of the Vancouver actors, the group expanded deeper into Hollywood.
NXIVM attracted A-list celebrities, she writes, including one of the world’s most beloved actresses, an iconic rock-and-roll legend and Oscar-winning directors. In the book, she teases, but does not identify them.
“That actress who broke up her co-star’s marriage in real life? Yep.”
When I ask why she doesn’t identify these people, she responds, “partly legal, but also I don’t want to cause anyone else more hurt. And I don’t think it’s fair.”
The book is a chance for her to have control over telling her own story. It is a step-by-step look at how “a lost young actress searching for everything” became involved in the Albany, N.Y.-based organization, which offered personal growth, sense of purpose and community. How she rose through the ranks, met her husband, opened a Vancouver chapter. “NXIVM was everything to me,” she writes.
And then how she fled – after 12 years, and laboured to expose the organization. Her decision followed the branding in 2017, an instruction to sign over the deed to her home, and the shattering of her beliefs in the organization and the man who led it. “Your job is to create the illusion of hope,” Raniere told her shortly after she was branded, she writes. “It hit me. … It was a fool’s errand, all of it. … It was all phony.”
This year, Raniere was convicted on several charges, including racketeering and sex trafficking. His sentencing had been scheduled for September, but has been delayed until at least next year. Edmondson says she hopes he gets life in prison. “Anything else is not right – and also terrifies me.”
Edmondson’s publication date was moved up because of that sentencing; she finished the book with a newborn, the baby often strapped to her chest in an Ergobaby carrier while Edmondson wrote about these horrific events.
She has been applauded by many, but others remain loyal to Raniere and skeptical of her motivations, pitching that she’s an out-of-work actress seeking attention.
“When I went public, it was never for attention. I had a very specific goal in mind and that was to shut it down. And free these women,” she tells me.
At one point, she lowers her voice to a whisper, a habit that came when she thought NXIVM loyalists were spying on her.
There are still a handful of people she knows who remain loyal to Raniere.
“They believe in Keith, they don’t believe us, they think we destroyed their community. They think that Keith was framed. And that this whole thing is a smear campaign and that the FBI planted evidence to take him down and that he’s misunderstood and he’s a martyr,” she says, taking a sip of her coffee with coconut milk. “Oh, and that I’m playing the victim.”
She says she has reached out and apologized to anyone who will talk to her.
Edmondson is now considering making this her life’s work. “When I was helping that woman today on the phone, I thought maybe that will be my thing; I’ll help people get out of cults. I’ll be like a cult buster.”
And she is still acting.
Toward the end of our interview, her husband Anthony Ames returns home and starts making lunch while their baby Ace sleeps on his chest in the carrier. “You feel stupid; you feel like you’ve been duped,” he tells me, calling what they’ve been through a roller coaster.
Edmondson asks if I would like to see the scar. She stands up, undoes her button-fly white pants and shows me the scar – now white, not red like it once was, but definitely there and far larger than the dime-sized mark she had been promised.
She points out the “K” and the “R,” although I have trouble seeing the letters – the scar has healed and is white now. “Keith Richards,” Ames jokes from the kitchen.
Edmondson has healed along with it.
“I love my life right now. I feel really strong after going through this. In some ways, I wouldn’t change it. Even though I kind of wish I’d done other things with my 30s,” she says. “I mean, I have this crazy story and this bizarre trauma in my life which will probably be with me to a certain degree. But I am stronger for it over all.”