Branded and blackmailed: 'How I survived the devious sex cult, Nxivm'

To the outside world, Nxivm was a wellbeing programme for the rich and famous. But to insiders, it was a living nightmare of manipulation and abuse

15 November 2020 - 00:04 By Laura Pullman
US actress Sarah Edmondson allowed herself to be branded with a symbol, which is in fact the initials of Nxivm leader Keith Raniere and another cult member.
US actress Sarah Edmondson allowed herself to be branded with a symbol, which is in fact the initials of Nxivm leader Keith Raniere and another cult member.
Image: New York Times

Sarah Edmondson was in her late 20s and unfulfilled by her acting career when she joined a strange self-help organisation in 2005. It was called Nxivm, pronounced Nexium, and its leader was Keith Raniere, a lank-haired New Yorker who claimed to have developed a scientific framework that enabled people to reach their full potential.

The big sell of the company's seminars — a mix of pseudoscience, corporate jargon and pinched philosophies — focused on participants overcoming their fears and “limiting beliefs” to become more successful.

At the start, members were asked to divulge their insecurities and life goals in a lengthy questionnaire before enduring 17-hour days of intensive “tuition”. They were broken down and built back up — and then pressured to take more courses and recruit others.

Nxivm cult leader Keith Raniere.
Nxivm cult leader Keith Raniere.
Image: US Government/Eastern District of NY/Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

For Edmondson, now 43, it became a driving force in her life. It was her salvation and she wanted to share it with others. “I truly felt part of this elite club that was really helping people,” she says. “We were so self-righteous.”

Despite its oddities — a special handshake, coloured sashes to signify seniority and followers having to call Raniere “Vanguard” — Nxivm's personal growth training was popular.

Hollywood actresses, European royalty and billionaire heiresses signed up and more than 18,000 participants enrolled in its Executive Success Programmes — at $5,000 a pop — in centres across the US, Mexico and Canada. Some walked away after the five-day course; others stayed for years, sacrificing fortunes, families and careers.

It was bad enough that thousands of participants were being duped out of large amounts of money, but there was far worse at the heart of Nxivm. After a highly publicised trial in 2019 that gripped America, Raniere was found guilty of sex trafficking and other crimes.

At a recent hearing in Brooklyn he was sentenced to 120 years in prison. The sentence, which means he'll spend the rest of his life behind bars, was handed out because he'd “failed to show remorse”, according to the judge. Raniere was also fined £1.34-million. His closest acolytes still await sentencing.

Now, with their tormentor behind bars, Edmondson and others who reached Nxivm's upper echelons are free to reveal how they were brainwashed, betrayed and tortured.

BRUTAL CLIMAX

For Edmondson, more than a decade of dedication to Nxivm reached a brutal climax in 2017 when she was recruited into a secret sorority within the organisation called Dominus Obsequious Sororium (DOS) — an incorrect Latin translation means “master over the slave women”.

She was persuaded to join DOS by her best friend, Lauren Salzman. It was, she was promised, a female empowerment group and members would receive a small tattoo to signify their dedication. Edmondson was convinced it was the next challenge for her self-growth and thought that the fact it had “slaves” reporting to “masters” was motivation to help followers achieve personal goals.

In reality DOS was a depraved sex cult created two years earlier by Raniere and Allison Mack, an actress who'd starred in the TV show Smallville but was now one of Raniere's most fervent followers.

Rather than being an exclusive inner circle, it's believed that hundreds of women, including teenagers, were lured into DOS. To bind themselves to the lifelong cult, the victims were coerced into handing over “collateral” such as sexually explicit videos, pornographic photographs or the property deeds to their home.

Actress Allison Mack.
Actress Allison Mack.
Image: Jemal Countess/Getty Images

Edmondson's initiation took place one night in March 2017. She and four other recruits were blindfolded, taken to a house near Albany, New York, and forced to lie naked on a massage table. With no anaesthetic, they were branded beneath the hip with the initials of Raniere and Mack. The room was filled with the stench of burning flesh.

“My whole body said, 'Get the f*** out,'" she tells me, “but I had Lauren saying, 'It's for your own good,' and I trusted and believed her. It's hard for people to wrap their heads around that.”

Why didn't she leave Nxivm immediately afterwards? “I had to justify that what I did was OK,” she says. “When you make a bad decision, you've got to go, 'Oh, there's some value to that'.”

In 2005, at the age of 28, Edmondson had initially signed up to a self-help group. The actress says she struggled to fit in growing up and was seeking greater purpose in life. Nxivm seemed to offer what she felt her life lacked.

At first she was put off by the weird sashes and rituals, but she gradually became enamoured with the close community that Nxivm provided. As she brought more people on board as a company saleswoman, her self-esteem grew. She met and married another member, Anthony Ames, who was a fellow actor and former Ivy League quarterback.

The more courses members took, the more indoctrinated they became, enthralled by an expert manipulator at the top of the pyramid.

The mythology around Raniere was significant: he was a child prodigy who spoke in full sentences at the age of one; he was a self-taught concert-level pianist by 12, a judo champion, and a humanitarian with an IQ of 240. In reality he'd attended a New York polytechnic and had a marketing pyramid scheme closed down by investigators before starting Nxivm in 1998.

His number two was Salzman's mother, Nancy Salzman, a therapist who specialised in a form of neurolinguistics that involved hypnotism. Followers called her “Prefect”. Between them they pressured their acolytes into giving up distractions in their lives. It became all-consuming for Edmondson. “Once you've invested so much it's hard to pull out, to own those choices,” she says, referencing the sunk-cost fallacy theory, which partly explains why red flags go ignored.

WAKING UP

It was days after the branding initiation that Edmondson started seeing what was really going on. Examining the red welts on her body, she realised that the lines were a combination of Raniere and Mack's initials, not a symbol representing nature as she'd been told. When she revealed the scar to her husband, he exploded in rage. The couple were “waking up” — a term for the process when cult members realise the truth.

“It was a scary situation. I had to get my family out as quickly as possible,” says Ames, recalling how he drove to Nxivm's community outside Albany. “I tried to sound the alarm for everyone else, but they wouldn't listen.”

We were fired up and pretty f***ed up, realising that everything we'd been doing for years was false
Actress Sarah Edmondson on realising the truth about Nxivm

“We were fired up and pretty f***ed up, realising that everything we'd been doing for years was false,” Edmondson adds. Cue months of sleepless nights, anxiety and humiliation as they analysed the warning signs they'd missed for so long. “Anything negative we'd heard while in Nxivm was a smear campaign — 'Oh, it's just people trying to take us down'. Then, oh my God, all those things are true,” she says.

As her “collateral” to join DOS, the actress had made a video in which she falsely accused Ames of abusing her and their young son. “I was terrified of it being released because of what that could do to our family,” she says. “Until I realised it doesn't matter if it gets released, I have to expose this.”

After fleeing Nxivm, Edmondson reported the branding to police, but was dismissed by authorities. The women asked to be branded, they said. Along with other whistle-blowers, she took her story to The New York Times. The resulting exposé in October 2017 led to an FBI investigation and in March 2018 armed police stormed a $10,000-a-week villa in Mexico to arrest Raniere. They found him surrounded by seven of his “first-line slaves” as he prepared for a group sex session.

Ever since, myriad TV shows, podcasts and books have dissected the mind-boggling cult that operated out of a humdrum suburb of Albany. In the latest such offering — a nine-part HBO documentary called The Vow — we watch Edmondson and other Nxivm victims-turned-vigilantes during their mission to bring down Raniere.

WATCH | The trailer for 'The Vow'

Wife-and-husband filmmakers Jehane Noujaim and Karim Amer have extraordinary footage: they spent months following the former members and, helpfully, Raniere was obsessed with documenting everything on film. “Abuse is a made-up human construct,” he says during a tutorial caught on camera, “and a lot of times the screaming of abuse is abuse in itself.”

During his trial in New York last year, prosecutors said that DOS was a system “to serve up a steady stream of sex partners”, including a 15-year-old girl, for Raniere, now 60. In June 2019 he was convicted of sex trafficking, racketeering, forced labour and creating child sexual-abuse images.

Most Nxivm members had no idea of the existence of DOS and only those in Raniere's closest circle, living alongside him in Albany, were aware of the sexual abuses.

Members included India Oxenberg, the granddaughter of Princess Elizabeth of Yugoslavia and daughter of Dynasty actress Catherine Oxenberg; Emiliano Salinas, son of a former Mexican president; and Clare and Sara Bronfman, the half-British sisters who inherited the Seagram whiskey fortune. (Oxenberg escaped the cult after seven years; Salinas abandoned ship after Raniere's arrest; Sara Bronfman distanced herself from the group, while her sister, Clare, was jailed for six years and nine months for her involvement.)

Nxivm held seminars on Richard Branson's private atoll, Necker Island, and the Dalai Lama visited the cult's headquarters in 2009. Neither the British billionaire nor the religious leader knew about the evil underbelly of the organisation, but their brief affiliations lent Nxivm incalculable credibility.

Noujaim herself took Nxivm classes — after being introduced to Sara Bronfman by Branson during a media conference on his island — and met Raniere at one of his regular late-night volleyball games. “My first impression was that he was a harmless guy who'd created this great curriculum,” Noujaim, an Oscar-nominated documentarian, says.

'SINKING INTO QUICKSAND'

Although Raniere had a harem of women, Nxivm also targeted men who were seeking guidance.

South African filmmaker Mark Vicente was doing well in LA when Nancy Salzman lured him to join Nxivm in 2005. “I wanted to understand myself deeper,” he says. “I didn't have a lot of the answers that I wanted.” Initially wary, he was determined to push aside his scepticism. That decision was “like sinking into quicksand” and Vicente soon moved to Albany, dedicating his life to Nxivm and Raniere.

“I would have died for that man,” he says in The Vow. For Vicente, Raniere was an awe-inspiring master who had all the answers to life. “I thought he had a scientific elixir to understanding the human condition. It was intoxicating.” Now he realises Raniere's teachings were regurgitated from other philosophies, including Scientology.

Vicente married a fellow member, Bonnie Piesse, an Australian actress who appeared in two Star Wars films, and Raniere wrote their wedding vows.

South African Mark Vicente, who spent 12 years with Nxivm.
South African Mark Vicente, who spent 12 years with Nxivm.
Image: Supplied/HBO

Over time Nxivm's teaching grew increasingly misogynistic, but, like Edmondson and Ames, the couple were already too deeply embedded to object. Raniere preached that women were overemotional manipulators who loved playing victim and enjoyed being raped. Practising penance had become standard within the group. Piesse would sleep on the floor, for example, if she'd failed in an area of self-growth.

Despite their closeness to Raniere, the couple had no idea about DOS or the horrific branding taking place. But in 2017 Piesse “woke up”. Her doubts had taken hold after worrying that the women in Raniere's closest orbit were increasingly thin and zombie-like.

After fleeing, Piesse, now 37, spent months trying to persuade Vicente to see the truth. Sociopaths “lead you to believe that they're the greatest aspiration of what you want to be, so it's like you're conjoined”, Vicente says, explaining his difficulty in breaking away. “To ask the question 'What if Raniere is a bad guy?' felt tantamount to saying 'What if I'm bad?'”

In May that year, having lived and breathed Nxivm for 12 years, he woke up and ran too. “Bonnie saved my life,” he says. “She fought for me against these people that were trying to destroy her.”

After leaving, Vicente felt suicidal. You've been gaslit for so long that you question everything and “literally think you're going crazy. You melt into a puddle on the ground and weep. Everything you thought was one way was the opposite, inside out, upside down, back to front.”

RUTHLESS ATTACKS

Only after escaping did Vicente, Piesse, Edmondson and Ames discover the full disturbing reality: Raniere and his closest acolytes were grooming and forcing “slaves” into having sex with him. They were put on starvation diets — some were living on 500 calories a day — and subjected to sleep deprivation. Slaves had to be available to their female “master” 24 hours a day and were punished if they failed to respond to text messages within a minute.

Before Raniere's arrest in 2018, other high-ranking members who'd previously run away were relentlessly pursued by Nxivm's lawyers and financially destroyed. Funding these ruinous attacks was heiress Clare Bronfman, who had joined Nxivm in 2002 when she was a 23-year-old show jumper and bankrolled the cult to the tune of $150-million.

You leave Nxivm with extreme paranoia, extreme PTSD and the real understanding that you're now a target
Mark Vicente, who spent 12 years with Nxivm

“You leave Nxivm with extreme paranoia, extreme PTSD and the real understanding that you're now a target,” says Vicente.

Despite the risks, the two couples set about trying to save those who were still indoctrinated. “We brought them in, we have to bring them out,” says Edmondson in The Vow.

Desperate to rescue her daughter from Raniere's clutches, Catherine Oxenberg also joined the fight. After the explosive New York Times article, the dominoes fell fast: the FBI investigation, the arrests of Raniere, Mack, Clare Bronfman and the Salzmans and, finally, Raniere's trial.

Chilling details emerged in court. A British victim said she'd been forced to write a letter to her parents declaring herself a prostitute, which would be sent if she didn't follow orders as a slave. A young Mexican woman had been confined alone in a room for two years on Raniere's orders after showing interest in another man. The brandings were filmed for Raniere to watch, and he had a raised bed and hot tub in his “library”, where he would abuse women.

Vicente is convinced that Raniere can still “run the show” from behind bars. “He'll never relinquish his position. This is a man who has messianic delusions.” Certainly, the cult leader has shown no remorse, and his supporters have shown their devotion by dancing outside the New York jail where he was held awaiting sentencing.

“Even though I want to slap his defenders,” says Edmondson, “I remember what it's like to be in that mindset of 'the world doesn't understand how noble Keith is and they'll do anything to destroy him'.”

STOLEN YEARS

The Vow has cast fresh, fierce limelight on the former Nxians.

“If this is the cautionary tale that helps people, then it's worth it,” says Vicente, “but it's very hard, very embarrassing. Of course some unkind people say, 'You're a bunch of idiots, how could you let that happen?' But don't think that hasn't occurred to us. That's the thing, the con is really good.”

“I have a lot of anxiety still,” says Edmondson. She and Ames had a second child after leaving Nxivm and held a small ceremony for their fifth wedding anniversary. “We wrote new vows, it was beautiful.” Vicente and Piesse got rid of their wedding rings — unwanted reminders of Raniere's vows.

Ames likens Raniere to a detonated hand grenade. “Everyone has a certain amount of shrapnel in them,” he says. “The closer you were to him the more you have. Some people's lives are ruined permanently, some temporarily, some peripherally.”

I weep at kindness in a way I never did before — the contrast is so profound because I've seen such terrible darkness
Mark Vicente, who spent 12 years with Nxivm

They all struggle with how many years the cult stole. “It's a fifth of my life,” says Vicente. “I'm not the only one: there are women who were there for 20 years and the grief of their child-bearing years gone on a promise that was a lie.”

Finding silver linings is critical. Vicente, who is making films again, is more appreciative of the goodness in people. “I weep at kindness in a way I never did before — the contrast is so profound because I've seen such terrible darkness.”

For Edmondson, living with the scar of Raniere's initials was harrowing. “I spent so much time and money on oils, potions and tinctures to make it as discreet as possible,” she says.

Last year she underwent an operation to have the branding removed. She stands up and gently lowers the side of her jeans to show me the faint line that remains. “It was a profound thing to take back my body,” she says, a smile spreading across her face.


SA CULTS AND THEIR LEADERS

MANCOBA SEVEN ANGELS MINISTRY

The church was established in 1986 by Siphiwo Mancoba in Umzimkhulu, KZN and continued after the founder's death by his seven sons and their mother. Members of the ministry were required to relinquish cars, money and properties as gifts to the “Angel Brothers”.

It is alleged the brothers kept many “sex slaves”, some as young as 12 years old. In February 2018, five police officers and an off-duty soldier were shot and killed by gunmen under orders from the church. In the shoot-out, three of the brothers were killed.

KWASIZABANTU MISSION

Currently in the news following allegations of abuse, torture, sodomy, rape and virginity testing, the KZN mission, founded by Reverend Erlo Stegen, has also been accused of money laundering and fraud. Witnesses claimed in court that KSB started as a good organisation, but began to show cult-like characteristics.

JESUS DOMINION INTERNATIONAL

Tim Omotoso is the senior pastor of the Durban-based church. He is on trial in the Port Elizabeth high court for rape and human trafficking, and is alleged to have groomed and molested his victims from the age of 14. — Andrea Nagel