For 12 years, actress Sarah Edmondson championed NXIVM, a company based in Albany, New York that offering ‘personal development’ coaching for women. She was so taken by NXIVM and its magnetic founder Keith Raniere, that Edmondson became one of the group’s inner circle. She recruited new members and coached them throughout their spiritual journey - she even met her husband, Nippy, through her work with the group. In every way, NXIVM became Edmondson’s family. So it was with shock and considerable trauma that Edmondson had to finally face the truth: she’d joined a cult. Her next problem was even more difficult. How could she possibly get out safely?

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True Spies Episode 46: Surviving NXIVM

DISCLAIMER: This episode features strong language throughout.

NARRATOR: Welcome to True Spies. Week by week, mission by mission, you’ll hear the true stories behind the world’s greatest espionage operations. You’ll meet the people who navigate this secret world. What do they know? What are their skills? And what would you do in their position?

This is True Spies Episode 46: Surviving NXIVM.

SARAH EDMONDSON: Everything in my body was on full, hyper-vigilant alert. I could barely eat. I could barely sleep. All I knew was I had to get out. I had to save these women. Most of them had given very damaging pictures.

NARRATOR: This is True Spies Episode 46: Surviving NXIVM. Some people - most of them, in fact - become spies by choice. Perhaps they’re motivated by patriotism. Maybe it is cash. For this week’s True Spy, it was personal.

SARAH EDMONDSON: My ‘mama bear’ instinct to protect and destroy this motherf***** was so enraged in me, I can't even tell you. And that's what set me on this warpath of trying to expose them and take them down.

NARRATOR: And no, she’s not a spy in the traditional sense. But she’s a shining example of how ordinary people can use espionage techniques to manage extraordinary situations. Leaving a cult, for example. Or, more accurately, burning one down.

SARAH EDMONDSON: I explained to them that there was possibly sex trafficking involved because women were being blackmailed to then have sex under the auspices of this... personal growth program.

NARRATOR: If you’ve heard Sarah Edmondson’s name before, there’s a good chance that it was in the same sentence as NXIVM. NXIVM was a cult and pyramid scheme led by a self-styled guru named Keith Raniere. In reality, Keith Raniere was a serial abuser of women. Since starting the cult in 1998, Raniere had recruited thousands of students. Like many self-help programs, NXIVM offered training courses aimed at personal growth. In return for a kind of white-collar spiritualism derived from Eastern philosophy and psychiatric techniques, Raniere’s students parted with thousands of dollars. For a long time, Sarah Edmondson was one of those students. She was one of those women. And in 2017, she played a crucial role in bringing Raniere to justice. ​

SARAH EDMONDSON: I was a member of the group NXIVM for 12 years, 2005 to 2017. When we were involved in the group, we thought it was the most beautiful community of like-minded people trying to evolve themselves through personal and professional development. And it turned out that the things we thought were good about the group were actually a cover for some very nefarious activities, and when we discovered those things, my husband and I and a small group of what we called ‘Team Takedown’ decided to expose the leader with the help of the FBI.

NARRATOR: We all think we know a cult when we see it. And most of us imagine that we would be too strong, too discerning, to join one. In reality, it is easier than you think. Joining one can be as simple as being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

SARAH EDMONDSON: I was 27, about to turn 28... I'd pursued acting at that point for less than a decade, but had not yet found my stride, and found that it wasn't as meaningful as I had hoped. And I was in a relationship that was good but not amazing. And I was living in a basement suite. So, you know, at that stage of life that many people find themselves in, in their 20s where they're like, what am I doing with my life? And craving more purpose and more meaning.

NARRATOR: But NXIVM didn’t just offer guidance for lost souls. Its membership included a number of professionals working in the TV and film industries. For a young actor looking for a break, the group represented that most tempting of carrots - a networking opportunity. Sarah’s first encounter with NXIVM took place on a cruise ship, sailing around the Caribbean. Her then-boyfriend, David, an aspiring filmmaker, had had one of his short films accepted into the Spiritual Cinema Festival at Sea. The floating film festival celebrated films with social impact that aimed to raise consciousness. And there was one director - the guest of honor, no less - who Sarah and David were both very keen to meet. His name was Mark Vicente. During their conversations on the cruise, Mark began to open up to the couple about a life-changing personal development program that he’d recently become a part of - ESP.

SARAH EDMONDSON: ESP stands for Executive Success Programs, it was the personal and professional development component of NXIVM that was the funnel that brought most people into the overall... the overarching company of NXIVM. And that was the training that was designed at sort of an executive-level coaching platform.

NARRATOR: As Mark described ESP, Sarah realized that the aims of the group lined up with the future that she wanted for herself - a future full of success, happiness, and spiritual balance.

SARAH EDMONDSON: He told me he was part of this community that was, you know, building humanity and making conscious[ness] shifting projects. And I just said: 'Sign me up.’

NARRATOR: It just so happened that the group was holding its first training course in Sarah’s native Vancouver in just a few weeks’ time. Would she like to come along? She decided that she would.

SARAH EDMONDSON: After I signed up, I had buyer's remorse and I was like, what am I doing paying... it was $2,000 US at the time, $2,160 for a five-day training? I was a lot of money for a barely working actress living in a basement suite.

NARRATOR: So, semi-reluctantly, Sarah attended the first day of the five-day course. It wasn’t an instant hit.

SARAH EDMONDSON: By the first day, I was really turned off by a lot of things. But I had also been told that on day one you would be naturally triggered and most people would have what they called the urge to bolt. But it just meant that there was something there to look at. And if you stuck it through, you could work on it. So they preempted us to stay and to ignore our internal guidance that there were red flags.

NARRATOR: Sarah’s parents had both been mental health professionals. The language of self-exploration was familiar to her, and she took to it easily.

SARAH EDMONDSON: And if you're trusting that what you're doing is a good process, the indoctrination happens very easily and very... You wouldn't know it was happening at the time. In fact, they might even say, sure, this is brainwashing, but we're washing the bad stuff out, you know what I mean?

NARRATOR: Sounds tempting, doesn’t it? Pretty words. It’s the tantalizing promise of all self-help courses. Self-realization. A fresh start. It would be years before Sarah realized the sinister weight behind them.

SARAH EDMONDSON: It's literally as if your belief system is being superimposed by another belief system.

NARRATOR: But NXIVM, and derivatives like ESP, were about more than just converting recruits to their way of thinking. If you want to really understand what the organization was about, you need to ask yourself a simple question. Who’s getting paid?

SARAH EDMONDSON: So NXIVM was definitely set up in the format of a pyramid or a multi-level marketing company where to go to any next level, you had to bring in new people, new recruits. And MLMs traditionally have a certain number that you have to bring in before you can get promoted. Funnily enough, we were told this was not an MLM because MLMs are unethical. And Keith Raniere, the leader, was very ethical.

NARRATOR: Right. That’s okay then. We’ll come back to Keith Raniere, don’t worry. If the structure of the organization was dubious, Sarah felt able to move past it. After all, she’d been taught as part of the program that doubts - red flags - were a natural part of growth, and had to be overcome. She began to climb the ranks. NXIVM was working for her, and she decided to work for it, too.

SARAH EDMONDSON: I started in NXIVM, as anyone would, which is as a student. I decided almost immediately after I got through my original objections that I wanted to be a coach and I wanted to help people the way that I had been helped. I got very quickly to that rank and then I stalled before getting to the rank of proctor, which is the rank where you get paid.

NARRATOR: She was now being paid for her time. She even opened her own NXIVM center in Vancouver, alongside her friend and mentor, Mark Vicente. In fact, Sarah became something of a poster child for the group. She had gone from ‘starving artist’ to ‘affluent career woman’. To her mind, NXIVM had given her everything - purpose, an income, and a huge, wildly supportive family. Now, who wouldn’t want that? For a long time, Sarah was determined to share the love.

SARAH EDMONDSON: I personally brought in around 100 people who brought in other people, who brought in other people, who brought in other people. So in my - what they called - my 'organization' was around 2,000 people.

NARRATOR: But historically not everyone’s experience was quite as positive.

SARAH EDMONDSON: So when I first started in 2005, there was a little bit of bad press that seemed to be generated from one family who didn't like what happened to their son in the group. And that's how it was explained to me, that one person came and he made a decision in his life that the parents didn't like.

NARRATOR: And much in the same way that NXIVM’s members were taught to ignore their instinct to bolt, they were equally prepared to negotiate the reams of bad press that seemed to swirl around Keith Raniere.

SARAH EDMONDSON: Keith is a sociopath, but he's also brilliant. He preempted a lot of this for us. He said: ‘You know, if you want to take someone down, if you want to smear them into the ground, what do you do? You call them a pedophile. You call them a, you know, a sexual abuser. That's the worst thing you could do.’ Of course, like a year or two later, something came out in the local paper that he had had underage sex. And we were like: ‘Oh, my God, of course. Of course, they're saying this to take down Keith.’ Like we'd been preempted, that that would happen to the most noble man in the world.

NARRATOR: The Most Noble Man in the World. This did not describe Keith Raniere. Not by a long way. He’d begun his career in the 1980s, working for other multi-level marketing companies, before starting his own in 1990. That company was shut down three years later by the state of New York, which designated it a pyramid scheme.

He started the company that would become NXIVM five years later. But this was more than a cash grab. It was a way for Raniere to disseminate his own particular slant on the world - namely that he ​was at the center of it. And it was the women in his orbit who were most vulnerable to his twisted curriculum.

SARAH EDMONDSON: In my opinion, Keith Raniere is an absolute high-level misogynist. He despises women.

NARRATOR: As part of his largely performative spiritual practice, Raniere claimed to be celibate. But he still spent an inordinate amount of time thinking about women. Mostly, he thought about what he considered to be their flaws.

SARAH EDMONDSON: So he felt like he needed to develop a curriculum that would give women the tools to truly understand their nurturing essence and what they bring to the world so that they could step into their own power in a way that was different for men. And understand that essence. And oh God, it makes me nauseous just to talk about it, because it was such a load of...

NARRATOR: You can probably guess how that sentence ends. But Raniere was, undoubtedly, charismatic. And he was a masterful manipulator. Very few cult leaders aren’t. Regardless, over time, doubt did ​start to creep in for Sarah. Looking back, she identifies one conversation in particular as a turning point - the moment where ​leaving NXIVM became just slightly less of an impossibility.

She had arranged to meet the husband of a friend in a coffee shop in Vancouver. He had concerns about the group, and Sarah, who at this time was a fervently committed member of NXIVM, had offered to put them to rest.

SARAH EDMONDSON: And I sat down with my dear friend's husband, Pepé, who at that point I thought was just being a controlling husband, not wanting his wife to grow. And he basically showed me all this press and said, what do you think about this and what do you think about that? And I just dismissed it all.

NARRATOR: Instinctively defending NXIVM, Sarah deflected Pepé’s claims.

SARAH EDMONDSON: And he shut my computer and I was like, see, you're not even willing to look at the good. And he said: ‘Of course there's good, Sarah, otherwise you wouldn't be involved. You're not willing to look at the bad.’

NARRATOR: Since joining the organization, Sarah had successfully managed to quash any doubts about NXIVM. After all, to question the organization was to be labeled a ‘suppressive’ - a person who was unwilling to grow and change. And she’d dedicated over a decade of her life to NXIVM. She’d met her husband, Nippy, through her work there. Keith Raniere’s teachings sat right at the center of her life.

But things were changing. She’d become a mother, for a start. Her priorities began to shift. And her once-blossoming career inside NXIVM had stalled somewhat. She was thinking about stepping back from her role as a proctor.

Enter Lauren Salzman - one of Sarah’s closest friends, and a fellow member of the group. Also the daughter of Nancy Salzman, Keith Raniere’s business partner. In 2017, she came to Sarah with an exciting proposition.

SARAH EDMONDSON: Lauren Salzman, my best friend, my maid of honor, Troy, my son's godmother, came to Vancouver to do a five day. But I realized it was actually because she wanted to invite me to this very special thing. And so I said, sure, what is it? She said, well, how committed are you to your growth? What would you do for it? I'm like, I guess anything, like what?

NARRATOR: Sarah was intrigued. Could this be an opportunity to move forward, rather than pulling back?

SARAH EDMONDSON: And she said that she wanted to invite me to something that was very cool, the most growth she'd ever achieved in her whole life, way more than NXIVM. And before I could even hear about it, I needed to provide her with collateral.

NARRATOR: A culture of offering ‘collateral’ was something that had sprung up within NXIVM during Sarah’s time in the group. Members would put money or embarrassing secrets on the line to incentivize themselves to meet their goals. In the intelligence community, it’s called Kompromat - compromising material.

SARAH EDMONDSON: I gave her something which was a written statement of a confession of, you know, indiscretions from my twenties, which she took a photo of, sent to somebody and basically told me it wasn't bad enough because this piece of paper is what she was going to hold as proof of me never revealing the secret of whatever it was that she was going to tell me. So she said, just make it up, make it worse. So I elaborated on this piece of paper about other things that I didn't do, but that if it ever got revealed to the public, it would be embarrassing for me or my family or my career or whatever. And that was enough for her to tell me about the secret group called DOS.

NARRATOR: DOS. That’s D. O. S. It stands for Dominus Obsequious Sororium. Roughly translated, that means Master Over Slave Sisterhood. It was sold to Sarah as a women-only group, with an unusually strict power dynamic between its members.

SARAH EDMONDSON: And there were a number of different steps that I had to agree to get into DOS, one of them being that I would be obedient to her and I'd be like: ‘Well, obedient in what way? Like, you can get me to rob a bank, you know, what would you... what are you talking about?’ She's like: ‘No! Things like you're doing in ESP, like, think of it as a heightened coaching relationship.

NARRATOR: The women of DOS would enter into master/slave relationships. Lauren would be Sarah’s master. For Sarah, that wasn’t quite as unattractive a proposition as you might expect.

SARAH EDMONDSON: She was head of education. She was teaching all of these training [sessions]. We didn't speak much. And now she was saying that she's going to mentor me daily. So that was a big draw.

NARRATOR: There was only one issue - Sarah was based in Vancouver, Canada. Lauren, along with the other big players in NXIVM, was based in Albany, upstate New York. How was Sarah supposed to be anyone’s slave at that kind of remove?

SARAH EDMONDSON: And she said, it's just... they're just names. It's just an exercise. It's a game, was how it was presented to me. It wasn't a real thing.

NARRATOR: But soon enough, it began to feel very real indeed.

SARAH EDMONDSON: Ultimately, the main thing that I had to commit to was what was getting what she had called going through an initiation ceremony, which included getting a small mark on my body, a tattoo, which is what she explained it to me as.

NARRATOR: Sarah was invited to Lauren’s home in Albany, where the initiation would take place. There, she was asked to strip naked and introduced to other women, whom Lauren called her new ‘sisters’ - fellow initiates of a secretive, elite cabal.

Lauren delivered a short speech on the virtues of DOS - how she, as their master, would push Sarah and the others to their highest potential. The women were allowed to dress, before being moved to a secondary location - the house of another top-ranking female member of NXIVM. There, they were stripped again.

SARAH EDMONDSON: That particular night, the details of that are just something that I have to not get into for my own personal protection, my own boundaries around being triggered and re-traumatized because it was a very traumatizing event.

NARRATOR: Sarah doesn’t like to talk about what happened next. The details of this particular event are drawn from her memoir.

A doctor entered the building. Sarah recognized her. She too was a member of NXIVM. Sarah watched as a fellow initiate was asked to climb onto a medical exam table. She saw Lauren Salzman set up a camera. This was being filmed. Sarah didn’t know why. Not yet. This was a lot of preparation for a tattoo. The initiate spoke: ‘Master, would you brand me? It would be an honor.’ The doctor stepped forward. She was holding an electrosurgical device, about the size and shape of a pen. It had a white-hot tip. Sarah watched as the doctor began to scorch the initiate’s flesh. The women, Sarah included, were branded with a symbol that - they were told - represented the four elements.

SARAH EDMONDSON: People will say, well, how could you have said yes to that?

NARRATOR: And it’s a fair question. But put yourself in Sarah’s shoes. You’ve given years to this organization. It’s more than an employer - it’s a way of life. A family. And nobody wants to disappoint their family, especially when they’ve been conditioned to believe that to do so represents serious moral and spiritual weakness.

SARAH EDMONDSON: By the time that happened, I was 12 years in and had been indoctrinated to believe that everything I was doing was for my own good, and that even on the night of it - when I wanted to leave and everything in my body said 'leave' - I also was gaslighting myself with saying: ‘Well, you committed, you know.’ Having Keith's voice in my head saying: ‘This is what women do. They back out. You can't trust them. That it was looking for a back door. Even women get married knowing they could get a divorce.’ So I gaslit myself and I had Lauren there as well, gaslighting me, saying: ‘Why don't you want this? This is just a symbol for your growth.’

NARRATOR: The brand would take weeks to heal. And as time wore on, the doubts that had been growing at the back of Sarah’s mind

SARAH EDMONDSON: As soon as I got branded, another thing that had happened was Lauren had asked for the deed to my home as more collateral every month. There was now going to be a need to give more collateral. And I said, well, that wasn't part of the deal. We didn't sign up for that. She said, no, you signed up for full obedience and that's what I'm commanding you to do.

NARRATOR: The final straw came a few weeks later. During a meeting with Mark Vicente, her friend and business partner, he disclosed that he was about to leave the organization. He had sensed that something was very, very wrong among the women of NXIVM.

SARAH EDMONDSON: Mark told me in a conversation that he saw that women in Albany were acting very strangely and that they were very skinny and seeming miserable.

NARRATOR: Sarah’s stomach dropped. From the way that he was talking, she could tell that he knew about DOS. But Mark had more to say - and it didn’t make for easy listening.

SARAH EDMONDSON: Mark knew because somebody had come to him and shared with him that they were part of this thing. And there was an assignment - from [someone who] now we know is their master - that their assignment was to go and seduce Keith and get a photo of it to prove it.

NARRATOR: This was news to Sarah. Control? Yes. Domination? Sure. But sex? Until now, that hadn’t entered the equation. And neither had Keith Raniere.

SARAH EDMONDSON: Now, I hadn't had that assignment. I didn't know that Keith was involved.

NARRATOR: Now, Mark was telling her that at least one woman had definitely been asked to sleep with the cult leader. He’d heard rumors about more, too. Finally, everything fell into place. The collateral. The nudity. The camera present at the DOS initiation ceremony, always watching.

SARAH EDMONDSON: To get into the group I had to give a nude photo of myself. So I'd already given a photo, I had to give more collateral, I'd given video testimonials of me revealing things about my family that would have been devastating if it ever got out. And that was bad enough for me. I found out later that other women gave full frontal-like inner labia, shots of their vaginas to get into DOS, and that was one of the reasons why I decided that I couldn't just leave quietly.

NARRATOR: DOS was not empowering. DOS was not for women. It existed for the benefit of one person. One sick man. Mark Vicente had discovered that DOS was a means to coerce young women into sex with Keith Raniere. Everything he had trained his female students to believe about themselves had been to groom them for physical and mental submission to him.

Sarah was more mature than the average DOS member - it emerged later that Raniere had specified that Lauren Salzman and the other female leaders of DOS should recruit members that aligned with his predilection for young, thin women. Now, she assumes that she was brought in for her skill as a recruiter - someone who could guide more women to that examination table. And if those women refused to fulfill, as Raniere saw it, their ultimate purpose? Well, they were welcome to leave.

But they’d have broken their vow to DOS. And that would mean that NXIVM would have no choice but to release their humiliating collateral. Graphic, sexual photographs. Their deepest, darkest secrets. There would be no coming back from that.

SARAH EDMONDSON: When Mark and I finally spoke and I saw the full picture, Keith is a sociopath. He created a blackmail MLM with photos.

NARRATOR: By this time, Sarah had been given her own ‘slave’ within DOS.

SARAH EDMONDSON: This friend of mine. She's a friend who also is, technically, my slave in this weird new relationship, I bring her over and I said, listen, we're not doing this anymore.

NARRATOR: Put yourself in the room. You know, intimately, that NXIVM’s indoctrination will be hard to break.

Members of the group were trained to re-contextualize negative feelings - to ‘make it good’. How would you convince a friend to see the light? You know that pointing to the bad press around Keith would be all but useless. What incentive could you offer that would overcome the fear of having one’s collateral released? You could try to use NXIVM’s own techniques against them - somehow ‘make it bad.

Or... you could fight fear with fear. Perhaps the thought of permanent, physical injury would make humiliation seem less onerous.

SARAH EDMONDSON: I said, I want to show you the tattoo you were supposed to get. And I showed her my brand and I said, we're not doing this. And she's the one who looked at it and said: ‘Oh, my God.’ And she turned her head to the side and she said: ‘There's a K and an R.’

NARRATOR: Keith Raniere’s initials were branded on Sarah’s body. They made up one-half of the symbol. The other half was the monogram of a high-ranking female member of DOS - Keith’s second-in-command. And Sarah wouldn’t be the last to undergo this horrifying procedure.

SARAH EDMONDSON: I found out that these women, under the instructions of Keith, had recruited almost my entire female coaching staff in Vancouver into DOS. Most of them had not been branded because it was all so new, but most of them had given very damaging pictures. And my ‘mama bear’ instinct to protect and destroy this motherf***** was so enraged in me, I can't even tell you. And that's what set me on this warpath of trying to expose them and take them down.

NARRATOR: It was decided. Sarah and Mark weren’t just leaving NXIVM. They were going to bring it down entirely - from the inside.

SARAH EDMONDSON: And that's when we decided that we had to get out and to be very strategic about it because we knew that people who left were sued, destroyed, you know, their lives were ruined in litigation and we'd be careful on how we did it.

NARRATOR: NXIVM was extremely litigious, and it had the money to tie up its critics in court, crying defamation. As any intelligence officer will tell you, it’s always a good idea to have an exit strategy. But usually, you’d have the luxury of figuring that out ​before the mission begins. In Sarah’s case, figuring hers out was just one of several equally important objectives.

SARAH EDMONDSON: We were gathering information as to what was really going on and at the same time prevent the next round of women who were slated to come to Albany to a coach summit where we knew because everybody was going to be there, there would be another round of branding ceremonies.

NARRATOR: But first things first - you need to get your team together. Up until now, Sarah’s husband, Nippy - also a longstanding member of NXIVM - had been kept in the dark. The couple often worked apart, splitting their time between Canada and the USA - Sarah had been able to hide the brand from him so far.

Now, she and Mark brought Nippy in on the plan to bring down the cult. As you can probably imagine, he was more than willing to strike back at the people who had branded his wife.

SARAH EDMONDSON: So I was in Vancouver at the time that we figured it out and I was supposed to be in Albany the following week for this coach summit where I was a leader helping to run it. And Nippy, my husband, was already in New York and Mark was in Los Angeles, and we all met on the phone to decide how we were going to leave.

NARRATOR: After some back-and-forth, they hashed out a plan. Sarah would meet Nippy in New York City and then travel to Albany as planned - ostensibly to work at a retreat for NXIVM’s coaches. However, they would take the scenic route upstate. Through a contact in law enforcement, Mark had arranged for Sarah to drop in one of the FBI’s Albany offices. There, she would finally blow the lid on what was really going on inside NXIVM. This was Phase 1 - reporting.

SARAH EDMONDSON: So I went. I was on my way to the coach retreat. And instead Nippy dropped me off at the local FBI in Albany, which is probably the scariest meeting I've ever had in my entire life, because I didn't know fully what I was involved in. I also didn’t know if I was complicit.

NARRATOR: There’s a thought. Remember, Sarah’s been working among the upper echelons of this organization for 12 years. From the outside, and by Keith Raniere’s design, it looks like the events that took place at her DOS initiation were consensual. Not to mention her role as a recruiter for the organization. If NXIVM goes down, there’s a good chance she does too. Would you take the risk? As it turned out, securing a prosecution of any kind, for anyone, would prove more difficult than expected.

SARAH EDMONDSON: At that point, they couldn't wrap their heads around what I was saying. And I showed them the brand. I explained to them that there was possibly sex trafficking involved because women were being blackmailed to then have sex with Keith under the auspices of this personal growth program in the form of a sorority with a master-slave dynamic. It was so much for the poor FBI agent to even wrap his head around.

NARRATOR: How do you pack 12 years of events into one short interview? The FBI agent might not have fully understood the magnitude of what Sarah was saying. But she had said it. A weight had been lifted, and the first domino on the path to victory had been toppled.

SARAH EDMONDSON: And at the same time, you know, as I was leaving, messaging, Lauren saying: ‘I'm on my way, can't wait to see you guys.’ And now I'm a double agent. I'm working both sides.

NARRATOR: For now, Sarah had to maintain her cover. But she couldn’t really attend the coaching retreat - if anyone saw her mask slip, it would raise suspicions about her commitment to the group. She had to get out of Albany - but she needed an excuse. And as all professional bluffers know, the best lies are built on a foundation of truth.

SARAH EDMONDSON: The truth of it was that my grandfather at the time was sick in Toronto, which is not far from Albany and so, on my way to the summit, I said, ‘Hey, guys, I'm so sorry. My grandfather's going in for surgery. This might be the end. I'm going up to Toronto to see him. I'll possibly say goodbye. I don't know, but I'll come back and catch the end of the summit.’

NARRATOR: With her young son in tow, she packed up her valuables, bought food and water, and made her way to the train station. It would be a 10-hour train ride from Albany to Toronto.

SARAH EDMONDSON: Everything in my body was on full, hyper-vigilant, alert. I could barely eat. I could barely sleep. All I knew was I had to get out. I had to save these women. I didn't know yet that we were going to be able to expose Keith, but it was one step at a time.

NARRATOR: Meanwhile, back in Albany, Sarah’s husband was putting the second phase of their plan into motion.

SARAH EDMONDSON: And what I had learned is that if you're going to leave a group like this, like a cult, you have to leave in a way that's consistent with your issues that are already prevalent in the group.

NARRATOR: So, Sarah needed a reason to leave NXIVM that wouldn’t raise suspicion, or attract damaging litigation. That way, she could continue working behind the scenes to de-enroll other members of the cult.

SARAH EDMONDSON: Nippy stayed to do business as usual and gather information. And on day one he confronted the leadership. And he said: 'What the f***? You branded my wife.’ ​Now he made the scene so that I would have a reason to say: ‘Listen, Nippy found out about this. I didn't tell him. One of the other women told him’ because I was afraid my collateral was going to be released for breaking the secrecy.

NARRATOR: Now, Sarah had a cast-iron excuse for breaking the vow she’d made when she joined DOS.

SARAH EDMONDSON: So that's what they thought. They thought I was like: ‘Oh, my God, my husband's really mad. And he found out about the branding and now I've got to go fix that.’ And him having an anger-moment was consistent with his behavior, if that makes sense. So we step out.

NARRATOR: Sarah was an influential figure within NXIVM. She might not have been able to go public with her story, but that influence counted for a lot. Sometimes there’s power in what you don’t say - and how you don’t say it.

SARAH EDMONDSON: Everyone that knows us knows that we are leaving. And I don't tell them why. I don't tell them that I'm being branded. I don't tell them that Keith is a sociopath. I'm just incredibly cagey and say: ‘I'm sorry, I can't tell you what happened. All I can tell you is that I'm leaving and I'm stepping down.’ And everyone in Vancouver who knows me was like, well, if Sarah's leaving, something is not right for her, then there's something wrong. So I didn't even have to tell people why.

NARRATOR: People began to leave the community in droves. But the hardcore - the women who had been enrolled into DOS - would be more difficult to sway.

SARAH EDMONDSON: The people who didn't were the women who had given so much collateral and decided that I was doing the thing that Keith taught us women would do, which is to have a tantrum. Sarah Edmondson was having a tantrum. And this is the very reason why DOS needed to exist because I can't trust her. Can't trust women. See, Sarah, Sarah is not following the plan.

NARRATOR: Their reluctance to break with DOS necessitated Phase 3 of the takedown. Evidence gathering.

SARAH EDMONDSON: I specifically made screenshots of things I thought would be helpful, you know, where we were instructed to keep things secret.

NARRATOR: She also began taping her conversations with Lauren Salzman. These days, there are any number of apps that allow you to record your phone calls. Honestly, the entry requirements for amateur espionage are perilously low. A smartphone is a ubiquitous, innocuous, and surprisingly powerful tool.

SARAH EDMONDSON: At this point, we were recording everything. So every time I spoke to Lauren, I was recording her and getting her on tape, lying straight to my face. I said to her, Is Keith having sex with members of the community? I thought he was supposed to be celibate.

NARRATOR: Lauren’s response, even after everything she’d been through, shocked Sarah.

SARAH EDMONDSON: And she would say things like, well, that's not really any of our business. Like he can do whatever he wants. Like, what? I thought he was the celibate monk. And now we can do whatever he wants? And he's the therapist. He's the role of a mentor. He can't be having sex with these women. I mean, I was furious because understand, I've been an advocate for this guy for years.

NARRATOR: Sarah’s sudden de-programming was its own kind of trauma. At the same time, as she was trying to save other women from the fate she had suffered, she was also trying to reconcile the fact that, for more than a decade, she had been living out a complex delusion. As time went on, her patience began to wear thin. She accelerated her efforts to discredit Keith Raniere and NXIVM. Sarah established a proxy - a fellow NXIVM proctor who was not affiliated with DOS and therefore lacked any serious collateral against her. When people asked Sarah why she had left, she could refer them to this proxy, who would fill them in on the stomach-churning details. Around the same time, Team Takedown reached out to the press.

SARAH EDMONDSON: We told this local blogger who had been trying to expose Keith for years. His name's Frank Parlato. He has a website called Frank Report. And I went to him and I told him about the... about the branding.

NARRATOR: Another tradecraft tip - when you’re mounting an operation, it helps to figure out exactly who your potential allies are. And you have to be certain of their allegiances. For Sarah, Frank Parlato was one such ally. His blog, Frank Report, published a shocking exposé that went viral within the cult.

SARAH EDMONDSON: And that was enough to stop the next round of branding, except for we found out later, one continued anyway.

NARRATOR: The plan was proceeding relatively smoothly. Sarah had become a confident spy, outwardly maintaining her friendships with key members of NXIVM while working to bring them down. But that wouldn’t last. The end of Sarah’s subterfuge began with a call from her proxy.

SARAH EDMONDSON: She said: ‘Oh, my goodness, Beth is supposed to move to Albany. She's freaking out.’

NARRATOR: The proxy had been speaking to a young woman - whom Sarah calls ‘Beth’ - who was struggling with the idea that NXIVM could be anything other than a positive force in the world

SARAH EDMONDSON: ‘She saw the Frank Report. She doesn't believe it, Will you talk to her?’ And so I was like: ‘Oh, no, I don't want to. I don't want to, I wouldn’t want to put myself at risk in that way.’

NARRATOR: Eventually, against her better judgment, Sarah called Beth.

SARAH EDMONDSON: And she's like: ‘I’ve got to call you right back.’ So she calls me back. And I get her on the phone and she's like: ‘I don't know, this Frank Report, it's full of lies.’ And I said in a moment of exasperation because I was dropping my son off at daycare, said: ‘Oh, my God, Beth, do you need me to show you my f****** brand? Do not move to Albany. This shit is real. It is dangerous. Please, for the love of God, do not move to Albany.’ And she goes: ‘Oh, I didn't know that. Thank you for telling me. Of course I won't.’ And she hangs up.

NARRATOR: A few hours later, the phone rang again. This time, it wasn’t Beth.

SARAH EDMONDSON: This other woman contacts me, who I've been in touch with, and she admits to me that she is in DOS and Beth is her master - and she has already been branded.

NARRATOR: Beth’s ‘slave’, Melanie, wanted out of DOS. She told Sarah that the leadership had become suspicious of Sarah, Mark, and Nippy. And she had worse news than that. They had asked Beth to record Sarah admitting that she was working against NXIVM. According to Melanie, Sarah had walked into a trap. Remember those phone recording apps we mentioned earlier?

SARAH EDMONDSON: Which is why she had to call me back, because she just set up the recording app on her phone, call me back and get me on tape saying: "I've been branded, don't move to Albany." And now I was labeled officially as a defector, not just somebody who was unhappy and leaving, but now the whole organization knew that I was bad news.

NARRATOR: The gig was up. It was time for Sarah to come out of the shadows. And if you have to reveal your hand, you might as well come out fighting.

SARAH EDMONDSON: At this point, it is full-on, gloves off, full-on war, and I was not shy about it anymore. And I would tell everybody. I would show them the brand.

NARRATOR: Sarah and her team were waging an information war. But NXIVM’s specialty was information - they could manipulate it, withhold it, and recontextualize it to suit their needs. As a result, many of Keith Raniere’s most devoted followers could not be swayed.

SARAH EDMONDSON: And those people, by the way, are still in. Those people are still devoted to Keith. They've still not woken up. They still cannot see that he is a sociopath. They still think that what he did was for... maybe not conventional, but for our growth.

NARRATOR: In the years that have passed since Sarah’s defection, she’s worked tirelessly to expose Keith Raniere. In the absence of any meaningful interactions with the FBI at the time of her leaving, she continued to use the press as a weapon. If she could apply enough heat, NXIVM’s denials would lose their credibility. In the wake of the publicity, the FBI would be compelled to take action, too.

SARAH EDMONDSON: What happened was we did an article for The New York Times, which came out the following fall, and that article was what initiated the case to be opened by a different district in New York.

NARRATOR: With law enforcement back in the picture, Sarah could finally bring to bear the huge cache of evidence that she’d collected against the NXIVM leadership.

SARAH EDMONDSON: And because women came through Brooklyn to get to Albany, it was sex trafficking in that region. And they took it on. And I went to them shortly after, I spent two and a half days with them, gave them everything I knew, had given them my computer and my phone to mirror.

NARRATOR: After Sarah’s marathon interview session, the US government had enough evidence to seize Keith Raniere’s computers. What they found was... revealing. Revealing in the way that only 12 terabytes of potentially incriminating data can be.

SARAH EDMONDSON: So there was so much data. I think they could have scrapped that entire case and started with entirely fresh evidence. And they still have enough to convict him because they had so much footage, tapes, emails, proof against him.

NARRATOR: Raniere and his underlings had filmed everything. Every conversation Keith had with NXIVM members. The initiation ceremonies. It all existed as cold, hard data.

SARAH EDMONDSON: From his perspective or what we were told, it was to have a library of his you know, of his wisdom eventually. But he also was a sociopathic, narcissistic megalomaniac.

NARRATOR: Sarah and her team had worked hard to bring Keith Raniere’s crimes into the spotlight. But his own ego had dealt the killing blow. Raniere was arrested by the FBI in a raid on a luxury villa in Mexico. It was March 2018 - just one year after Sarah had been branded. The great guru, and Most Noble Man In The World, was hiding in a closet when agents took him into custody. His acolyte - and Sarah’s former master, Lauren Salzman - was also present.

SARAH EDMONDSON: I did not need to testify in the end because Lauren turned on Keith. Lauren apparently woke up.

NARRATOR: On the 27th of October, 2020, Raniere was sentenced to 120 years in prison. The charges against him include sex trafficking, conspiracy, and racketeering. Today, Sarah Edmondson is healing. But there are still those who would defend their leader. Sarah knows that a double agent, a defector, always has to be on their guard. They have to learn and utilize counter-surveillance measures. Every. Single. Day. Because no attacker is more dangerous than one who truly believes in their cause.

SARAH EDMONDSON: I have to... you know, be hyper-vigilant with my safety and, you know, making sure I'm not being followed. And I installed extra locks on the doors. And, you know, when I post where I am on Instagram, it's like a day late. So no one knows where I am. Like, it's ridiculous, the level to which I had to feel like I have to protect myself because of these, you know, indoctrinated soldiers for a sociopath.

NARRATOR: Sarah’s brand is no longer a red, angry thing. But the scars remain in place.

SARAH EDMONDSON: I see multiple therapists, regular therapists and cult therapists, and do a lot of things to stay normal and healthy and balanced. But it's also very dark to talk about. I'm so driven to make sure other people don't fall into the same traps that I did. And I feel like I have this template that now that I can very clearly hand to people, especially with the book and the vow, which goes through the whole thing very, very step by step.

Part of my healing is in telling my story again and again and again, because I know it helps people, and people tell me all the time that, because of me speaking out, they were able to see that they're in an abusive situation or in a high control group, or are able to get out or to heal from something that happened. And they didn't know what it was. And that's meaningful to me.

NARRATOR: I’m Vanessa Kirby. You can learn more about Sarah’s story in her memoir: Scarred: The True Story of How I Escaped NXIVM, the Cult That Bound My Life.

For more information about cults in general, as well as resources for survivors, visit the International Cultic Studies Association website. Join us next week for more unique experiences with True Spies. We all have valuable intelligence skills, and our experts are here to help you discover yours. Get an authentic assessment of your skills, created by a former head of training at British Intelligence, now at SPYSCAPE.com.

DISCLAIMER: The views expressed in this podcast are those of the subject. These stories are told from their perspective, and their authenticity should be assessed on a case-by-case basis.

Guest Bio

Vancouver, BC-born Sarah Edmondson launched her professional acting career on a Canadian teen soap opera but quickly landed lead roles in the US, starring in Stargate SG-1 and the USA Network’s Dead Zone. She seemed to have it all - a successful career, a new husband, many friends and mentors at NXIVM, a group that offered training on personal enlightenment. Things took a dark turn however, when Edmondson started noticing irregularities at NXIVM. Before long, she would be spying on the group she once held dear.

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