301 Sarah Edmondson
Actor and Former Member of NXIVM
“I essentially told her to override that very important internal compass called your gut instinct. And I told her that that wasn’t accurate. She was just scared and that this is normal, that you hit up against fears that are gonna stop you from your true potential … I told her to trust me, and I just, I wonder where she would be now if she’d just stayed in Vancouver and not done ESP.”
Sarah Edmondson is a Canadian actress who has starred in the CBS series Salvation and more than twelve films for the Hallmark Channel and Lifetime. In 2019, Sarah published Scarred: The True Story of How I Escaped NXIVM, the Cult that Bound My Life, with Kristine Gasbarre.
She and her husband Anthony “Nippy” Ames host the podcast A Little Bit Culty.
Nadia Bolz-Weber (NBW):
It was only last week that I did the math and realized that in 2020 I watched 4 different documentary series about 3 different cults – and when I say I did the math I mean, I spent 23 hours and 17 minutes of my life mesmerized by the rise and fall of these high control groups.
That’s a lot of tv hours, even in a pandemic.
So I’ve been wondering why – I mean, there’s no way I would spend that long watching a show about people who joined the firefighters or who joined the Lions club, but give me a long form show about people who joined The Rajneesh free love group in Oregon or the Heaven’s gate UFO cult and I won’t do my dishes for 2 days just to finish watching.
I think what separates these shows from say, like a tennis documentary is the way I vacillate between two very different responses. At first I think, man this is completely nuts, why would anyone throw their life away for this, and then I’d think, they all look so calm and happy and content – maybe I do see the appeal, and then I’d think “How can they not see that the cult leader is a monster?” and then I’d think “The community they built is so beautiful. I want to live with others who share my values and my spiritual practices”
I judge them then understand them then judge them again.
In the early aughts, many people found themselves drawn into a multilevel marketing company called NXVIM. NXIVM offered a series of intensive workshops that were aimed at helping people understand their fears so that they could move past them in order to succeed more in their personal and professional lives. The courses were called Executive Success Programs – or ESP.
Thousands of folks, including many celebrities, business leaders and even two actresses from Battlestar Gallactica, loved these workshops and were convinced that NXIVM could change the world.
But in 2017 it came to light that Keith Raniere — the founder and visionary behind ESP had created a secret group of women within NXIVM – a hierarchy of so-called slaves and masters, who were made to work without pay, rigorously limit their calorie intake, have sexual relations with Raniere and even brand themselves unknowingly with his initials.
Two years later Raniere was convicted of an array of criminal charges including sex trafficking, racketeering, and sexual exploitation of a child for which he was sentenced to 120 years in prison.
Yet many still consider him their guide and leader
My guest today is Sarah Edmondson. In the HBO documentary The Vow, she shares her story of what drew her into NXIVM and what finally woke her up to the reality that she had spent 12 years in a cult. But in the confessional, she tells me about the moment that personally haunts her the most. Stay with us.
Sarah, welcome. What brings you into the confessional today? Tell me your story.
SE: Thank you so much for having me. I’m a little nervous, I have to tell you. I’ve never been inside a confessional, a real one.
NBW: All the relief and none of the shame.
Sarah Edmondson: Great. Yeah, well, so the long and short of the story is that I, you know, I was a seeker and an actor in my 20s, and I ended up getting involved in a personal development group to help me reach my potential and find more meaning in my life, in a community that I thought was a group of like-minded people who were trying to evolve themselves and be the best version of themselves and change the world starting with oneself. I was involved for 12 years, and It became very much… Almost every aspect of my life, my community, my friends, met my husband there, but what brings me here is more. When you say what haunts me from the experience, I have definite moments often before sleep and many times in yoga when my mind is finally more still.
NBW: Yes. I’ve written about that time right before you fall asleep and the yoga… A couple of times because I think your ego is offline for a moment, but you’re still conscious.
SE: Yeah, exactly and if you have a tendency towards obsessive thoughts which I totally do, the one that comes in the most is This, impossible conversation with one of the women who’s still in the group, still believes in Keith and thinks that I’m the bad one, not him, and it’s somebody that I brought in. She’s actually one of the first people that I ever enrolled.
NBW: Can you tell me the story really quick about how you guys met.
So Nicky and I actually met at a Dentyne commercial and…
NBW: That’s… Sorry.
SE: I know. You have to laugh.
NBW: That’s not funny. I don’t know why that’s so. It’s so specific and perfect. Okay.
SE: Well, just wait. There’s more. In the commercial audition, we had to make out with a stranger, and the person I was partnered with was 10 years younger, and had just had his wisdom teeth out. And I had to kiss him and it was so gross. And we met and bonded over this hysterical audition in the waiting room, and we became fast friends.
And I loved how outgoing she was, and she’s really smart. Nicky was really sharp as a tack. And… she was an incredible dancer, the kind of dancing I could never do, ever, and I’d just taken a five-day training with Executive Success Programs. I thought that I had the secret to life, I really felt like all the answers for Any reason why anyone would be stuck or have emotional limiting beliefs or whatever, any of those things could be answered there, I did believe that.
She was very rudderless at the time, and I could tell she wasn’t sure if she should go back to school or should she pursue her acting. And I was like, “I was there. And do this program. It’s so goals-orientated and philosophical.” … And she was really excited, and she just trusted me. She trusted our friendship and that I wouldn’t bring her into something bad, and she signed up immediately,
SE: Then I made the mistake of bringing her to this intro presentation just so she could see some of the people. And she left that being, “This is not my tribe, this is not for me, I don’t like it. My intuition is saying, ‘This is like, Something’s off.'”
I was disappointed ’cause I thought I was gonna lose her. I wanted comrades in this journey so that. A selfish thing for me I wanted to do this with like minded people my own age who i grow with and I was nervous about that, that she would bail. And I told her that she was wrong, essentially
So I said, I get it, I felt the same way. But what I found was, if you just commit and give it a try, you’re gonna find all these things that are so helpful in your life, and essentially told her to override that very important internal compass called your gut instinct. And essentially told her that that wasn’t accurate. She was just scared and that this is normal, that you hit up against fears that are gonna stop you from your true potential, [….I told her to trust me…. ] and I just… I wonder where she would be now, if she’d just stayed in Vancouver and not done ESP.
NBW: What did end up happening to her?
…she went, she became a coach, she coached, she moved to Albany …
SE: that was the other moment that haunts me when she told me she was moving to Albany, I was like, “What?” ‘Cause I was more dedicated to the company then she was. I was like, “I’m not moving to Albany. What the fuck are you doing?” And she said, “Oh, well, Keith said that it’s important for me to work through my issues before I really pursue my career, blah blah blah blah.” I was like, “Okay.” So I regret not being more like, “Don’t do that,” ’cause internally I thought don’t do that but it also wasn’t appropriate for me as a leader, you’re supposed to stay positive and support people moving to Albany ’cause you’re supporting growth apparently. Right?
NBW: Wow but basically in order to maintain your position in NXIVM, you had to keep ignoring your own gut feelings.
SE: Yeah, like for example I went to visit her and I said you know , “Hey, let’s get together. I’m here for the week, I’d love to see you.” And she said something like, “Oh, I can’t. I need to be available for Keith.”
And I was like, “Oh, was available for what?” She says, “Oh, we’re doing a project and I have to be on standby.” And the way that she said it I had the hit that they were sleeping together. And I totally clocked it, and then I dismissed it, not only because she was so much younger, but I was like, “He’s our therapist, he’s our mentor. That would be completely inappropriate. There’s no way.” And then I dismissed it, and there were so many moments like that. And everything had an explanation, it’s just weird that there’s all these women that surround him and drive him and cook him food and. What is that?
SE: Basically what we’ve come to understand is the closer you got to Keith, the more destruction there was. And the inner circle, the people that were closest to him were essentially his harem.
NBW: Sarah I do have a question because I told someone that I was going to be talking to you and they’re like, “Oh yeah, she was part of that sex cult.” I’m like, Well, actually, it was a high control group, but it was more self-help, like the number of people who were involved in some sort of odd sexual aspect, like that’s a small percentage of everybody who was involved in NXIVM and executive success programs, Right?
SE: Correct. It’s hard because, you’re right, it’s not, at least for me, it wasn’t a sex cult, and I think that I’ve had to come to terms with, in essence, the media of course, got very excited about that, and that’s what ultimately did all the exposure, which brought him down and got people out. So in some ways, I’m like, well, it had to happen. But it’s really shitty for the people who just took personal development for 12 years,
SE: in fact, when we were in NXIVM, we were taught, “Well, people are gonna say, you’re in a cult. And you can say to them, ‘Well, what’s bad about it? Are we murdering people? Are we stealing? If we are not doing anything bad, what’s the bad thing?’ Well, now I know. The bad thing is, the leadership was deceptively and systematically covering for Keith and his deviant sexual behavior as a means to present him as a monk, noble humanitarian, Buddha.
NBW: And so THAT’S the guy Nicci moved to Albany for after you pulled her into this whole thing?
SE: Yes, she had a relationship, still has a relationship with Keith and she believes that he is the most noble man in the world and the most misunderstood.
NBW: Had you not told her to not listen to her intuition, she might not be in that situation.
SE: Correct, and that’s what haunts me and she is a bright, hilarious, beautiful, kind person at heart, and she got her head fucked by him, she didn’t sign up to be part of a 12-woman harem, she signed up to work on her goals and to also become a more successful actress.
She was a rising star who had a very successful career, more successful than mine, and she moved to Albany to get better at her craft and then never acted again.
NBW: Do you have a way now of understanding what was going on… What were the layers that were going on inside of you in that moment? Part of it was you really were caught up in this group and it did bring some positive things to your life, so it’s not like you were making up your own positive experience, at that point, it really genuinely was, wasn’t it?
SE: Oh yeah, 100%.
I thought I was gonna be more successful as an actor and at the beginning I was because they helped me with my auditions and feeling less self-conscious, and I just felt more grounded and solid in myself, and I started booking more and I did a film, that got into the Toronto Film festival, and I was- like, “Yeah, this is amazing.”
But I think the layer that I’m still coming to terms with is, ‘What did I get out of it from a personal ego point?’ The group made me feel very special, I wasn’t hitting it in my career as an actor, and so I feel like they gave me the stardom that I was looking for in the context of this group.
NBW: Oh, shit.
SE: I rose very quickly… Right, yeah. But slowly over time, it became apparent that if you had certain goals that were outside of the NXIVM framework, it was very tacitly suggested that those were deficiency-based goals. So you didn’t really need to be an actor to be happy, you don’t really need anything from the outside world to be happy, actually.
NBW: During the MeToo movement, when a lot of stuff was coming to light, you heard about actresses who had been sexually assaulted and abused by producers who had their careers in their hands. Right? And then you hear about the doctor of the US women’s gymnastics team.
NBW: Who systematically sexually abused all the women in his care, and then I realized, oh my God, do you know what makes women vulnerable? Ambition. If you’re ambitious and you want your career to go a certain direction, it actually makes you vulnerable to predation. And again, that’s not a trait, people [laughter] ascribe, that’s a vulnerable population, but it is.
SE: Especially in our group because they needed people like me who were hardcore go-getters. I’m a 100% ambitious. I always have been. I’ve always been the one that sold the most chocolate bars in high school to raise money for the school TV.
NBW: Yeah …. yeah.
SE: I’m that person
NBW: I guess one of the things I wanted to ask you is, were there hesitations that you didn’t listen to? Were there thoughts that you had to push away in order to stay in the group and to keep doing what you were doing?
SE: So many. And I have to start with the first moment, which was…on day one of the first training, they said something to the extent of, “All successful people know the areas that they wanna work on to evolve themselves.” And we all nodded and said, “Yes, yes, yes.” And then they would say, “When you hit an area that you need to work on, it’s gonna be uncomfortable ’cause no pain, no gain, you just push through discomfort”, all true things.
So they said, you may have that gut feeling to bolt, to get out, and we just ask you to stay, and talk to a coach and work through it, because that’s what you paid $2000 to look at.” And I agreed to that. What Keith taught us later in sales is the first lift, it’s the first agreement, when you have someone agree to that, everything else from that point can be used against you to say, for example, in the moments where I felt uncomfortable or questioned something, if I talked to anybody about it, it would always be like, “Oh, it’s just a fear, it’s just… “
You were trying to control the environment. So then I would start to do that to myself. So I didn’t need an outside person. This is the brilliance of undue influence and indoctrination in cults. Once you have the pattern, you start gaslighting yourself.
NBW: Oh man, I guess I wonder Sarah, how in the world do you ever start to trust yourself again after that?
SE: Yeah, For sure, my husband and I felt the same thing, we were like, not only were we vouching for this guy, and it turned out to be the opposite at the leadership level, you’re right at the top level, not the outer ring of the community, but he was doing such terrible things. It was the complete opposite, if not completely evil, dark, soul sucking, disgusting behavior, and we were out there saying, “He’s the most noble, humanitarian?”
SE: It’s so hard to describe that feeling, the rug gets ripped out, My husband I think was more probably depressed, I was more anxious. And there’s a huge healing process of Learning to trust again. When people invite me to anything where there’s a group format, I can’t… I’m not ready yet.
NBW: Right of course. A lot of people who, in my circles and people who follow my work are what are called Exvangelicals, like ex-evangelicals, people who are raised in really conservative church culture, and then had to sort of extricate themselves from it. I’ve seen so many of them talk online about watching The Vow and being like, “This was really triggering for me because so many of the dynamics are similar,” because in that case, with conservative Christianity, they’re like, “Here’s what you’re supposed to believe, and if you start doubting it, that’s just Satan trying to tempt you away from the church
Another thing that that culture teaches, what I was raised in, was they tell you, you can’t trust your own feelings, you can’t trust your own heart, you can’t trust your own thinking, all you can trust is what the church teaches you. And so in an attempt to strive to be good, you basically alienate yourself from yourself, and then when people are coming out of conservative Christianity, there’s this disorientation about their own physical desires, sexual desires, their own thinking, their own intuition. I mean, they’re left trying to connect frayed wires in a way that can feel like such a betrayal of themselves.
SE: It’s a huge amount of work to reclaim, all of that, It’s the same process… What you just said is the same self-sealing system
SE: for the benefit of the church.
NBW: So when you think about yourself in that moment of sort of talking Nicky out of listening to her gut instinct, do you have compassion for yourself
SE: Intellectually, yeah. I think emotionally, I’ve got to kinda drag myself along and give myself a pep talk of… I know that I thought I was bringing her to something good, I never was trying to deceive her, of course. But the compassion I think I’m still wrestling with is the part of me that was trying to prove myself in the company too, and what I was getting out of that, because it was definitely. I got the gold stars for being such a top recruiter, so that part felt like…
NBW: There was self interest involved.
NBW: Right now, a lot of people are like, “You know what, your intentions don’t matter, the harm that your actions and words caused are the only thing that matters. So don’t talk to me about the fact that that’s not what you intended.” And I’m kind of like, I don’t know. Can we consider both? Like, maybe… I think what feels more accurate to me is that our intention does not cancel the harm, right? So if we did something that harmed somebody, but we did not intend harm, that doesn’t lessen the harm, but it can help bring about compassion for ourselves and for others, to allow for both of these things to be true.
I didn’t know that’s what your confession was gonna be, that like you recruited someone who was a little hesitant that you loved and they’re still in it, and you’re not.
When I was a teenager I talked this person in my life into getting high for the first time,
and I was full-blown in my shit by then, my own addictions and stuff and I just… I in no way intended to cause them harm, I thought, “This is magic. You want out of this conservative Christian stifling controlling life that we’ve grown up in, I have something for you .” So in my assessment at that time, I was sort of going, “I wanna help you.” Now that they’re not alive after decades of alcoholism and I am, my intention does not decrease the harm, but I think it allows me to have a little more compassion for how fucked up I was at the time to have done that. But it just I’ll live with that my whole life, you know?
SE: Yeah, and also remembering that you were offering what you thought was an escape…
NBW: Right, same with you… I mean, you were like “This is the key to success. Why would I not share it?” ….. [pause] … but since you DID share it with so many people, once you discovered the truth of what was happening behind the scenes with Keith, you did what, exactly?
SE: I felt like in some ways I was taking responsibility for everything. Like, “Oh my god, I enrolled all these people, I have to get them all out, I have to shut it down. I have to tell the world this is a cult to compensate for my massive public failure of vouching for this guy, and now I have to do the other side, and fix it.” And that’s why I was so curious about this conversation, because how do you… What is the line between beating yourself up and like feeling the appropriate amount of shame and guilt for a failure in order to fix it.
NBW: Which you did.
SE: My husband and I and a couple of other people decided to expose the group for what we realized that it was, largely because we felt like we had a responsibility to do that ’cause we had been such big recruiters in building it, and eventually worked with the FBI to help expose the leadership, and now it’s pretty much defunct.
NBW: Right, when we started out talking you were sort of describing this kind of dream that you would have where you had sort of an impossible conversation with Nicky – can you tell more about that?
SE: In the dream, every time we are laughing and hugging and crying because we’ve reunited. We have the closure, and I’m saying in the dream, “Oh my God, can you believe it?” And she’s like, “You were right, it was a cult.” And we’re laughing hysterically. And in the dream I say, “You know how many times I’ve had this dream Nicky? I’ve had the dream so many times and now it’s finally real.” And then we laugh and cry some more.
And then I wake up and then I’m like, “Fuck, fuck.” And it’s just like, I hold out this hope for her and everyone who’s out with me says you can’t… She may never wake up, she may never admit that she was duped or that she was wrong. Maybe she will never wake up and that’s her world and she’ll go to the grave thinking that Keith is a good person.” And that’s devastating to me. But I hold out hope with these dreams.
NBW: So before we close up, is there anything else you wanted to add specifically about that moment and your relationship with Nickie before we’re done?
SE: I guess… On the off-chance that she listens to this, I would ask that she forgives me for asking her to override her gut instincts and for not being more direct as I saw her go too deep in and for just not being the kind of friend that I think that she deserves. And I hope that one day that we can be friends again and I’d make her a very high fat smoothie. And enjoy it and be nourished. She needs to be nourished and loved, and I have nothing but love for her, even though there’s been some really awful things that have happened since leaving, but I really… I see the young Nicki and both of us at that age, and I just wish we could start again in our friendship.
NBW: I hope you get that too.
SE: I hope so too.
NBW: Yeah, I do, yeah. Well, Sarah, thank you so much for being willing to come on and tell this part of the story. I feel like it’s very generous of you. You’ve shared so much of yourself and a lot of painful things
SE: Thank you for having me and for creating this space because it’s never easy going in but always feels so good on the other side. I feel very honored to have this time with you as well, and I’m sweating. I’m drenched.
NBW: I know, I know, I know, I know. Well, it’s the real thing. Okay, sweetheart. Alright.
SE: Take care.
NBW: Thanks, go have a high fat smoothie.
NBW: A blessing for Sarah’s internal compass,
It must have felt like the best news ever, when someone told you they had a compass for your life. When he said he knew which way was true north you trusted him, and followed along.
But, while True north is a fixed point on the globe we call the North Pole, a place we can stand and stick a flag, it is not actually where compasses point.
Magnetic north is where a compass needle points to when you hold it flat in the palm of your hand.
And you can’t stand and stick a flag there because Magnetic north, is a wandering point that moves and shifts like our own molten lives.
So may you never again listen to any peddlers of certainty who claim their compass points to true north.
It doesn’t. It can’t. It never did.
You’ve always had inside of you the compass that you just have to hold level and trust that that little red arrow is enough to keep your feet pointed in the general direction of liberation.
So may you be forgiven and set free from the burden of having given someone else the wrong directions you were following yourself.
May you have the courage to heed your own compass Sarah, to draw your own maps.
To again trust and heed your own wobbly but still worthy navigation that knows, just knows where to face so that the sun rises to your right and sets to your left.