In the first episode of A&E’s “Cults and Extreme Belief” series, a former high-ranking member of the notorious NXIVM “philosophical society,” who was initiated into its secret “sex slave” sorority, tells her story, bringing more dark details about the cult to light.
The cult has again come under heightened public scrutiny after the arrest of the cult’s alleged leaders Keith Raniere (whom his followers call “Vanguard”) and “Smallville” star Allison Mack, who allegedly headed up the secret sorority. Authorities ramped up pressure on the group following the publication of an expose by The New York Times in October 2017, which included allegations from actress Sarah Edmondson.
A&E’s new series features Edmondson, who presents some of her story to host Elizabeth Vargas. Describing the “Jness” track of NXIVM, which she says cost her $15,000 for three eight-day training sessions specifically designed for women to learn about “who we are at our core,” Edmondson tells Vargas that the overarching point of the indoctrination overseen by Raniere and Mack was that women need to be subservient to men.
“In the process of understanding our indoctrination, he is slipping in a new indoctrination,” said Edmundson of Raniere. “I actually remember the last training I took with Jness. I was like, ‘Wow, I’m not obedient enough.'”
After The New York Times broke the story open, Edmondson wrote a detailed account published by Vice in November in which she recounted her nightmarish experiences in the cult, which began with an innocuous invite to a self-help group that got increasingly controlling and twisted the deeper into the indoctrination program followers like Edmondson went.
Edmondson said that sometime in 2011 or 2012, NXIVM implemented its Human Pain program, an eight-day “level two” training program that introduced the ideas of “collateral and penance,” which required you to do certain predetermined acts of penance for failing to meet goals. “For women, penance was largely about calories. I remember there was one woman I saw once on a 300-calorie diet, because of some breach she had done,” Edmondson says. “She was only eating mashed frozen zucchini and tomato stew.”
Things took a darker, more overtly sexual turn when the actress was asked to take nude photos as “collateral” by the daughter of the president of the company, Lauren Salzman, who was also Edmondson’s “confidante” and the godmother of her son. Salzman told the actress that she was going to introduce her to a new program exclusively for women. This was the horrific inner group for which Mack allegedly helped recruit and oversaw, and for which Raniere indoctrinated the women to become his “submissive” sex slaves. After 10 eight-day training sessions, Edmondson received her “tattoo.” Here’s her horrifying account of the initiation:
The concept of the master/slave relationship was weird for me, but the main thing was that I didn’t want to get a tattoo. I don’t have any tattoos, and I don’t have any piercings other than my ears—I didn’t want to get a tattoo. And Lauren just said, “We’ll work with you on that—you just have some fears.”… I put the blindfold on, and I hear movement in the house. I know the other girls are coming. And then there I am sitting with four other women. All of them I knew from Nxivm. Not well—I hadn’t seen them naked. And now we’re just sitting there cross-legged, very much exposed, and very vulnerable. We all thought it weird, but Lauren just said, “Guys, get over it. Get over your body issues. It’s no big deal. We’re a sorority. We’re a sisterhood—relax.” …
And then Dr. [Danielle] Roberts came in, who I also knew from Nxivm. We took turns holding one another down—three would be on them and the fourth would be filming. This is all on camera somewhere. The first woman lay on the table and then the other women and I were sitting on her holding her legs down. With the first cut of her flesh—they burned her flesh—we were crying, we were shaking, we were holding one another. It was horrific. It was like a bad horror movie. We even had these surgical masks on because the smell of flesh was so strong. I felt petrified. I felt—every part of my body was like: Get out of here. Run.
Edmondson describes herself dissociating as she underwent the excruciating process of being branded:
The entire time I was thinking, I don’t have a car. I’m naked. I’m in Knox Woods, Clifton Park. What am I going to do, text my husband? Then I’m going to blow this thing up, and I can’t do that, because I made a vow of secrecy… How do I do this? And then I just said, F**king do it, just do it. So I watched two other people, then I went. I really believe that the only way to get out is to do what I did—disassociate. I wasn’t present mentally. I went somewhere else. I thought about giving birth to my son, I thought about how much I loved him, and I thought about being strong, and I just focused on that. I just brought up a loving state, a really strong loving state. And the pain [of the burn] oh my God, imagine someone taking a lit match to your crotch and drawing a line with it.
Below is an image of the brand via the whistleblower site the Frank Report:
Mack, who along with Raniere has been charged with sex trafficking, sex trafficking conspiracy, and forced labor, is reportedly negotiating with prosecutors over a plea deal.