A new documentary series follows a group of people who fell under the influence of NXIVM, what was advertised as a “self-improvement group” but is now an organisation accused of cult-like behaviour, facing serious charges including sex trafficking and racketeering. A former member of the group, Sarah Edmondson, tells her story.
The Vow, screening on SoHo and Neon, focuses on NXIVM, a self-help group that turned into a cult. Sarah Edmondson is an actor and former member of the cult, whose testimony and eventual memoir was enough to help start an investigation into the sinister and abusive inner workings of this secretive organisation. Sarah was also involved in ‘DOS’, an inner circle of the cult, which was sold to would-be members as a female empowerment group but actually saw members treated as slaves, with allegations of sexual assault and abuse. Here, Sarah talks about how she first joined NXIVM, when she first realised things were not what they seemed and how she has been healing herself after a decade of being involved with the cult.
NXIVM was originally formed as a self-help group that ran Executive Success Programmes (ESPs). How did you come to join and what you were hoping to get out of it?
I met Mark Vicente at a film festival and really admired his work so I trusted his recommendation. I was looking for a community, for purpose, and for something more meaningful than the career I had, and NXIVM seemed like all of those things. I had parents who were therapists, and found talk therapy very laborious, but NXIVM and ESP offered what felt like a quick fix, to get me through my issues and move on with my life. And for someone who loves efficiency, I really liked that.
How would you describe your role and what particular asset did you bring to the organisation?
I progressed over 12 years from being a student to a coach and eventually running my own centre [in Vancouver]. As I eventually moved up the ‘marital arts style’ stripe path and began to do more and more sales for the company, I became one of the top recruiters, doing sales presentations and explaining to people what NXIVM was all about. I wore a lot of different hats.
How did you become aware there was a secret society called DOS?
I wasn’t happy with certain things in the company but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. Before I was introduced to DOS I’d had my first child and there was a real shift for me in terms of priorities. I was looking around at various things that just weren’t good. People weren’t getting paid on time and there were some challenges in the leadership. However I was stuck in terms of my own growth, and when DOS came around it was like, ‘oh, ok this is what I need to go to the next level.’ I didn’t really understand the nature of it when Lauren Salzman [co-founder Nancy Salzman’s daughter] invited me. She lied to me and told me it was one thing and it turned out to be another.
What were you led to believe?
She told me it was a group for women by women; a women’s empowerment bootcamp where we’d really push each other to the next level. It would be this secret group that would do cool things and no one would know it even existed. It sounded bizarre but there was definitely an element that was exciting, especially coming from her, as she was someone I admired, respected and held up on a pedestal. But she was also my boss. So it was an interesting dynamic.
When did you discover things weren’t what you thought?
Things unravelled over time. There were things that would happen that I just wasn’t cool with but I couldn’t see a way out because I didn’t have all the pieces. The pieces really came together when Mark and I finally had a frank conversation and he told me he thought Keith was a sociopath and couldn’t be trusted. That allowed me to make sense of this weird group I was now in. Lauren was being mean and pushing me in a way that didn’t feel loving at all. Something was really off for me that I couldn’t figure out until Mark shared his thoughts with me and I told him about the branding, and we put it all together. At that time we had a pretty accurate sense of what was going on but what we didn’t know was all the other stuff that came out in the trial which was a whole other layer of craziness.
What did you find most disturbing?
There were so many things that were disturbing. I think the number of women Keith was with and the emotional and sexual abuse of so many of them. Also the women who were underage who he took photos of, using them against them for his own gain. And the fact that Daniela [Padilla – a master of DOS] was held in her room for almost two years. Just really dark things. The darkness of what was actually happening in contrast to the goodness of what we thought we were selling.
How did you go about extricating yourself and what challenges did you face?
We faced a lot of challenges because this was our community; our livelihood. I was responsible for an entire centre for over 100 students who were paying expensive memberships so there were a lot of logistical challenges but, more importantly, there were the emotional challenges of knowing that we’d made this colossal error in judgment for over a decade.
How did you decide whether to go quietly or be part of bringing the organisation down?
We were originally just going to walk away and get back to our lives which is how most people had left the cult without being sued. Nippy [Sarah’s husband] and I staged a very elaborate escape which you’ll have to watch in the series to understand. But then we realised what Keith had done to so many people and we weren’t just going to slip away quietly. There came a point when we were like, ‘we can’t just leave, and leave our friends in what is in essence, slavery.’ So many women were bound up in this bullshit agreement under a false premise. As soon as we decided to go down that route, everything lined up. We were incredibly lucky that we managed to get all the media exposure which got the law enforcement on board.
How much of a sense of responsibility did you feel having enrolled others into the organisation?
A massive amount of responsibility. When you bring somebody to something and it turns out to be bad – whatever it is – you’re going to feel guilty, and I certainly did. I did everything to fix it. Going public and taking it down was ultimately how I felt I needed to fix my role in what I did.
What after effects are you living with now?
I’ve had a lot of therapy – personally and as a couple – and cult related healing and therapy. Day to day, there are times when it doesn’t affect me and I’m back to my normal life but to be this public about it, means that everybody knows. That means our neighbours and the parents at my son’s school. It’s weird that they know about this awful thing that happened and I’m not just a parent, I’m ‘that woman who was in that cult’, you know? Every now and then, I’ll think something and I’ll think, ‘is that me thinking that, or is that Keith?’ Or I’ll use a tool that I learned in there, and I have to ask myself, ‘is this a tool I want to keep in my life? If I do, then I have to find out where it came from.’ I believe Keith stole all of his methods so it’s helpful for me to go, ‘ok, where did this come from originally?’ so I can use it without feeling like it’s dirty.
Why was it so important to take part in this documentary?
TV is a very important medium because I feel like people watch stuff more than read stuff these days. And it will reach more people. Only two episodes have aired [in the US] so far and already people have reached out from different groups that they are a part of, saying things like, ‘you’ve woken me up’ or ‘thank you for this, now I know what it looks like and I’ll never join a cult.’ Those things are incredibly rewarding for me to hear from strangers who are being helped out of a group or being prevented from joining a group. Or people who just know the red flags for abusive relationships in general. It doesn’t have to be a cult, it could be a boss. A lot of bosses out there are narcissistic sociopaths and if you can spot them, you can avoid a really painful experience.
How does it feel to look back at old footage?
It feels like a different life especially when they’re showing clips of us looking so happy [in the early days]. It’s a mixture of embarrassment – because, ‘oh my god we were so fooled’ – and then also really sad, looking at the community we lost. There was such goodness and hope and vitality and beauty in what we thought we were building. And I miss that. Lots of it I don’t miss, but that I miss.
What do you hope people take away from the documentary?
I hope they take away the wisdom about what these things look like so that they don’t make the same mistake themselves. And for others who might know someone in a group like this, so they can help them and maybe pull them out. I hope that they feel hope for the future if they are in such a situation and they can get out.
The Vow starts on SoHo (8.30pm) and Neon on Wednesday 21 October