To the outside world Nxivm was an exclusive wellbeing programme for the rich and famous. In reality it was a brutal and abusive sex cult. As The Vow, a new HBO series telling the story airs, Laura Pullman speaks to the men and women who escaped.
Sarah Edmondson was in her late 20s and unfulfilled by her acting career when, in 2005, she joined a strange self-help organisation. It was called Nxivm, pronounced Nexium, and its leader was Keith Raniere, a short, 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. For Edmondson, now 43, it became a driving force in her life. It was her salvation and she quickly 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 all signed up and more than 16,000 participants enrolled in its Executive Success Programmes — at $5000 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 hearing in Brooklyn last Tuesday he was sentenced to 120 years in prison. The sentence, which means he will spend the rest of his life behind bars, was handed out because he had "failed to show remorse", according to the judge. Raniere was also fined £1.34 million [$2.6 million]. His closest acolytes are still awaiting 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.
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 (an incorrect Latin translation that is intended to mean "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 just 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 had starred in the television show Smallville but was now one of Raniere's most fervent followers.
Rather than being an exclusive inner circle, it is 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.
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 in turn to lie naked on a massage table. With no anaesthetic, they were then branded beneath the hip with the initials of Raniere and Mack. The white-hot cautery filled the room 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 okay," she says. "When you make a bad decision, you've got to go, 'Oh, there's some value to that.'"
Today the Canadian mother-of-two struggles to recount the precise details of that night, although she previously recalled how she watched another woman leap up "like a dying fish" when the scorching iron first touched her skin. "I have to create a boundary with it because it's still too triggering," she says, speaking from her home in Vancouver.
In 2005, at the age of 28, Edmondson had initially signed up to a self-help group. The actress admits that 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 that 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 had attended a New York polytechnic and had a marketing pyramid scheme closed down by investigators before starting Nxivm in 1998. His number two was Lauren 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 other distractions in their lives. It became all-consuming for Edmondson. "Once you've invested so much it's really hard to pull out, to own those choices; it's really hard," she says, referencing the sunk-cost fallacy theory, which partly explains why red flags go ignored.
For Edmondson it was some days after the branding initiation that she began to see 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 had been told. When she eventually revealed the scar to her husband, Ames, 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 immediately drove to Nxivm's community outside Albany. "I tried to sound the alarm for everyone else, but they wouldn't listen."
"We were both very 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 all the warning signs that they had 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 him and our family," she says. "Until I realised at some point, 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 whistleblowers she took her story to The New York Times. The resulting exposé in October 2017 led to an FBI investigation and, in March 2018, police armed with machineguns 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 television shows, podcasts and books have dissected the mind-boggling cult, which 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.
The wife-and-husband film-makers 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. The organisation is as horrifying as it is bewildering, a glittery web spun by a master manipulator over two decades.
Members included India Oxenberg, the granddaughter of Princess Elizabeth of Yugoslavia and daughter of the Dynasty actress Catherine Oxenberg; Emiliano Salinas, the 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 recently jailed for six years and nine months for her involvement in Nxivm.)
It 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 in the mid-Noughties — 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, tells me from Massachusetts — though she balked at others eulogising him and found it strange that he kissed everyone on the lips.
Although Raniere had a harem of women, Nxivm also targeted men who were seeking guidance. The South African film-maker Mark Vicente was having success in Los Angeles 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, like why do I tick the way I tick?" 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 seemingly had all the answers to life. "I thought he had some scientific elixir to understanding the human condition and that was intoxicating," he says. Now he realises Raniere's teaching was regurgitated from other philosophies and programmes, 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.
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 too. Piesse would sleep on the floor, for example, if she had failed in some area of self-growth.
Despite their closeness to Raniere, the couple had no idea about DOS or the horrific branding taking place. However, in early 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 her husband, 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 almost like you're conjoined", Vicente says now, 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, his voice catching. "She fought for me against these people that were trying to destroy her."
After leaving he felt suicidal. You've been gaslit for so long, he says, that you question everything and "literally think you're going crazy. You melt into a puddle on the ground and just weep for days. Everything you thought was one way was exactly the opposite, inside out, upside down, back to front."
Only after escaping, in quick succession, 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 had previously run away were relentlessly pursued by Nxivm's lawyers and financially destroyed. Funding these ruinous attacks was Clare Bronfman, daughter of the late Canadian billionaire Edgar Bronfman Sr. The heiress joined Nxivm in 2002 when she was a 23-year-old showjumper and bankrolled the cult to the tune of $150 million. (Her sister, Sara, avoided criminal charges.)
"You leave [Nxivm] with extreme paranoia, extreme PTSD and the real understanding that you're now a target," Vicente says, explaining how he and Piesse used burner phones and a government safe address programme to avoid their pursuers.
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 their 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 told how she had 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. ("I had no books. I had nothing to read," she told the court. "I went crazy.") 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 ever. This is a man who has messianic delusions."
Certainly the cult leader has shown no remorse and throughout the summer his supporters showed 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'."
The Vow, which has already been released in America, 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," Edmondson says before listing what she finds healing: "CBD oil, walks, cuddling the kids, yoga." She and Ames had a second child after leaving Nxivm and held a small ceremony for their fifth wedding anniversary. "We wrote new vows and it was just beautiful," Edmondson says. Vicente and Piesse got rid of their old wedding rings — they were 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."
They all struggle with how many years the cult stole. "I haven't come to terms with it," Vicente says. "It's a fifth of my life. I'm not the only one: there are women that were in there for 20 years and the grief of their childbearing years gone on a promise that was a lie. It's horrific."
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 of kindness now is so profound because I've seen such terrible darkness."
For Edmondson, living with the scar of Raniere's initials was deeply harrowing. "I spent so much time and money on different oils, potions and tinctures to make it as discreet as possible," she says. Last year she underwent an operation to have the branding removed. Over the video call she stands up and gently lowers the side of her jeans to show me the faint line that remains. "It was a really profound thing to take back my body," she says, a smile spreading across her face.
The Vow (SoHo & Neon, 8.30pm Wednesday)