The first sign of trouble was a naked picture surrendered for the privilege of advancing to what she believed was an elite inner circle of the personal-growth group Nxivm.
Then, in a nondescript suburban townhouse in Albany, New York, the order to strip naked and put on a blindfold. The blindfold removal that revealed four other women naked, on sheepskin rugs. The glimpse of a camera on a mantelpiece, recording.
The last-minute revelation that the dime-sized tattoo she had agreed to have as part of the initiation would be a two-inch brand that would be seared into the flesh below her hip.
The pain and writhing of the women who went before her. The smell of burning flesh. The tears.
When her turn came, Sarah Edmondson lay perfectly still. As the other women held her by the arms and legs, a doctor sliced open the skin below her bikini line with a laser-like medical device, taking 20 minutes to cut lines deep into her skin.
“It’s a searing, white pain. It’s being burnt. I was being wounded, and humiliated, and I was being filmed.”
Safe in Vancouver some nine months later, Edmondson’s eyes fill with tears. Her voice wavers, but she is determined to explain how she endured what happened on the table that night in March.
“I went somewhere else. I thought about my son, and how much I loved him. I thought about the moment he was born and put on my chest. I went to a loving moment.”
Edmondson, an actor, also wants to explain how a seemingly positive self-help organization she worked for veered so wildly off-course for her.
Edmondson had become the head of the Vancouver chapter of Executive Success Programs (ESP), under the umbrella of Nxivm, some 12 years ago. It functioned like a multi-level marketing organization, with members recruiting others through word of mouth.
Edmondson is now at the centre of an international firestorm that has ensnared some top film and television talents, many of whom were Edmondson’s closest friends.
After being invited into the inner circle in early 2017, and a program called DOS, or Dominant Over Submissive, and manipulated into giving the nude picture as “collateral,” Edmondson returned to Vancouver, and shut down the local office. She also took steps which she can’t discuss, to protect local members, actions that incurred the wrath of Nxivm.
The Vancouver police confirmed that an incident involving Edmondson is being investigated by the VPD financial crimes unit.
Lawyer Ian Donaldson confirmed on Thursday that Edmondson had handed over to him a number of bankers’ boxes she removed from the local ESP office. The boxes contained personal records of local Nxivm participants.
(Nxivm officials did not respond to Postmedia inquiries, but have on their website a statement addressing the controversy that says, in part, “The allegations relayed in the story are built upon sources, some of which are under criminal investigation or already indicted, who act as a coordinated group.”)
Edmondson says she will not back down.
Edmondson and the Vancouver chapter were particularly valuable to Nxivm, opening up pathways to Hollywood, and the social capital that celebrity could bring to the organization, said Frank Parlato, author of the blog the Frank Report, who first wrote about the brandings in June.
Parlato, a former publicist for Nxivm, has made it his mission to expose the organization’s bizarre practices.
Edmondson said she was taken to a home in Clifton Hill, New York, for a small tattoo “the size of a dime” — the tattooing session that, at the last minute, was revealed to be a branding. The brand that was supposedly the four elements — earth, wind, fire, air — resembles the initials of leader Keith Raniere, says Edmondson.
Parlato has one word to describe Edmondson, who has risked everything — her privacy, her safety, her financial security, her reputation — to come forward: “She is a hero.”
Getting out of the organization and making sure her friends get out is Edmondson’s top priority. “I want everybody out, I don’t want any more money going to the company, I want women out of their contracts, I want the ‘collateral’ released.”
The collateral — like that naked photo Edmondson gave — takes various forms. Revealing personal secrets during the workshops, ostensibly to work through issues, was common. Providing nude photos and videos was not something everyone did, but was one of the ways Nxivm successfully coerced its more deeply involved members into staying, says Edmondson.
Edmondson attended her first Executive Success Program — weeklong workshops that scrambled elements of personal growth and psychology in a success coaching curriculum — in 2005. There were some hokey elements to ESP: recruits wear sashes, move up the “striped path,” and are instructed to refer to the program’s mysterious guru-like leader, Keith Raniere, as “Vanguard.”
“It was cheesy,” says Edmondson of that first workshop held at the Burnaby Holiday Inn. But there was enough to it that somehow, “transformation” happened through a process called “rational inquiry.” She broke through some personal issues. “My experience was really helpful. I just thought it was great.”
Edmondson was doing what she loved: “Building community.”
And there were seductive perks: private jets. “Think of me, an aspiring actress, getting flown on a private jet to Alaska. It was exciting.”
Edmondson was invited into the Nxivm community by Mark Vicente, cinematographer and director of the 2004 hit What the Bleep Do We Know!?
In an interview from his home in Los Angeles, Vicente, who left the organization in May, said he was originally invited to attend a five-day ESP intensive in 2005.
It was a heady time for Vicente, who was flying on the tailwinds of the life-changing success of What the Bleep. Opportunities were everywhere and ESP appeared to be a good one. “They were good people involved, who yearned to do good things.”
They courted him. Love-bombed him. “They were inviting me to things, flying me on private jets. I was thinking, Hey, I can make movies with these guys. I was very excited.”
He met Edmondson at a film festival, and invited her to a training session. “She was in! She said can we bring this to Vancouver? Sarah and I partnered up, and we were a great team.”
The Vancouver-Hollywood connection was crucial to the company’s public image. “It added enormous credibility. We had TV stars, movie stars coming in. Star power gets used.”
Now, says Vicente, he and Edmondson feel a responsibility to get their friends out.
Slowly, almost imperceptibly, as Vicente was drawn in more deeply, he separated from what he loved: filmmaking. “People said to me later, you were at the peak of something and then you just disappeared.”
Looking back, Vicente says people were saying if you want to make good films, and change the world, you need to work on yourself. He would be a better filmmaker if he became a better human being. “They say these things are standing between you and what you want most in the world, so isn’t the most important thing in your life resolving these issues.”
Vicente says the organization keeps people away from Raniere at first, while building a mystique that paints him as a superhuman: “I began to elevate him to a certain status in my mind.”
Vicente became deeply involved in the organization, eventually moving to Albany. His involvement was a selling point. “The people Sarah and I brought in lent credibility. TV stars, movie stars.”
When they met, Vicente says the hyper-intelligent Raniere “talked circles” around him, touching on quantum physics, dark matter and suggesting the idea that there was a mathematics to solving humanity’s different issues. Raniere was deferential and humble, says Vicente, but the acolytes around him were “pumping the tires all the time” to create the mystique.
Vicente began to notice changes in the last year or two — the women around Raniere were very skinny. They looked vacant, he said. “It was like Handmaid’s Tale,” says Vicente. “Something weird was going on.”
He heard rumours that there was a secret underground society within the organization. He began to investigate.
He talked to Edmondson. Finally, the pressure broke. She told him everything. The branding. The holding people down. The damaging material. The change in her relationship with her coach to a master-slave relationship.
She showed him the brand. Raniere hadn’t been present at the branding ritual, but Vicente says they both saw that the brand seemed to include his initials: KR. “And this is happening on the inside of an organization dedicated to non-violence, ethics, compassion, humanity, empathy?” Vicente adds.
He advised her to get out — and he lauds her courage. Although he can’t comment on what actions she has taken, he says, “What was done morally to protect people is very good.”
What horrifies Vicente is this: “For years I thought I was this noble soldier standing guard outside the Star Trek Federation — a symbol of goodness and ethics. It’s tragic to me, and it’s tragic to Sarah that there are so many people who did this because they trusted us.”
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