She Escaped From Nxivm. Now She’s Written a Book About the Sex Cult.

The True Story of How I Escaped Nxivm, the Cult That Bound My Life
By Sarah Edmondson with Kristine Gasbarre

In 2005, Sarah Edmondson, 28, embarked on a weeklong Caribbean cruise dedicated to spirituality and cinema. Though the fledgling actress lived in a basement apartment and could barely afford the price of passage, she’d been reading a lot of self-help books — from “The Artist’s Way” to “The Celestine Prophecy” — and hoped the Deepak Chopra-endorsed voyage would help her network with film-industry influencers.

“I’d been a lost young actress searching for everything: my big break, a way to save some money, friends I could connect with and — more than anything — purpose in my life,” Edmondson writes in her memoir. Before boarding the ship, she recalls, “I set an intention to meet people who were living their purpose so I could gain some direction in finding mine.”

Reading this setup feels like watching a horror movie. The audience knows a giant carnivorous plant lurks within the innocent-looking flower shop; everyone wants to yell, “Don’t go in there!” But it’s always the same: The protagonist steps inside and is summarily devoured.

Anyone who followed the past two years of torrid headlines and televised newscasts knows what happened next: Edmonson was lured into Nxivm, a cult masquerading as a self-empowerment group, whose sadistic Svengali, Keith Raniere, was convicted in June on charges of conspiracy, forced labor, racketeering and sex trafficking. During a six-week trial, witnesses recounted the litany of nightmares — brainwashing, starvation diets, sexual slavery — they endured under his hand. One of his victims was a 15-year-old girl. Another was confined to a small room for nearly two years because her attraction to another man stoked his jealousy.

Raniere co-founded Nxivm over two decades ago in upstate New York. Edmondson was among 16,000 people who participated in the group’s programming. In “Scarred,” she describes pouring thousands of dollars into a pyramid scheme that promised personal transformation, studying a philosophy that echoed the teachings of the Landmark Forum, EST, Scientology and Ayn Rand’s objectivism. During her 12 years in Nxivm, Edmondson also climbed the hierarchy known to insiders as “the Stripe Path.” She co-founded a chapter of the organization in Canada, where she pocketed commissions for recruiting hundreds of initiates while becoming a star salesperson with “the highest closing enrollment rate in the organization.” Edmondson got drunk on the money, enjoying expensive shopping trips with other women in the Nxivm elite — including the “Smallville” actress Allison Mack — and buying a luxury car.

Then it all went bad. A top-ranked member — her friend Lauren Salzman — invited Edmondson to Albany, where she was inducted into “Dominus Obsequious Sororium,” a secretive women’s subgroup. (The Latin translates roughly to “master over the slave women.”) In a private ceremony, Salzman instructed her and four other women to strip. Each was branded with a symbol, which Edmondson was told represented the four elements. Later, she realized the glyph contained two pairs of initials — K.R. and A.M. — belonging to Raniere and Mack.

Galvanized by trauma, Edmondson blew the whistle on Nxivm, meeting with F.B.I. agents to show them the brand. On Oct. 18, 2017, The New York Times ran a front-page article about the cult, including a photograph of Edmondson tugging down the waist of her jeans to reveal the angry red scar. Eventually, Raniere was convicted; his five co-defendants — including Mack and Clare Bronfman — had already pleaded guilty to various charges.

In the beginning of “Scarred,” Edmondson suggests that telling her story is an act of contrition. She apologizes to the loved ones she alienated during her Nxivm years and later compares herself to “a soldier who returns from war to learn he’d killed children over a fight for oil, orchestrated by a machine bigger than him.” But the book is laced with an uncomfortable tension. Is Edmondson a brave feminist, a victim-turned-whistleblower in the age of #MeToo? Or is she someone who benefited from the cult, had an attack of conscience, then stumbled into a painful kind of fame? (She has reportedly signed up to star in a documentary series about Nxivm.) There’s also a troubling absence at the heart of the book: What became of all her recruits?

It’s easy to wish for the kind of reportorial rigor that characterized another tough memoir, David Carr’s “The Night of the Gun,” in which the New York Times media columnist interviewed people he hurt during his years of addiction. “Scarred” isn’t that kind of story. The details are compelling, but the narrative feels more like a dishy tell-all than an investigative or literary work. Sometimes, the writing veers into self-indulgence. The epigraph is a poem Edmondson wrote in the fall of 2017. Titled “The Scar,” it reads, in part, “Before I leave to heal / I plant barbed wire between us. / And wrap myself in cashmere sheets.”

It’s easy to wonder if Edmondson has left all the magical thinking behind. After she leaves the cult and begins getting work in acting, she writes, “Right then I knew the universe was supporting me in my exit from Nxivm.”

At once riveting and disturbing, “Scarred” is a brave but messy stab at redemption, one that succeeds more as a cautionary tale than an apology.

Jessica Bruder teaches narrative writing at the Columbia School of Journalism. She is the author of “Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century” and the co-author, with Dale Maharidge, of the forthcoming “Snowden’s Box: Trust in the Age of Surveillance.”

The True Story of How I Escaped Nxivm, the Cult That Bound My Life
By Sarah Edmondson with Kristine Gasbarre
Illustrated. 227 pp. Chronicle Prism. $27.95.

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