Sarah Edmondson didn’t get much sleep the night before I talked to her. “My kids got up so fucking early this morning,” she tells me over the phone from her home in Vancouver, between sips of coffee. “4:55.”
You’d never know she was tired, though. Edmondson is a fast talker, one of those people with a lot of chipper energy, clever, quick to punctuate a story with sharp, funny observations. Anyone who’s seen “The Vow,” the HBO documentary series that details her 12-year experience in the NXIVM cult, is familiar.
Edmondson, 43, and her family — husband Anthony “Nippy” Ames and their two young sons, Troy and Ace — haven’t been immune to the stress of the past year. But the chaos of 2020 has allowed them to catch their breath in a way they needed, she told HuffPost Canada.
“We never really got the slow-down we needed, after everything,” she said. “We can just be, and that’s something we’ve never done as a family. We’re either in a cult and super busy, or super busy taking down the cult.”
2020 was also the year that Edmondson and Ames taking down a cult, as she put it so breezily, was broadcast on HBO. And it’s the year the cult’s leader, Keith Raniere, was sentenced to 120 years in prison.
Edmondson had shared the story of her time in NXIVM before, in the 2018 CBC podcast “Uncover: Escaping NXIVM” and in her 2019 memoir Scarred: The True Story of How I Escaped NXIVM, the Cult That Bound My Life. But the HBO show reached hundreds of thousands of viewers every Sunday for nine weeks, thrusting Edmondson into a new kind of spotlight.
Suddenly, lots of people who didn’t know about the CBC knew her story. And at a time when stay-at-home pandemic orders meant the shared TV viewership experience was more significant than ever, that had a big impact.
“The internal buzz in the documentary world was that this could be the next ‘Tiger King,’” Edmondson said. “I was like, Oh god, I just hope I’m not the next Carole Baskin. I couldn’t handle that.”
How to join a cult: start slowly
Unlike the CBC podcast, which starts in media res in an Albany, NY home where Edmondson was branded with what she later found out are cult leader Keith Raniere’s initials, “The Vow” started slowly. The first episode is entirely devoted to the beliefs of the Executive Success Program (ESP), the therapy-esque self-improvement curriculum operated by NXIVM.
It may have turned off some viewers who wanted to get to the gruesome, headline-grabbing stuff right away. But it did the work of demonstrating how smart, grounded people end up joining cults: by searching for meaning, for connection, for self-improvement.
Showing viewers just how easy that process actually is was important to Edmondson. “The world wants to label it and judge and separate themselves from it, like ‘Oh my god, that’s terrible I would never do that.’ Sorry for my valley girl voice. ‘Keith is so evil.’ But if you do that, it doesn’t give the audience the chance to go, ‘I get it. I could totally see how I would have signed up for that course.’ You have to show what it looked like.”
Edmondson liked that filmmakers and husband-and-wife team Jehane Noujaim and Karim Amer took an approach that was “nuanced, sensitive, interesting, well-developed, not sensational,” she said. “The filmmakers had told the publicity team that they really didn’t want to use the word ‘sex cult’ in the publicity. They didn’t want to sensationalize the content, or traumatize the victims any further.”
Being part of the series meant getting back into the mindset of someone who was willing to get branded, and talking about that in raw, vulnerable detail. That’s part of the territory that came with exposing NXIVM in her first place, she said, and she doesn’t regret it. Still, opening up like that coloured her everyday interactions more than she realized it would. It was weird when her yoga teacher told her she was watching “The Vow,” for instance. “When we went public and made that decision, I didn’t consider that the principal at my son’s school would know.”
But, she said she actually feels more comfortable around people who have seen “The Vow” than people who know the outline of her story but not the details. “What feels the worst is people who don’t know the whole story and just think of me as the sex-cult person,” she said. “People assume, because I was part of it, that I had sex with Keith, which I definitely did not. Big, bold statement.”
In a lot ways, she’s found it healing to have the hardest parts of her life be so public, because it’s forced her to confront them. “I think a lot of people don’t actually deal with trauma, they just hide it under a rock and try to move on,” she said. “Being public like this is the extreme opposite. But in telling my story, and owning it fully ... I had no idea how many people would be moved by it, and relate to it, and deal with their own trauma.”
No, you don’t get paid to appear in a documentary
Months after “The Vow” ended, she’s still spending hours every day reading messages from people who reached out after seeing her on TV. She brings up an experience from her life that was captured on the show, when, after she and some other former NXIVM members had waited for months, the New York Times finally published its exposé of the cult, prominently featuring Edmondson’s story and illustrated by photos of her, both of her face and of her brand. On “The Vow,” we see her reacting to nasty messages, in Facebook DMs and comments under the article — mostly people wanting to know how she was “stupid enough” to join a cult.
“As that’s airing and I’m reliving all that, I’m getting the complete opposite — such an outpouring of ‘You’re amazing, and you’ve helped me, and because of you I’m going to tell my story, and I’m confronting my abuser.’ And it’s still going on to this day, because people are bingeing and now they’re just getting caught up. I wake up to 10 to 20 messages a day that are so positive and so affirming.”
She read me one message she got the morning we talked, from a 17-year-old. “From the bottom of my heart, thank you,” the teen wrote. “Thank you for standing up for girls like me, who are brave but could have easily been sucked in.”
Most of the messages have been supportive, but of course some trolls feel the need to tell her they think she’s stupid or self-interested. “I mostly ignore them, and every now and then I gave him a piece of my mind,” she said. She’s irritated by people who accuse her of profiting from the documentary the way she “profited from the cult,” in that NXIVM was her employers for years. She’d like that specific brand of detractor to know that you don’t get paid for being an interview subject in a documentary.
“HBO sent me a really awesome thermos,” she said. “I’m super grateful for that, but I guarantee you I didn’t go public and expose myself in this way, for a fucking thermos. So, go fuck yourself.” She pauses, before drily adding, “You can quote me on that.”
Edmondson wasn’t one of the show’s producers, the way India Oxenberg was for “Seduced,” another NXIVM documentary series that was released last year. That meant Edmondson didn’t benefit financially from the show, and she didn’t have a say in how the footage was edited or which parts of her interviews made it into the final cut. She agreed to be in the documentary for the same reason she agreed to talk to me: She wants people to see just how how easy it was to join a cult.
‘The Vow’ was just the beginning of the story
A sticking point a lot of people had with the show is that it wasn’t comprehensive. The second-to-last episodes got into Keith’s misogyny, and the distrust and contempt he felt for women, which he baked into the group’s beliefs in a way that became more overt and abusive over time. The series shows the way women were made to starve themselves so they’d have the body type Raniere preferred, and it features the branding Edmondson and other women were coerced into.
But many of the more disturbing facets of what happened, several of which are included in “Seduced,” aren’t in “The Vow.” Among them: the techniques Raniere used to manipulate women into sex, the dungeon he planned to build in the basement of a sorority house, the young woman he confined to a room for two years under the threat of deportation.
These feel like significant omissions, but there’s a simple reason they weren’t in the show: no one involved in production knew about them yet. “The Vow” ends with Raniere’s arrest in early 2018, and a lot of that information didn’t become public until the trial, a year and a half later.
The second season of “The Vow” will cover more of what came to light later. Edmondson hopes it will also delve into more unanswered questions, like whether there was any foul play involved in the deaths of Barbara Jeske and Pamela Cafritz, two high-ranking NXIVM members who contracted terminal cancer in middle age.
Their deaths, along with the disappearance of Kristin Snyder and the suicide of Gina Hutchinson, two younger NXIVM members, were explored in a series called “The Lost Women of NXIVM.” It’s hosted by Frank Parlato, who many NXIVM members say was instrumental in getting the story of the cult’s abuses out, although he’s faced his own issues with credibility and business dealings.
Post-NXIVM life means constant skepticism
Since Edmondson left the cult, there have been a few surreal experiences. People have stopped her during walks along Vancouver’s Seawall to express their support. She got to meet one of her heroes, former Scientologist Mike Rinder, who’s now a prominent critic of the organization and co-host of “Scientology and the Aftermath” with Leah Remini. She reconnected on Twitter with old friend Seth Rogen, who tweeted about how weird it was to watch the show given that they went to camp together as kids. (He promised to send her a vase, “which I have not yet received,” she noted archly.)
Mostly, though, her life had largely gone back to normal before the pandemic hit. She goes to “proper therapy” now, not ESP, the therapy-adjacent manipulation espoused by NXIVM. Meditation, walks in nature, CBD oil and establishing routines help, too.
She feels the need to bring a new skepticism to a lot of what she encounters now. She wears a mask to help prevent the spread of COVID, for instance —towards the end of our conversation, she puts one on to walk through her condo lobby on her way outside. But she says she did a lot of her own research to find out why it was necessary, rather than automatically accept what medical authorities said.
“I’ve had family members be like, ‘It’s dangerous for you to criticize [mask-wearing],’” she said. “I’m not criticizing. I’m not even questioning, in a negative way. I just want to know more. I’m just at the point where I will never follow something blindly. I have to know why I’m doing what I’m doing, because I did follow blindly for 12 years, and look where it got me.
There’s a more nuanced understanding of abuse dynamics now than there was in 2005, when Edmondson got involved with NXIVM. The people who write to her about their own experiences often use words like “gaslighting” and “narcissist,” words that weren’t part of the vernacular sixteen years ago.
She’d like to think that if someone like her went into an ESP seminar today, “in a post-Me Too, post-‘Going Clear,’ post-‘Scientology and the Aftermath’ world,” she would have walked out. The world has changed since 2005, and in part because of people who come forward to talk about their experiences of coercion and manipulation and crossed boundaries, there’s more awareness about how abuses of power happen.
“I think that’s partly why ‘The Vow’ has been so well-received,” she said.
“It’s because a lot of people are reconciling things from their past, and finally making sense of it.”