An actress who spent years as a member of New York-based sex cult Nxivm has written a memoir on the experience and has opened up in several interviews about why she joined the group whose founder was recently convicted of sex trafficking.
Sarah Edmondson, 42, describes her 12 years in Nxivm in her new book, Scarred: The True Story of How I Escaped NXIVM, the Cult that Bound My Life, which is available now. (The book was excerpted in an earlier edition of PEOPLE.)
The book opens with Edmondson, who recruited hundreds of new members, describing the moment she was held down while naked and branded with the initials of the group’s leader, Keith Rainere.
“The goal was to draw readers in right away, and I feel like if I started by explaining that I signed up for a few personal development seminars, it’s like, ‘What’s the big deal?,'” Edmondson tells Refinery29. “That’s really the nature of how cults get you — by starting slow, promising to help you realize your goals. If someone had said early on, ‘Hey, Sarah — can we brand you with our leader’s initials next to your crotch?,’ I would have said, ‘That’s f—— crazy.'”
Edmondson previously told PEOPLE that to get into a secret, select group within Nxivm — known as DOS — she was required to submit graphic nude photos of herself, along with videotaped confessions of her “darkest secrets,” that would be held as collateral to ensure loyalty.
Edmondson said that, as a young, aspiring actress looking for meaning in the world, she was attracted to Nxivm’s promise of self-awareness and growth. Before she knew it, she was indoctrinated.
“If you look at the branding ritual as an example, they convince you that you are triumphing over your own weakness,” she explains. “One of the things that can be helpful in terms of an explanation is to look at the ways in which cults are similar to abusive relationships. Nobody seeks out an abusive partner, but so many people stay in these relationships longer than they should — they make excuses, they ignore red flags, and they allow themselves to be emotionally manipulated.”
Edmondson told Refinery29 she joined Nxivm at perhaps the most vulnerable time in her life.
“I was really looking for a sense of purpose, a sense of community,” Edmondson said. “I guess you could say that made me vulnerable, but I think those are good things to want. More so than being naïve, I would say I was extremely idealistic, and that’s something Nxivm exploited.”
Raniere and Nxivm serve as the basis of a new Lifetime movie, Escaping the Nxivm Cult: A Mother’s Fight to Save Her Daughter, which debuts September 21 at 8 p.m. EST.
Edmondson said that at first, Nxivm seemed like the answer to her problems.
“On the other hand, I really thought these seminars were a wonderful opportunity,” she said. “I have a lot of guilt about the people I brought in, but if there’s one thing I can hang my hat on, it’s that I never lied. I thought Keith Raniere was the greatest, wisest, most brilliant man on Earth. I had no idea what was going on with the women and everything that came out in the FBI’s investigation.”
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She believes Raniere knew exactly what he was doing with Nxivm, and that his intentions were always evil.
“I do think as time went on and he became more and more powerful, he also got more and more out of touch with reality,” she explained. “Like, ‘Oh, let’s brand people with my initials.’ I don’t know if that’s something he was planning from the beginning. People who knew him towards the end told me he was scared of getting old. And we now know that he has this erectile dysfunction problem, which came out at the trial. I think that maybe amped up [his need for power] towards the end.”
Edmonson’s memoir, Scarred: The True Story of How I Escaped NXIVM, the Cult that Bound My Life, is available now.