Actress Sarah Edmondson recalls being branded in 'horrific' Nxivm sex cult ritual and the 'smoky flesh burning' smell

Suzy Byrne
Editor, Yahoo Entertainment
Former Nxivm cult member Sarah Edmondson tells her story on The Dr. Oz Show. (Photo: The Dr. Oz Show)

Sarah Edmondson — an actress who recruited thousands of women to Nxivm before blowing the whistle on the sex slave cult — is speaking out about her 12 years in the now-shuttered organization.

Edmondson, who appeared on TV’s Salvation and more than a dozen Hallmark Channel and Lifetime movies, was a guest on Tuesday’s Dr. Oz Show to talk about taking down the cult leader Keith Raniere, who was convicted on charges of sex trafficking and forced labor in June. Fellow actress Allison Mack, of Smallville fame, pleaded guilty to racketeering.

Promoting her new book, Scarred, Edmondson said that she became involved with what she initially thought was a self-help group because her acting career wasn’t as “fulfilling as I wanted.” She said filmmaker Mark Vicente told her he was affiliated with Nxivm and said it offered him personal fulfillment — an endorsement that influenced her to join.

Throwing herself into Nxivm, Edmondson soon started the Vancouver chapter of the group, which she said they called “90210” because of all of the actors affiliated who also had TV series shot there. She was in the group for 12 years before being introduced to the DOS subgroup by Lauren Salzman, who was a friend she trusted.

In order to even hear what DOS was about, Edmondson said she had to give Salzman “collateral” in the form of nude photos of herself as well as a written confession about herself that she wouldn’t want the world to know about. She was then told it was a “women’s group” and “secret society” — “just like in a sorority.”

It required an initiation ceremony, which Edmondson said immediately raised red flags. It involved women being led into a room, naked and blindfolded, she claimed. Soon after, they dressed, moved to another location — which she later learned was Mack’s home — and were stripped again. Then they all got what was supposed to be a “dime-sized tattoo” but was instead a “horrifically painful, traumatic branding” with a cauterizing iron.

Former Nxivm member Sarah Edmondson has written a book called Scarred about her time in the cult. (Photo: Amazon)

Edmondson recalled how the women who went before her reacted to the branding, which was done by a doctor. One “flipped and jumped off the table” like “she was being electrocuted. It was horrific,” she said. She was “wearing a mask I think because of hygiene, but also to stop the smoky flesh burning” smell that filled the room.

The women took turns holding each other down to complete the horrific ritual. She was asked to film the person who went after her, she recalled.

Edmondson said she quickly started to question everything about DOS, especially after Salzman asked her for more collateral to remain in the group. That time, she wanted the deed to Edmondson’s house.

Soon after, Vicente came to Edmondson and said he was quitting because he came to learn that Raniere was a “liar.” During the conversation, Vicente mentioned that he learned about a subgroup of Nxivm called DOS and said that the women in it were required to have sex with Raniere to become full-fledged members.

“Luckily it never got to that point,” she said. She and Vicente compared notes and she realized “how messed up” Nxivm really was. It was then she realized she didn’t have a special tattoo for the sorority group — she had Raniere’s and Mack’s initials “on my body.” She reveals her branding on the cover of her new book, which is out now.

Her world “collapsed” in that moment,” she said, adding, “Looking back on it now, it’s so beyond bizarre,” she said of the whole experience. “It's embarrassing to recognize that I ignored all the red flags leading up to that point.”

Edmondson blew the whistle on Nxivm soon after, meeting with FBI agents to show them the brand.

She said she has since done an “apology tour” with the people she recruited.

Edmondson also spoke with Refinery29, detailing how she recruited people to the cult, which fronted as a personal development program. She gave her actual sales pitch.

She also talked about why she thought that so many actors were involved, saying, “The initial seminars help with a lot of the issues actors struggle with in terms of having confidence and needing to be validated. I can say from my own experience that after those early ESP seminars [Nxivm’s Executive Success Program], I felt like things were going really well for me. I went to more auditions, I got off my sleeping pills, I felt like I was a causing agent in my life rather than just being at the whim of the world."

In the same interview, she talked about her reaction to seeing her large branding each day when she gets dressed.

“It’s a mixed bag,” she said. “Sometimes it’s ‘f*** you, Keith,’ and other times it’s, ‘You messed with the wrong person, and other times it’s, ‘Thank God this happened’ otherwise I’d still be in ESP pushing that BS. I’m grateful that I had what it took to wake up, I’m angry that they thought they could get away with that, I’m disgusted to have been a part of it and I’m proud of myself for standing up to them. It’s all of those things depending on the day."

Raniere was due to be sentenced on Sept. 25, but sentencing now won’t take place until 2020.

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