by Paul Serran
The last of the pieces from the Special Issue: NXIVM & Scientology that was published last June in the International Journal of Coercion, Abuse, and Manipulation is a somewhat shorter book review, made by Professor Robin Boyle Laisure, of Scarred: The True Story of How I Escaped NXIVM the Cult That Bound My Life, by Sarah Edmonson.
Professor Boyle works at St. John’s University School of Law, where she lectures on topics concerning cults and the law. She is clearly primarily addressing a scholarly audience, when writing about the book (and the whole NXIVM saga). And very honestly, this initial target audience is much less well informed than the Frank Report readers – and that is something we need to take into consideration from the very start.
“Sarah Edmondson provides us with candid insight into the lure of NXIVM, a business built on the promise of empowering members to achieve their personal goals,” Boyle writes. She thinks the book helps to explain “how Raniere and his cadre of manipulators were able to entice people into believing that, by spending thousands of dollars on workshops and following the ever-changing rules of the organization, they would find success”.
One aspect that will be problematic for the NXIVM-literate community will be that sometimes Professor Boyle is over-accepting of Edmonton’s whole context. For example, she writes that “Sarah had felt elated about the initial training program, proclaiming in her book, ‘The three months after my Five-Day had been the happiest and most productive time I’d ever experienced in my life'” With a little more context, it can be argued that this initial ‘high’ is a necessary tool from the MLM pyramid scam.
There’s plenty of that whitewashing of the real nature of ESP courses. Boyle writes that Edmondson was “passionate about this way of being”. As the actress/author puts it: “On the sincerest level, I was really starting to believe it”
“In time,” the Professor writes, “Sarah understood better NXIVM’s recruitment and sales practices (and that they created a classic iteration of a pyramid scheme)”. There is no insight into the thought process by which Edmondson chose to become a relevant part of the scheme.
The review recounts how Edmondson flew to Albany, New York, and was introduced to Lauren Salzman, who was to become her ‘best friend and mentor’. “The Eleven-Day training focused on finding the trainee’s ‘inner deficiency,’ which Sarah felt was emotionally painful as an actress whose career depended upon the approval of others.”
Edmondson writes that the objective was “to strip us down to nothing.” There is always an ambiguity to the poisonous ‘tech’ developed by Keith Raniere, as if it was a good thing, detached from the criminal practices of the organization. “I learned (sic) that none of my values were real, but were only important to me in covering up my inability to really know or love myself”.
“After 11 days, Sarah pondered an ‘urge to bolt'”, Boyle writes, “but she was coached otherwise. At the end of the Eleven-Day, she had mixed emotions.”
“She related well to its leaders, such as Lauren Salzman; but she also felt exposed: ‘being myself and showing vulnerability was a turnoff to people, but here I’d bared my soul'”.
The Professor writes: “Eventually, Sarah was asked to take on increasingly more responsibility through the Executive Success Program.” As Edmondson grows in the organization, her rise is described in terms of a ‘good development’, and there is no questioning the morality of her participating in what Judge Garaufis called a ‘pyramid scheme’ and what the Prosecution termed a ‘cult-like organization’.
“For readers who followed the news accounts of NXIVM and the trial, Scarred… fills out the edges of facts reported by the press.” Here it becomes clearer that Professor Boyle is targeting an audience of scholars and students, and ‘the press’ that she mentions is obviously the ‘mainstream’ press. For the habitual readers of the Frank Report, while ‘Scarred’ is filled with new information, the whole story had already been scrutinized a hundred times, and bitterly debated from various points of view.
Boyle goes on to write that Edmondson “explains the structure of the organization and the salesmanship tactics [NXIVM] used in creating multiple levels of workshops with locations in the United States, Canada, and Mexico.”
When DOS begins recruiting, Edmondson is tackled to be part of that elite group of empowered women. “Lauren would be Sarah’s master, and she, in turn, would be Laura’s slave”.
“Why not just leave?”, the Professor asks. “With an honest account, Sarah describes her desire to do good, to be an effective leader, to take responsibility, and to execute it well.” That’s really NOT an explanation. Edmondson was making a lot of money out of conning people into joining the NXIVM trap. However heroic her subsequent actions may have been – and they were – at that juncture, she was clearly a part of the problem, and was not ‘doing good’ to anyone.
Look how the true nature of NXIVM is whitewashed in this passage: “Sarah enlisted hundreds of new members monthly for the center she co-founded in Vancouver as she was fueled by Nancy’s praise.” In plain language, Edmonson was luring hundreds of people into an MLM scam with leaders convicted for conducting a racketeering operation. The actress turned coach was increasing the number of NXIVM victims like no one else. It’s impossible to imagine a scenario where her work is detached from – and untainted by – all that criminality going on.
Edmondson wrote: “Nancy would tell our colleagues that my recruitment work was exemplary. [Nancy would say] ‘if every city had a Sarah…'” If every city had a Sarah Edmondson, NXIVM would be a much bigger threat to the safety of society.
While she was recruiting for the mother, Edmondson ended up recruited by the daughter. “[I]t was her confidante Lauren who, hand-in-hand, led Sarah down the familiar staircase of Lauren’s home to be physically branded in a ceremony, ostensibly to show allegiance to their leader, Raniere.”
“Sarah and the other women who also endured horrific pain were forced to say, ‘Master, would you brand me? It would be an honor.'” I find the parts of the review that deal with DOS and the branding to be quite compelling because I don’t feel like there’s an attempt to whitewash the heroine’s behavior in order to make her look good.
Boyle goes on to write: “The photograph of Sarah on the cover of her book, showing the scar on her left hip outlining Raniere’s raised initials, symbolizes the brutality of Raniere’s extreme demands and the evil that lurked within the organization.” I feel that to be quite right. Edmondson put herself out there and provided the world with an image that could not be ignored. And that’s a truly heroic feat.
But when the Professor writes that Scarred provides “a realistic view of how one can be pulled into a scheme that on the surface looks positive”, I’m not sure that’s entirely the case – while I do agree that it’s “evocative and insightful”.
There’s no doubt in my mind that Sarah Edmondson behaved in a heroic manner when she decided to become a whistleblower against NXIVM. So, when a story is told in which she is the hero and other NXIVM leaders are villains, I don’t quite disagree. But, in the process of lionizing her as a heroine, many accounts pretend that evil in NXIVM was contained to SOP, DOS and other more extreme manifestations of Raniere’s ‘tech’. That’s false, as we know very well NXIVM comes from the ancient Roman word ‘nexum’, a contract for human bondage. The slavery, economic or otherwise, was embedded into the very core of the scam.
There’s also a case to be made that, if shown in its true colors, the odyssey of the NXIVM whistleblowers becomes even more epic. To show them as willful participants in an MLM scam that exploits human suffering for profit does not disqualify them from becoming heroes when they are faced with even bigger evils.