The show’s description: “Today I’m speaking with two survivors and recruiters of the NXIVM cult. They escaped and shut the whole thing down. NXIVM was positioned as a self-help business with tiers to advance. But there was a cost, and over time there were strategies designed to keep you in. Strategies that were controlling and horrific.”
Anthony ‘Nippy’ Ames
Here are some excerpts:
Zoe: The collateral like fucked me up. Not just that. It was like, give me a photo of your pussy, so in case you leave, we’ll show everyone, not just that. And if we’re not giving context, pause here and watch The Vow.
Sarah: Yeah, watch The Vow. Just for the reference, I did not give it. Well, I did give a full frontal nude. I didn’t give a pussy picture.
Zoe: Pussy pic.
Sarah: But, but, but women did.
Zoe: Some may have.
Sarah: Some did. No, many women did.
Nippy: They absolutely did, yeah.
Zoe: This part of it though, the collateral is already like, this doesn’t come in day one. Like I don’t go self-help like pussy pic. It’s more, it’s an insidious–
Sarah: Yeah. Let me tell you how insidious, especially that collateral had been introduced years before, and should.
Nippy: Can we call it blackmail?
Sarah: Yeah. Blackmail, but yeah. Yeah. So years before this even happened, there was a new program called Human Pain. And it was about building your conscience and learning to love deeper and understanding pain. And love was linked to pain. And it was all this bullshit, that word salad stuff I couldn’t even explain, but part of that was doing penance.
Zoe: Like a 12 step program.
Sarah: Yeah. And I’d never done 12 Step or was religious, so I didn’t have this context. Nor did I really do it that much, although I said I did. But I started to kind of realize that there were things that I liked in the program, and I was gonna do it. And there were other things I didn’t like, and I wasn’t gonna do it, but I kind of went along with it and people thought I was doing it.
But what I did do was put down collateral for things like, there was this one guy who was trying to like, not smoke weed anymore, and he said, ‘if I ever smoke weed again, I’m gonna like shave my head.’ So that was like a penance/a collateral that he had on the line. Like a personal one or like it was almost like a personal punishment. That was okay.
Zoe: So penance is different to collateral, right? Like penance is like an exchange.
Nippy: Penance is a consequence. Like, for instance, if someone had a goal of enrolling someone into an intensive, they had to make, I don’t know, five calls a day. If they didn’t make five calls a day, they would say, you know, here’s $200. If I don’t make five calls a day, you keep the $200. And every time I do it, you keep the $200.
Sarah: So you were giving something to uphold, they called it ‘upholding your word,’ and that made you accountable. So it was like a penance. So it was related as like there was a consequence to the actions, but the consequence had meant you were gonna lose something or somebody would have something that was, would take like, you know, when you have a collateral in your house, right? You’re backing it, you’re backing the, your debt with something. So you had to have something on the line.
Zoe: Exactly. But it came in lots of different forms, right? So it came in financial, it came in, I wanna say like secrets it came in nudes.
Nippy: It didn’t start that way.
Zoe: No. But we have evolved.
Nippy: Or devolved.
Sarah: Well, that’s the thing. By the time DOS was introduced, the women’s group. Um, to like elevate your growth to the next level and be a badass bitch and all this stuff. Giving a picture of your vagina or like, in my case, it was like a cute like ha in the mirror to my best friend [Lauren Salzman], who she was gonna hold this just to make sure I didn’t stray from the plan to keep the secret, was definitely edgy and I was very uncomfortable with it, but it was still sort of normalized, is what I guess my point. Like it wasn’t that off. Everything else we’d been doing, it was built, it was building up to that.
Zoe: Because we will talk about DOS, the female empowerment program, cause it’s so fucked up.
Sarah: But it is, especially that there’s still people vouching for it and thinking it’s helped them. But yeah, go on.
Zoe: There’s the bit, you know, that kind of strays into eating disorder territory. In this, what was it called when you had to like, follow through with all of your jobs for the day? You know, stand for an hour.
Sarah: Your persistency. This is also something that was built building, like when I joined 12 years ago, we committed to, every day we check in with our coach about our persistency. Like, I’m doing Spanish for 10 minutes a day, or I’m doing like 30 minutes of Pilates, or 20 minutes of my taxes. Like some hard thing that you’re building the skill or the muscle of a new–
Zoe: Which seems normal and healthy.
Sarah: Seems normal and great, and people can still do that. But then, but 12 years later, and now you’re checking in about that and a bunch of other things. And then when DOS came around, you had to check in on, um, you had to basically respond to what was called a readiness drill. So they would text, ‘are you ready?’ Is that what you’re talking about?
Sarah: So that this is it again. But by the time that started, it was like next level accountability and at some points it was kind of fun. I gotta tell you, like, to be a part of a team, and like you get a text and you have to find everybody, and like you’d go look for them or, you know, we helped each other out if we were, you know, lost.
Like it built camaraderie and it had all these good things, but it was also really fucking weird, obviously. And in retrospect, it was just a way for Keith to keep tabs on everybody and build discipline and loyalty and being ready to do whatever at a drop of a hat.
Sarah: It wasn’t like, ‘Hey, do you wanna join this group and you’re gonna have Keith Raniere’s initials burnt into your flesh?’ Like it didn’t happen that way. It was intense grooming. And most people know what the term grooming means…
It doesn’t happen overnight. So I think what’s key to know… When she [Lauren] first invited me and asked me to commit [to DOS], I mean my internal alarm bells were totally going off. But you have to understand, like I said, from day one, we’ve been trained to override that.
Sarah: .. I never lied to anybody. I never said, ‘yeah, Keith’s celibate’ and knew that he was fucking everybody. Did I gaslight people? Yes. Cause that’s how I was trained to grow people. Cause that’s how I was grown. And that would sound like, let’s say you were my assistant and you wanted to not work for me over the weekend or something. And I’d say something like, “Well, I guess, you know, if that’s your priority,” you know, like I, it would be like a subtle obligation kind of dig, you know? Does that sound right, Nip?
Nippy: No, I mean, I mean, it was more leveraging their growth over, using their growth to get them to do what you wanted to do.
Sarah: Figure out what’s more important to you, your, you know, comfort and satiation or your growth, and let me know… But no, that’s something I actually worked on with my cult exit therapist cause I was, you know, I knew that I had, I had, I, I, I, it’s hard to even word the, use the word “abusive,” cause there’s, it’s not physical, but definitely like, gaslighting is emotionally abusive and having to come to terms with the system that we are a part of as a victim, but also a perpetrator.
But the thing that always stuck with me and he was like, you have to know in your heart that you, what you thought you were doing was good. And I knew that other people may not see that. I wasn’t doing it to hurt people. I was doing it to keep them on track with what we were building.
It’s for the growth of the person and for the growth of the company. Obviously that’s not true, but in that system it was true. And I know that for me, so it, that’s what I had to like, remember about myself and not beat myself up further which is also part of the system, is that we had to feel like shit about ourselves in order to stay hooked, to keep growing and going and taking classes.
Zoe: Is that true for you too, Nippy? Like, did you feel like you were, uh, abusive in certain contexts?
Nippy: Um, yes, because I think the entire system was abusive and the way, it’s kind of like, you know, the company takes on the personality of its leader. The CEO or a coach takes on the personality of its team. You know, I, if, if your coach is an asshole, the team kind of plays like an asshole. If he’s soft, the team plays soft in my experience. So I kind of felt like those tactics that were used on me, I used as well.
Zoe: Were you a senior [NXIVM leader] as well?
Nippy: Yeah, I mean, I was. I would, I would teach the classes, and I guess, so Sarah was a senior proctor? Is that the name of your title?
Sarah: I was a senior proctor. Yes.
Nippy: I was a proctor. So there was a handful of senior proctors and about 20 proctors, 50 proctors. And the proctors, the proctors, when you’re a proctor–
Sarah: You oversaw the coaches.
Nippy; Yeah, if you’re a proctor, you basically could earn money within the organization, is really what it meant. So you, you could pursue one of the career career paths. And so mine was head trainer, taught the classes and trained the coaches.
Sarah: I just I wanna give an example. Cause I think something that Nippy and I both did, which is I think our most egregious thing is that if somebody were to come to us with like a complaint or a grievance, it would be not, “Wow, thank you.” Like, “That’s really awful.” I mean, sometimes if it, if I felt like I could help them or I could relate, but oftentimes it would be flipped back.
This is is where the gaslighting came in. It’d be like, ‘You seem really upset. I need you to go work on that with your coach or journal on it and figure out what’s going on for you. That you brought that up right now.’
Nippy: Yeah. You, you’d make it, ‘your issue.’ Although I’d say you and I are pretty good with listening to grievances cause a lot of them we agreed with.
Sarah: We were, yeah, we were, we were, we were like the ones people could approach generally. But I’m just saying, I’m trying to look for the, an example of something that would be.
Nippy: Oh yeah. I mean, that’s something that we’ve done the entire organization. It was done to us, but when it was done to us, I would in my head tell the person to go fuck themselves. A lot of times cause I just didn’t agree. But I knew I couldn’t talk. I was talking to a wall.
Sarah: You can’t, you can never have a complaint. Ever.
Nippy: I’ll say this, I, I, I felt shackled within the organization constantly. So being out and being myself, and being able to talk to people and be a little bit, be transparent in the way they want to be, has been liberating and relying on my own faculties, and my own decision-making process has been huge.
I don’t feel like I, leaving the organization was relief. I didn’t it, it’s kind of like leaving a military, like I would probably go in, you know, if I was younger, gone into a military organization, done pretty well, cuz I can just understand the system and learn how to navigate it. It’s kind of what I did with E S P, but I didn’t particularly like it.
So it wasn’t like these tools of gaslighting and being like, it wasn’t like it was particularly fun. It just felt like what we had to do to make that work the same way you go into any system, figure out the parameters and make it work. When I left it, I was like, great, now I can go build something on my own without that shit.
Sarah: And also you could, you could meet people and not have an ulterior motive. Like if I was doing an interview with you, and I met you, I’m like, ‘oh, you’re a mom and you’ve got a young kid, and you’re struggling with certain issues around like safety, you how to raise him, and you’ve, oh, you have anxiety.” [I’d say] ‘Oh my God. I have anxiety. I had anxiety. I had anxiety. Zoe, let me tell you about a five day training that totally transformed my anxiety. It would blow your mind. It’s only two grand. Is it worth two grand? Overcome your anxiety. Of course it is. Totally.” Like right?’ Like that was an easy pitch for me and I felt really good about doing it because I know it had helped me.
Zoe: So you’re like scanning everyone.
Zoe: Scanning always.
Zoe: For a buy-in.
Sarah: Yes. To not have that anymore to free, that is great. I didn’t know how, what a burden it was until I didn’t have it.
Zoe: And then your incomes. How do you guys survive within the cult?
Sarah: Most people didn’t. My case was, was special. I was the golden child. I had an incredible work ethic, a huge network, and I was very determined to make it work. Everybody else that was in my position in terms of I, so I ran a center in Vancouver.
I opened up a center with my own money. Everybody else who did that was independently wealthy, so like the son of a former president…. Um, wealthy people who were, you know, had money to spare. I was not that. I was a starving, oh, not starving. I wasn’t star- never starving. I wasn’t, I was a working actress, living in a basement suite when I started.
So I had this whole like rags to riches story within the company. It was something that was really like, you know, I was, I was the poster child and –.
Zoe: How much were you making at one point?
Sarah: Like at one point, I was making a lot of money at the peak, like anywhere from 10 to 20 grand in a month.
Zoe: And is that just from recruits?
Sarah: Recruits, commissions residual. Like basically once people were taking trainings and continued to take trainings, and sometimes the trainings were very expensive, like $15,000 trainings and I’d get a 10% commission from that.
Zoe: It’s almost like multi-level marketing.
Sarah: Oh, it’s totally multi. It’s multi —
Nippy: It’s not almost, it’s, it’s–
Sarah: Absolutely it is. And they told me that it wasn’t–
Nippy: Which I could never get my head around.
Sarah: And I would have this argument like once a month. I’m like, ‘this is an MLM Like
Nippy: Explain this to me
Sarah: No, no. [NXIVM leaders would say] ‘It’s not an MLM because MLMs are unethical and this is ethical, so therefore it’s not an MLM.’
Zoe: Cause we’re teaching people how to feel good. Yeah. Okay.
Sarah: And, and also, let me just preface as partly for my own defense. I spent four years before they got me to proctor. You can’t earn money until you’re proctor. So they withheld that ability for a long time. And then by the, and then, and then they gave it to me, and I went on.
I was like, it was arbitrary too. Made a lot of money, and then they took it away again. So, there was a time when I was, yes, earning a lot, but also we were flying a lot. We had, we were going back and forth to Albany. My center cost 10 grand a month just to run. So it was like, yes, I was making money, but it was like I wasn’t, yeah,
Zoe: You are a proctor for four years, and many of these people coming up were all those different levels until a lot them never get paid. It’s just this outgoing of funds. Right. So how are all of these people, I think, you know, The Vow shows this being able to survive being community, turn up constantly, visit Albany where the center was based or the headquarters was based, feed themselves. Like how no one gave a fuck. Right. Just gimme your money. You’ll figure it out. No —
Sarah: No, no. There was a couple tiers of people. There was like the super wealthy, like the heiresses that we talked about. And then there was people like myself that were earning, and also when once you became a certain level of leader, you were – and earning money – were also still required to take all the trainings, which you paid for, but then everybody else was staffed it.
So they didn’t necessarily pay five grand for a training, but they had to work the training. So they basically broke a bunch of labor laws, because you didn’t have to pay anyone to run the training, because they were basically saying you don’t have any money. That’s okay. You can take this next $10,000 training if you do the toilet, set up the food, stay after everyone’s gone and vacuum.
And then you also have to do that for two more trainings to pay back the $10,000 training we just gave you.