Or, my $10,000 journey to success on my own terms
This is the story of my 4 year journey in and out of NXIVM to document my personal experience of what was uncovered later to be a cult organization. Most names are replaced by initials out of respect for individuals.
November 2012 – Enrollment
I attended a gathering hosted by a colleague who was very enthusiastic about sharing something she’d gained immense value from and wasn’t easy to explain via email (sounds very MLM, doesn’t it?). It sounded intriguing, and at the time my older sister was a new mom and came along with me.
My colleague N was accompanied by whom I learned later was her coach A, and the founder of the Vancouver centre of Executive Success Programs (ESP), Sarah Edmondson. The gathering of a dozen or so women had us share what we all struggled with, and for me, it was money. I had just rebranded my company to Conscious PR and had some success getting new clients, but still wasn’t making the salary I wanted to pay myself.
Sarah shared about her journey getting into ESP from learning about it at a film festival on a cruise ship to rising above her personal blocks and limiting beliefs. At the time I was also big into yoga, group meditations, and self-development books and events. I knew what my values were, but didn’t find they helped me make more money.
What really “sold” me about Sarah’s spiel was her comparison of the program to the movie The Sixth Sense and how, after you watch it the first time, you gain a piece of information that changes how you view the movie again thereafter. In the same way you can’t watch the film the same way, after taking ESP you wouldn’t be able to live your life the same way again. That really intrigued me.
My sister signed up right away for the 5-Day that was happening in Vancouver the following February. She said she wanted me to join her, but I knew I didn’t have $2400 USD lying around. Then Sarah said that if you want to use the program for professional development, you can write it off your taxes and I remembered I had some cash in my business bank account, so I put the $500 USD deposit down. Looks like me and my sis were gonna do this together! Out of everyone who attended that evening, there was only one other person who signed up for a program.
Sarah said we would hear from her assistant about all the details before the 5-Day arrived.
February 2013: 5-Day
I moved out of my parents’ house and into the new basement suite my sister had built, so this was already an exciting time for me.
Between the time I’d enrolled, there was no communication from Sarah or anyone at ESP about when the rest of the 5-Day fee was going to be withdrawn from my biz credit card, nor what times it was taking place (it was the first Friday to Tuesday weekend), so I started Googling around the week before to try to find Sarah’s assistant’s information.
Even though ESP did have a website, it was not the first thing that came up. There was a Wikipedia article, a few websites that were put up in the early 2000s calling ESP a cult, and one news article about Keith Raniere (“KR,” NXIVM’s founder) being involved in some weird money stuff, polygamy, and a possible a case of statutory rape. I emailed my sister almost immediately and told her that if we cancelled the program, we’d lose our deposit but wouldn’t be charged for the fee. She emailed me back saying she still wanted to do it, because—just like the Catholic religion in which we were brought up—she planned to take the “good stuff” that ESP might offer, and discard the rest. If I wanted to cancel, she’d be fine with it, but hoped I’d stick it out with her, so I did.
The 5-Day started early at 9am and they served breakfast beforehand and dinner (on 4/5 days) which means we had to get up effing early to transit down. At the Vancouver centre basement office downtown, there was no reception desk, so there wasn’t always someone to greet you when you walked in. Breakfast sounded good, but first we had to have our photo taken and I remember seeing it on Day 5 and looking like absolute crap. They also gave us a white binder, which we’d put all our worksheets in. We met the proctors (program facilitators) and coaches and learned about their journeys and shared what we wanted to get out of the program. I shared about wanting to make more money.
The most memorable module on Day 1 was Rules and Rituals. They showed us how to properly shake hands, which seemed pretty common sense for anyone running a business or who did professional networking. The structure of the program was watching a video (usually of Nancy Salzman, the president of ESP), doing a debrief with the program facilitator, Proctor W, and then breaking out into groups with coaches for more questions and discussion, and then back into the main room for debrief. We could have water with us but not snacks, so there were definitely a few times I zoned out during the videos.
What made the first day worth it for me was in the early evening when we were in a breakout and I talked about having an uncomfortable conversation with my boyfriend over Skype. I had bought a Groupon (e-discount coupon) for something even though he knew I was struggling with money, and he had challenged my reason for buying it. Proctor Sarah was in our group and reflected back to me that we see ourselves as “figurines in a cabinet” and we don’t like it when others shake up that vision we have of ourselves. She was bang-on, and it made the entire 5-Day worth it.
Days 2 & 3
There wasn’t anything significant I remember about these two days, only that I was really soaking up everything I was learning and my sis had to wake me up on the weekends, cause I forgot to set an alarm.
I remember Proctor W challenging someone (a yoga teacher) on what her definition of “love” was and that the word doesn’t have universal meaning. I really enjoyed that because I enjoyed being challenged on my own stuff. During one module I broke down crying because we had to talk about someone in our lives, and I talked about how much I blamed my mom for a lot of the problems I was experiencing in adulthood. But I felt safe because the two coaches with us were a mother and daughter team, Coach L and Coach D.
We completed more modules, saw a lot of videos with Nancy and her outdated hairstyles, and thickened our white binders.
The one memorable module on this day was called The Fall and talked about how people could feel good doing bad things. There was one woman very disturbed by it, and she asked Proctor W if this had something to do with all the media she had Googled about KR which I had experienced pre 5-Day. Proctor W asked her whether everything in the media was true, and when she responded no, that pretty much put a lid on the issue. I’d learn later that’s how they addressed all the accusations made against KR in the media.
In the afternoon, we did our first EMs (Exploration of Meaning) and I had heard some coaches talking about this the day before, so I knew it was a big deal. It involved us naming something that triggered us and going back to our earliest memory of that feeling. I remember that it wasn’t an easy thing for me to do, but Proctor C was really patient with me. I wanted to eliminate the shitty feeling I got every time a potential client said no to a proposal. I imagined my current clients saying nasty things to me they never would and tried to trace the first time I’d felt spoken to in that way and “remembered” feeling that when my mom yelled at me. Then, Proctor C brought me back to the present and said in the same way we choose chocolate over vanilla ice cream, clients might choose others over me.
I learned later that this technique was essentially a form of hypnosis, but they called it ESP’s patent pending “technology.” I’ve never felt the same trigger again, so I can say that it worked.
On the last day, Sarah E talked about the next programs available: Ethos (one-year membership) and the Days 6-10 (“Middle 5”) and 11-16 (“Final 5”) programs, called the “16-Day.” They explained how the 16-Day was the prerequisite for higher-level programs, and also plugged Jness, the 3-day women’s program, and maybe also Society of Protectors (SOP), the men’s program. I mostly remembered having my second photo taken (so that they could compare before and after photos) and crying because of all the breakthroughs I’d learned about myself.
They also gave us our white sashes, which indicates the rank of student. Having one red stripe indicated completion of the 5-Day, and a second stripe indicated enrollment of one person into the 5-Day. I was so surprised to see two stripes on my sash because I didn’t know that enrolling my sister counted, but it did. It gave me a great sense of pride and made me cry some more. If I had the money, I would probably have enrolled into the 16-Day right then and there. Same thing for Jness.
As part of the 5-Day we were assigned a coach for 30 days following, and I liked that they assigned me Coach L, the mother figure in the community I felt really comfortable with.
A few days after, I remember walking to my parents’ house and giving my mom a hug (which is usually reserved for holiday greetings) and telling her about how great the program was. I felt no hostility toward her, which was the first time that had happened since probably my childhood.
In realizing that I determine my own fears, I also started picking up spiders I saw in the house and tossing them outside instead of crushing and flushing them as I used to do.
5-day cost: $2400
My sister enrolled into Ethos almost immediately after. I settled back into normal life and even though I had new knowledge about myself, nothing about my financial situation had really changed, and I remember breaking down around May that year when talking about using some of my savings for something, and my boyfriend warning me against it. My sis encouraged me to continue with Ethos. At the time I had a credit line, so I enrolled in June, believing I would find a way to pay it back later.
July 2013 to June 2014: Ethos
I asked to work with Coach L again, who would help me year-round. About 75% of modules in the Ethos program are the same as what you learn in the 5-Day but there were others to take to finish the program. Each 2.5 hour class, we would vote on the modules we wanted to take (depending on the number of coaches and proctors, there would be between 1 to 3 modules happening simultaneously) and sometimes I’d take the same module up to 4 times if I didn’t get the module I wanted. One thing I remember doing was memorizing the ESP Mission Statement created by KR, slipped into the back of our binders. We recited it at the start of each class. It was very well written and reflective of my values and I wanted to know it by heart. I remember feeling good when Sarah noticed I didn’t have to read it off my binder. At the end of each class we bowed, thanked, and applauded to all the proctors, “Prefect” Nancy, and “Vanguard” KR. It was a respectful practice but super culty if you looked at us from the outside wearing all our sashes.
I think Wednesday evenings and Saturday mornings were my regular Ethos days, with one other weekday eve if I could swing it. Leo always picked me up at the Skytrain around 10-10:30pm at night so I wouldn’t have to bus home.
I remember being in a module with one celebrity, an actress I didn’t recognize until after class was over. My two favourite modules were Good and Bad and Deciphering Delusion.
I did a bunch more EMs with my coach because she was in training to someday be an EM facilitator (and if you got to that level you could charge for your sessions). Anyone in training offered their time to do what they called “drills” which were not full EMs but practice. What I loved about my coach is that she took a full hour doing EMs with me, and I think that’s why a good number of them worked. I did one drill with a male actor coach on public speaking because I was going to be on TV in the winter and I think it helped, but I still always sweat whenever I have to speak.
There was one drill I did with another Proctor C on being afraid of powerful women (there are my mom issues again), and I remember crying and feeling like shit afterwards because we spent the whole time trying to define power and got nowhere.
After completing two-thirds of Ethos I was eligible for my third red stripe and I ended up enrolling a client a year later, which gave me my fourth red stripe. The only thing else I could do with a white sash was take a test, which was the prerequisite for moving to coach (yellow sash). I never wanted to be a coach because I knew that coaches never got paid, you had to volunteer about 10 hours a week or so, and you still had to pay every year for Ethos and any coaching retreats (which were mostly at ESP HQs in Albany, NY) so it made no sense.
I brought a couple more people to enrollment events: a colleague, my boyfriend (just cause Mark Vicente was going to be there), and one of my best friends, only really wanting to enroll her. She said she was already working with a coach and said she probably couldn’t get off work to take the 5-Day. My boyfriend was really impressed by Mark’s sales techniques.
As part of Ethos, you could also take what’s called the Goals program in which you check in with a coach and set of peers to move forward on something for six months. I like to get the most value when I spend money, and I always wanted to start a product-based program with my sister, so over the course of the year we went from ideation to putting out one collection of upcycled dresses under the brand Rescued Clothing Company. I can’t say Coach C or Coach B had much to do with it and most people I took the program with only showed up half the time so I felt good about what I’d accomplished, even though we closed the biz pretty soon after.
Ethos program cost: $3100
Winter 2013: OA weekend
In 2013, a few women in ESP co-founded a Jness-like program for Asian women, which I’ll call OA. I couldn’t attend when they first launched it but I remember there being a big (and successful) crowdfunding campaign for it. I think what made them so successful is they never publicly tied it to KR or ESP. One of the co-founders sat me down for coffee around the fall and sold me on it, so I enrolled in the winter weekend program.
There were only two other women who joined me, so we were a small and intimate group. The curricula on the first day was a repeat from the 5-Day and Ethos, so it didn’t really start getting interesting until the end of Days 2 and 3. The biggest thing I learned was how much I had become a third parent to my little brother, who is further in age than my sister and I am. I felt really guilty about that and my eyes were red during the testimonial video they took of me, so I was sure it wouldn’t see the light of day. There was the option to continue as a monthly member, but since the curricula was all delivered online (ahead of its time!), I saw little value in it.
One another notable thing about OA is that it was referred to as a more organized Jness. We had networking events with all types of people and a lovely rooftop summer gathering in 2014. I encouraged all the Asian women ESPians I came across to take it, and it was a way to get Asian women into ESP. I was supposed to speak at one of their events around fall 2014, but it never happened. Instead, one of the facilitators offered me a coaching session in 2015 and I broke down at the Starbucks in downtown, still talking about my money issues. She encouraged me to read The Artist’s Way and get creative and remember to play, even if I didn’t have money to do things. That book was crucial for me because it helped me regain the intuition and creativity that I think I’d lost being in ESP, which I started to get back at the end of 2016, the time I launched my journals.
The company shut down about a year after that, and it’s a good thing they did.
OA program cost: $750? (I don’t remember the exact cost but that’d be my guess)
Summer 2014: Jness weekend
My experience with OA pumped me up to finally take the Jness weekend. It was again an intimate group with me and two other (White) women. The videos included Nancy and were horrendous, with groups of women listening to her, role playing, and outdated hairstyles and fashion. I hate that I judge them like that, but that’s what my opinion was. Like OA, Days 1 and 2 were overlap from the 5-Day and Ethos.
Midway through Day 2 (Saturday), one of the women dropped out. She was tired from the long days, the videos, having to sit in the same position for hours, the endless questioning, and not being able to snack throughout so she was just DONE.
The biggest thing I remember about Jness was on Day 3 about women having a certain “essence” and how we would need to recognize that in each other if we ever wanted women to have equal rights.
By this time, I’d been out of Ethos and not active in much self-dev. I’d learned Transcendental Meditation in July and attended as many ESP social gatherings I could (announced in a given Facebook group). So the fact that Jness membership offered weekly meetings (usually 2 hours and open to any woman) plus 30 minutes of queries and discussion (members only), plus monthly gatherings with everyone enrolled, was a way for me to stay connected to the community, the curricula, and continue doing EMs with Coach L.
Jness program cost: $800?
My Jness group met on Mondays from 7-9 (sometimes hosted at my home) and we always did some sort of activity, usually baking or crafts. Leo stayed in his office those nights I hosted unless he had to go to the bathroom, and always picked me up from the Skytrain after meetings.
2015 to 2017
The social events that made ESP worthwhile included holiday parties and talent shows at the centre.
Nancy would sometimes come into town to give special talks. I remember when she did in 2014, I attended both nights when we were invited. The first night, I asked her if there would be any programs like Jness or SOP but for transgender or queer people. She talked what sounded like nonsense for about 5 minutes, about how women still aren’t accepted and how everyone would be in uproar if women didn’t wear bras, and at the end said there aren’t that many transgender people in the world so it was unlikely ESP would ever form a weekend program for them.
Throughout my time in Ethos and as a Jness member, I occasionally got text messages and heard from other members (all coaches) about how great a program called SOP Complete was. Typically held in Albany, women could attend this week-long program to learn what it was like to be a man (and there were similar “Jness track” programs for men to learn women’s experiences). The one rumour I heard was that women were told to do pushups and were yelled at by male coaches as if they were in the military, and I thought to myself that just sounds like my childhood, so I could probably hack it better than some of the other women.
My absolute worst memory of attempted enrollment was when a Jness member, Coach J, set me up on a 3-way call with Senior Proctor E to help her enroll me into SOP Complete, which she had of course raved about. What’s funny is that I repeated my main life issue was the same as it was two years prior: making more money in my business. Senior Proctor E said that because I hadn’t been making six-figures by the five-year mark I was pretty much a failure, so this program would help me become better. Of course, she never made the connection between how that would happen, but she said she’d call me the next day to find out my decision. With this program, there wasn’t a big deposit required; you put $500 USD down, took the program in Albany, then paid the rest of the $7000 USD off on a monthly basis.
I took it seriously as I always did financial decisions, and asked my husband about it who said that if I didn’t have the money I shouldn’t do it. So I told Senior Proctor E (who called about an hour late) that even though I wanted to take it, I wouldn’t put down a deposit and she said I lacked commitment. That’s one thing she had dead wrong about me. Just because I don’t put money on something doesn’t mean I’m not committed.
I attempted to enroll one of my besties into Jness and she’d actually tried to get her work to pay for the weekend program, but I’m glad she was denied.
In 2016, I got engaged and my Monday Jness crew became a part of how I celebrated. Some of them came to my bridal shower, and we spent at least one meeting on my table decorations.
V-Week was the retreat celebrating KR’s birthday that was promoted annually in spring and summer. I think it costed $2k USD plus travel and accommodations. Around 2015 or 2016 I was told if you contributed a skill like caring for the young children of ESPian parents or being on the film crew, you could get a discount or subsidy on your tuition. I remember chatting with Coach M about those options and she told me if money was the barrier to going to V-Week, I had bigger issues, so that turned me off.
At the end of 2016 and beginning of 2017 I started planning a rebrand for a new iteration of my agency, which would involve other partners. Until we launched, I wasn’t marketing the biz and went on sort of a sabbatical.
I wanted to find something I could do part-time to earn extra money and at the start of 2017 that’s when I learned Sarah needed a new personal assistant. I began working with her part time.
It was around May 2017 when she told me she was going to focus on her acting, and although she didn’t outright say she was leaving ESP, she hinted that something was going down. I had a feeling it was something big because after all, Sarah had founded the Vancouver centre (along with Mark Vicente, but who lives in LA). Having recently gotten married, I had changed my surname and was launching my new personal website along with a “Conscious Living Guide” that promoted the programs I’d taken. I asked my designer to remove mentions of them before I launched and am glad I did that!
Around June 2017 was when I learned about the existence of DOS (the women’s group that formed and was led by the high-level women in ESP) from Sarah and that I should stop paying for my Jness membership. She had announced her resignation in the Facebook group (to the shock of most) and was advising the people around her to stop paying for programs. I had just renewed my Jness membership in April, so when I called my bank they said I had to show proof of my cancellation. They issued me a temporary refund. For the months following, even after Sarah had shut down the Vancouver centre, the ESP branches were still trying to charge people for programs and V-Week. They removed our access to their site so we couldn’t see or show any of the records they held.
The Jness folks fought back and sent my bank the application form I’d signed, so since I had always wanted to bank with Vancity, I shut down my bank credit card and opened a new account with Vancity that summer.
I remember right after hosting my last Jness meetup in June or July, I left our Whatsapp group and said people could still find me if they wanted to hang out. I’m still connected with most of them via social media, but have really only stayed in touch with one of those women.
Jness membership cost August 2014 to May 2017: $2300
In total, I spent around $10,000 CDN on NXIVM-related programs.
I was Sarah’s assistant up until the start of 2019 so I was around for the time she blew the whistle on DOS and NXIVM in the media, including when she was on the cover of The New York Times in October 2017, on the heels of the #MeToo movement (thanks, Harvey Weinstein).
I was interviewed a few times by Sarah Berman for VICE, Etan Vlessing of The Hollywood Reporter and the producer/host of S1 of the award-winning CBC Uncover podcast, Escaping NXIVM but since I was never in DOS, a coach, or close to any of the higher-ups at ESP my experience wasn’t the same as some others who experienced more abuse. Even besides knowing about the existence of DOS and doing nothing about it, a lot of the folks in Albany did other shitty stuff to innocent people I’d only learn later when everything went down.
2018 and beyond: Finally getting the money
There’s been a lot of media covering DOS and NXIVM since that time, and although a lot of it hyped up the “sex cult” aspect of the company, what I know now about cult groups/organizations is exactly how NXIVM operated.
There was an opportunity to join the class action lawsuit against the organization/people involved, but since I’d lost all my credit card statements from my time in ESP and the total amount I spent was less than what others lost, I didn’t bother.
KR was arrested in 2018 (after escaping to Mexico) and shortly after that I’d had enough with my business and assisting for Sarah. Nancy Salzman, Clare Bronfman (who bankrolled everything), Allison Mack, and Lauren Salzman are just some other heads who were also arrested and facing charges.
I started freelancing for other businesses in the fall of 2018, and by then I was eating a 100% plant-based diet, on my way to a vegan lifestyle.
KR was found guilty of all charges against him in 2019.
I started exploring other career options in 2019 and started learning about the chakras, getting into gemstones and hypnotherapy, and actively working on integrating chakra work into my meditation at the end of the year. Then I came up with the idea for the new business I started in 2020.
By October 2020, I paid off the $10k total debt I’d accumulated through my bank credit line and was finally able to cancel that account. Hurrah! My earnings in 2020 were more than I’ve ever had in previous jobs or my previous business, so the four years I was in ESP did absolutely nothing to better my financial situation. It’s almost like I had to learn lessons about the money I spent at ESP before I could earn what I actually deserved.
In 2020, KR was sentenced to 120 years in prison, plus probation.
Did I remove triggers, dissolve my hostility for my mother, and resolve other issues as a result of my time in NXIVM? Yes.
But I’m glad I never went to V-Week, met KR, or visited Albany as many others did. HBO released “The Vow” which is a great glimpse into NXIVM and how it was dismantled.
Added January 2023: I also highly recommend Season Two of “The Vow,” which reveals more information as part of the trial against KR. I’m amazed that KR would still have followers after that, but that shows you how deeply programmed they are.
Although most people who were in NXIVM programs in 2017 are “out” and living regular lives, KR still has supporters who say he improved their lives and empowered them to make their own decisions, despite them having his initials branded into their crotches as part of their involvement in DOS.
I’ve (unintentionally) been involved in other cult-like organizations aside from NXIVM, and I know I’m not a hugely gullible or unintelligent person, so I know anyone is susceptible.
Visit IGotOut.org to share your story if you’ve been involved in a cult, and/or visit Sarah Edmondson’s webpage for resources on how to get out of an organization that may be a cult or help your loved ones who may be in one. She and her husband (former Proctor) Anthony “Nippy” Ames have also started a podcast called A Little Bit Culty.