Hold tight, #PodSquad-ers, because this one’s a doozy.
In addition to my love of true crime stories, I have an almost-equal fascination with cult stories. Sometimes the stars align and these interests overlap because, as we well know – ahem, Jonestown – cults and crime often go hand-in-hand.
At the intersection of cult and crime, I present to you: Uncover: Escaping NXIVM. This show comes to us from CBC podcasts, the makers of Someone Knows Something and Missing and Murdered, among other outstanding podcasts. Here’s why this one is so great.
This stuff is for real going down, like, as you read this.
You’ve probably caught wind of some NXIVM (pronounced “Nexium,” like that over-the-counter heartburn medicine) news in recent months. The group’s founder, Keith Raniere (a supercreep), and other top members were arrested in early 2018 on federal criminal sex trafficking charges. Since then, the cult has slowly been crumbling as more and more information comes out. I Googled “NXIVM” today, and the most recent news story is from just one day ago. Have fun going down that rabbit hole after you listen to the podcast. There’s no shortage of info out there.
As much as I love a good cold case story, something that is in motion right now makes the podcast feel all the more relevant and urgent.
The journalist and his subject already knew each other.
Why is that important? Because host Josh Bloch’s relationship with Sarah Edmondson, a NXIVM escapee and whistle-blower, is probably why this podcast exists in the first place. Josh and Sarah have known one another since childhood and even went to the same Jewish summer camp as kids. Last year, Josh had a chance meeting with Sarah on a beach in Canada, and in their catching-up conversation, Sarah said, “I just left a cult.” And a beautiful baby podcast was born.
Because Sarah knows Josh, she seems really comfortable sharing the gritty details (and believe me, there are some really gritty details) of her time in NXIVM over the past decade. Their conversations don’t feel like journalist-subject. It’s two old friends talking about a crazy story. But Josh still manages to ask Sarah the tough questions, like whether she feels she deserves to keep all the money she made while working for the group as a recruiter.
Sarah is riveting.
Sarah’s a great person to share the NXIVM story for several reasons. First, she’s fully self-aware and very articulate about her own experience. Second, Sarah wasn’t just some ground-level newbie in this cult. She was in deep. Sarah was a leader.
After getting talked (read: conned) into taking one of NXIVM’s Executive Success Program courses in 2005, Sarah was hooked. These programs, pitched as personal and professional development seminars and called by the acronym ESP, cost thousands of dollars a pop. And Sarah took a ton of them. And then she became a teacher. At the time of her departure from NXIVM, Sarah was running the group’s Vancouver ESP center and seen as a central figure in NXIVM by her colleagues and other members. Sarah even met her husband in NXIVM. This organization was her whole life.
The podcast begins with what became the last straw for Sarah: her initiation into a secret sisterhood within NXIVM called DOS. She alleges that she and a group of other women were required to be branded – yes, branded – at their initiation ceremony, which took place at Allison Mack’s house. (If you’ve seen any news on this cult, it’s probably been about Allison Mack’s involvement and this branding story. Mack was in Smallville back in the day.)
When Sarah left in 2017, The New York Times broke the story of the branding (which is why I don’t consider it a spoiler to tell you about it here), including photos of Sarah’s scarring. I can tell you that her harrowing account of that evening is even more in-depth in the podcast. The whole story only gets more shocking over the course of the show’s eight episodes.
The cult itself is wild.
The structure of NXIVM is interesting in that it works like a multi-level marketing ploy, with members making money based on how many people they can recruit and get to sign up for ESP courses. A lot of people lost plenty of money this way. But Sarah was so good at it that she was sometimes pulling in five figures a month. It’s essentially a pyramid scheme that only works for the very tip-top of the pyramid and screws over everyone at the bottom.
Like most cults, there is a strictly-enforced hierarchy and manner in which senior members must be treated, addressed and revered. There’s a bunch of wacky jargon like you’d expect from any major cult. And there’s the stereotypical charismatic and enigmatic leader ala Jim Jones or Charles Manson (minus the murders). Sarah does a great job at detailing how all of this worked, as well as why it worked on someone like her.
You’ll have to listen to get more of the culty details. No spoilers here!
It’s a true human interest story with real consequences.
The thing that fascinates me the most about cults is how seemingly smart, well-adjusted people can get caught up in them. Listening to Sarah’s story, you can hear the subtle manipulation that built up over her 12-year tenure. Eventually, that manipulation sounds a lot like full-on brainwashing.
I appreciate Sarah’s candor when she tells Josh how much she really, truly believed in what she was selling when she recruited members for the organization. And she’s honest about the fact that even to this day, she still thinks some of what she got from this cult was actually positive and worthwhile, but you can tell it pains her to admit that.
Uncover: Escaping NXIVM is an unflinching look at what humans will do and believe in order to feel like part of a community. It’s almost scary how easily someone like Sarah could be someone like you or me.
Have you listened? What did you think of the podcast? Let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org!
Are you in a cult? Call Emily’s dad.