Book: “Scarred: The True Story of How I Escaped NXIVM, The Cult That Bound My Life” by Sarah Edmondson and Kristine Gasbarre
Publishing Info: Chronicle Prism, September 2019
Where Did I Get This Book: The library!
Book Description: In 2005, Sarah Edmondson was a young actress getting her start in Vancouver and hungry for purpose. When NXIVM, a personal and professional development company, promised to provide the tools and insight to reach her potential and make an impact, Sarah was intrigued. She would go on to become one of the cult’s most faithful (and effective) devotees. Over her twelve-year tenure, Sarah enrolled over 2,000 people and operated her own NXIVM center in Vancouver.
Of course, things were not what they seemed. As Sarah progressed up NXIVM’s “Stripe Path,” questions kept coming up about the organization’s rules and practices. Why did the organization prevent members from asking questions? Why did those who did ask questions promptly leave or disappear? These questions came to a head in 2017 when Sarah accepted an invitation from her best friend, Lauren Salzman, to join DOS, a “secret sisterhood” within NXIVM and headed to the headquarters in Albany for the initiation ceremony. Thanks to Sarah’s fearlessness as she put her life on the line, that ceremony would mark the beginning of the end of NXIVM.
In this tell-all memoir, complete with personal photographs, Sarah shares her true story from the moment she takes her first NXIVM seminar, revealing in-depth details of her time as a member, including what happened on that fateful night in Albany, and her harrowing fight to get out, help others, and heal. This is also a true story about abuses of power, the role female friendships play in cults, and how sometimes the search to be “better” can override everything else.
Review: While I didn’t watch the teen show “Smallville” on a regular basis, I watched it enough to know that I enjoyed the character of Chloe Sullivan, Clark’s BFF and fellow student journalist. Part of the charm was because of Allison Mack, who played Chloe with quirkiness and a relatable awkward bent that I really connected with back in the day. Serena watched the show regularly, however, as anything Superman is up her alley. So you know that we were texting each other like mad the night the news broke that Mack had been arrested for sex trafficking within the cult NXIVM.
I had never heard of NXIVM, the multi level marketing organization turned psychologically and physically abusive cult, but once this news broke I wanted to know EVERYTHING. So a podcast and a lot of article perusing later, I felt like I had learned a lot about the group and Keith Raniere, its creator, and how an actress like Mack could become a right hand confidant to a charismatic sociopath. But when I found out that Sarah Edmondson, a former NXIVM member who exposed the bizarre and disturbing ‘branding’ practices NXIVM performed on a number of women, had written a memoir about her time in the cult, I was deeply, DEEPLY interested.
Edmondson is one of the key players in the exposure of NXIVM, Raniere, Mack, and numerous others who had been brought down after the smoke cleared. A former member whose association with NXIVM was more than ten years, Edmondson finally realized how deep in she was when she found herself branded with Raniere’s and Mack’s initials. Until that point Edmondson had been, mostly, all in, but that isn’t to say that she was without some doubts before then. This memoir gives us an honest insight into her thought process while she was still with the organization and hoping to garner favor with the higher ups, and has some true introspection about why she fell in so deep and stayed so long. Her honesty and candor is definitely appreciated, and it never feels like she tries to completely deflect her own culpability and blame in regards to the role that she played. True, she emphasizes that she too was manipulated into manipulating others, which sometimes feels like a bit of a ‘I’m sorry but it’s not totally my fault’ strategy, but that said given the psychological manipulation this group deals in, I don’t doubt the manipulation at play. And besides, it does seem like she is trying to make amends by getting this story out there, and by doing her best to expose the group before the spotlight really shone down on Raniere, Mack, et al. I don’t think I can pass judgement on her at the end of the day, but others may feel differently, and that’s okay too.
In terms of NXIVM itself, as I definitely read this in part to learn some of the ins and outs of the group beyond the knowledge I already had, I feel that Edmondson (and co-author Kristine Gasbarre) set up the narrative in an effective way, and showed the way that the group can pull people in slowly and surely. One can definitely see the appeal of this multi-level marketing scheme to those who are feeling vulnerable and insecure, and how it can slowly build and build until said people are in way over their heads and allowing themselves to be branded or to be used in sexual coercion plots. It’s deeply fascinating, and terrifying, stuff. I would suggest that if you want a larger deep dive, check out the podcast “Uncovered: Escaping NXIVM”. Edmondson is not only a consultant on that, it also has a broader scope about the group as a whole, and will probably give you more comprehensive information than this memoir does.
All in all, “Scarred” is upsetting and hard to put down. Edmondson gets to tell her story on her own terms, and is another reminder about the dangers of group think and a cult of personality.
Rating 7: A disturbing and personal memoir from a former member of a cult, “Scarred” sheds some insight into NXIVM and continues to try to make amends.
“Scarred” isn’t on many Goodreads lists as of now, but it is included on “Canadian NonFiction- Fall 2019”, and I think it would fit in on “People Who Have Left Cults or Religious Fundamentalism (Memoirs and Biographies)”.
Find “Scarred” at your library using WorldCat!