Two survivors of a cult which got worldwide attention in recent years have started a podcast called A Little Bit Culty, hoping to help other people learn from their experience.
Vancouver couple Sarah Edmondson and Anthony “Nippy” Ames were members of NXIVM, which from the fringes seemed like a personal development program. It had leadership training, mentoring opportunities and a very charismatic leader.
It took them 12 years to hit a breaking point, when Edmondson was branded with what they later learned was the initials of that charismatic leader Keith Raniere. That incident brought all their doubts and questions to a head, and they left the cult in 2017.
NXIVM founder Keith Raniere was sentenced by a New York federal court in October 2020 to 120 years in jail for racketeering, sex trafficking and more. Several members of his inner circle were also convicted.
Edmondson and Ames told Black Press Media they didn’t know any of the criminal abuse that was going on at the top; they thought NXIVM was a personal development program, albeit with some admittedly unconventional methods. It’s since been called a sex-cult.
Their podcast is grounded in what they’ve learned since leaving the cult through the help of therapists who have put a language to what happened. Some episodes will feature experts, others will interview survivors and some delve into the curriculum of NXIVM’s Executive Success Programs to examine what teachings drew them in and where things got “culty.”
The pair, now parents of two, have spent years “de-programming” their minds, and processing various reactions of shame, embarrassment and rage.
“Like, what did I miss? How did I think I was doing something good but ended up being aligned with someone who was abusing so many people? That was a really difficult,” Ames said.
While they didn’t know Raniere’s abusive side, they were close friends with some who did and lied about who Raniere was.
That deception is the first red flag Ames thinks of when he’s asked how to identify a destructive cult.
Not all cults are destructive, but many are designed to abuse power.
“That was the joke, we were like, yeah we’re in a cult, but were helping people. We were aware of the weird stuff, and we just thought it was funny and ridiculous. We didn’t know that the people closest to Keith were getting abused in the way they were,” Ames said.
Their split with NXIVM came gradually. Ames felt the mission to bring joy to the world wasn’t working. Morale was low, and the monthly training sessions weren’t having the same reach.
The decision to leave culminated in a ceremony where Edmondson and other recruits to a secret sisterhood were branded with Raniere’s initials. They didn’t know it was his initials, or that it would be a brand instead of a type of bonding tattoo.
“There is no word to describe my rage,” she said.
Since coming forward about being in NXIVM, the couple were interviewed on The Vow, an HBO documentary about the cult, and were involved in court cases that got Raniere and other top leaders behind bars.
They receive inquiries almost daily from people who think they may be in a cult. Some key indicators, the couple said, include if a person can leave the group without being harassed or hurt, if they can question the leader and their transparency.
To anyone concerned about a loved one who might be in a destructive cult, they say to approach with respect, curiosity and lots of questions.
“Say, I’ve seen these allegations, tell me about them. Like, how is that for you? What do you think about it? Is any of it true? What would you do if it was true? Stuff like that,” Edmondson said.
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