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The NXIVM cult sucked in many affluent women, but how did they eventually escape the toxic environment?

How did former NXIVM members finally leave the cult?

The NXIVM cult masqueraded as an American multi-level marketing company, but ended up having some far more sinister roots. For some people it’s hard to imagine getting involved in something as all-consuming as a cult. For others who’ve experienced cultish groups themselves, they know it can be easier getting sucked into a cult than it seems. 

You may be enjoying a community with a bunch of like-minded people one minute and realizing something’s a little off the next. If you don’t abort mission quickly enough you might be too invested in whatever mental process you’ve started to break free. Former cult member Sarah Edmondson said, “It’s a crazy process. Anyone who thinks they’re not susceptible to brainwashing – we’re all brainwashed.”

Indeed, in a society where organized religion is scoffed at more and more, some may be surprised to find themselves engaging in types of spirituality that are even more radical than the doctrines they sought to escape from. Everyone’s looking for something higher than themselves, whether it’s a god, an appreciation for nature, or an uber self-actualized version of themselves. 

How did former NXIVM cult members leave the twisted spirituality they found themselves chest deep in? Or perhaps more curious of a question, how did they find themselves in it to begin with?


From toes dipped to chest deep 

Most former NXIVM cult members report having a healthy skepticism about the organization at first. Sarah Edmondson reported her experience saying, “My gut instinct on Day 1 was that it was weird and culty and that I wanted to leave.” However, a friend already involved in the cult convinced her to stick it out.

By day three of getting involved with NXIVM, Edmondson was experiencing a desire to pursue the methods NXIVM preached. “And at that point the indoctrination and the programming can literally take hold of your mind,” Edmondson said. After experiencing some perceived breakthroughs, she had gone from NXIVM cult skeptic to NXIVM cult evangelist. She wanted to share the good news with everyone she knew. 

If you found the key to being successful and happy, wouldn’t you want to share it with others too? Things didn’t stay rosy forever though. Edmondson shared a lot about her experience going from NXIVM enthusiast to NXIVM cult whistleblower in the HBO docuseries The Vow.

When a self-help organization starts feeling more like a cult 

It became more and more clear that the leader of NXIVM, Keith Raniere, was more than just a founder and CEO. He was revered as the wise figurehead of success, and some NXIVM cult members even still view him as such today. It’s hard to disentangle yourself from the community that brought you so much joy and feelings of self actualization. Even the members who’ve left reminisce on the good experiences they had.

Eventually though, wolves in sheeps’ clothing reveal their predatory fangs. You start to wonder how you ever let yourself believe you were where you belonged. The colored sashes that denoted the members’ statuses start to look more cultish when paired with physical branding. The women’s sub-group DOS was the most suspicious aspect of all. 

India Oxenburg told Good Morning America “What I thought I was learning was self-help and personal growth. What I was learning was the opposite. It was inhumane.” Women were forced to do unpaid labor and call some of the other members “master”. Oxenburg went on to explain, “When you’re unaware it’s so easy to be led astray especially by people who are masters at manipulation, and these people were that.”

Mass exodus from the NXIVM cult? 

Edmondson remarked “When people look at things like this, their natural instinct is [to say], ‘That would never happen to me, only stupid people fall for stuff like this.’ I want to dispel the myth of how people get involved. Nobody joins a cult on purpose, just like nobody gets into an abusive relationship on purpose.” 

She and other people like Mark Vicente became determined to expose NXIVM for what it was. They were careful to gather information with which to prosecute NXIVM and Keith Raneire. The fact that Raniere’s narcissism caused NXIVM to record much of their events and conversations was a big help.

Allegations that NXIVM was a cult and a pyramid scheme happened as early as 2003, but it wasn’t until 2017 that investigations really started. Various NXIVM leaders were eventually convicted of crimes. Keith Raniere himself was convicted with sex trafficking and racketeering in 2019. Many former cult members are still healing from the manipulation-inflicted wounds they received from their years in the cult. 

Vicente described his departure from NXIVM as a “shuddering wake up” and is now wary of anything even vaguely self-improvement related. His process of recovery is still in the works. “Whatever this process is, I am not through it,” said Vicente. “I have spoken to people who have been in organizations for 30, 40 years. It can take decades to unravel everything.”

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