'The Smell of Burned Flesh': Former NXIVM Member Describes Being Branded with Cult Leader's Initials

Former NXIVM member Sarah Edmondson describes being branded with sex cult leader Keith Raniere's initials during a secret initiation ceremony

Sarah Edmondson NXIVM Cult
Photo: Ruth Fremson/The New York Times/Redux

Sarah Edmondson spent 12 years in the now-infamous sex cult NXIVM, but nothing could have prepared her for how her life was about to unfold when she was asked to join a secret sisterhood—known as DOS—of select “empowered women” within the group in January 2017.

To get in, the 42-year-old Vancouver-based actress was required to submit graphic nude photos of herself, along with videotaped confessions of her “darkest secrets,” that would be held as collateral to ensure loyalty.

“Seven weeks later I flew to Albany [NY] for the ceremony with four other members,” Edmondson writes in her new memoir Scarred, exclusively excerpted in this week’s PEOPLE.

“We were told that we’d all be receiving an identical tattoo the size of a dime. Instead, we took turns holding each of the other members down on a table as NXIVM’s resident female doctor dragged a red-hot cauterizing pen across the sensitive area just below their bikiniline. The women screamed in pain as the smell of burnt flesh filled the air.”

When it was Edmondson’s turn, she lay down on the table without any clothes and watched as the doctor laid the cauterizing pen on her flesh.

“Nothing could have ever prepared me for the feel of this fire on my skin,” she writes. “Lying there, I could feel each millimeter of my flesh singed open.”

Sarah Edmondson NXIVM Cult
Ruth Fremson/The New York Times/Redux

Two months later, Edmondson was back home in front of a mirror, studying the raw, painful brand—which she’d manage to keep hidden from her husband—and was sickened to realize that it contained the initials KR for NXIVM’s controversial guru, Keith Raniere.

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As her unease with the group mounted, she confided in a close NXIVM friend who’d also grown suspicious of Raniere and was resigning from the group. He soon dropped a bomb on her.

“’I’ve heard rumors about this new group of women supposedly gaining enlightenment through sex with Keith,’” Edmondson writes that her friend told her. “My heart fell through my stomach and crashed to the floor. I’d been recruited so that I’d be one of the women forced to have sex with Keith.”

Albany, NY headquarters of NXIVM. Amy Luke/Getty

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She began to plot her escape from NXIVM. By November 2017, she’d spent several days with the FBI, helping them with their criminal investigation of the group. “The first thing Moira Penza, the Assistant United States Attorney I was working with, said to me was: ‘Thank you for going public. Your story is what initiated this investigation,’” Edmondson writes.

Raniere had already fled the group’s Albany headquarters by then, but was eventually apprehended in March 2018 after a months-long FBI manhunt when Mexican authorities found him hiding in the closet of a villa in Chacala.

Actress Allison Mack Appears In Court Over Case Involving Alleged Sex Cult
Allison Mack. Drew Angerer/Getty

He had been holed up there with a group of women that included Smallville actress Allison Mack, who was later arrested. By June 2019, Raniere was convicted—and five of his top female lieutenants had pleaded guilty to—various federal charges and currently await sentencing.

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