Transcript for Former NXIVM member describes being branded in secret sorority initiation: Part 1
Reporter: We are told the rendezvous was a secret, five women summoned to a house outside Albany, New York, one night this past March. Sarah Edmondson says she was one of them, willingly participating in a strange initiation ritual led by a woman who told everyone to take off their clothes and put on a blindfold. Led us in blindfolded, and sat us in a semicircle, buck naked, no clothes, on a sheepskin rug. Like, could you -- could that be any weirder? Reporter: No, it could not be any weirder. We were all you know, "My goodness. What's going on here? This is so weird." Reporter: Weird doesn't begin to cover it. Sarah told authorities she thought they were going to get tattoos. Instead she says they found out they were all going to be branded. Reporter: It sounds like a horror movie, what you're describing. It was a horror movie. It was the most inhumane, horrific way to treat anybody. Reporter: What was that like? It was worse than childbirth. Reporter: It was worse than childbirth? Yup. It was -- imagine a hot laser dragged across your flesh for 30 minutes without anesthetic. Reporter: At this point you're probably wondering, how in the world did this happen? Sarah seems so Normal. She lives in Vancouver where she is a wife and mother with a successful film and television career. Do I know you? I don't think so. Oh no, I'm forgetting so much recently. But I never forget a face. Reporter: But her life changed after she crossed paths with a secretive self-help group called nxivm and its charismatic leader, Keith raniere. I'm an interesting person, I'm a controversial person, but most importantly I'm an unconventional person. Reporter: According to promotional materials, even as a child raniere was destined for greatness. Speaking in full sentences at age one, reading at two. Judo champ and concert level pianist at 13. I was told that he was one of the smartest men in the world, and just an incredible man. With that I'm going to pass the microphone over. Reporter: So incredible, it seems, that an ordinary name just won't do. Participants say they are taught to call raniere "Vanguard." Vanguard? Yes. Reporter: So vanguard is the name that we refer to Keith as because he is the leader of a philosophical movement. Reporter: The second highest ranking member of nxivm is a woman named Nancy Salzman. Former members say she is known as "Prefect." So Keith and Nancy, vanguard and prefect. Reporter: At the heart of nxm training is something called intensives, which former members say are like group therapy, running as long as 14 hours a day for up to 16 days. Edmondson says she attended her first in 2005 when she was 27. I left my five-day, my initial training as if a veil had been lifted. And I could see things more clearly in my life. I could communicate better with people. Reporter: That sounds fantastic. Yeah, it was great. Reporter: Classes are invitation only and they are not cheap. A five-day "Intensive" will run you $3,000. The 16-day is $7,500. In promotional videos and materials it claims more than 16,000 people world wide have taken nxivm courses. Many testify to its effectiveness. I learned through the tools that there was a different way. Reporter: Sarah was recruited into the group by filmmaker mark Vicente. What was it that was so compelling to you? Just a way to break and understand certain things in my life in a way I never have before. Reporter: Raniere is fiercely protective of his teachings, requiring participants to sign confidentiality agreements. Everyone signed it. And if you didn't sign it, you couldn't take the curriculum. Reporter: We do know that nxivm has its own lingo, students are taught about overcoming "Disintegrations" to become more "Potent" and less "Suppressive," and avoiding people termed "Parasites" or "Luciferians." Rick Ross studies groups like nxivm. In my opinion, it's basically copied from other sources, specifically scientology, ayn Rand, and est, so, there's all of that mixed together, and that becomes nxivm. Very unoriginal. Reporter: Original or not, raniere's teachings were good enough for Sarah and her friend mark to spend more than a decade rising through the nxivm ranks and becoming ever more willing to follow their leaders. If you're told, "The world could be so much better if you weren't quite so screwed up," you're like, "You're right. Let me get more un -- unscrewed up." And pretty soon you're spending years unscrewing yourself. Reporter: Sarah says she devoted 12 years to nxivm, recruiting hundreds of new members, rising through the organization, even opening and running a center in Vancouver. Along the way, becoming best friends with Nancy Salzman's daughter Lauren. Who was maid of honor at Sarah's wedding. She's like my therapist. And in the ranking system she's also above me. Reporter: Then, in March, after all their years together in nxivm, Sarah says Lauren approached her about a new and mysterious opportunity. I wanna invite you to something that totally changed my life. Reporter: It was a secret sorority, for women only. &Life changing, but top secret. And the first step is making a vow of obedience to her as me being a slave, and her being my master. Again -- Reporter: Slave? She used the word slave? Slave. She used the word slave. Reporter: Did you object? I -- of course. Yeah, I objected every stage of the way. And she said, "It's just -- it's a metaphor. It's like guru-disciple." Reporter: Then came the night Sarah says she and four other women submitted, one by one, to being branded by this woman, she says, Dr. Danielle Roberts. And the woman on the table screamed out in pain twisted and turned and yelled. And the woman I was with holding her legs down, we looked at each other, and we just wept. Reporter: Why didn't you let go, and run out of there, even naked? It didn't seem like a choice at the time. Reporter: She points to years of nxivm training. All the indoctrination, all the years of, "Women are weak. Women have no character." Now is the time to prove I can do it. Reporter: Sarah gives another explanation for her obedience. Before she joined the secret sorority and got branded, she says Lauren Salzman had demanded highly compromising "Collateral." You need to provide something to me that I'm gonna hold forever just to confirm, and to -- and to solidify that you'll never share the secret. Reporter: So what did you give her? So I gave her a written confessional. Reporter: She says for her and some others, the price of admission to the secret group also included providing nude photos of themselves. So understand when women do that, it's very difficult to say, "No, I'm not doing this." 'Cause you -- you have something -- the person has something of you with them. Reporter: Instantly all my alarm bells are going off. Absolutely. Reporter: So why did you do it? I did it because I trusted her. I trusted her. Reporter: And can you just stand up and point on your body through your clothes where the brand is? Yep. So it's right here under my -- Reporter: It's right here? Yeah, right there. Right under my underwear line.. Reporter: She gave us photos. In her complaint to the New York state department of health, she says she was told the brand was a Latin symbol but says she realized it really included the letters "K" and "R," which are also the initials of Keith raniere. I lost it when I figured that out. Reporter: You're stamped as property of somebody? I am not cattle. I'm not owned by Keith. Reporter: Keith raniere, vanguard, has not responded to our requests for an interview. His website says he's not associated with the secret sorority, and it's not part of nxivm. An attorney for Dr. Danielle Roberts, the alleged brander, tells ABC news the allegations are unfounded. Hi, I'm Glenn Ruppel with ABC news. Oh. Reporter: A "20/20" producer caught up with Dr. Roberts at a wellness expo in New York City. I'd just like to ask you a question about the women who said you branded them? I'm sorry, we're at a wellness expo and that's completely irrelevant from the purpose of why we are here today. Okay, does Keith reniere know
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