4 Signs That You Are Joining a Cult, According to Former NXIVM Members Who Helped Take the Group Down

NXIVM, pronounced “Nexium,” was billed by its founder, Keith Raniere, and its leaders as a self-help group for business- and leadership-minded individuals looking to get ahead personally and professionally.

In reality, it was a cult that was manipulating, branding, sexually abusing, and trafficking vulnerable women. The group was finally shut down in 2018 after Raniere was arrested for operating a secret sex ring. He was later convicted on all seven counts against him – including sex trafficking, forced labor, and wire fraud – and sentenced to 120 years in prison. He lost his most recent bid for a new trial in April.

Husband and wife duo Anthony “Nippy” Ames and Sarah Edmondson are two former NXIVM members who were lured into the cult under the guise of self-improvement. They ultimately helped take Raniere and the group down, and, on Thursday’s installment of ‘Fraud Week’ on The Megyn Kelly Show, they described how they got sucked in and the warning signs they missed.

Joining NXIVM

Ames and Edmondson came to NXIVM in different ways. As Ames explained, he was essentially talked into it by an “old high school girlfriend” who was from the upstate New York area NXIVM operated out of. “She had taken the training, and I would run into her in New York, and she kind of hounded me for about a year and a half,” he recalled. “So, I kind of went kicking and screaming to the training, in part because of what she was saying and in part because she knew me when we dated and knew I was into the leadership stuff.”

Call it a coincidence or call it intuition, but Ames actually had the group pegged early on. “After kind of being pounded about it, I said, ‘Fine, I’ll do your cult,'” he said. “It was purely a joke… and I didn’t really have a strong understanding of what a cult was. It just sounded weird, and it sounded like you were following this guy [Raniere].”

Edmondson had a slightly more “glamorous” introduction. It was 2005 and she was an aspiring actress when a filmmaker she admired suggested she take “the course” he had just completed. She signed up soon after. “As somebody who was into self-improvement and workshops – my parents are both in the therapy field – it seemed like a no brainer,” she shared. “I did not do any research, unfortunately. I’ve learned from that mistake now, but I jumped in because I really wanted to develop myself and work through limiting beliefs.”

In retrospect, there were red flags from the outset, but there were also a lot of really compelling parts of the early process. Edmondson said the initial program was billed as a “more practical and useful MBA” and she called the experience “wonderful” – at first.

“It wasn’t just learn how to do business, learn what success is from the inside out, map out your goals, and work through your limiting beliefs about yourself in the world, but it was also as a community of like-minded people and people who were going to achieve big things and wanted to do it with people that were in a similar mindset,” she said. “I have very fond memories of that time period.”

As Megyn noted, these cult scenarios almost always “start well” and “that is why people stay.” At that same time, however, there are also usually warning signs, and she ran through some of the most glaring with Ames and Edmondson.

Red Flag #1: High-Pressure Sales Tactics

One of the first warnings involved fees. “I was recruited by the best,” Edmondson said. “I actually put a deposit down because I wanted to take advantage of the ’48-hour discount,’ which is a red flag I warn people about with sales pressure tactics. I didn’t know that at the time.”

When she tried to get her money back because she realized she didn’t have $2,000 to spend on a five-day course at that point in her life, the gaslighting began. “They said, ‘Wait, you’re in your twenties and you don’t have $2,000? What’s up with that,'” she recalled. “Basically they were questioning why I had ‘money issues’ and wanted to know if I was ready to change that; ‘do I want to be the master of my own ship?'”

When Edmondson expressed concern about potentially missing out on acting gigs during the program, she was again met with manipulation. “[They said something like], ‘Do you want to be waiting by your phone your whole life or do you want to create your own life, be the master of your own destiny, the captain of your ship,'” she noted.

Red Flag #2: ‘This Is the Path’

The financial commitment only increased from there, and so too did the belief that only NXIVM could help you find the answers you were looking for. “Ideally, what they want you to feel at the end of the five-day [course] is it was super valuable, but also there is something in you that needs to be fixed and, of course, they are providing the answers to fix you and that is the only way,” Edmondson noted. “That’s another red flag.”

She said it was a pay-to-play system that is “commonplace” in cults and pyramid schemes. “[The message was]: This is the path forward. This is the way to evolve whatever it was that you’ve just realized about yourself is broken,” she explained. “All of these programs are based on the same premise… if you want to transform your life… you have to pay to play and this is the path.”

Ames said that messaging also helps the leaders “justify the buy in” for those who are skeptical. “You’re there working for five days, you want to make sure that you feel that your investment was worth it,” he said. “So they’ll say stuff like, ‘Well, was having that awareness about yourself worth the price of admission?’ And you’re kind of thinking, ‘Maybe I could have gotten that in a book, but I did spend two grand to be here.”

Red Flag #3: ‘Crumbs of Attention’

One of the only times Edmondson said she was “ever trained by [Raniere] personally in sales” was caught on tape and aired as part of HBO’s documentary about the fall of NXIVM called The Vow. In the clip, Raniere can be seen giving Edmondson relatively useful feedback but in a very condescending way. 

“He was teaching basic rapport skills of how to lead a group… but he was also humiliating me,” she explained. “He pushed me and pushed me and pushed me, trying to get me to break down, and I refused to cry. At the end, he gave me a little crumb and said ‘good job.'”

Edmondson believes that was one of Raniere’s tactics. “Looking back, that’s how he controlled so many of the women,” she noted. “He was always humiliating them subtly under the guise of trying to develop them and then would give them these little crumbs of attention and affirmation that they were on track.”

Overall, Edmondson said she was largely spared from the worst of Raniere’s criticism and she thinks that may have had to do with the fact that she had a good relationship with her family and Ames. “A lot of these guys really look for… I hate to use the word but, like, ‘daddy issues’ or a bad attachment with their father,” she said. “Keith would step in and be the father figure to a lot of these women to grow them, to coach them.”

Ames said cult leaders are generally very good at exploiting people’s vulnerabilities. “All these things are case by case and people are susceptible in different ways,” he noted. “The predators like Keith Ranieri, who are very good at it, are very good at spotting that and they’re proactive in doing it.”

Red Flag #4: Disassociation

Cults disassociate their members from those closest to them, but Megyn said Ames and Edmondson’s story suggests they also disassociate the members from themselves and their instincts.

“This is kind of the study in how… very bright, intelligent, accomplished people can be manipulated beyond what they ever thought possible – manipulated into doing things like self harm, against their better instincts, and so on,” Megyn noted. “They not only separate you from your family and your friends, they separate you from yourself, which is really one of the probably the worst things that they can do.”

Edmondson agreed and said it happened right from the jump. Her gut was telling her something was off as early as the initial deposit, but the NXIVM messaging convinced her otherwise. “That was the beginning, right there, when my internal gut was saying something’s not right,” she said. “But I also have the belief – and this was fortified further on to the curriculum – that when you’re uncomfortable, it’s something to look at.”

She was being told to push through “limitations” at the expense of her better judgment. “It was, you know, you’re hitting up against a limitation, no pain, no gain, which is true, but that doesn’t give you room for that instinct,” Edmondson said. “When you’re separated from yourself and separated from your moral compass, that’s when things can go awry.”

In her case, it took over a decade of physical and emotional abuse to finally see the light. “That was a very slow process,” she concluded, “that was, from day one, dripped out until 12 years later.”

You can check out Megyn’s full interview with Ames and Edmondson by tuning in to episode 817 on YouTube, Apple Podcasts, or wherever you like to listen. And don’t forget that you can catch The Megyn Kelly Show live on SiriusXM’s Triumph (channel 111) weekdays from 12pm to 2pm ET.