This is a raw, unedited transcript of the Dot Dot Dot Conversation, “Cults Among Us.”
You can listen to the full recording here.
Laurie Segall 1:27
I’m super excited about this conversation so that that was, it was all about you, kind of understanding and really kind of opening your eyes to what this was. And so it was, it was very you focused, and it was just, I mean it was just fascinating and so raw so I appreciate you being here with us today.
Sarah Edmondson 1:50
Thanks for having thanks for having me.
Laurie Segall 1:52
Yeah, yeah. And Diane How are you, long time no speak. I think you’re on mute. But you got to do is you just have to unmute it and then, then you can speak. This happened to Chris Hadnagy in our last one that we did, you know, and for those who are joining the room.
Diane and I just, we just went to the New Yorker Hotel, which was the, which was the site of where the Moonies headquarters was back in the day. And we actually went in, and she was there for the first time and I want to say something like 30 years. Because in Diane I’ll have her introduce herself because she was a member of the Moonies and it was just one of the most, it was incredibly emotional to kind of be standing there with her and being a part of this so I think we have enough people to kind of start and Diane, I definitely would figure out your mute I think Caroline might be able to help with that.
But thank you for joining this live we’ve had so many interesting conversations this summer I mean we were next week we’re talking about revenge porn. This week we’re talking about cults and conspiracy theories which is very near and dear to me I’ve been covering Q Anon, for the last, I would say for the last year. And so we decided to put together this talk about something, I keep hearing over and over again that I don’t think we’re talking about enough which is this ideas about conspiracies, the new public health crisis. So joining us on stage we have Sarah Edmondson and I just, for those of you joined the room early I was just saying I just finished re watching an episode of The Vow, she’s, you know she plays a major role. And she was in I’m sure I’m gonna have you kind of introduce yourself but quick lines you’re a whistleblower for this now famous cult, and I’ll have you explain it and this was documented on HBO in a show called The Vow that I think a lot of folks watched and really started a conversation about cults and about this type of thing. So let’s start by having you introduce yourself and tell us a little bit about yourself.
Laurie Segall 4:10
I think you’re on mute now.
Sarah Edmondson 4:12
Oh yeah, okay, newbie. Okay, that again. So, yeah, thank you for having me, I am. I’m fairly new to this platform, learning, but yeah I’m an actress from Canada. Long story short, 2005 I got involved in a, What I thought was a personal and professional development program, a community of like minded humanitarians changing the world one person at a time. And it was for many years of my life. It was a really wonderful thing with some red flags that I didn’t understand and 12 years later, I was able to see the full picture after a series of rather unfortunate events including being branded with the leaders initials, something that was withheld from me at the time. Even though many people would say I was I was fully in, I always kept a foot in reality with a home in Vancouver in a community of people that wasn’t part of the community. And I was able to wake up and decided that with a group of other people, not, not just myself, that we couldn’t just walk away, and we had to expose the leadership for what they were actually doing, and that we’ve needed to free the other woman was slightly literal slaves, and also emotional slaves that that had been under his grasp or in some cases up to 30 years. So, it’s been quite a journey been out for four years, it’s led me to being a, you know I’m not I’m not an expert in the way that Diane is but I have expertise from my own experience, and, and I love to share my experience so that other people don’t make the same mistake. I don’t wanna say mistakes because I love my life now, but I also want to use my experience, so that people have that template for their own lives and consider red flags sooner.
Laurie Segall 6:03
And, you know we’ll get into some of your story, but it really is extraordinary. When you kind of look at how far in, and how many people were a part of this. And, and how many people I think also me think like these people seem like totally normal people we see all the time like how did this happen. And so I want to kind of get into that but then I’d love to have you tell us a little bit about yourself. We just full disclosure I recently interviewed Diane for a piece we have coming out on Sunday on 60 Minutes+ on Paramount Plus and she has just such an incredible story, and kind of a crazy story I’m surprised no one’s made a movie out of your story, Diane, tell us a little bit about yourself.
Diane Benscoter 6:49
Thank you and thanks for having me on. My story started when I was really young I joined a religion that was fairly well known called the Moonies when I was 17 years old, and I was extremely dedicated I basically give gave my life to that organization thinking I had found the second coming of the Messiah, and I was in for five years, and then my family had me deprogrammed. And shortly after that I started working in a rehabilitation house for people leaving various cults and started going out on cases of deprogramming. And I’ve spent much of my life helping people exit various group cults situations where psychological manipulation were taking place. But eventually I realized that it was, it was a real solution would have to be much bigger so I formed a nonprofit organization to be able to scale services to help families and individuals who are affected by this.
Laurie Segall 7:55
So I want to start, I guess from the beginning, right, this idea of finding a family and a cult. You know, I’ve had I’ve met you, you know you’re not someone I would have just thought would would join a cult. I think that’s what’s so powerful about this conversation, and why we should have it. And so I guess Sarah to start with you. Tell us a little bit about how you were recruited and if I understand right, you were I mean you’re this rising star, and making this organization and you essentially found family there. So how did it take me to the beginning. How did it happen. Oh, we’ve got to get her off mute. Sarah, I think you’re on mute. Oh sorry, I didn’t learn. By the way, it is a new platform and you, you have not been the first to do that so it makes us anticipate what you’re going to say even more because everyone knows that a good interview the long pause is where the interesting stuff happens.
Sarah Edmondson 8:57
I actually, I actually was pausing there, what I was doing. So what I was saying is that, you know, that part of the conversation does really interests me in terms of what makes people susceptible, you know, looking at what are the socio cultural emotional psychological factors in one’s life, when they meet the right person, and for me it was somebody who I trusted as director of a film that I really love and Martha Sanjay from What the Bleep Do We Know, and he pretty much told me that if I liked this film I’d like this workshop, and I really liked him and trusted him and thought well hey if he’s into it. You know it was it was largely that connection with him and the thought of working with him. In fact, my husband and I we’re talking today about if I had been to a five day without that connection, I would have left on day one. It was so hokey and so cheesy. From the beginning, and my red flags were, you know, the alarm bells were ringing. But I had Mark and I don’t blame him like we’re all good now we’re fine but, you know, truthfully, it was because of him that I stayed because I trusted him like well, if he says it’s good and I had him up on a bit of a pedestal, which is, You know, part of my responsibility. I need to take. Putting my authority in someone else’s hands. But ultimately, once I was hooked, which I now know and then Diane I’m sure could speak to this more thoroughly with her experiences like, you can get hooked and by three in three days, it can be a doctorate or to a, to new belief, belief system from what I understand, so after that I was, I was, I was in and in terms of family, they literally use that word. When you met the leadership, they be like, Oh, it’s so good to meet earlier, we’ve heard about you making me feel special. You’re like family, and I actually am Jewish and Nancy Salzmann is a Jewish leader, one of the leaders of the company. There’s a word for family in Hebrew called Mispacha, and we were, we were literally going oh my god it’s Mishpacha like I found family here, this is like my chosen family. That was a big part of the draw for me, my community, my tribe my group of people I’ve felt safe with to grow with, and that ultimately trumped any red flag that came up for me. From then on, among other things, but that was a huge part of it.
Laurie Segall 11:21
He talked about those, those first five days like this workshop, like, take me in the room. What, what, what. Wow, that was so appealing along with Mark at the end because I think it did super interesting because it doesn’t start out, you didn’t really, if you would come the first day and someone said well you’re going to get branded and essentially joined what now people are calling a sex cult I you know I think you, you’re a very smart woman I think you would have run the opposite direction. So, what were those first five days like.
Sarah Edmondson 11:51
Well I actually think that Keith is in this is something I’ve learned from other cult experts like people keep really systematically, the keeper knows that the head of NXIVM, the founder, man. The Vanguard, I think you went and took like the best, if you went into a Self Help section, or a spiritual bookstore, he went and took the best of you know Eckhart Tolle a And The Seven Habits of Highly Successful People and all, you know, thinking grow rich are all the different books that kind of help you lead, live your best lives and overcome your issues and remove limiting beliefs. And, you know, find the things that we’re no we’re supposed to have like self love and all those things which I had been aware of as a seeker and as your personal growth, little bit of a junkie, but also just someone was was very open to that stuff and packaged it together in such a way that, after five days I felt like, and this is his next term, they kind of they equated the human experience to your your body or your, your brain body connection as the operating system they like giving your operating system and overhaul and feeling like all the glitches and all the things that weren’t working in my life were suddenly fixed, and I now had this like secret path to, you know, a very laid out specific path to what would ultimately be, I mean we didn’t really use the word enlightenment but like you know being, having the life that you want. And having joy and having high self esteem and having a good relationship with people and money and being able to communicate, all those things it was like this is, this is the this is the, okay great effect. Awesome, I found it. And at the same time and this is like something that I teach people when they’re saying like is my group a cult, or is it a cult to you. Is there a problem with it. There’s also the element of but there you’re still broken, and you need to be fixed and will, you know that only costs $6,000 more. He said he like you’re committed to keep going like I always wonder what would I have done in my life if I just taking the five day and and stopped. Yeah. You know what I was.
Laurie Segall 13:53
How do you feel like I’m looking for something, how do you feel like you were broken at the time.
Sarah Edmondson 14:00
I mean I think what they highlighted for me and I don’t think this is true but I think that, as many of us are in terms of feeling like, God, it’s hard to put myself back into this mindset because I’ve kind of like done a lot of work to not feel this way anymore but ultimately like that I’m unlovable or that I was, you know, I have some low like some self worth issues maybe abandonment issues, low self esteem in certain areas, I think as an actor, it’s hard when you work really hard and don’t book work, you know, rejection after rejection after rejection that kind of wears on you. But God I don’t really even remember I just was this feeling of, you know, you can’t just like yes the five day was great but you can’t just take five days and then that’s it. It’s a lifelong journey, and right, this is the curriculum to do it and I accepted that full, you know fully.
Laurie Segall 14:58
It’s almost like the word validation comes to mind. Right, yeah. Your, your objective fracking job this is a this is, you know, anyone who’s put themselves out there as an actor knows this is, you know, you had to fail a lot in order to succeed. Like in industries but I can imagine, for you walking into a room full of people who felt like family felt like validation to you.
Sarah Edmondson 15:19
Yeah. Which is ironic because we were met, we were taught that anything from the outside world. If you felt good about it, getting the career or the relationship whatever the happiness is and this is sort of a Buddhist tenant like happiness is an inside job you can’t rely on anything from the outside world to be happy. And so we were going to learn how to fill our own cups and to be self-sufficient, which is a great concept. At the same time, they were giving me the validation and the specialness that I was looking for, and kind of made me the poster child of the company because I grew up the ranks, very quickly. And so they were giving me the gold star isn’t in many ways that I was craving, not recognizing that was sort of like what I needed to actually work on very, it’s a lot of mind fuckery for the lack of a better word. Yeah, sorry, am I allowed to swear here.
Laurie Segall 16:10
Yeah, I think Stephanie is part of the show here I’m going to kick us out, are you okay good, she’s not. Yep, we’re good. Hopefully, I have a potty mouth sorry, great I think it’s I think you’re talking about escaping a sex cult l I think you have a potty mouth. No problem. So, Diane, I’d love to get to you, because, you know, I think even Sarah talked a little bit about what you talk a lot about in now which is really understanding psychological manipulation. I’ve also received word that profanity is allowed. Great, okay. But then, tell me. I mean, you were a part of the Moonies now for folks who don’t know this is, you know, this is a church that was known for holding mass weddings for its members, making, making them work long days to raise funds for the mission, people later say that conned them out of money so you know this is a pretty controversial church which by the way is, is still around, to this day. Take me to you, Diane at 17 years old. You decide to go join the Moonies. How How did happen.
Diane Benscoter 17:19
Well, it was during a time of social unrest, which, you know, is like we have now. And there was the Vietnam War and a lot of young people were disillusioned with the government and with war and there was kind of a movement going on with young people in the music scene and everything inspired me a lot to want to do something different with my life, and to maybe join a commune or something so at a very young age I went seeking that and I went for this walk for world peace. It was supposed to be. It was a, it was actually the Moonies and during that walk we went through a series of lectures that pointed to the fact that the second coming of Christ had happened, and that he was walking the earth and that he was from Korea and anyway, everything led to kind of this revelation that we I was on my way to actually meet the Messiah and God had prepared me to do this and so I, I joined the group, and you know when you’re 17, you’re very susceptible anyway because you’re going through individuation, It’s just a susceptible time of life. And so that’s what it was like for me I felt like, first I thought these people are really weird sort of like what Sarah was saying is that, I thought they dress funny, they’re kind of weird and. But then the longer I stayed and the more I listened, the more I felt like, wow, this could be my path in life, this could be what I’ve been looking for. And this is the answer to the questions I’ve had about what’s important in life. And so it, you know led me to this belief that I had finally found what I was looking for much like what Sarah talked about just a different doctrine a whole different setting. They were appealing to a different kind of people I think more idealistic than what Keith was appealing to.
Laurie Segall 19:24
And so tell me, You know what was the dark side right like I obviously there’s a dark side, It’s now been well documented, but for you I mean, now that you look back, you know what, what was the hardest part for you when you were there.
Diane Benscoter 19:40
Oh well, it was a hard lifestyle we worked really hard at our mission, and I lost all those years, between 17 and 21, which are, you know, developmentally important years, and I was away from my family that whole time I was taught that Satan will work through the ones you love. And so I really pushed them away, and thought that, you know, the harder I work the more, the easier it would be for God to bring them into the family. We also were called the family, which is interesting. And, but the dark side really is that the ultimate dark side really boils down to psychological manipulation. I was taken advantage of on a psychological level, and was controlled my life was controlled by someone else, because they took advantage of me on a psychological level, and that I think is the heart of what a problem is whether or not something you can define something as a cult is maybe less important, I think is less important than whether or not these tactics of psychological manipulation are being used, They’re often used just in relationships, to control someone.
Laurie Segall 21:03
Right. And, and I remember, you know, sitting, standing, because we just did this interview. And we, we spoke to you we took you and I was, truthfully, this is some inside baseball Clubhouse. I was a little nervous right you agreed to come to come to the, the New Yorker Hotel here in New York. And that was where the headquarters was and you agreed as part of, you know, we didn’t make this a huge part of the interview, we sat down, we interviewed you we spoke to people who’ve lost friends and family to Q anon and so this is a whole separate conversation but very much connected. But as part of this, we asked you to go back to the New Yorker Hotel, where the Moonies headquarters was, had been for many years and where you spent a lot of your time in New York. And I just remember getting out of the car with you, Diane, and just thinking like oh my god I’m hope we’re doing more help than harm. Right, like, you know, because I, I knew that this would be emotional for you but I thought it was important for our viewers to understand how even all these years later and Sarah, you can even hear it in your voice right that this is still so emotional, but this is still so real. So when we got there, we got out of the car and I heard you just sigh. Right. What were you thinking at the time you were looking at the New Yorker Hotel for the first time in 30 years. What went through your head.
Diane Benscoter 22:35
Oh, it was just flashing back of memories one really deeply felt memory for me was when my mother came to visit me there. And she had driven across the country from a little tiny town in Nebraska to because Moon was on going to be speaking at Yankee Stadium and it was a big deal and we were supposed to invite our families and I didn’t even get to spend any time with her and it broke her heart and she was just in the lobby crying and yelling at some of the leaders there. As I was being ushered out to go back to getting people to go to Yankee Stadium, I had a mission that was more important than my relationship with my mother and, You know now that she’s gone. It’s something I can never take those years back and all the pain and suffering and worry that she went through, you know, sleepless nights thinking about me and so that part I think is what I was expect heavy sigh was about is this was kind of the scene of the crime where I hurt my mother so badly. Right, God,
Laurie Segall 23:44
I remember you saying we’re sitting we’re standing there on the same street corner right if busy New York street corner, where you were talking about how you would sell, you would, you’d be selling right something right to make, what was it candy or something to make your flowers Yeah, candy or flowers and you said, I haven’t been back here since I was on the streets, kind of, you know, out on the streets trying to sell candy or flowers for the Moonies and, and you use the term that I think was haunting you said. I said, What kind of goes through your head and you said this was almost like a rape of the soul with what with what happened. And I thought to myself what extraordinary words to describe years of your life that you almost feel like you’ve lost.
Diane Benscoter 24:28
Yeah, it is it, because to take advantage of someone on a psychological level so that you can have more power is, is such an invasion. It’s that it happens all the time. And it is, it’s an invasion, much like rape it’s it’s taking advantage of a really sacred part of someone that when Sarah was talking about, that she wanted to feel better about herself, that’s, that’s, that’s a very personal place that’s a place that has to do with your personal growth and who you are as a person and, and to go in there intentionally to take advantage of that pain, that human pain that everyone experiences and to manipulate that to your advantage it I think is a parallel to a form of rape.
Laurie Segall 25:25
I got and I remember afterwards I said you said, this is really really hard McDonald’s is across the street and I promise you, from Friday offer me french fries I sure did and and Sarah that the same goes for you if this conversation gets really weird and hard I can offer french fries at McDonald’s at some point next time. I want to talk to you about how things started to turn because as far as you know, the Clubhouse room as far as we’re hearing things you know it sounds like, you know, you you went through this, this process where it’s all about, you know, something that felt like a family, it felt really good. They use words like the family. But things started getting weird. Right. At what point did things start getting weird, I know that victims, joining had to provide what was called collateral. Can you go into that and what was kind of that weird turning point where you thought yourself, this is not just self help like we might need some help, having been here. Sure, well
Sarah Edmondson 26:22
Let me backtrack for a second because the collateral didn’t come in until like eight or nine years. And truthfully, on day one of my five day, there was weird things but the leaders, brilliantly like the facilitators who were in front of the room said to us, right at the beginning, you know this is a success program you guys paid a lot of money to be here, we’re going to talk about things that are uncomfortable and obviously when you’re talking about things you’re going to, you’re going to want to leave and we’re asking you to push through that discomfort, you know, no pain no gain, wears it there’s truth there’s truth in that. Sometimes I’ve done legitimate therapy and it’s uncomfortable. And they just have we said we just asked you to stick through it and not leave you paid good money. And what that did is it preempted them to, you know, to do those things which are legitimate, but also at the same time to raise certain topics and to mention certain things like, Oh, we’re going to call the leader Keith we’re going to call him Vanguard, and we’re going to bow every time we enter the room, and we’re gonna take our shoes off and we’re gonna recite this mission statement and all of these things were totally weird totally weird for me but again I’m like Well, Mark says it’s okay so I’m going to stick it out until a couple days get my money’s worth. And, you know I’m uncomfortable and I, so it’s just my visceral reaction, which is sort of how they protect themselves from weird shit is like always going to come down to it’s just my that it’s this my reaction, which is how they gaslight us, ultimately, anytime. Cut two years later, me ASCII we I thought Keith was celibate. Why is there always like five women around him. And then people would say, you seem like you’re that you have a fear, have you talked to your coach about that. You seem angry that you want it you got some reactivity that you need to work on, you know, they know my concerns were never addressed it always came down to. I’m having a reaction or I’m being controlling or I’ve got a fear or whatever. So, there were many things throughout the years that I couldn’t wrap my head around and we’re always trumped ultimately by the good things. And I know I mentioned like my own personal reasons for joining it but Diane and I we’ve never met by the way, I think you’re awesome and I hope we can chat more separately another time, but I also was very idealistic, I had big goals of changing the world and, you know, kind of work through my own shit so I can help other people work through their shit and, you know, make the world a better place, so there was a fair bit of idealism there as well, and ultimately, that and the community and the meaning I was getting out of everything, and the bonds that I was forming that always trumped the bad stuff it’s like well there’s always going to be problems in a company, but I couldn’t see the bad things until the end and just to jump to your question, you know, collateral, was something that was introduced a number of years before even DOS, and the women’s group was was even raised and it’s something that I think Keith did very systematically and something I’ve since learned sociopaths love to do is they play the long game, and the long game was, I’m, you know, introducing these concepts so by the time that DOS was a thing. Collateral was, I mean it was strange, but it was it was normalized in the community, people were giving collateral, far, far before the brand anything took place as a means to put weight on one’s word and I’m using NXIVM terminology I don’t believe this anymore. So for example, you know, if I say I’m going to lose weight and I don’t go to the gym I’m putting $100 down as collateral that I’m going to give to charity if I don’t go to the gym, for example. So people were doing more and more extremes collaterals and in the forms of what became known as a penance as well like if I don’t XYZ I’m going to cold shower for a week or I’m gonna get up at 3am and do burpees in the snow, you know like the crazy stuff, which, which became just sort of part of the NXIVM way of doing things like training ourselves to be badass and whatever. But, I mean, lots of, lots of things started to go wrong in the past couple last couple of years. And then also, I think, looking back at it and psychoanalyzing myself, I was definitely doing this sunk cost fallacy like I’ve invested so much like I can’t give up now. And, and I ran a center that I was floating, as my expenses were 10 grand a month just to have a space, you know, so I was like, you know I have a lease and I’m like I’m in it you know I’m I’m invested and so I definitely brushed off a lot of things that you know I wish I had investigated more thoroughly, which obviously can’t go back.
Laurie Segall 30:52
It also sounds, I mean if I’m listening to you, it also sounds like the stakes got higher you’d invested so much for you to just walk away from this I’m assuming and Diane we’ve spoken about this right you said this to a group of people who feel like they’ve lost their family to Q and all we’re doing this story recently, you know that, that, I’m sure there was shame, you didn’t want to have the shame of this not working or this not having been the thing that you invested all these years, and I can imagine that was tough for you. And I would say to both of you guys. Looking back, when you think about when you’re in the depths of this, what is the farthest that you went the thing that you never envisioned doing or that you would do I know Diane. We spoke a little bit about you said something nice striking that was when, you know, how involved you were how you would have been a Jonestown. Right, you would have been drinking the Kool Aid or, or helping, right, explain that because God, what an extraordinary statement.
Diane Benscoter 32:01
Well, once you believe that this is the answer to all of the world’s problems like this is the ultimate truth. Once you buy into that. And you, you give up your power to something that you believe is greater than you. So, in, in NXIVM people believed that Keith was the smartest man alive and that he had the answers to that he knew this, this, the these lessons, more than anyone, and so they would defer to him and in the Moonies I mean he was the second coming of Christ, He was God incarnate. And so, Of course I you know I would have done whatever because I believed that for my ancestors were up in heaven, you know, getting royal treatment because they had their daughter, their descendant was in direct contact with the Messiah, and that my for generations down, people would look to my life as being a disciple of Christ and so there was a lot of perks to the job, you know, and so that made you willing to do anything to give your life for this cause. And so that’s why I would have done that, I would have done anything.
Laurie Segall 33:25
Sarah, what was the turning point for you. At what point did you think this is not okay, I’ve got to get out. Oh you’re on mute, so we’re gonna we’re gonna call that a dramatic pause.
Sarah Edmondson 33:44
Surprisingly, it actually wasn’t the branding itself because I didn’t have the full picture and the brand name, it was six weeks later, when we figured out that the symbol was not a symbol of the elements as I’d been told, but it was in fact Keith’s initials, and that was, you know, I mean that was that was when I figured like when I saw everything clearly because I had also a conversation with Mark for Sunday, who said he suspected Keith was a sociopath and like we were putting it all together, and it was like everything, all the dominoes fell, I could see it. Now I understood, you know, oh, that’s why he had all those women around him. That’s why I wasn’t allowed to talk to Lulu Lemon and pitch ESP he didn’t want it to grow to that level, he didn’t want it to be that successful he only wanted it to be successful to the degree that he could have access to enough women and power that, that he needed at the time, all these things that never made sense to me made sense but, I mean, ultimately for the two years before that, I was questioning, but wasn’t even aware that I was questioning because, like, there was two parts of me there was my former like pre cult self going this is fucking weird and a lot of the things, a lot of the practices that everyone else was doing and albeit, I wasn’t really doing I was kind of going along with it. Like, like I was talking about the penances in the collateral like I would be like sure I’m standing, I stood in the stove to aim for you for your failure teammate, but then I wouldn’t like I would you know there’s a lot of, there was a lot of busy work that we were supposed to do as leaders that I said I was doing, but they were so disorganized they weren’t really checking up on me, and so like what I recognize now is that I was outwardly a good girl, but inwardly I was starting to defy it and question, and kind of just taking, like, you know, taking the good and leaving the bad, the parts that served me and the parts that I want to teach at my center but they were the practice were just getting more and more extreme and I didn’t like it. And I also knew that if I voiced that I’d be in trouble or be demoted. So I mean this wasn’t even super conscious those things it was like it was because I was in a bit of a haze I was in a bit of a trance almost lack of a better word, I was so busy with the stuff that we had to do to keep everything going I never even had time to think.
Laurie Segall 36:05
You talk a lot, but we’ve spoken a lot about the branding, right. And for folks in the room who haven’t seen the vow who aren’t familiar, you know, God, I just, there’s the scene in The Vow, and it is so emotional right you can just see. You can see the emotion, right, and, and you speaking about it, you talk about being in Allison Mack’s home she’s, you know now, one of the better known members, And, and also an actress who’s in Smallville she, you talk about being surrounded by other women who were naked and getting branded Can you just take us to what that was like, like I just feel like that, that scene, and that specific experience must have just been horrific, what, what was going through your head and what was the branding.
Sarah Edmondson 37:00
To be totally honest, I’m happy to talk about it from a surface level but I got to take people back, really it kind of a kind of retriggers me so I have I’ve learned, I’ve learned to speak about it from a more distance place but then I reckon I recognize it sounds weird, so I have to just preface that just to say, like it’s I have to kind of disassociate, which is what ultimately what I did to get through it. By the way,
Laurie Segall 37:23
I think I’ll just say like I think that’s really honest, I, you know like, I can’t imagine even and I think it shows how hard it is, even now, to go back to those types of things when you were involved in it, but sorry go ahead.
Sarah Edmondson 37:36
Yeah, no it’s okay, I mean, ultimately, I’ve done a lot of interviews about it and every time I talk about it I think I’m fine because I am fine now, but when I started talking about it I unraveled a little bit because it, it was so raw and even, even just the act of betrayal that occurred that I would agree, is just so people who don’t know the story I agreed to getting a tattoo as a sort of initiation with my sorority sisters. And on the night of it was revealed to be in fact the branding, and most people say why don’t you just leave say No, tell them to the fuck off, but I had collateral on me that I’d give it to be a part of this and to keep it all secret and that was used against me like a gun to my head to continue was 100% psychological coercion and if they had told me, by the way this small symbol, which was supposed to be attached to the brand is actually the leaders initials and a cryptic monogram. I mean I don’t know what I would have done, because I didn’t have that information but the event became traumatic more traumatic for me after the fact, looking back, because now I knew that they knew, I knew that they knew what they were doing to me. And so that’s what the hardest thing was, but I mean ultimately that night was what I believe. Keith was trying to do is trauma bonding to create a situation where people would come and bond which is proven to be the case as you probably know, and I can speak to this also, there is a group of people who are still loyal to Keith, who were branded with his initials and have decided, you know, I’m, I’m the crazy one, I’m the bad one Sarah made it all up we Sarah committed to this Sarah consented. I did not consent, you have to have all the information which they were withholding from me because I’m a married woman. Do you think I want another man’s initials, an inch away from my vagina, I don’t think so. So ultimately, that’s the, so people who don’t know the branding is like an underwear line and the bikini line. And, you know, in many ways. It’s the one I’m thinking back to the night, it was. It was horrific pain it was done without anesthetic anyone, any woman who had laser surgery, you know for hair removal in her bikini line, it’s very sensitive area so to have your skin sliced open with a cauterizing Pam is horrific and barbaric and I got through it, and then I thought I was strong as fuck and that was the point of the exercise to do something that was painful to gain character to be badass women and all this shit and I bought had bought into that, and also didn’t want to do it but also felt like I had no choice. So it’s a real mindfuck the whole thing sorry, your what you said that was theory responding on my watch no theory I’m not talking to you. I’m just sidebar for my own healing just everybody knows I’ve had the brand removed with plastic surgery, it’s, there’s just one thin white line that exists there now, because I had it like literally cut off my body. And that was a very healing process for me but all in all, you know, I wish obviously it hadn’t happened, but it’s what it needed to happen to wake me up because I you know I was, I was a NXIVM member for life, like Diane said, and, you know, I think that Keith would probably still be abusing people in Albany right now had he not gone off the deep end of the site to brand women with his initials. So that’s, that’s how I’ve had to justify it you know is the good that came out of it.
Laurie Segall 40:58
Right, and you also spoke out against that I mean you you are involved in recruiting right you recruited a lot of people into it and you also spoke out against it. You know you you took that turn. And when people weren’t speaking out you did that, how do you grapple with, you know, I can imagine that feels complicated, right.
Sarah Edmondson 41:17
Yeah, I mean I felt like this is also a tricky thing because in NXIVM, it was also always about taking responsibility, but there’s some truth to that and I felt since I brought so many people and it was such and I vouched for this douchebag for so many years, I had to compensate on the other side and take it down and that was that was part of me cleaning up my mess, and I am still doing it. It’s why I’m here.
Laurie Segall 41:42
I mean both of you, both of you do an extraordinary job of talking to people now who are involved in cults or conspiracies and that kind of thing I know that’s a huge part of what you do now, Diane. I’m curious. People come to you your inbox is full of people I interviewed you specifically about Q anon and conspiracies and we can get to that, but would you hear Sarah speaking. Like, I would open the floor to you like Do you have anything you would ask me like what what goes through your head.
Diane Benscoter 42:10
Yeah, and thank you so much for being here, Sarah and I’d love to talk with you about this anytime. But I think one of the hard to understand concepts that is interesting is the self perpetuating nature of psychological manipulation. And by that, in your case, I think it’s a really good example and I don’t know if you’ve ever really looked at this, but when if a somebody is addicted to power and they have figured out how to control people on a psychological level. They look at people as assets. And so what you bring to the table is what they see as now this is mine. And the way to get to it, is through places where you might not feel good about yourself or you’d like to improve or you’re scared or whatever. And so the self by self perpetuating nature I mean that someone like you who had a lot of leadership, aspirations, and skills or mark or others that were in the higher levels Allison were taken advantage of, because they could grow the organization you can’t have that level of control over hundreds of people. So you have to groom, those people who have leadership potential and give them lots of strokes for, you know their skills and what good people, they are, but also keep them torn down, about how much they still need to grow so you can have control over them, but then you become the person who I don’t know how many people did you do you think you recruited into NXIVM, Sarah.
Sarah Edmondson 44:02
Well, it’s, I see it in two ways I personally brought in about 100 But those people brought in people, and those people brought in people so within the that pyramid and the pyramids structure of it all. They I’m guesstimating about 2000 Yeah, so I feel responsible for that even though I didn’t even know some of them and some of them were in England, you know, I know them but they were, they came in through my, what they call the organization my organization. So, yeah, it’s a lot, I mean there’s a lot. No I oversaw.
Diane Benscoter 44:36
And I think it’s important for people to understand, because it’s why Allison is potentially going to jail or who, who goes to jail and who doesn’t and why and there’s legal reasons for all that. But I think when people start looking at it, they might tend to think well you were part of the problem you were part of the leadership. And so I think it’s really important to understand when you’re looking at trying to tear apart what psychological manipulation is and how it works and why it’s so powerful and why people use it to gain power, is that they groom people like you, for that purpose. And so, you know, you are being you are being taken advantage of, and the reason is so that you can take advantage of others using those same techniques. So, you know, It’s really complicated, but I think it’s important to grapple with in order to really deconstruct your own personal journey, and why you did that, otherwise you’ll feel a lot of guilt I think where it’s really important to understand that that was part of the intent he personally picked you out to take advantage of the fact that you could be good at recruiting. Does that make sense.
Sarah Edmondson 46:01
Yeah, no totally I’ve, I’ve come to terms of that and tried to part of my own personal sort of cue back to him is doing the opposite on the other side, you know like, why I am a good recruiter and watch me teach all these other people about what you did and so that never happens again. You know what I mean like that’s how I’ve had to balance it for myself but you’re right it’s, it’s, otherwise I would live in guilt and I am life I’d like to say that I’m past that stage, but it does pop up every now and then, especially when I see somebody that I brought in and, you know it’s awkward.
Diane Benscoter 46:40
Yeah, and it’s, it is, that is a constant in groups that is something that’s a trademark of of manipulators people who psychologically manipulate others, they tend to have like no empathy, they tend to be sociopaths, because if you have empathy you won’t be able to do this very well because you’ll actually feel for the people that you’re hurting, but But assuming that that isn’t present, then they in order to scale they have to take it, they have to find some people that they can make part of their inner circle and trained to be manipulators. Yeah and, and so the bet I think that someone like you, your story is so important, because you’re a leader, and you can tell the story of how that could happen especially to people who have certain skills or characteristics that could, you could end up being an, somebody that causes harm to others in burden.
Laurie Segall 47:39
Share how did you feel, and I think that’s such an important sentiment right I don’t want to let that just hang in there. Share how did you feel when you saw, you know, keep the, the leader has been was just convicted to 120 years and correct behind bars. What were you doing that, that day, and how did you feel when the news came in.
Sarah Edmondson 48:06
I was waiting patiently at home for the news from my lawyers with my husband, and, you know, we were pretty sure he’d get life in prison based on, you know, all the all the facts, but to get 120 years, it just felt it felt very immune is a mixture of like completely vindicated relieved. I can breathe again and also like sadness for all the loss and all the destruction all the people who’d been hurt along the way, including like and others is weird thing to say but I do feel like I’m pretty empathetic person, like little boy Keith, little boy Keith who didn’t have parents didn’t have parents who gave him lead off live and didn’t have a strong attachment and he realized he could manipulate people he took a wrong turn and like there’s an innocence to that like I do see him as a little boy who could never get enough. And there’s like sadness to that. And for me, not that I forgive him he needs to stay in jail but it’s just like the, the whole picture was very multifaceted but ultimately there’s also this 1% chance because he is so unfortunately smart, that he’s gonna get out. Like, there’s always that part for me like he’s gonna appeal and find some loophole and he’ll be out and then I’m screwed, you know, like there’s that always remains but generally with every sentencing and there’s been a few since then and two more to go, I get more and more relieved and more closure and hope that I could, you know, move on, fully into my life.
Laurie Segall 49:31
I mean it’s it’s extraordinary that to that you still fear that somehow, like right that he can manipulate his way out of the system like he manipulated so many people. That’s still a fear that lives inside of you. Yeah. Sorry, go ahead. No, that’s it. I, you know, I think part of, part of why I wanted to do this conversation. I spent the last year and, and I and I think we have to be careful about calling Q anon a cult and Diane you can get into that because while I think experts have said, you know it has cult like tendencies, it’s not categorized as a cult and we can you know have all these conversations. I’ve spent the last year, spending a lot of time with folks who are involved in Q anon conspiracies and for those in the room who don’t know what Q anon is it’s this conspiracy. You know that a global circle of elite pedophiles demagogues. Run, run the system and then control mainstream mainstream media and Hollywood and what they call the deep state hope I got that right. I don’t like that I can just kind of like rattle off the point of Q anon so quickly. And there are conspiracies, but I just, you know, Having spent time with folks who are both heavily involved in the conspiracy of Q anon and believing all of these, these, these ideas that have just gone viral and that have not been made easier by the nature of the internet and social media were recently brought in and this is where this happened with this is where we met Diane in person. We recently brought in, what I think people are not talking enough about right which is, you know, the idea that you have, what it’s known on Reddit is Q anon casualties you have friends and family members who feel like they’re losing their loved ones to conspiracies that it’s only getting worse. I think a good statistic is there’s this online forum on Reddit where people talk about how they’ve lost their loved one and in the last year. It went from, I want to say 20,000 to 180,000 So if that doesn’t tell you something I don’t know what does show, Diane, I guess, you know, my question for you is so yes we’ve spent a lot of the time talking about cults. But where does Q anon fit into this because we are in an age of ever evolving conspiracies where these folks who they relied on this idea that Trump was going to save them and when he didn’t get reelected. They didn’t come back. A lot of them didn’t come back to reality. So where does Q anon fit into this whole conversation.
Diane Benscoter 52:03
I think that the central point that I keep coming back to is the concept of psychological manipulation. And so, what is important to understand is that this is an area that has not been really publicized enough people don’t understand the concept enough and therefore people can keep using these tactics. It is a public health. It is a public health problem. So many people, especially during times of fear when there’s a great fear that was happening during the 70s when there was a lot of social unrest, But now with a pandemic everyone is so afraid and fear is such a strong emotion. And so, we have psychological pain to be human, you have psychological pain at certain times in your life it’s greater pain like needing a community feeling alone feeling scared feeling like you can’t explain what’s going on in the world like you’d like to or things are changing too fast. And so, then someone comes along with easy answers or that also create an us into them and enemy that we are the ones with all the knowledge we’re the smart ones don’t listen to anything, any of those people say that is a way to control people. And it’s so successful because people don’t see it coming. People don’t learn about psychological manipulation and how easy it is to take advantage of people’s pain, their fears, their, you know, depression, anxiety, those kind of things that are just part of being human, are easily manipulated. And so, in Q Anon, and what happened, politically, this is decentralized, it’s not like your typical cult, like, where there’s a Keith Raniere or a Sun Myung Moon, and it’s clear you can draw a circle around and say this is the cult and this is the belief, it’s different. It’s decentralized. But the point is, is that people’s fears could be taken advantage of, and you could weaponize people by doing this by creating innocent of them. And by making people believe that and feel that security of the this is the truth if you just believe this, then you’ll be okay, it’s clear that it’s the Democrats they’re eating babies, Whatever it is the conspiracy it starts making sense, because your psychological need is being met, you feel like you have a family now you feel like there’s this whole community of people that feel the same way. And it’s so it’s the comfort you get the these, that’s the same. it’s the it’s the type of manipulation, so I think people get caught up in trying to say is it a cult or not, when really the important question Are, are these tactics being used to take advantage of people for someone’s benefit.
Laurie Segall 55:07
You know, something that was so striking to me back in February interviewed the Q anon shaman right so folks who don’t know the Q anon shaman, this was the guy who wore, you know, a headdress and horns, during the the attack on the capital, the insurrection and his face very much became almost a symbol of this and I interviewed him while he was in jail. And what was so striking to me I also interviewed his mother. Now what was so striking to me was that sitting behind bars without the horns, without the headdress without the makeup without this infamous image right. He was still holding so tightly to these beliefs that put him there, that the election was fraudulent This is a Q anon conspiracy that, you know, that he was saving the world from pedophiles, all of these things and I just thought to myself. It is so sad that this man is sitting there I mean, he’s behind bars and still believes this, you know it, it is so deep, so when we talk about the programming and both Sarah and Diane you guys have devoted your lives which I think is, it’s pretty extraordinary given, I would say the trauma of, you know, really breaking free from some of these places realizing you’ve gone down the rabbit hole, you’ve devoted your life to helping people get out of psychological manipulation, get out of cults. What do you tell people, take me to one of these sessions take me to what you tell people who you think are involved. And one of these cults and Q anon or and something that’s unhealthy, what are the first steps that you take to try to help them come back to reality.
Diane Benscoter 56:43
Well, what I, what I do is, first of all, let them know that I’m not interested in changing their worldview or their beliefs, that’s not important to me at all. That’s not what I’m here for that I mostly just want to help them take a look at whether or not these tactics were used to possibly take advantage of them. And so it’s, it’s really an unfolding of their personal story, and, like, usually it takes many, many hours to help someone talk it through. And at the different junctions of the story, the different scenarios that unfold as you’re talking about their story you can talk about, well, here’s a general tactic they try to create an us versus them. Did you see that happen in in your organization or in your life in this situation and, as you point out those different tactics of manipulation that are most commonly used that are well known among like cult experts. Most of the time they start having, they start seeing what happened and once you understand that you were taken advantage of it, then it’s you, then you can look at the facts and think, Wow, this doesn’t hold water at all in most of these organizations when you look at the facts don’t hold water they’re not that great. I mean the teachings of Keith Raniere like Sarah said are just pulled from, you know, known well known, like Facts of Life, kind of, and. And so, you know Moon’s teachings were pulled from the Bible and pulled from Eastern thought and just kind of jumbled together and they don’t really make that much sense once you look at them and those kind of fall apart. Once you realize you don’t have to discuss those or tear those apart anymore. In deprogramming, very much it’s mostly about the psychological experience and realizing, oh man, I have fallen for a big fat lie. And it’s that moment where you realize, whole thing is a lie, that it’s devastating it’s so devastating and that’s really what deprogramming is other than you really have to help people put their lives back together, they have an identity crisis when they leave something like this and so you have to help them heal.
Laurie Segall 59:04
That’s how your mother got you out of the Moonies she brought someone who is a former member of the Moonies to you and it was after five years, this was the breaking point for you right having this woman just go through, bit by bit. And you’ve talked to me about how just like you almost just screamed your Yeah,
Diane Benscoter 59:26
I think I did scream. And yeah, it was like I thought I heard glass breaking around me and I just felt like an empty drum after that, like, I don’t even know anything about who I am. Now, if this isn’t true than what is. And that’s what’s so scary. That’s why it’s so hard to leave. Because if this isn’t true, then my whole identity is gone now.
Laurie Segall 59:49
Yeah. Sarah, what do you tell folks who are heavily involved.
Sarah Edmondson 59:55
You know, I don’t necessarily talk to people at that stage, most people reach out to me. Keep in mind I’m not to say, a my therapist. This an actress who was in a cult but people do reach out because they resonate especially after seeing The Vow or hearing the podcast. They, you know people want to connect and and people feel so alone and so broken, because, because of what Diane just said like their whole life is, they’re gonna rebuild. So mostly what I’m do is try to point them to the right expert that I think could help them whether it’s a therapist or one of the books that I’ve read that’s helped me and just try to keep, you know, shining a light on different healing modalities, but generally people who are entrenched in something aren’t coming to me at that point, but people whose family. Family members do. Come to me who knows somebody who’s in Q anon or what Scientology whatever and I and I would say, you know, here’s who you could go to, to, you know, do an intervention or here’s a book that would read before you even talked to them, but ultimately my advice to those people is like ask compassionate questions don’t judge them don’t get into arguments with them. Try to find out, like their point of view, from a legitimate like really like, oh so what, what is it that you believe exactly tell me more about these child eating lizard people I like. And I’m not saying that facetiously like in a legitimate way tell me what like, and if you ask sometimes just asking the right question at the right time can cause a crack I know for me but before about a month or a couple of months before I left, I sat down with a family, family friend who basically was like asking me about all the media that was out against Keith and I was like it’s all it’s all a smear campaign, you know, that’s how it works you do good in the world you know people want to destroy you, which is what I believed, and he said well it’s not totally how the media works like they can slant and they can spin and they can exaggerate but it has to be based on something, how would you feel if even 10% of this was true about Keith, you know, and it couldn’t hear it them but it caused a crack. And the other thing that really caused a crack and I try to articulate this to people is that I tried to show this guy, the video of how Keith and Nancy apparently had cured Tourette’s, to prove how good we were, and he wouldn’t watch it and I said like this is proof that you’re not even open to my side he’s like I’m course there’s good in what you’re doing, I’m not talking about the good, I’m asking you to look at the bad, and you’re not willing to do that and I part of that also landed somewhere in my psyche.
Laurie Segall 1:02:34
So, you know what, yeah, what would you say to him, if you were, if he were in front of you now what what would be your message to him.
Sarah Edmondson 1:02:40
No to keep, you know. You messed around with the wrong people, you know like us this time in jail to, you know, heal your soul wound because you know a lot of time, you have a lot of time to figure that out and, you know, I don’t know I don’t really have anything to say to him, he’s, he’s, he’s, he’s not saveable at this point I don’t think he’s not like he’s, he’s, he’s, Forever committed to his way of life.
Laurie Segall 1:03:13
But, yeah, Caroline I know you had a question before we because I know we’ve got to wrap soon but I think Caroline had a question to you want to unmute.
Caroline Geraghty 1:03:21
Oh, actually I’ll get I’ll pass it to Jeff That’s his question, go ahead, Jeff.
Laurie Segall 1:03:25
Okay, great. Hey,
Jeff Weisbein 1:03:26
Holy wow, what a great conversation. First of all, and Laurie are really a big fan of all your work as well. And hey, Caroline, good to see you. So my question is that Sarah. And so, a couple months ago I was, I was in this marathon room with a couple of other 100 people. Or, and there were some women in there claiming to be you know part of NXIVM I remember I don’t know their names, I know one of them was Linda um for I was so my question is, do are there women still out there trying to recruit people for, like, yes. Okay.
Sarah Edmondson 1:04:05
Yeah, and that Linda Chang Nikki Klein, there’s a bunch of women and you’re on Clubhouse so just be careful. And they’re part of a group of women who believe that it’s all good, and that we are all consenting adults and that we, there’s no such thing as indoctrination or brainwashing is more commonly known, and that there’s nothing wrong with all this and then that I mean their angle on me is I did it all for the book deal that I just exposed it you know for the book deal and that’s it. I made it all up, so they’ve actually admitted now that about the branding and all those things have admitted it, but it was all done for from a good place and you know it’s there, they’re so they’re so dug in, you know, the FBI told me during the, during the trial that if people don’t wake up in the face of so much evidence then they’re never going to wake up, so I you know I hope they do, but I doubt it at this point. Yeah.
Laurie Segall 1:05:00
Yeah. And by the way a good warning to be careful what you’re listening to and be careful to what people are saying and, You know, even, even on any platform, right. Yeah, you know, so I think that’s a super important point and I know we’ve got to wrap it up Autumn you’ve been up here for a very long time and I do not want to end this without without giving you the opportunity to speak. So, do you want to tell us your story.
Autumn Hughes 1:05:21
Sure, thank you very much. I was raised as a Jehovah’s Witness and my father was an elder, and at the age of five he committed suicide because he’d been caught drinking alcohol, and so he faced what was called disfellowshipping where the people in his family and his friends and everybody in his business would not be allowed to speak with him anymore if he was disfellowshipped. So, Jehovah’s Witnesses are considered a high control group. They do have a governing body that, that basically dictates everything that’s involved with their daily lives, down to the minutes, you have to turn in minutes of what you’re doing, how long you’re preaching to other people to get them involved into this organization, and it’s very important for people to know that they are indeed a high control group. And, you know, just, I was raised, reading books, where I was showing graphic depictions of things that were very scary. And every time I heard an airplane, take off at the airport. I thought it was Armageddon, beginning and that we were going to face destruction and death. And it was a very scary upbringing. Luckily my mother escaped and I got out too, but after 20 years now the pandemic. They came to her door offered her food offered her compassion and and again she’s she’s back with them, and it’s been very difficult to deal with this and I’m just going through the deprogramming process after 44 years. Just going to try to donate blood for the first time because that’s not allowed to be done, and just trying to go through the steps that I need to take care of this.
Laurie Segall 1:06:59
Well thank you for sharing your story, and God I’m so sorry. Diane Do you have any advice as as autumns going through the deprogramming. Step. Any advice for her.
Diane Benscoter 1:07:10
Um, I think that it’s really important to have compassion for for yourself and for, and to really learn about how these tactics of manipulation work there’s a lot of information out there but, you know, it’s, it’s a painful process but the more you understand about the tactics so you take it away from the group and you take it away from the people involved more and understand it kind of from a psychological perspective, it really does help frame it in a way that is a little bit once removed and can allow you to look at it through a different lens. I think that’s a really important piece to keep in mind,
Laurie Segall 1:08:00
we’ve got a wrap because I know I promised everyone up here we just go an hour but I want to thank everybody for joining us this is that that that we’re doing these conversations, every Tuesday at 6pm and, and, you know, Diane, and Sarah and I mean, Autumn, Caroline everyone who’s been up here, thank you so much and and the work you’re doing is really important and sharing your story is important, although I know even all these years later. It can’t be easy, you know, next week we’re, we’re speaking with a victim of revenge porn, this is something I’ve covered throughout my career and I think it’s so important because I still don’t think we’re talking about revenge porn enough it’s a horrific type of cyber harassment that happens mainly to women online. And, you know, I think we’re actually going to have an anonymous victim speaking I’ve vetted her completely but you’re going to be able to hear her voice which I think will be really powerful. But you won’t know her identity but she’s going to be able to speak very openly and intimately, about, you know some of the trauma she’s faced and we’ll be able to have a really great conversation. That’ll be as hopefully as candid as this one was so that’s next week and if you’ve enjoyed and looking for more you can follow me on Instagram @lauriesegall and Twitter and this is my shameless plug, I’ve got a book coming out in 2022 called Special Characters, my adventures with text Titans and misfits and it looks at a lot of these issues in tech and humanity. And, you know, I don’t think there’s anything on there on cue and on because it is really the no more that ends in 2019 before I really knew the extent of of a lot of this stuff so again thank you to our panelists. I’ll give you guys the opportunity, any last words before we before we exit this room. Don’t call. I love that let’s let’s share those last words Diane anything.
Diane Benscoter 1:09:54
Just if anyone needs help antidote.ngo is our website and, and we’ll do what we can to help you.
Laurie Segall 1:10:03
They’re great and you know and I think maybe one thing also to take away from you guys. Yeah, what 100% I think empathy is something I’ve looked at, Even having covered Q anon, having empathy for for how complicated this journey is I think it’s really important. So guys, thank you so much. We’ll see you next week. Thank you all. Thanks.