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Cults: a modern crisis

When rising actress and mother of two, Sarah Edmundson, signed up for a five-day seminar in 2005, she hoped the sessions would bring her community, financial agency and a boost for her career. Instead, the “Executive Success Programs,” founded and led by Keith Raniere, were Edmundson’s first introduction to a 12 year odyssey of indoctrination, abuse and exploitation.

In her memoir, “Scarred: The Truth Story of How I Escaped NXIVM, the Cult that Bound My Life,” Edmundson explains how she found herself falling under the influence of Raniere and unknowingly becoming part of NXIVM, a cult operating under the guise of a self-help group.

“I left … my initial training [feeling] as if a veil had been lifted,” Edmundson told ABC News in 2018.

Within these sessions, Raniere provided his audience with clarity and concrete answers to complex problems, so it’s unsurprising people began to place their trust in his teachings and authority.

The process of indoctrination is how cult leaders establish and maintain control over members, essentially brainwashing followers into doing the leader’s bidding. Extreme cases, like the infamous Manson family murders, showcase just how deep this indoctrination can go.

For Edmundson, her loyalty was rocked when she and four other women were invited to become a part of Raniere’s “secret sorority” in 2017. During the initiation ritual, the five followers were blindfolded, told to strip and branded with Raniere’s initials — a pain that Edmundson describes as “worse than childbirth.”

This event served as a catalyst for the cult leader’s downfall, as it brought Edmundson to a significant realization: “I am not cattle. I’m not owned by Keith.”

Her voice, as well as other narratives from ex-followers, proved essential in exposing Raniere and finding him guilty on charges of sex trafficking, child abuse, forced labor and more in a 2019 trial.

Edmundson’s story, while horrifying and laced with oppressive misogyny, is by no means a unique one.

In a 2019 article, popular news outlet Refinery29 reported that an estimated 70 percent of cult members are women. This statistic, to an outsider, seems shocking considering the tight grip many cult leaders maintain on women’s sexual and reproductive agency; however, methods of indoctrination are tried and true ways of convincing the most sound-minded individuals that they would be better off forfeiting control of their lives.

Many experts have tried explaining this gender gap among cult members, citing women’s history of oppression or greater desire for spiritual actualization as possible reasoning. However, claims that women are inherently more susceptible to cults may do more harm than good, as they disperse attention away from the perpetrators and fail to acknowledge female cult leaders. For example, Allison Mack, former “Smallville” actress and Raniere’s second in command, faces her own charges as a result of her role in recruiting and profiting off of the exploitation of members.

Edmundson’s full memoir, “Scarred” hit the shelves on Sept. 17. She, like many other cult survivors, may never fully recover from her time in NXIVM, though her story can serve as a reminder for us all. Cults aren’t a thing of the past, and as a growing internet culture provides cult leaders with new opportunities for recruitment and indoctrination, everyone is susceptible to their influence.

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