How a Marriage Survives a Cult

Photo: HBO

Sarah Edmondson and Anthony “Nippy” Ames fell in love in a cult, though neither of them knew it at the time. “We were walking around thinking that we had the best thing in town — we have the best tools, the best method for personal growth,” says Edmondson. They were both members of a group called NXIVM (pronounced Nexiem), a multilevel marketing company offering personal and professional development seminars that founder Keith Raniere promised would help participants live ‘more joyful’ lives. While a marriage forged in a cult might not sound like the strongest relationship, they believe it was what ultimately helped them escape. As Ames told me: “Love was the thing that brought this entire organization down.”

The cult’s unraveling is now the subject of an HBO docuseries called The Vow. The show follows Edmondson and other members on their journeys from bright-eyed initiates to established members who become disillusioned with the group and plot their escape. Edmondson was a struggling actor in Vancouver in her late 20s when she enrolled in a series of self-improvement seminars called the ‘Executive Success Program’ (or ESP), eventually becoming a high-level teacher and recruiter. Ames was an actor and former college-football player who became the head of ESP’s men’s-empowerment group. The pair met through an ESP group in 2006 and were married seven years later at a wedding full of NXIVM members. They read vows written for them by Raniere.

But the group’s promise of self-improvement masked something more sinister. In 2017, Edmondson would allege horrific abuse by Raniere in the pages of the New York Times. She had been initiated into a secret, all-female sorority within NXIVM called DOS, which she said required new initiates to undergo a series of demeaning rites; each woman was labeled a ‘slave’ and had Raniere’s initials branded on her pelvis. More members came forward with similar allegations about DOS, which prosecutors later labeled a “sex cult” and argued was a vehicle for coercing women into having sex with Raniere. He was arrested in 2018, along with other high-ranking NXIVM members like actress Allison Mack, and ultimately convicted on an array of charges including sex trafficking, racketeering, and forced-labor conspiracy.

Three years later, Nippy and Sarah live in Vancouver with their two kids. They continue to get calls from former members who are watching The Vow and only now realizing the extent of Raniere’s lies. “I have three cult therapists who work with me, a regular psychologist, two couples counselors, and energy healers,” says Edmondson. “I’m doing every angle that I can to unwind this shit.” The couple have also been working to rewrite their marriage and find new ways to relate to one another outside the dark universe Raniere built around them.

The Cut spoke with Nippy and Sarah about married life after NXIVM and how they are learning reimagine their relationship from the other side. The interview that follows has been edited for length and clarity.

How do you reflect on your love story and your early courtship knowing that you were both deep in what experts would call your ‘cult personalities’ at that time?

Sarah: The concept of cult personality is something that a lot of the experts that I’ve studied with since leaving have explained, and it has helped me understand what went on. Basically, there’s a cult personality and your real personality is buried underneath, and eventually the real personality comes out and goes: What the fuck!? And that’s true. But I think what is slightly different about us as a couple is that while, obviously, I was very involved [in the group] … in many ways, I was outwardly obedient and inwardly disobedient. There were things that I didn’t really tell Nippy until afterward. People had to do penance — planking and getting up at 5 a.m. and [taking] cold showers, all these bullshit punishments — and I never did any of that. I was kind of trekking along pretending to be a good girl. And Nippy kind of stopped doing the things you’re supposed to do as a proctor. In the company, people would say Nippy was defiant.

Nippy: Morale was low. We were jaded with how things worked in the organization.

S: Also, our relationship was frowned upon; the higher ranks didn’t want us to get together. They said we wouldn’t be able to work out issues if we were in a relationship because it would be “covering our deficiencies.” That’s what they called it. The fact that we got together and then decided to get married against that kind of showed that we didn’t listen to them. I think that we really were drawn in obviously by physical attraction, but also attraction to each other’s values. I hate to use that word because it’s such an ESP/NXIVM word, but our values — in terms of what’s important to us as people — have remained the same at their core.

N: Ultimately, I married her character, and when it was tested, it proved to be what I thought it was. I’ve always maintained — especially in the past couple of weeks after watching the episode with Bonnie and Mark [another married couple who defected from the group] — that love was the thing that brought this entire organization down. And anyone who didn’t have that in their lives wasn’t really going to survive this.

In an article about relationships after leaving cults, psychologist Lorna Goldberg writes that “after couples’ departure from the group, the gradual unfreezing of their cult personalities and the simultaneous recovery of suppressed aspects of their precult personalities can lead to new conflicts within their marriage.” What are some of the biggest things you’ve had to work on in your relationship since leaving NXIVM?

S: It’s been really challenging, but I don’t think I know anyone my age in a relationship who isn’t in some sort of couples counseling. And I’m totally upfront about that. I see a therapist; Nippy has seen a therapist. I do lots of different modalities to try to try to heal. But in terms of our relationship, I think the key thing was getting to know Nippy as a partner. We were so busy all the time in the group, we didn’t do normal things like go on dates and just spend time together. We never had a fucking honeymoon. We chose our wedding date based on the only weekend that there wasn’t a training somewhere in the NXIVM calendar.

N: I think the hardest thing for me — and I don’t know if this is an effect of being in the cult per se, but I’ve always had a tendency to measure my self-worth by my capacity to provide and perform. And then to destroy what you’re working on and not having anything really to build and being in scramble mode, not knowing where you’re going to earn money or what you’re going to do next — that’s hard. I think I’ve been difficult to be around without having that.

S: He’s been a little down. We’ve given each other space. Neither of us is totally sure what we want to do next. And, you know, the advice I got from all the cult counselors, is like: “Take space. It takes a long time to heal. You don’t have to jump into anything right away.”

Are there ways you interact in your relationship that feel like holdovers from your time in NXIVM, and how have you worked to overcome them?

S: The first thing was learning to just listen and have empathy and not coach each other. In [NXIVM] we were taught that there were no victims, and that was really beneficial for Keith because there actually were victims, and we had no place to voice that. But the good part of that lesson is that if something’s happening in your life, you can reflect: Okay, what’s my role in this? How did I cause this? And then you want to fix it. That gives you a real potency, and you feel like you’re in control of your life. That’s the good part of it. But I think a tendency we have with each other is to always go into that type of coaching. We’re trying to build a new type of intimacy and a new type of communication based on empathy and humaneness.

N: Also having two kids has helped. We have something else that grounds us. When you have kids and you’re very involved with what they’re doing, it helps us bond because we’re doing something together. So there’s a lot of things that take us out of the mindset of “We just left a cult, what do we do?” and puts us into day-to-day life.

Sarah, has there been a time when you saw Nippy fall back on his training from NXIVM’s men’s-empowerment group and their definition of masculinity in a way that you felt was unproductive?

S: I have a tendency to get anxious. It’s why I joined ESP in the first place. And recently I had an episode — I took an over-the-counter sleep aid to help me sleep and, long story short, it basically sent me into a three-day panic attack. I felt so crazy. It just felt like I couldn’t function. I couldn’t make decisions. I later found out that the sleep aid had been pulled from the shelves for causing delusions and heart attacks and things like that. At the time, Nippy just shut down.

I just needed someone to rub my back and tell me it was gonna be okay. Once we figured out what was going on and that it was the medication, I said to him, “Why was that so hard? Why did you pull away from me?” He said, “I just thought that you were being indulgent.” And that was a Keith word. Keith would say that women “indulge” their emotions to get attention. In making distinctions between men and women, Keith made women feel bad about their emotions and, you know, invoked the whole “women are crazy” concept. But I, literally, was going crazy! I was having a hard time; I wasn’t indulging.

N: I just felt inadequate.

S: For him to go, “Oh, that’s just indulgence” … he was using that as an excuse to pull away. So we talked about it, and I said, “Indulgent? You’ve got to drop that one. I’m not an indulgent person. My whole brain chemistry was off.” And he owned it. He was going to look at that, and he did.

What are some ways that NXIVM leadership asked you to prioritize your allegiance to the group over your relationship to one another? How did they try to come between you?

S: We didn’t know the degree to which they were trying to mess with our relationship while we were there. I confided in Lauren [Salzman, a high-ranking NXIVM member] about the things I was struggling with more than anybody. She was like my therapist, and then she used that against me to get me to enroll into DOS [the “sex cult” within NXIVM whose abuses Edmondson detailed for the New York Times]. Keith enjoyed pitting people against each other. And I think a lot of our healing has just been fully extricating ourselves from all of that.

N: And reconciling our delusions. We underestimated a lot of things, like who Keith was, and the people around him … their capacity to lie. Once you’ve been subject to what I now know is a moral injury — accepting that you got so close to something and didn’t see the lie — it’s difficult. It takes a really strong person to overcome that in yourself.

S: There was a lot of tacit pressure on us. One of the first things you write down in ESP is a list of your values. If personal growth wasn’t your highest value, you just didn’t get anywhere within the company. Some of my biggest regrets being in the company are the things I missed. For instance, I missed two of my best friends’ weddings because I had to be in Albany for some stupid training. I remember fighting it, thinking, I’m not going to go [to training] because I have this wedding. And someone would call me and say,Are you really choosing a deficient relationship over your own growth? How are you going to get to proctor if you don’t prioritize the training?”

N: They leveraged your values against you. It was coercion masquerading as principle.

You’ve clearly done so much work on accepting one another and yourselves. Are there still things either of you did in the relationship during NXIVM that you continue to have trouble getting over or healing from?

S: For a while I was upset. I don’t think I am anymore, but I definitely was upset that Nippy didn’t clue into how messed up I was after getting branded. People around me were like, “When you came back from Albany, you were so wired and manic and weird.” I was so sleep deprived and messed up. That was when I was starting to unravel, and I wanted out. I didn’t know how to get out, and I started to put the pieces together. I felt very disconnected from Nippy at that time, and obviously I was trying to hide my body from him.

It took me a while to kind of let that go — the fact that he wasn’t aware that I was not okay. But I also realize now that he was in his own grind with everything Keith was demanding of him. And we just weren’t connected. We didn’t have a strong relationship at that time. I don’t blame him for that at all. But it was definitely a hurdle. Our focus now is — and must be — maintaining our strong connection, so we always know what’s up with each other.

How a Marriage Survives a Cult