ALBANY — Last March, five women gathered in a home near here to enter a secret sisterhood they were told was created to empower women.
To gain admission, they were required to give their recruiter — or “master,” as she was called — naked photographs or other compromising material and were warned that such “collateral” might be publicly released if the group’s existence were disclosed.
The women, in their 30s and 40s, belonged to a self-help organization called Nxivm, which is based in Albany and has chapters across the country, Canada and Mexico.
Sarah Edmondson, one of the participants, said she had been told she would get a small tattoo as part of the initiation. But she was not prepared for what came next.
Each woman was told to undress and lie on a massage table, while three others restrained her legs and shoulders. According to one of them, their “master,” a top Nxivm official named Lauren Salzman, instructed them to say: “Master, please brand me, it would be an honor.”
A female doctor proceeded to use a cauterizing device to sear a two-inch-square symbol below each woman’s hip, a procedure that took 20 to 30 minutes. For hours, muffled screams and the smell of burning tissue filled the room.
If I were asked to identify one lesson that everyone in the world would learn for their own good, it would be that the end is in the beginning. And so it is with Nxivm that needlessly-inflicted pain and the threat of humiliation at the beginning, lead to an animating motif of needless pain and humiliation.
Nxivm does not violate that principle:
Both Nxivm and Mr. Raniere, 57 (the leader of the group), have long attracted controversy. Former members have depicted him as a man who manipulated his adherents, had sex with them and urged women to follow near-starvation diets to achieve the type of physique he found appealing.
Now, as talk about the secret sisterhood and branding has circulated within Nxivm, scores of members are leaving. Interviews with a dozen of them portray a group spinning more deeply into disturbing practices. Many members said they feared that confessions about indiscretions would be used to blackmail them.