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.
“I wept the whole time,” Ms. Edmondson recalled. “I disassociated out of my body.”
Since the late 1990s, an estimated 16,000 people have enrolled in courses offered by Nxivm (pronounced Nex-e-um), which it says are designed to bring about greater self-fulfillment by eliminating psychological and emotional barriers. Most participants take some workshops, like the group’s “Executive Success Programs,” and resume their lives. But other people have become drawn more deeply into Nxivm, giving up careers, friends and families to become followers of its leader, Keith Raniere, who is known within the group as “Vanguard.”
Both Nxivm and Mr. Raniere, 57, 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.
Mark Vicente, a filmmaker and former top Nxivm official, said that after hearing about the secret society, he confronted Mr. Raniere.
“I said, ‘Whatever you are doing, you are heading for a blowup,’” Mr. Vicente said.
Several former members have asked state authorities to investigate the group’s practices, but officials have declined to pursue action.
In July, Ms. Edmondson filed a complaint with the New York State Department of Health against Danielle Roberts, a licensed osteopath and follower of Mr. Raniere, who performed the branding, according to Ms. Edmondson and another woman. In a letter, the agency said it would not look into Dr. Roberts because she was not acting as Ms. Edmondson’s doctor when the branding is said to have happened.
Separately, a state police investigator told Ms. Edmondson and two other women that officials would not pursue their criminal complaint against Nxivm because their actions had been consensual, a text message shows.
State medical regulators also declined to act on a complaint filed against another Nxivm-affilated physician, Brandon Porter. Dr. Porter, as part of an “experiment,” showed women graphically violent film clips while a brain-wave machine and video camera recorded their reactions, according to two women who took part.
The women said they were not warned that some of the clips were violent, including footage of four women being murdered and dismembered.
“Please look into this ASAP,” a former Nxivm member, Jennifer Kobelt, stated in her complaint. “This man needs to be stopped.”
In September, regulators told Ms. Kobelt they concluded that the allegations against Dr. Porter did not meet the agency’s definition of “medical misconduct,” their letter shows.
Mr. Raniere and other top Nxivm officials, including Lauren Salzman, did not respond to repeated emails, letters or text messages seeking comment. Dr. Roberts and Dr. Porter also did not respond to inquiries.
Former members said that, inside Nxivm, they are being portrayed as defectors who want to destroy the group.
It is not clear how many women were branded or which Nxivm officials were aware of the practice.
A copy of a text message Mr. Raniere sent to a female follower indicates that he knew women were being branded and that the symbol’s design incorporated his initials.
“Not initially intended as my initials but they rearranged it slightly for tribute,” Mr. Raniere wrote, (“if it were abraham lincolns or bill gates initials no one would care.)”
Joining the Sisterhood
Ms. Edmondson, who lives in Vancouver and helped start Nxivm’s chapter there, was thrilled when Lauren Salzman arrived in January to teach workshops.
The women, both in their early 40s, were close and Ms. Edmondson regarded Ms. Salzman as a confidante and mentor.
“Lauren was someone I really looked up to as a rock star within the company,” said Ms. Edmondson, an actress who joined Nxivm about a decade ago.
During her visit, Ms. Salzman said she had something “really amazing” she wanted to share. “It is kind of strange and top secret and in order for me to tell you about it you need to give me something as collateral to make sure you don’t speak about it,” Ms. Edmondson recalled her saying.
The proposition seemed like a test of trust. After Ms. Edmondson wrote a letter detailing past indiscretions, Ms. Salzman told her about the secret sorority.
She said it had been formed as a force for good, one that could grow into a network that could influence events like elections. To become effective, members had to overcome weaknesses that Mr. Raniere taught were common to women — an overemotional nature, a failure to keep promises and an embrace of the role of victim, according to Ms. Edmondson and other members.
Submission and obedience would be used as tools to achieve those goals, several women said. The sisterhood would comprise circles, each led by a “master” who would recruit six “slaves,” according to two women. In time, they would recruit slaves of their own.
“She made it sound like a bad-ass bitch boot camp,” Ms. Edmondson said.
Ms. Edmondson and others said that during training, the women were required to send their master texts that read “Morning M” and “Night M.” During drills, a master texted her slaves “?” and they had 60 seconds to reply “Ready M.”
Trainees who failed had to pay penalties, including fasting, or could face physical punishments, two women said.
In March, Ms. Edmondson arrived for an initiation ceremony at Ms. Salzman’s home in Clifton Park, N.Y., a town about 20 miles north of Albany where Mr. Raniere and some followers live. After undressing, she was led to a candlelit ceremony, where she removed a blindfold and saw Ms. Salzman’s other slaves for the first time. The women were then driven to a nearby house, where the branding took place.
In the spring, the sorority grew as women joined different circles. Slaves added compromising collateral every month to Dropbox accounts, and a Google Document was used to list a timetable for recruiting new slaves, several women said.
Around the same time, an actress, Catherine Oxenberg, said she learned her daughter had been initiated into the sorority.
“I felt sick to my stomach,” said Ms. Oxenberg, who starred in the 1980s television series “Dynasty.”
Ms. Oxenberg had become increasingly concerned about her 26-year-old daughter, India, who looked emaciated from dieting. She told her mother that she had not had a menstrual period for a year and that her hair was falling out.
Ms. Oxenberg said she invited her daughter home in late May to try to get her away from the group.
When Ms. Oxenberg confronted her about the sorority, her daughter defended its practices.
“She said it was a character-building experience,” Ms. Oxenberg said.
‘Humans Can Be Noble’
By the time the secret group was taking shape, Mark Vicente, the filmmaker, had been a faithful follower of Mr. Raniere for more than a decade.
Mr. Vicente said he had been contacted by Ms. Salzman’s mother, Nancy, a co-founder of Nxivm who is known as “Prefect,” after the 2004 release of a documentary he co-directed that explored spirituality and physics.
Soon, Mr. Vicente was taking courses that he said helped him expose his fears and learn strategies that made him feel more resolute.
He also made a documentary called “Encender el Corazón,” or “Ignite the Heart,” which lionized Mr. Raniere’s work in Mexico.
“Keith Raniere is an activist, scientist, philosopher and, above all, humanitarian,” Mr. Vicente says in the film.
Mr. Raniere has used those words to describe himself. On his website, he said he spoke in full sentences by age 1, mastered high school mathematics by 12 and taught himself to play “concert level” piano. At 16, he entered Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y.
Before Nxivm, he helped run a company called Consumers’ Buyline Inc., which offered discounts to members on groceries and other products.
In the mid-1990s, several state attorneys general investigated it as a suspected pyramid scheme; Mr. Raniere and his associates agreed to shut it down.
Through Nxivm, Mr. Raniere transformed himself into a New Age teacher with long hair and a guru-like manner of speaking.
“Humans can be noble,” he says on his website. “The question is: will we put forth what is necessary?”
By many accounts, Mr. Raniere sleeps during the day and goes out at night to play volleyball or take female followers for long walks. Several women described him as warm, funny and eager to talk about subjects that interested them.
Others saw a different side. Nxivm sued several former members, accusing them of stealing its trade secrets, among other things.
Mr. Vicente said he was aware of the negative publicity, including a 2012 series by The Albany Times-Union that described alleged abuses inside Nxivm.
Mr. Vicente’s views began to change this year after his wife was ostracized when she left Nxivm and he heard rumors about the secret sorority.
Mr. Vicente said he got evasive answers when he asked Mr. Raniere about the group. Mr. Raniere acknowledged giving “five women permission to do something,” but did not elaborate, other than to say he would investigate, Mr. Vicente said.
Mr. Vicente said he suspected Mr. Raniere was lying to him and might have done so before. Suddenly, self-awareness techniques he had learned felt like tools that had been used to control him.
“No one goes in looking to have their personality stripped away,” he said. “You just don’t realize what is happening.”
Followers Start to Flee
In May, Sarah Edmondson began to recoil from her embrace of the secret society.
Her husband, Anthony Ames, who was also a Nxivm member, learned about her branding and the couple both wanted out.
Before quitting, Mr. Ames went to Nxivm’s offices in Albany to collect money he said the group owed him.
He had his cellphone in his pocket and turned on its recorder.
On the recording, Mr. Ames tells another member that Ms. Edmondson was branded and that other women told him about handing over collateral. “This is criminal,” Mr. Ames says.
The voice of a woman — who Mr. Ames said is Lauren Salzman — is heard trying to calm him. “I don’t think you are open to having a conversation,” she said.
“You are absolutely right, I’m not open to having a conversation,” he replied. “My wife got branded.”
A few days later, many of Mr. Raniere’s followers learned of the secret society from a website run by a Buffalo-area businessman, Frank R. Parlato Jr. Mr. Parlato had been locked in a long legal battle with two sisters, Sara and Clare Bronfman, who are members of Nxivm and the daughters of Edgar Bronfman, the deceased chairman of Seagram Company.
In 2011, the Bronfman sisters sued Mr. Parlato, whom they had hired as a consultant, alleging he had defrauded them of $1 million.
Four years later, in 2015, the Justice Department indicted him on charges of fraud and other crimes arising from alleged activities, including defrauding the Bronfmans. Mr. Parlato has denied the claims and the case is pending.
Mr. Parlato started a website, The Frank Report, which he uses to lambaste prosecutors, Mr. Raniere and the Bronfmans. In early June, Mr. Parlato published the first in a torrent of salacious posts under the headline, “Branded Slaves and Master Raniere.”
A Nxivm follower, Soukaina Mehdaoui, said she reached out to Mr. Raniere after reading the post. Ms. Mehdaoui, 25, was a newcomer to Nxivm, but the two had grown close.
She said Mr. Raniere told her the secret sorority began after three women offered damaging collateral to seal lifetime vows of obedience to him.
While Ms. Mehdaoui had joined the sorority, the women in her circle were not branded. She was appalled.
“There are things I didn’t know that I didn’t sign up for, and I’m not even hearing about it from you,” she texted Mr. Raniere.
Mr. Raniere texted back about his initials and the brand.
By then, panic was spreading inside Nxivm. Slaves were ordered to delete encrypted messages between them and erase Google documents, two women said. To those considering breaking away, it was not clear whom they could trust and who were Nxivm loyalists.
Late one night, Ms. Mehdaoui met secretly with another Nxivm member. They took out their cellphones to show they were not recording the conversation.
Both decided to leave Nxivm, despite concerns that the group would retaliate by releasing their “collateral” or suing them.
Ms. Mehdaoui said that when she went to say goodbye to Mr. Raniere, he urged her to stay.
“Do you think, I’m bad, I don’t agree with abuses,” she recalled him saying. He said the group “gives women tools to be powerful, to regain their power for the sake of building love.”
Nxivm recently filed criminal complaints with the Vancouver police against Ms. Edmondson and two other women accusing them of mischief and other crimes in connection with the firm’s now-closed center there, according to Ms. Edmondson. The women have denied the allegations. A spokesman for the Vancouver police declined to comment.
Ms. Edmondson and other former followers of Mr. Raniere said they were focusing on recovering.
“There is no playbook for leaving a cult,” she said.