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Catherine Oxenberg on Dramatizing Her Life Story for ‘Escaping the NXIVM Cult’

For seven years, Catherine Oxenberg says, individuals within the NXIVM organization groomed her daughter India and made her believe in their group as one of empowerment, despite many of their practices being abusive towards women. Now, those years have been condensed into a 90-minute dramatization of Oxenberg’s story for Lifetime, entitled “Escaping the NXIVM Cult: A Mother’s Fight to Save Her Daughter.”

Starting the story in the pre-NXIVM days for the Oxenberg family, the movie explores why the mother and daughter duo both took an early workshop and why only India continued on with the group. When the two have differences of opinions on how much time and energy India is putting into this organization, the movie splits its point of view to spend time alone with both characters. Catherine’s experiences, portrayed by Andrea Roth, are pulled from Oxenberg’s own memories and writing in “Captive: A Mother’s Crusade to Save Her Daughter from a Terrifying Cult,” but India’s, played by Jasper Polish, comes from research into NXIVM.

“I’m very careful to say that this is not her story. She has yet to tell her story,” Oxenberg tells Variety. “In my book I’m very careful not to trespass on her story at all, and so probably the hardest part for me was reading the parts of the script that tell her side of the story — because I’m very, very sensitive to my daughter having ownership over her perspective. But in order to tell this story in a visual medium, she had to be portrayed — and in moments that no mother wants to see her child, whether it’s the branding ceremony or scenes with Keith. But she did not participate in the telling of this story, and she will be telling the most accurate story from her perspective when the time is right.”

For Lifetime, the time was right to dive into the story of NXIVM now because of how widely-talked about it still is in the news. In June, Keith Raniere, the co-founder of NXIVM, was found guilty of all charges against him, including racketeering, wire fraud, forced labor conspiracy and sex trafficking. Allison Mack, the former actress who pleaded guilty to racketeering charges in April is set to be sentenced this month.

“There are some stories that are ripped from the headlines and are just really salacious and topical and have a shelf-life. You really have do them quickly,” says Tanya Lopez, Lifetime’s executive vice president of movies, limited series and original acquistions. “I think NXIVM is one of those, that had a great story, but it needed to go on now because Catherine Oxenberg was out there; the trial is going on. In the past we’ve done that with Jodi Arias. I think there are some you need to pounce on now because it is in the moment.”

Prior to bringing her book to Lifetime, Oxenberg shares that she was approached by another production company to tell her story in this dramatized way — and specifically asked to play herself in doing so. But that was not something she was interested in doing: “To be quite frank, going through this once was plenty, and I’m so grateful to hand the part over to somebody else. I’m barely recovering from the first time,” she says. Instead, she ended up working with Lifetime because of how much emphasis she wanted to put on the fact that “it is not acceptable anymore to use what the defense said was an ‘alternative lifestyle.’ It is not acceptable that an alternative lifestyle means abusing and exploiting women.” Lifetime, she feels “is the right place to champion these issues.”

Oxenberg handed over her book to writer Adam Mazer and then trusted that he and director Lisa Robinson would be able to condense her multi-year spanning story into the alloted time for the movie but also that they would not paint Raniere or Mack or any other so-called official within NXIVM as too sympathetic a character.

“That was my struggle all along: what is the line, what is the threshold where a victim turns into a perpetrator? I watched the government build their case very carefully, and there was a clear line of delineation, and I think that Allison, yes she started off as a victim, but she took the reins of power and she abused other women to the point where I no longer have sympathy for her,” she explains.

Although Oxenberg did offer early notes, such as the fact that she and her daughter never raise their voices at each other when they disagree on things, she mostly wanted to stay out of the storytelling so there “would be freedom to tell the story that needed to be told.” Similarly, she did not give Roth notes on her performance. But Oxenberg feels the movie captured her experience very authentically, although it stops short of showcasing the human rights organization she founded.

The Catherine Oxenberg Foundation was set up to help “defectors from NXIVM for the exit counseling and to move forward in their lives,” she says. Through her dedication to get her daughter out of NXIVM, she says she has learned a lot about the effects of cult mentality on the human psyche and now hopes the additional platform Lifetime is giving this story will “prevent another family from enduring the ordeal that my family went through.

“It’s not women just being recruited off the street, ‘Hey, come sign up to be branded.’ This was years of grooming,” she says. “Most of the victim-shaming comes from other women saying, ‘I would never be that stupid. I would never sign up for anything like that.’ So to be able to recognize the warning signs of a destructive, dangerous cult that was so cleverly veiled as this innocuous self-help, leadership group — and how easy it is to get sucked in and to understand how seductive the process is — is important.”

In addition to the dramatized version of the story, Lifetime is also releasing a “behind the headlines” documentary hosted by Gretchen Carlson that explores more of the tactics used to lure and trap women into NXIVM.

Oxenberg, though, considers the saga of NXIVM — and therefore the potential for content around it — far from over.

“I’m still shocked that there are ardent followers, but when I was in the courtroom, there were people in the courtroom that were still believing in Keith Raniere and that this was character assassination. They are still trapped in their own minds, which is incredibly sad,” she says. “And we’re still waiting for other charges that were dropped by the eastern district to be possibly picked up by the northern district. There’s other aspects to this organization — other crimes they’ve committed — that could still be brought to justice, other people that were named as co-conspirators that still were not charged. And as far as the recovery process, that does take years, so I think it will be important to follow up.”

“Escaping the NXIVM Cult: A Mother’s Fight to Save Her Daughter” airs Sept. 21 on Lifetime.

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