For seven years, India Oxenberg was the frog slowly boiling in the pot of water that was so-called self-empowerment group NXIVM. For about three years she was a supporting character in stories told by everyone from directors Karim Amer and Jehan Noujaim to her own mother, Catherine Oxenberg. Now, she has reclaimed her life and is reclaiming her narrative along with it in “Seduced: Inside the NXIVM Cult,” a new four-part docuseries premiering Oct. 18 on Starz.
“I felt like it was my chance to take the story back into my own hands and say, ‘Hey, there’s a person here! Not just branded, sex slave, cult girl — a human being,'” India Oxenberg tells Variety.
For many who have been following the NXIVM saga, including Clare Bronfman’s recent sentencing and the fact that group founder Keith Raniere and his right-hand woman who was one of the heads of DOS, Allison Mack, have yet to be sentenced, India Oxenberg’s story has been the missing piece for awhile. But in actuality, two years of being out of their clutches is barely a blip of time for a young woman who had a lot of healing to do.
“I had a lot of people asking me to do media and I felt totally overwhelmed and bombarded. I just needed to have solace — I needed to really just hunker down and figure out what had happened, and take care of myself for the first time in a long time,” she says.
Taking care of herself has meant therapy, reconnecting with family and old friends and reconciling her actions within the organization not only with herself but also with those she feels she betrayed — “cleaning up the mess” she got herself in, as she puts it now.
In 2011, both Oxenberg women attended an introductory executive success program (ESP) from NXIVM. India was 19 years old at the time and was looking for purpose, meaning and a way to acquire certain skills needed to succeeding in her dreams after recently determining college was not right for her. On the recommendation of a friend Catherine Oxenberg trusted, they unknowingly embarked on what would end up becoming a life-changing event.
Eventually Catherine Oxenberg came to the conclusion that NXIVM was not for her, but India Oxenberg was indoctrinated so deeply that she gave up her interest in the culinary arts to become a coach in the organization; moved to Albany, N.Y.; stopped communicating with her family, and ended up in a sub-group (DOS) of the organization that came with sexual abuse and physical branding. Seven years after her initial experience with NXIVM, India Oxenberg finally got out — thanks in no small part to her mother’s media tour that shined a light on the nefariousness of the organization — and two years after that she is ready to explain what happened in her own words, through “Seduced,” as well as a forthcoming book.
Although she is not facing criminal charges, India Oxenberg admits she does feel guilt and shame about the part she played in bringing other young women into the group. After joining DOS, the sub-group within NXIVM that adopted the “master-slave” relationship between its members, India Oxenberg primarily acted as Mack’s slave. This first came with providing “collateral” to Mack in the form of embarrassing or otherwise damning information that would be made public if she ever revealed the secrets of the group. Once “in,” it came with the responsibility of reporting certain key elements of her life to Mack, performing “assignments” for Mack, and asking her for permission to perform other daily functions, such as eating. (A primary goal within DOS was to live by a 500-calorie diet, and as “Seduced” explores, this meant slaves had to take photos of their food and request calorie allowance from their masters throughout the day.) Eventually, being a part of DOS also came with being coerced into sex acts with Raniere, as well as sending him intimate photos, being branded with a symbol that incorporated Raniere’s initials, and recruiting slaves of her own. NXIVM began as a multi-level marketing scheme, and that structure was built into its sub-groups, as well.
“I betrayed people that I cared about, and I feel horrible and still struggle with that today. I have reconciled a majority of it with people, but not everybody. That’s a process of healing, and I want to be a person who fixes that. Sometimes I think they just want to be heard and they want me to acknowledge what I did, and they also understand that I was in a horribly compromised position; I was being told to do these things by Keith and Allison,” she explains.
Some of these moments are on-camera, as “Seduced” director Cecilia Peck incorporates interviews and archival footage of other former members, as well as interviews from other key players in bringing down NXIVM — including Barry Meier, who broke the story about the branding in the New York Times; cult experts such as Dr. Janja Lalich and Rick Alan Ross; and the matriarch of the Oxenberg family, Princess Elizabeth of Yugoslavia.
Since the center of the story truly is the Oxenbergs, though, the structure of the series follows India Oxenberg’s experience: It starts out by slowly introducing the audience to NXIVM, Raniere and Mack, and walks the audience through the processes used to gain trust and compliance from members.
“What I wanted to make sure was conveyed was that this isn’t something that happens overnight: This is a long process of indoctrination and grooming that happened for years,” India Oxenberg says. “So I didn’t want the documentary to jump right into something and have the viewers be like, ‘What the f— is wrong with this chick? Why would she do that?’ I wanted this to show that this was systematic.”
“Seduced” exposes some of the unethical practices NXIVM employed, including neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) and line-bending that can be used to change a person’s thinking. That is why, for many who had taken numerous courses, hearing misogynistic statements come out of Raniere or even co-founder Nancy Salzman’s mouth might not cause pause.
“Indoctrination is a slow drip,” says Catherine Oxenberg. “One of the initial classes, I’ll give you an example, is about honesty, so they’ll say, ‘When is the higher value to tell the truth or to withhold the truth?’ They use the example of if you were hiding a Jew in your basement during World War II and Nazis came to your door and said, ‘Are you harboring anybody?’ and you said no, did you do the right thing by withholding the truth? That is a plausible argument — but then the end result of years of line-bending is [that] you take it that Keith Raniere is the highest value, therefore what will you do to protect the truth and protect the leader? They take something initially that makes sense in your sane value structure and they pull you into a bubble of belief that is so crazy.”
Catherine Oxenberg, too, opens up within “Seduced” about how far she got with NXIVM — including having a real breakthrough during her initial course’s “exploration of meaning” (EM) and hosting a “problematic” Jness workshop in her own home (one that her mother also attended).
“I am an ardent feminist; I had a violent reaction to that weekend,” she says, noting that the commentary about women’s empowerment at that meeting actually sounded like something out of the “1950s Stepford Wife” mentality.
Initially, she liked the other classes enough to think “maybe this is just some type of aberration they tried,” but reflecting on the variety of practices after embarking on years of research into cult practices, she sees things differently.
“When you have these large group awareness trainings where you have these supposed breakthroughs, from a therapeutic license standpoint, research shows they have very little long-lasting impact. So in a way, it’s kind of like a junkie fix: You have a peak experience, it feels good, you get a high — a rush — you feel fantastic, you want to go back for more. Does it have results, do these experiences have legs? My answer in retrospect is, very little,” she says.
“If you want help, get help with somebody who is licensed and credentialed,” she continues. “The self-help industry in this country is $11 billion — completely unregulated. You end up with situations of people dying in sweat lodges. It is completely irresponsibly run. The human mind is way more fragile than I knew. You think you have a personality set in stone, but with the way these groups are designed, they get in there, they are well-oiled machines, and they unravel you and redesign you in their own image, and you are not even aware of it. So no one is touching my mind that doesn’t have a license ever again.”
Interestingly, out of the three generations of Oxenberg women who had varying levels of encounters with NXIVM, it was the youngest one who didn’t question the organization’s authority. In NXIVM, if someone challenged a statement, they were called “defiant” or otherwise made to feel like they were the one with the “issue” — that groupthink was the “right” way to go. Although both Princess Elizabeth and Catherine Oxenberg both came from the schools of thought that “you don’t push back,” it was India Oxenberg who became the most concerned with the idea that she would be “on the outs” and publicly shamed within the community — so much so that she says now that there were gut feelings she ignored in order to continue down NXIVM’s path.
“There were definitely things that I didn’t want to hear, and I just blocked them out — ‘It doesn’t match how I look at this’ — and if it was something gross or even crude that Keith would say to me personally, I would be like, ‘Not real.’ I didn’t want to see it as that,” she says.
“One of the underlying messages they gave us was to lean into the fear — to do the thing for your ideology even if you don’t want to do it. The more I was invested, it was more about the belief of myself, that I was doing something good. And that’s really hard to question,” she continues. “And I think that’s why a lot of people don’t leave these types of groups — because they’re questioning their own choice to be there and what that means. I even see people who are loyal now, and I wonder if they’re struggling with the same thing, and I want to be like, ‘It’s OK, let it go, you’re not a fool; you were fooled.’ That’s a huge distinction that I don’t think people see. They butchered all of these feminist terms, they butchered all of the self-help. It was just a big old bait-and-switch with one lame-ass con man.”
At the time, though, India Oxenberg says it was a combination of feeling lost, truly believing she would be getting “a practical MBA — that’s how it was sold to me,” and looking up to Mack who “was charismatic and very engaging and gave me attention when I felt needy for it, and gave me a promise that she was going to be there for me and guide me and help me grow” that made her want to believe in the mission of NXIVM, and later DOS.
In the premiere episode of “Seduced” India Oxenberg alludes to the abuse that came later in her time within the organization and will therefore be explored in the latter episodes of the docuseries — but she doesn’t verbalize it as such. “Something sexual did happen,” she says of her relationship with Raniere in that first episode.
“That was also my personal experience: I did not see what was happening to me as sexual abuse or rape at all. That took me six months after I left NXIVM, working with the FBI — six people around me, questioning me for days on end — to admit that I was sexually abused. I couldn’t get it out of my throat,” she reveals now.
The process of filming the the docuseries was “cathartic” — especially in moments when she returned to Silver Bay, the sight of NXIVM’s infamous “Vanguard Week,” during which members from NXIVM’s centers partook in camp-style games and performed a massive tribute to Raniere for his birthday — she says, but it was equally “exhausting.” Although she has worked through many of her experiences in therapy, while writing, and in discussions with her mother, being interviewed for hours on end for “Seduced” was the first time she spoke about these things with anyone outside of her family. In addition to her own interviews, she also was on-site for some of the others’, including her grandmother’s. This was because she was also an executive producer on the project, a role which made aided in her comfort level with the project and allowed her to vocalize what she wanted creatively, as well as personally. It also helped, she says, that Peck and executive producer Inbal B. Lessner had produced documentaries about women’s issues before (“Miss Brave World,” “Shut Up & Sing”).
Trusting that these women would handle her story with sensitivity and care could not have come easily or immediately, though, given how her trust was warped by Mack — a woman who she had admired and called a friend for years, but who was abusing her trust the majority, if not all, of that time.
Reflecting on her decision to not only keep all of her text messages but also screen-shot them and keep the photos in her camera roll, India Oxenberg says, “I used to tell myself that they were to remind me to do the thing” Mack was asking her to do within the message. However, now she can’t help but wonder “how much of my subconscious was feeling trapped and was feeling afraid and was knowing what was going on when I didn’t.”
“The truth is, while I was in there I had fantasies of them getting arrested,” she shares. “And I would quickly shush them away because I didn’t want to think like that. That’s hard to realize. It made me sad to see myself diminish my own instincts.”
The Oxenbergs will never be able to get the time they lost together back, but the past two years, they both say, has been a journey of healing together, as well as individually. Although India Oxenberg was initially angry at her mother for telling her story to the press, she now feels “so grateful I can’t even explain” it.
“If my mom hadn’t ignited the explosion of [NXIVM], I think I would have still been in there,” she admits. “Her and my process has just been us sharing to understand why we chose what we chose and we have so much respect for each other now that we understand why we did what we did.”
The process to get to this place was not easy, though. After Catherine Oxenberg initially confronted India Oxenberg in May 2017, they didn’t see each other again until February of the following year, and “I didn’t really get her back until June or July of 2018,” Catherine Oxenberg says. Even then, “it was incredibly tentative. She was incredibly mistrustful, she was still very much in the mindset of what they had implanted in her — which was that I was a villain and had tried to destroy her life. They did such a number on her on so many levels that it took a long time, but at every step, I was prepared. I vetted all of the cult deprogrammers so that when she was ready there was the right person standing by for her.”
They still don’t see eye-to-eye on everything. For example, Catherine Oxenberg says “India is much kinder than me” towards Mack, who she believes purposely saw India Oxenberg as a helpful recruiting tool for DOS because “Allison is not that likable and India is.” Although she acknowledges that Mack, too, was exploited and abused by Raniere, “so were a lot of people, and they didn’t end up doing the things that Allison did. Yes, this woman’s life is ruined and I feel sad about that, but she has to be held accountable for her crimes.”
India Oxenberg focuses more on Mack as a victim of Raniere’s. “I really do think that she’s broken and specifically broken by Keith,” she says. “I think she needs help — a lot of support and real mental help, not just trying to diagnose yourself while you’re talking to your friends. But when it comes to prison I’ve gone back and forth because I don’t think that broken people benefit from prison: I think they get more bitter and more disturbed. So I don’t know if that’s the right place for her to recover, if she can.”
As for herself, India Oxenberg says: “I don’t consider myself a victim on the whole — I just don’t live like that. I have to accept I was a victim of his for my own sanity, and I understand that I made poor choices while I was there because of the circumstances that I was in. I just go back to the fact that we are living in an influencer culture — we’re bombarded by people’s opinions of ourselves and each other, and we’re just casually liking and following without thinking who we are following and who we are supporting. That’s been one of the things that I had to shift a lot — not to blindly trust people. Be vigilant, do your research, investigate things. I wish I would have done that.”
“Seduced: Inside the NXIVM Cult” airs Sundays at 9 p.m. beginning Oct. 18 on Starz. Watch a trailer below.
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