Aged just 19, India Oxenberg went along to a seminar near her family home in Los Angeles, run by a group purporting to offer an “executive success programme”.
The teenager had just left university in Boston and was trying to start a catering brand, when her mother heard about the supposed self-help organisation from a friend.
“She said it increased her business exponentially, she made more money, was a better communicator, and improved her critical thinking,” explains Catherine Oxenberg, best known for her role as Amanda Carrington on Dynasty.
“I thought: India’s starting a business, she hasn’t finished college, this is an opportunity for her to learn some business skills. It was as simple as that,” she adds. “Little did we know,” Catherine sighs in her cut-glass English accent, “it had nothing to do with business at all.”
It would be eight years before India returned home, after being enslaved, sex trafficked and repeatedly raped by Keith Raniere, leader of the cult she had unwittingly been drawn into.
The brutal practices and cataclysmic fall of NXIVM (pronounced “Nexium”) are detailed in a new four-part documentary series coming to the UK.
Seduced is the story of India’s entrapment and her mother’s desperate attempts to free her. It’s an astonishing tale of mass indoctrination and shines a light on the organisation founded by Raniere in 1998.
The group boasted that 17,000 people had taken its “courses”, including high-profile names in entertainment, politics and business. In reality, its claim to help empower people to improve the world was a cover for the abuse of idealistic young women, who were brainwashed into becoming sex slaves and willingly branded.
Raniere, 60, a former marketing executive who had been previously sued for running a pyramid scheme, was arrested in 2018 and is now in prison awaiting sentencing.
Shockingly, his co-accused, also behind bars, include 38-year-old Hollywood actress Allison Mack – best known for her role in Superman spin-off series Smallville – and Clare Bronfman, 41, heiress to the Seagram drinks empire, who helped finance his operation behind the scenes – including silencing his victims.
That, says Catherine, as I speak to her and India via Zoom from their respective homes in Malibu and New York State, is one of the reasons they are breaking their silence.
“The tactics of sexual predators are slick. They hide in plain sight. From Jeffrey Epstein to Harvey Weinstein, they usually have a system in place of enforcers and recruiters. And very often they use women, because women trust women.”
After that first convincing pitch by Catherine’s friend, mother and daughter attended a seminar together.Catherine – daughter of Princess Elizabeth of Yugoslavia and a distant cousin of the Prince of Wales – chose not to pursue the programme any further. But India soon became hooked and took multiple courses, each costing thousands of dollars and extolling Raniere’s world view.
It was Mack, India explains, who facilitated her rise through the NXIVM ranks. The actress forced her into a master-slave relationship, luring her to join DOS (Dominus Obsequious Sororium; rough translation Master over Obedient Women), a secret cult within the cult, whose 150 young female members were encouraged to reveal their darkest secrets, then blackmailed into servicing Raniere’s sexual needs and branded with his initials.
It is this last detail that provides some of the documentary’s most haunting moments. India has described how “the smell that came from the cauterising pen burning my flesh was so intense that it filled up the entire townhouse”.
Mack, says India, now 29 “was there when I was branded. And she was the one who commanded me to be branded.” She continues: “But we were never told that they were Keith’s initials. We were told it was a symbol of the elements. The justification was that this was going to be a bonding experience between the women in the ‘pod’, as it was called.
“You were pushing against extreme pain in order to show your loyalty. We wanted to believe that we were going to get stronger. We were going to improve as women.
“I learnt later that it’s a common practice for pimps to do this to the women they feel ownership over. That to me was just beyond disturbing.”
Raniere’s young recruits were brought under his spell using a mixture of pseudoscience, sleep deprivation and hunger. India was placed on just 500 calories a day, after Raniere decided he wanted her to weigh 7st 8lb. The diet was sold to India as a test of her self-control.
Any disobedience would be punished via “penances”, from standing outside in the snow to being hit with a paddle or – as India was by Mack – made to wear a medieval chain covered in needles.
“It was his directive, his brainchild, his perverted vision of what he wanted to do to women – and he had women inflicting that abuse on other women, in order to remove himself enough so that it wouldn’t look like it was coming from him. But it was,” says Catherine.
At the end of episode two, we learn the root of the title’s meaning when Mack – with whom India was living in Albany, New York, as her servant – commands her to seduce Raniere, something she claimed would make India even stronger.
In fact, India tells me now, he had already raped her.
“When I reached a certain weight – his desired weight for me, which I didn’t know was because of his own sexual, perverted desire – he started to target me sexually,” she explains. At 5ft 5in “and normally very athletic… I did not look healthy”.
India had, until then, believed Raniere to be celibate. In truth, he was using all the women in his inner circle as sex slaves – grooming and raping them. India’s abuse continued for a year, during which Raniere demanded she send him explicit photographs, saying it was to get her out of her comfort zone.
“I believed that the things they were having me do were, at their core, good,” she says in the film.
Catherine learnt her daughter was being serially raped after someone close to the hierarchy contacted her in April 2017, saying: “You need to save India.” She knew that India had fallen under the cult’s spell, but she didn’t understand the harrowing truth of what was going on. Or, as she puts it: “I didn’t know what the heck they were talking about.”
When she confronted India, she replied: “It’s not happening” and refused to leave.
It would be another nine months before the game was up for NXIVM, as recruits began to defect, many after learning about the DOS.
Catherine didn’t get to see India until February 13 2018. “Every day is etched in my memory,” she says.
After a seven-week trial in New York last year, Raniere was convicted on seven counts of racketeering, sex trafficking, conspiracy, wire fraud and other crimes. Mack pleaded guilty to racketeering and awaits sentencing. Last month, Bronfman was sentenced to six years and nine months after admitting harbouring migrants for unpaid “labour and services” – and yet, in a mark of Raniere’s long psychological reach, refused to denounce him.
Raniere will be sentenced on October 27. What would the Oxenbergs like to happen?
“Life in prison,” replies India. “He is clearly unable to change or recover. He is still operating like a wannabe mob boss from prison now, ordering people around. If he’s let out, he’s a danger to society, to other women, and to myself.”
“There’s a lovely prison in Colorado called Supermax,” says Catherine brightly of ADX Florence, home to some of the world’s most dangerous criminals, including Mexican drug lord El Chapo. “You can’t communicate with anybody on the outside. That’s the special place I’d like to see him go.”
They’re an incredible mother-daughter pairing: candid and forthright, but also loving.
India says she has never blamed her mother for introducing her to NXIVM. “We went in together, we got out separately, and we’re now working for the same team. So I don’t have anything to forgive, I just have a lot of gratitude.”
Has Catherine forgiven herself? “Well, I was just trying to do that yesterday, actually. It’s been a process,” she says. “When I’m listening to what India went through, it pierces me right to my soul.”
Seduced: Inside the NXIVM Cult begins on Starzplay on Sunday 18 October