India Oxenberg's life seems like something out of a glamorous Hollywood movie: An early childhood in Malibu with a movie star mom and step-father, a gorgeous grandmother who's a Balkan princess and a budding career as a chef. But it isn't all what it seems; glitter gave way to grimness after her mother took her to an Executive Success Program created by a "self-help group," called NXIVM. While the organization had marketed itself as "personal and professional development," the reality turned out to be much darker: a new-age cult made famous for their sorority of young women who were forced on starvation diets, branded and instructed to have sex with cult leader Keith Raniere.
Oxenberg became a member of the cult, lured in by what seemed like the organization's desire to help members live more joyful lives and make the world a better place. Well-know TV actors like Allison Mack of Smallville and Nicki Clyne of Battlestar Galactica were members, while Seagram's heiresses Claire and Sara Bronfman were devotees who also bankrolled the cult.
As Oxenberg got deeper and deeper into the cult, pulling away from her family, her mother, actress Catherine Oxenberg, recognized the danger and tried to reason with her. Catherine's efforts were met with hostility and she eventually felt the only way she could save her daughter was to go public with their story in an effort to bring down the cult. One of the wildest, most hard-to-believe family dramas to come out of Hollywood in decades, the Oxenbergs' story is documented in Seduced: Inside the NXIVM Cult, a new series on Starz network, produced by Cecilia Peck and Inbal B. Lessner. While Catherine is no stranger to press (her whistle-blowing helped bring down the cult and get Raniere and other NXIVM leaders jailed), Seduced is the first time Oxenberg has spoken publicly about her years with NXIVM.
PAPER caught up with Oxenberg via Zoom to learn about the show and hear more about life after escaping the cult.
You haven't really spoken publicly until this show now. What was it that made you finally decide, "okay, now is the time to talk?"
I took about six months to myself after my home burned down (in the Malibu fires) and I moved to Colorado with my now-fiancé. I needed alone time. I had been bombarded by everything the media had to say about me and I had no say in that. My story was taken from me and I was pissed. I didn't want to talk for a while. I reached a point where I felt more confident and clear in what I had experienced and what I had gone through and could be honest with myself about that, but that took a while. I said no until I met (director/ producers) Cecilia Peck and Inbal B. Lessner, who told me about their vision for their documentary. It matched what I cared about, which is education, women's issues and making sure we told a really raw and honest story. I did not want to sugarcoat anything. I was like, "If I'm going to do this, I'm going to do it full-on." That's what I promised them. For me it was a way to say, "I'm going to take back my story and put this out there the best that I can."
Your mother was the one who originally took you to ESP and she seems to have been guilt-ridden by it. Did you ever really blame her for that, did you have to work through the fact that she took you?
That's a good question. I actually never really blamed her for it because in my mind, we went together. She's the mom and the adult but I was 19, so I was young, but wasn't 12. The only time I blamed her — and I'm laughing — was when I was so angry with her from what she was doing when I was still inside of NXIVM that I was like, "That lady! She took me! What is she talking about? That's a bunch of bull!" But that was me being programmed to think that way by the cult. It worked in their favor that she took me. That's not how I saw it.
It seems like she has always been very open to alternative approaches to things. Do you think that affected you? Did that make you more susceptible for example, having been around that your whole life?
I actually thought that for a while, but I don't actually believe that anymore because now that I know more about how cults works and manipulation works. It doesn't matter where you come from or what you were exposed to, necessarily. We had a whole Harvard contingency in freaking NXIVM, so it really wasn't about intelligence or prior exposure. It was about where you were at that time in your life. It's easy to blame my mom because I was exposed to those things, but it's not really accurate.
Do you think from the beginning that NXIVM started off with that good intention and got warped or do you think from the beginning it was meant to lure people in under these false pretenses?
That's such a good question because I thought that too, even while I was trying to leave. I was like, "Maybe this went awry and was supposed to be good and it was this humane thing from the beginning that got screwed up and greedy." Basically, but no, I actually think from the beginning, because of what I know about Keith [Raniere] and his psychology, that he's always been like this. He's actually had the same playbook for over 20 years. I think it was set up as a breeding ground for him to have power and control over people because that's really what he wanted. We believed it was a self-help program that was teaching humanity and sure, there were good tools, because if there wasn't, everybody would have left. So, there was enough good there that intrigued and interesting people to keep you there, but the root of it was developed by a predator and that taints everything.
Also to be headquartered in suburban Albany, New York, of all places. Not to judge Albany, I'm sure it has its charms...
[laughs] Not to judge Albany! First warning sign, if you move to Albany, check it out! But no, in all seriousness it was very weird, these people used to say, "Why are you here? Aren't you from Malibu, California?" I was like, "Yes, I'm trying to get tough." [laughs]
I'm here for volleyball. So when your mom really went public, were you watching her interviews at the time or did you get reports about what she was doing from the NXIVM people?
Mostly reports through NXIVM people which was unfortunate for me because I think I should have watched more, but I ignored it and I was so angry and hurt by what I thought she was doing to me, not what I know now. I was just like, "This lady has lost her mind. If she only knew what I was doing right now, sitting in my boring Albany townhouse." I don't know why she's screaming at the top of her lungs! You know? It just felt so outrageous to me from the inside because I didn't see what I was in. I was stuck in that bubble.
To me, a big red flag was the weight control and food situation — before the sex things that got a lot of attention. Did that seem strange to you? How is extreme weight loss packaged as "self-help" or "personal growth?"
I'll tell you, they were very skilled at manipulating us into believing that this was good and healthy for us, but the truth was, we were on starvation diets. It was 500 calories or less for long, long extended periods. I've tried to recreate that in my life and it lasts one freaking muffin and a coffee. That's not a lot of food, and I didn't realize that I was actually damaging my body, to the point where I didn't have a period for two years. I never had an eating disorder. I mean I grew up in LA where there's a lot of emphasis on perfection, so yes I had my normal like, "Oh my thighs are touching" girl-stuff, but I think this was more of a cult-induced eating disorder because I became anorexic. I became very thin and very weak. They were telling us that we were building character but exerting self-discipline and restraint. Every time we were restrained from our indulgences and things that we liked, we thought we were doing a good thing for ourselves. Looking back, I think I became very comfortable with being hungry. I was just okay with being hungry all the time that I didn't even notice.
In a weird way there is an appeal to surrendering and letting someone else tell you what to do; it's sort of freeing. You don't have to make those tough decisions about what to do with your life.
That's actually something Allison Mack used to say to me. "This removes the obstacle of having to choose for yourself," and that idea in theory was like, "Oh, great, I have somebody that I trust that cares about me and I care about them, and they're going to guide me." That's what we believed that we were in. We did not think that this was all funneled through Keith's desires. The weight loss for instance, he liked super skinny and we didn't know that.
"Every time we were restrained from our indulgences and things that we liked, we thought we were doing a good thing for ourselves."
I have to say, the most shocking thing to me in a way, is in Seduced was when you found the hard drives hearing the Level 1 DOS women talking to Keith about everything. Having that smoking gun of him talking, directing the whole thing was so shocking.
It was shocking for me too! [laughs] I remember the moment when I stuck them into my computer and I was like, "What am I listening to?" I just couldn't believe it. That's what I had.
Why would Keith or Allison want to record those conversations when that's kind of what's putting them in jail? They're so damning, you would think you'd want to make sure nobody could ever hear that? Then again at Jonestown they recorded everything too.
You would think, given he's the "smartest man in the world" that he would be a little bit more careful about what content he's recording, but no, he actually required that everybody record him whenever he spoke because he thought he needed to [laughs] have his memory live on forever.
Saved for posterity.
That was more about his pathology. He did that himself.
Does your family know what your collateral was? Do they know the specifics of what you gave as collateral to Allison?
Not all, but they do know what relates to that. I've spoken to them about that. That was really, really hard. For a while I couldn't remember it so I actually only really remembered the details when the FBI showed me the collateral that they had of mine. I had to remember that.
Does the FBI destroy that or do they have to keep it since it's part of a case?
No, they have it just as discovery. I don't know if they have everything, and I actually don't know where the rest of the collateral is. None of us do, which is scary, but it's out there. [laughs] Makes me want to pose naked just to get ahead of it, you know?
Absolutely. At one point Allison was talking to Keith about her getting paid for delivering you to NXIVM or to Dos. Was that a common practice or was that specific because it was you and you were seen as such a desirable acquisition.
I didn't know about that until the closing argument. I never heard of that correspondence between Keith and Allison until I saw it on the screen. I would say that's a probably common procedure for Keith and how he groomed women, wanting them to be delivered so it looks like it's their choice. But no, that was basically one of the key things that tipped off the FBI to the fact that this was sex trafficking, that this was the exchange of people for money or some kind of commodity.
"Allison Mack used to say to me: 'This removes the obstacle of having to choose for yourself,' and that idea in theory was like, 'Oh, great, I have somebody that I trust that cares about me and I care about them, and they're going to guide me.'"
What do you think about Allison? Was she a victim as well?
I don't think that she is a total monster like she's been depicted in the media. I think that she's a damaged person who was used by Keith severely, and broken by him, and that maybe she has some pre-conditions that made her even more vulnerable mentally, but that's only speculation. I don't know what she's thinking now. I've heard rumors that she hasn't really come to terms with everything yet, and that she still kind of believes that this was good, so I don't know because I don't have communication with her.
When was the last time you talked to her?
The day she was arrested. Through WhatsApp, I remember. I think I even still have those somewhere, but it was basically her writing a text that said, "Don't come back," and that was pretty much it. Any communication I had was through Nicki Clyne.
Do you know if Nicki is still loyal or still—
Very much. She went on CBS the other day to basically say how this was all character assassination.
In Seduced, Nicki scared me a lot. I thought of her as an ancillary character, but especially hearing her on the recordings with Keith, I was like, "ooh, girl."
She's not. In many ways, I mean that's why I'm still surprised that nothing happened because to me, her and Allison are equals in what they did to other women as well.
Looking back on the whole experience, is there anything that you think of as particularly shocking or that stands out as... I mean the whole thing of course is very shocking but—
Being coerced into recruiting other people. That to me is something that disturbs me to this day. People I invited were people that I knew and cared about and considered friends. Some were new friends, some were older friends, but the fact that I brought them into something that was potentially dangerous to me and other people, even though none of them were branded, they escaped that, thank god, but I have to live with that. That's hard. I think that's probably the most difficult.
Some people are still loyal to Keith. What could make somebody still be loyal after all they've been through? I guess it's hard to admit what you spent these past years of your life on has been a lie.
One of the hardest things to break is the belief you had about what it was. I know that for myself, I was on very shaky ground when I was questioning if I was participating in something bad, which I have to admit, I was. For me, Marc Elliot (a NXIVM member who is still loyal) has also spent tons of time investing in the "goodness of Keith" and ESP and I don't think he is ready to see the truth. It is a choice, you need to decide to be open to seeing more information and these people haven't decided. They're still following Keith's orders and they don't realize that they're being servants of Keith's goals, not their own life because everything they do for Keith hurts them. Every time they go into the news, every time they try to recruit another person, they hurt themselves because they're protecting somebody who is a bad man.
What was it that made you able to moving beyond the cult?
I think the primary thing was I wanted to have a relationship with my mom. I did not want to lose my mom forever and I thought that if I wasn't open to at least questioning the things that she and other people were saying, then I might not be able to have a relationship with her. That was too sad so I started to become a little bit more open and I also started working in the world and dating in the world and doing all of these things that I hadn't done while I was in NXIVM and it started to open me up a little more.
In the end, are you happy or relieved or sad that you didn't get to testify at the trial?
Bittersweet, actually. I'm going to speak and read my Victim Impact Statement at Keith's sentencing because I wanted that kind of closure. I didn't get to testify, but I was a cooperating witness for nine months, so I did my job. I wanted to testify just so I could have my peace but now I realize we all played our parts; some people testified, some people were cooperating witnesses and I'll speak at the sentencing and it'll be done. I just want to wrap it up. I want it to be over.
"One of the hardest things to break is the belief you had about what it was."
I thought something that your grandmother, who's amazing by the way, said that was interesting was it's the Phoenix theory: From the ashes, you rise. Are you able to look at the whole experience from that perspective yet or do you still think of it only with regret?
No, now I can but that's what you have to do to move on, you have to see the learning lesson in something like this or else drive yourself totally crazy. I've had to see what it is that I've learned, lost, gained and I gained a lot more and my life is just so much better now and not because of NXIVM but because of what I went through. It was hard. I had a relatively cushy life before that. I don't think I had been exposed to anything this dark or with this much weight. I never in my life thought I would be spending nine months with the FBI in Brooklyn, like please. [laughs]
Star of "I Married a Princess" spending FBI time. [laughs]
Right? No, all of that was just so out of this world.
Why did you decide to do a TV show as opposed to say writing a book or being one of the people on The Vow for example...
I've had this story taken from me and the media decided what they wanted to say about "cult girl" or "sex slave," which was hard and painful. I didn't want to do any media. I just wanted to be quiet and say, 'Screw you, I'm not talking to anybody,' but I didn't want to participate in The Vow because I didn't really care for the type of story that they were going to tell. I wanted something that was more personal, heartfelt, something that really spoke to women and when I met Cecilia and Inbal, the other producers and director and editor on this project, they were just so kind and respectful of me telling my story. They worked with other women and survival stories prior to this, like Brave Miss World, which is about rape. They were really sensitive to it and that felt good. That made me feel secure that I was with the right kind of team to share my story. I've actually not watched any of The Vow yet, so I don't know besides what people have told me about it because I wanted to stay focused on this project and not get too cluttered.
Did you go in knowing you wanted to be executive producer or how did the producing come in?
No I didn't, I actually thought I was going to be one subject, that it was going to be one interview, I'd share my story and my mom would speak and it would be over and it turned out to be much more than that and when they asked me if I would be comfortable with being the primary subject of the documentary, I said "yes, but I want a little bit of control and I want to make sure that the other people that I bring into this documentary that trust me are either concealed or blurred or have the things they need to feel comfortable." In order to do that, I think I had to be an executive producer, so I made the decision to join that part of the team, which really invigorated me. I felt like I had a future here. For a long time, I didn't think that about my life, I didn't think I would ever go back into production but when I did I was like, "wow, this is what I love and what I've been missing — this is a creative team in process" and being able to put out content that actually matters.
Do you think you'll do more producing?
I hope I do!
Do you plan to be an anti-cult activist?
I want to. I feel like part of the whole reason of telling the story because I have a very deep, inside perspective from experiencing this that I could speak to it in a way that makes it less freaky and more normalized so people can say, "Oh, actually I think my cousin is in something like that." I want to make it a conversation that we can all have so that it's less taboo, less shameful. If we can break it down and just see the similarities between a one-on-one abusive relationship and a high-control group so you can avoid it. A lot of people are like, "I would never fall into something that stupid" and I just don't believe that. I think it's better to look at it as "How can I avoid these things?" and that's why I wrote a book, Still Learning, while working on the documentary, that's kind of a how-to avoid these things, using my story.
People think cults go after stupid, naive people but it's really the opposite. It's people who want to change the world, do good for society.
I believe that too.
"For a long time, I didn't think that about my life, I didn't think I would ever go back into production but when I did I was like, 'wow, this is what I love and what I've been missing, this is a creative team in process' and being able to put out content that actually matters."
Also, the tattoo that you got, "Still Learning," that you covered your brand with, what made you decide to do a tattoo versus having it removed? Although the surgery sounded like a lot, I have to say.
I was thinking about the surgery for a while because I wanted a more permanent solution, but then when I saw the details of what it would take because my scar is quite large, the whole re-traumatizing surgery thing just didn't seem right for me. I found a tattoo artist in the Alphabet City near where I worked and she was so lovely and helped me design it perfectly so it covered every part of the scar. It's a mandala with an evil eye which says... "Still Learning" which is what I named my book. She took so much care and attention to detail that it made me feel like I was reclaiming that part of my body. This has nothing to do with Keith anymore. It's for me and what I think is beautiful. I actually think it's sexy and I like to see it in my bathing suit whereas before I was so embarrassed even to be naked in front of my own fiancé because I felt like he was judging me, which he wasn't, it was me judging me for the scar.
Watching the coverage of the whole thing, it's so reduced on a certain level to Dynasty star's sex slave daughter.
We're reduced to a headline. "Cult girl," in The New York Post and I was like, "Oh my god. If I have to live with that for the rest of my life I'm going to live in a hole." I had to do something.
Photos courtesy of India Oxenberg
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