NXIVM Survivor India Oxenberg on Why She Didn't Believe She Was Brainwashed

The daughter of "Dynasty" actress Catherine Oxenberg will speak at "sex cult" leader Keith Raniere's sentencing Tuesday.
October 26, 2020, 3:29pm
​NXIVM leader Keith Raniere (L) seen in a video entered into court evidence.  India Oxenberg (R) in ' Seduced: Inside the NXIVM Cult.'
NXIVM leader Keith Raniere (L) seen in a video entered into court evidence. India Oxenberg (R) in 'Seduced: Inside the NXIVM Cult.' Photo courtesy Starz Entertainment, LLC.  

NEW YORK - India Oxenberg says she won’t have anything to say to Keith Raniere.

The 29-year-old victim of a notorious slavery-themed blackmail scheme will deliver a statement at Raniere’s sentencing in Brooklyn federal court Tuesday, but Oxenberg says she won’t address the convicted sex trafficker directly. “He doesn’t have the ability to feel remorse or empathy, so it’s more about me communicating the facts,” she said in an interview with VICE News. “I’m addressing the judge.”

Raniere, the creator of an exceedingly well-documented self-help MLM that sounds like a heartburn medication, faces a minimum of 15 years and a maximum of life in prison for wire fraud conspiracy, sex trafficking conspiracy, forced labour conspiracy, and other crimes. In June 2019 he was convicted on all the charges against him, among them 11 racketeering acts that range from identity theft and altering court records to sexual exploitation of a child and possession of child porn.

Oxenberg was recruited into a secret woman-branding “slave” group by Smallville actress Allison Mack in 2015. She’s one of about 150 women who submitted life-destroying “collateral” to learn about the group, called DOS or the Vow. Members said it was about women’s empowerment and facing fears, but in practice prosecutors said the group leveraged collateral to systematically extort women for secrets, false accusations, free labour, naked images, and financial assets.

Raniere’s role as “grandmaster” commanding over the operation was concealed from everyone but his eight most loyal fixers, who recruited with multi-level marketing tactics. Oxenberg was one of several women told to seduce Raniere and take a photo of the encounter under threat that her secrets or nudes could be released if she didn’t go through with it.

Oxenberg’s involvement in NXIVM didn’t begin in 2015, and it didn’t start with blackmail or sex slavery. It took many years of indoctrination to get to a point where she said she was “willing to die” for Keith Raniere. She first learned about his life coaching venture NXIVM from her mother, Dynasty actress Catherine Oxenberg, back in 2011.

“I was groomed and coerced without my consent for nearly five years before I even had a relationship with Keith Raniere,” Oxenberg said. “I hate even calling it that, because I don’t really relate to it as a relationship.”

In a new four-part documentary on STARZ called Seduced: Inside the NXIVM Cult, the younger Oxenberg says she struck up a conversation with actress Rosario Dawson at the first info session she and her mom attended together in Los Angeles. The group relied on MLM-style referrals, required students to wear coloured sashes signalling rank, and separated family members during 13-hour days that elicited emotionally charged memories. The coaches pitched proximity to talent like Dawson as a key to finding personal success.

At 19 years old Oxenberg signed up for classes that were supposed to help her break out of “limiting beliefs” and build up her business and communication skills. She was mentored by recruiters Mark Vicente and Sarah Edmondson, who later became whistleblowers and cooperated with the FBI to take Raniere down. Vicente testified for several days at Raniere’s trial last year.

“I wasn’t even friendly or had any relationship with Allison,” Oxenberg recalled of her early days meeting friends and colleagues, many in the entertainment industry. “It was more Sarah Edmondson and Mark Vicente, and Bonnie Piesse, who were kind of my mentors for a while.”

Oxenberg says she trusted her mentors, who described the profound experiences they had in upper-level classes. “I was looking for structure and direction, and what they were saying was they were going to give me a practical MBA so I could go out in the world and be successful,” she said.

Edmondson has acknowledged that she was a persuasive advocate for NXIVM when she thought the classes helped people, but she too was kept in line with group influence and deception. Her mentors included board executive Lauren Salzman and senior counsellor Barbara Jeske, both of whom maintained secret relationships with Raniere and used their influence over others to carry out his commands.

Oxenberg, like Edmondson, thought the classes and mounting group obligations were a good thing. NXIVM’s higher ranks teased her about her dependence on her mother, and encouraged her to build a career outside her shadow. “I was 19; I had my normal teenage issues with my mom,” she said. “My mom’s a powerful presence; she commands attention—that’s one of her skills—so it worked in their favour.”

It wasn’t until much later that Oxenberg realized she’d been pulled away from family and friends, and that she’d been groomed as a “pet” for Mack and Raniere. And it wasn’t until Raniere’s trial that she learned about other abuses carried out by NXIVM’s most devoted disciples, like the time Lauren Salzman said she helped confine an undocumented Mexican woman to a room for nearly two years.

Oxenberg compares her experience to an abusive relationship on steroids. “It’s not one on one; it’s a group influencing and pressuring you to change your life,” she said. “My brain was changing, my thoughts were changing, but that’s because I was living in this small, closed community that had influence over me and lots of other people.”

India Oxenberg’s account will be one of more than 100 letters and statements from victims considered by Judge Nicholas Garaufis at Raniere’s sentencing Tuesday. The 15-year-old victim of the child exploitation charge, now 30 years old, is expected to speak as well. But the judge has also received dozens of letters from loyal supporters who say Raniere’s self-help therapies helped them overcome medical issues like Tourette’s, that the justice system and media have been unfair to Raniere, and that the victims in the case aren’t telling the truth.

“I found the training profound in several ways,” Canadian actress Nicki Clyne wrote in her letter of support. “I felt less fearful going to auditions, I was less reactive in my relationships, I understood my decisions on a deeper level, and, overall, I felt more hopefully about my ability to craft the type of life I wanted.”

Clyne was secretly initiated into DOS in 2015 and was named as an uncharged co-conspirator at Raniere’s trial. She writes that the group might be “too extreme or too controversial… But that it was abusive or deceitful in any way is something I will firmly contest.” She and other DOS recruits who deny the group was coercive or used for Raniere’s sexual gratification launched a new pastel-coloured public relations campaign on Sunday.

When Catherine Oxenberg went to the press about DOS in 2017, India says NXIVM suggested her own mother was a psychopath. “That actually came directly from Keith,” she recalled. “I remember we were on a walk one day and he told me… I think your mom is a psychopath, she’s trying to hurt you, and hurt me, and hurt your friends.”

Three years and several documentaries later, questions about how some women believed they experienced empowerment, while others now look back at that same situation as trafficking, still linger. DOS controlled women’s diets, sleep, and sex lives. But Oxenberg says she couldn’t understand why her mom was saying she was “brainwashed” and “in a cult.”

“Basically you were taught to answer any of these kinds of questions with a specific doctrine, so you would say something like, ‘You don’t know what you’re talking about; there’s no such thing as brainwashing,’” Oxenberg said. “It works within the closed environment, but when you step into reality, everybody sees shit for shit.” Today she believes Raniere “enjoys chaos” and “putting fear into people’s lives.”

Raniere and Mack were arrested on trafficking charges in spring 2018, and Oxenberg eventually started cooperating with the feds. “It wasn’t until I physically extracted myself that I was able to have a little more objectivity, because before I was just so saturated in it,” she said.

“I’ve done a lot of different therapy—traditional talk therapy, and I’ve worked with a deprogrammer,” Oxenberg said of her healing journey so far. “I’ve taken on sports, especially boxing, because I found that was one of the things I needed the most, was to build back my own strength and confidence. So I could walk around and not feel I could get taken advantage of again.”

Oxenberg and the filmmakers behind Seduced say they’re shining a light on coercive control legislation, which exists in some European countries but isn’t recognized in the United States. “All the women that participated in the doc and the filmmakers are incredibly passionate about what we do after this, because we’ve realized this problem is so much bigger than us,” Oxenberg told VICE News.

Raniere’s sentencing comes a month after NXIVM funder Clare Bronfman was sentenced to six years and nine months in federal prison. Four NXIVM co-conspirators including cofounder Nancy Salzman, her daughter Lauren, and Allison Mack are awaiting sentencing for racketeering charges.

Follow Sarah Berman on Twitter. You can pre-order her book Don’t Call it a Cult: The Shocking Story of Keith Raniere and the Women of NXIVM here.