India Oxenberg spent seven years in NXIVM, the so-called sex cult with a “master-slave” ring known for branding its members. For the first time since her escape, Oxenberg, daughter of Dynasty actress Catherine Oxenberg, is opening up about her experience in Seduced, a four-part Starz documentary airing October 18.
Below, the 29-year-old talks about executive producing the series, her complicated road to recovery, and the mandala tattoo that saved her life.
You could say my mom introduced me to NXIVM, but we got into it together. It was 2011, and I'd left college after just one year, unsure what to do next and feeling totally lost. I needed structure and direction. I needed a purpose.
My mom's friend recommended a self-help organization called NXIVM, which was positioned as a course for the entrepreneurially minded. When we went to an introductory presentation, I was blown away. Everything they said felt like it was meant just for me. I was inspired.
"Maybe we can take the program together?" I asked my mom.
"Of course!" she told me.
Looking back I see the warning signs. At the head of the group was Keith Raniere, a man everyone seemed to love but no one knew much about. Through enormous amounts of propaganda, I also began to see Keith as a mentor. I opened up to him about my mother and my early childhood experiences. I told him about my dreams and my fears. What I didn't know at the time was that he was extracting information for a reason. He made me feel special only to slowly break me down and systematically control me.
If you're ever in a situation where someone tries to change your opinions of yourself in a negative way, or make you believe that you're not lovable or you're not worthy, get out. That's not love, even if they tell you it is.
I wish I had seen that then.
As I continued to get sucked into NXIVM, my mother was backing out of it. At the time, I felt like she didn't understand me, like she was judging me for joining. Now I see that was so far from the truth. She was trying to save me from something that ultimately turned criminal.
After five years, I was asked to join "DOS." [Editor's note: According to court documents reviewed by ELLE.com, DOS or "Dominus Obsequious Sororium," a Latin phrase that translates to "Master over Slave Women," was a secret society within NXIVM led by Raniere that operated as a pyramid with levels of "slaves" headed by "masters." Prospective members were branded and forced to provide collateral in the form of damning videos or sexually explicit selfies before joining.]
The group was positioned as a top-secret internal society providing women with one-on-one coaching. It sounded great. In reality, it was a bait-and-switch scheme that ended up with me being enslaved and branded. We had to give "collateral" to our masters before joining, which I was uncomfortable with. But the people asking for it told me to trust them. So I did. To this day, I still don't know where it is. The FBI has some of mine, but I believe a lot is still out there, somewhere.
My biggest regret to this day is bringing people into DOS. None of us could've predicted it would turn into what it did. Still I feel terrible for putting people I cared about in harm's way. I still have to live with that.
Ileft NXIVM in the summer of 2018, and moved in with my mom in Malibu. That fall I discovered flash drives that revealed my DOS brand was not a symbol of the elements like I'd been told. It was actually Keith's initials. When I heard that, I began to question everything about the last seven years of my life: What was the purpose of DOS? What did it mean to be in a master-slave dynamic with ultimate obedience?
There were so many things I'd been indoctrinated to accept. Now I was left to wonder, what the fuck were they?
I turned the drives over to the FBI, working as a cooperating witness for nine months. Because I was on the inside of NXIVM for so long and one of the last people to leave, I had a lot of useful information. Things I brushed off as nothing, ended up being essential to the case.
When I saw Keith at his criminal trial last year, he looked so small and powerless. [Editor’s note: Raniere was convicted on all charges in June 2019, including sex trafficking, forced labor conspiracy, human trafficking, and multiple counts of racketeering and sexual exploitation of a child. He awaits sentencing in a Brooklyn prison.]
It validated a truth I had already come to know: Keith isn't some guru. He is a disturbed and cruel person.
While I didn't get immediate closure, I've been able to find peace by working with a deprogrammer who specializes in helping survivors of high-control groups reengage their critical thinking. I also see a therapist and box regularly. Sometimes you just need to punch the shit out of something to feel better. I'd be lying if I said I didn't picture pounding Keith's face or balls over and over again.
My fiancé Patrick has been my saving grace. He's a normal, kind guy who, very importantly, has nothing to do with NXIVM. Naturally inquisitive, but never judgmental, Patrick only ever wants to hear what I have to say. When we first met, I kept thinking, "Oh my God, if I keep telling this guy about my life, he's going to leave." But he didn't.
Now we live together in Los Angeles near Venice Beach with our two cats, Beans and Rice. He works as a chef, and I just released a new book and helped produce the STARZ documentary. We’re planning our wedding, and would love to have children one day. For the first time in a long time I see a future for myself. For the first time in a long time I am happy.
My memories of NXIVM will never go away, but the branding scar—that was something I could change. A tattoo artist in New York's East Village came up with an intricate mandala design to cover it up with the inscription "ancora imparo," which translates to "still learning." And I really am, all the time.
I’ve proven to myself that I’m a lot more resilient than I ever thought. My biggest sense of peace has come from figuring out what I've learned, not what I've lost. Today I have a strong bond with my mom, a healthy relationship with Patrick, and a renewed confidence.
Sometimes, my mind wanders. I think about what life would be like if I'd never gone to that first NXIVM meeting. But I did go, and I did have all those experiences. You can what-if all day long, but I am where I am in life now because of what I went through.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
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