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What could be more harmless than taking your daughter to a self-help workshop?
Well, for "Dynasty" actress Catherine Oxenberg, this decision led to her daughter India getting sucked into a dangerous cult, one where Catherine said her daughter was branded, blackmailed, forced to starve, and coerced into sexual relations with its leader.
The nightmarish situation was the basis for Catherine's 2018 book, "Captive: A Mother's Crusade to Save Her Daughter From a Terrifying Cult," which details her efforts to save her daughter and expose Keith Raniere's group NXIVM as a dangerous cult. Now, the book is the basis for the Lifetime movie "Escaping the NXIVM Cult: A Mother's Fight to Save Her Daughter."
Raniere, who was known as Vanguard to his followers, shot into the public eye after a 2017 New York Times expose alleged that he ran secret society within his self help-group NXIVM called DOS (which stands for "Dominus Obsequious Sororium", a Latin phrase translating to "Master over Slave Women"). The report claimed Raniere brainwashed and blackmailed these women into being sex slaves, branding them with his initials, all with the help of "Smallville" actress Allison Mack. It was this group that captivated and eventually trapped India.
So what role exactly did India and Catherine play in NXIVM's downfall?
How India joined NXIVM
It all started innocently enough, according to Catherine. Back in 2011, when India was 19 years old, Catherine brought India to a workshop to help her grow professionally.
She told Entertainment Tonight, “The truth is, what we went to was an intro for a leadership program. It could have been any self-help program, and that’s the truth. Nobody signs up to join a cult. These cults very often have consumer-facing companies offering real and viable resources and tools. And that’s what this was… I thought that she might benefit from some leadership skills because she was going into the business world.”
However, Catherine was soon taken aback by what she called NXIVM's hidden "misogyny."
"I thought something was off, but I didn’t know it was dangerous. I thought it was sort of a benign, wacky group… I didn’t realize that this was a systematic, calculated process to entrap people," she told the Daily Beast.
And when she tried out one of its spinoff workshops, Catherine found it bizarre enough to stop. “When I started to hear [Salzman’s] views on women, I was shocked, because I had not had any indication of this... I thought maybe this was some weird aberration, a mistake. But not at all. They were slowly and deliberately introducing more misogyny," she said.
But while Catherine wanted nothing more to do with NXIVM, her daughter was entranced, eventually joining DOS.
Catherine's NXIVM takedown
For Catherine, her journey to end NXIVM didn't begin until a former member, Bonnie Piesse, contacted her to tell her she was concerned about India and believed she had joined DOS.
"She signed a lifetime vow of obedience and gave damaging collateral about herself and most likely you, too. Keith puts them on starvation diets and makes them sign away their possessions, their properties, their bank accounts, and even their future children. They get punished if they don’t do as they’re told," Piesse told Catherine, according to The Daily Beast.
This would sadly all turn out to be too accurate as an ex-NXIVIM member, known only as "Nicole," testified that Mack did indeed force India into a starvation diet, allowing her to eat only 500 calories a day to get her to 107 pounds, The New York Post reported, as Raniere liked the women to be very, very thin. And when Nicole and India became close, that was used against them: If Nicole misbehaved, India would be starved further.
“It was just really hard to watch, sometimes,” Nicole tearfully testified. “It was tough on her.”
Catherine told the The Daily Beast she first attempted an intervention, trying to get her daughter out of Albany with the promise of a birthday party. The ruse went badly, Catherine admits, and she wrote in the book "Captive" that she thought India was actually trying to recruit female guests into the group while at the party.
After the failed intervention, Catherine reached out to law enforcement, but that soon turned out to be a dead end. Her next move was to utilize the power of her celebrity and reach out to media.
“So that’s why I went to the media, because I felt like if law enforcement isn’t going to listen, and I really believe with every fiber of my being that laws are being broken, there are abuses that are happening, then the media was the only option that I had, because they had the power to get the attention of law enforcement. And I certainly didn’t have hundreds of millions of dollars at my disposal like the Bronfmans [Sara and Clare Bronfmans, heiresses tied to NXIVM] to fight them with a legal arsenal, so I was kind of limited in what I could do. But I couldn’t sit back and do nothing," she told The Daily Beast.
Oxenberg tried to get as much media attention as she could on the case, which snowballed into the New York Times piece, which proved to be the catapult needed to get law enforcement on the cult case. She also helped out in other ways, telling Entertainment Tonight she helped other women escape: “I was able to provide resources for them to pay for their exit counseling so they can provide credible testimony to the government and rebuild their lives."
In 2018, a year after the article came out, Raniere was arrested, as was Mack. After the arrests, India and Catherine eventually reconciled.
Where India and Catherine are today
While Catherine's efforts certainly helped rescue her daughter from the cult's clutches, that wasn't her only inspiration for leaving the sinister organization behind. Love also played a factor, it seems.
Her former coworker at Plantmade, the New York City vegan restaurant India started working at after NXIVM came crashing down, told Page Six, “What happens when you meet the love of your life? Boom!”
In 2018, India started dating Patrick D’Ignazi, a chef at NYC pizzeria Double Zero, Page Six reports, with Frank Parlato, a former NXIVM publicist who ended up turning on the cult and work to end it, telling the outlet, “Patrick said he would not tolerate his girlfriend taking orders from Raniere and being in a sex cult.”
Whether it was love or her mother's ferocious efforts to get her back, India has left NXIVM for good and is "doing well," according to her mother.
Catherine said India has "done a lot of healing" and is "in a very empowered place." "I'm really, really proud of her. It was a terrifying ordeal," she concluded, according to ABC News.
India did not participate in the Lifetime film, however; Catherine made sure to note to Variety.
“She has yet to tell her story. In my book I’m very careful not to trespass on her story at all... But in order to tell this story in a visual medium, she had to be portrayed — and in moments that no mother wants to see her child, whether it’s the branding ceremony or scenes with Keith. But she did not participate in the telling of this story, and she will be telling the most accurate story from her perspective when the time is right," Catherine said.
And while Catherine may be an actress, she had no interest in playing herself in the film: “I literally said, ‘No.’ I went through this once. I’ll gladly hand the reins over to another actress, but I don’t think I can go through it twice. Once almost killed me!” she told Entertainment Tonight.
Instead, Oxenberg is played by Andrea Roth while Jasper Polish plays India. Peter Fancinelli plays Raniere.
Catherine, meanwhile, continues to fight against NXIVM. The Catherine Oxenberg Foundation works to aid “defectors from NXIVM for the exit counseling and to move forward in their lives,” according to Variety.
She is also hoping the film will help other cult victims; she told Entertainment Tonight she specifically picked Lifetime for her book adaptation after it released the R. Kelly documentary. "They have become advocates for female issues,” she explained.
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