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How Ex-NXIVM Members Who Got Branded With Keith Raniere’s Initials Are Dealing With That Traumatic Mark
One of the most disturbing revelations about NXIVM's inner sex cult was the ritual branding of female "slaves." Now that most of those women, like India Oxenberg, have reclaimed their lives, will they have to carry that mark with them for the rest of their lives?
By now, it’s basically common knowledge that members of the inner sex ring within NXIVM got branded with the initials of group leader Keith Raniere. But now that many of those women have left the group and reclaimed their lives, will they be forever stuck with that mark on their bodies?
India Oxenberg was one such former member who got branded on her pelvic area with the initials of Raniere, who on Tuesday was sentenced to 120 years in federal prison for a slew of charges, including sex crimes. Oxenberg became involved in NXIVM, an organization ostensibly devoted to unlocking human potential through a curriculum centered around behavioral and psychological modification, when she was just 19. While it began with expensive courses, by age 24 she was recruited into a secret group within NXIVM known as DOS, which prosecutors said was a sex cult.
Members of DOS subjugated themselves to a higher-ranking "master," and were required to regularly turn over collateral, or blackmail material — typically including nude photos or potentially damaging personal information — to ensure secrecy and loyalty. These "slaves" were also expected to recruit other women to serve underneath them, in a pyramid scheme-like structure. At the top of the hierarchy was Raniere, with whom some DOS victims were coerced into having sex during their time in the group.
Members were also ritualistically branded around the pelvis with Raniere's initials. The brands were carved onto the women with a cauterizing pen, a medical device used for surgeries which can cut through flesh, as the women lay naked and prone on a table. DOS “slaves” would take turns holding each of the other members down on a table — no anesthetic was applied during the procedure — as a resident physician carved the initials into their skin. Many survivors recall the smell of burnt flesh during the DOS indoctrination ceremonies.
In “Seduced: Inside the NXIVM Cult,” a four-part docuseries on stars that explores Oxenberg’s NXIVM experience (and which she serves as an executive producer for), she visits a plastic surgeon in New York City to discuss the removal of her brand.
“We can give you some options,” Dr. John E. Sherman told her. “Sometimes there are none. Over my 40 years as a plastic surgeon, I haven't seen this type of brand.”
He told her that the branding had depigmented her skin, and there was no remedy for that.
Sherman said that her only option was surgical, and the process would be drawn out. He explained that they could gradually remove the scarred area, bit by bit. He would start out by removing a sliver of the brand and then closing it up. He’d give her about six months to heal before removing another piece. In the end, she would still be scarred, but it would be surgical scar instead of the NIXVM mark.
Sarah Edmondson, a former DOS member who exposed the group in a 2017 New York Times story, testified during Raniere's sentencing that she needed plastic surgery to get her brand removed.
“Branding is actual scarring that cannot be removed,” Dr. Brian A. Pinsky, a plastic surgeon at Long Island Plastic Surgical Group told Oxygen.com. “This would have to be completely cut off surgically which could be disfiguring, create bigger scars, or require a skin graft Other options such as dermabrasion may soften or flatten the brand, but won’t get rid of it.”
He added that “covering the brand with a tattoo is always an option.”
A spokesperson for Starz told Oxygen.com that India ultimately decided to get a tattoo instead of opting for the surgical process.
“I designed a tattoo around the brand,” she described to Vanity Fair. "It's this mandala-type shape and an evil eye pointing outward. Around, it says 'en quora en para,' which means 'still learning.' For me, it's about reclaiming that part of my body so I didn't have to look at myself naked and see Keith's initials. I see something that I want, that I've placed on myself."