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When India Oxenberg looks back on her time in the now-infamous secret sex cult hidden within the self-help organization NXIVM, in which she served as both a "slave" to those above her and a "master" to those beneath, she sees it as "evidence of what happens to your brain in trauma."
It's been a decade since Oxenberg, the 29-year-old daughter of actress and "Dynasty" star Catherine Oxenberg, first became involved in NXIVM, an organization ostensibly devoted to unlocking human potential through a curriculum centered around behavioral and psychological modification. Members would pay for courses, trying to move up through the ranks while recruiting others to join the group. The edifice it had meticulously cultivated began to crumble in 2017, when a clandestine group within NXIVM, known as DOS, was exposed.
Members of DOS, supposedly short for the bastardized Latin phrase “Dominus Obsequious Sororium,” loosely meaning "master over slave women," 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 NXIVM co-founder and leader Keith Raniere, with whom some DOS victims say they were coerced into having sex during their time in the group.
Life inside NXIVM and DOS has lately been the subject of public fascination, first with the HBO docuseries "The Vow," and most recently with “Seduced: Inside the NXIVM Cult,” a four-part series focusing on Oxenberg's experiences (she also served as an executive producer on the project) that premiered Sunday on Starz.
Oxenberg told Oxygen.com that she joined DOS when she was 24 after Allison Mack, an actress who starred on the CW series "Smallville" before becoming a prominent NXIVM member, recruited her. Mack, a first-line “master” in DOS, has been described by former members — in both HBO's "The Vow" and "Seduced" — as dangerously devoted to Raniere and ruthless about indoctrinating new "slaves." She pleaded guilty last year to charges of racketeering and racketeering conspiracy for her involvement in the group and faces a maximum of 40 years in prison.
Oxenberg said Mack had her put together collateral — in her case personal and damaging information about her family compiled in the format of a media release, which she had to get notarized — and then turn it over to ensure loyalty and subordination. Mack also encouraged Oxenberg to dump her boyfriend and isolate herself from her family in the name of becoming stronger, according to the docuseries. She did both.
She said that when she first started in DOS, the only "slave/master" relationship she had was with Mack, whom she had to text constantly and ask for permission for everything she did, including eating. She was put on a strict 500-calorie-a-day diet and had to carry a scale around, so she could be weighed at any time, Oxenberg told Oxygen.com. Losing weight was supposed to be “a practice in building character and self-restraint,” she explained in the docuseries. If she didn't meet certain weight requirements she would be punished.
“My entire day was about how much I could eat, how little I could eat, how hungry I was,” she said in the docuseries.
Mack would regularly order Oxenberg to journal about articles Raniere had written, the docuseries explains. On a daily basis, she had to share something with Mack that made her feel vulnerable, typically information that was sexual or intimate. Mack called it “bonding," according to "Seduced."
Oxenberg had to text “good night master” and “good morning master” every day and be on call if Mack needed her for something; if Mack texted her and she didn't respond immediately, she would be reprimanded. Eventually, scoldings escalated into punishments like taking ice-cold showers, doing planks, and standing in the snow at 3 a.m., Oxenberg told Oxygen.com.
Some of the assignments Mack gave Oxenberg were sexual. While Oxenberg was encouraged to remain celibate after entering DOS (and was told that Raniere was likewise celibate), Mack instructed her to seduce Raniere and let him take a naked photo of her and send it to Mack to prove that she had completed the assignment, Oxenberg said. Mack took a photo of her in her underwear and sent it to Raniere. He, in turn, decided she had to whittle down to 106 pounds. Soon he was performing oral sex on her on a regular basis, which he described as “working” on her, Oxenberg said in the docuseries.
Oxenberg told Oxygen.com that at times, it all felt suffocating, but she believed it would lead to personal growth.
“There were many things that I experienced that I either distorted completely so I could see it as a positive thing or that Allison or the other higher-ranking members in NXIVM, not only in DOS, would change my way of thinking about something that was uncomfortable to me or a red flag,” she said.
Because she was just 19 when she joined NXIVM, Oxenberg told Oxygen.com that by the time she entered DOS five years later, she was too programmed to register the red flags around her. She called her tendency to ignore those warning signs "evidence of what happens to your brain in trauma."
"I was very much in this isolated community and I was being groomed and indoctrinated without my knowledge ... and that’s why it was coercive," she told Oxygen.com.
At Mack's direction, Oxenberg moved in with her and lived with her for two years as her "slave," she told Oxygen.com. She would clean and manage the home, but it was never a fully comfortable existence. She said even when they were doing relaxing things together like watching television, there was always "a layer of trepidation" because Mack was her "superior." Mack would often flirt with her, and Oxenberg said she felt pressure to fake attraction or face punishment.
“There were many experiences I had with Allison that were super awkward just because of the dynamic and because of the way she handled being a master, which was very aggressive in a lot of ways,” Oxenberg told Oxygen.com.
At a certain point, Oxenberg said she was introduced to the three other “slaves” in Mack's pod.
“It was such a relief because I could speak freely with them without the fear of being punished,” she said. “But you were never allowed to speak about anything to do with Keith ever.”
Mack would take Oxenberg and the other “slaves” in her pod on outings, Oxenberg explains in the docuseries. During one trip, they were all forced to take a naked “family picture” together. Later that day, Mack took close-up pictures of their genitals and sent them to Raniere as punishment after one of the "slaves" spoke up, Oxenberg said.
Toward the end of her DOS career, Oxenberg even had three slaves of her own.
“I hated it,” she told Oxygen.com, saying she isn't the type of person to order people around. “ I did not want to recruit. I was very uncomfortable with the whole idea. “
“Mostly what I had them do was journal because I didn't want to tell them what to do because it felt too bad,” she said. "I would get criticized by Allison. She would tell me ‘You’re a shitty master, you're not strong enough, you need to be tougher.’”
Given her uncomfortable experiences as a slave herself, she acknowledged the problems with presiding over her own pod of subordinates.
“There were obviously moments that I regret when I was not nice to them and I have made amends,” she told Oxygen.com.
Oxenberg finally left NXIVM, and DOS, in 2018 as Raniere was arrested on a slew of charges, including sex-trafficking. Her mother, Catherine, had tried for years to extract her daughter from the group, though Oxenberg initially resisted those efforts.
Raniere was convicted last year in federal court on charges ranging from sex-trafficking to racketeering, wire fraud conspiracy and forced labor conspiracy. He is currently awaiting sentencing.
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