Inside the NXIVM Cult: 'Dynasty' Actress Catherine Oxenberg on Bringing Her Story to Lifetime (Exclusive)
By Stacy Lambe
Catherine Oxenberg with Gretchen Carlson. Photo by Lifetime.
NXIVM, a self-described American multi-level marketing company founded by Keith Raniere, garnered national attention in 2017 when multiple outlets exposed it as a pyramid scheme and cult that forced its female recruits into sexual slavery. In the years since, Raniere and various members, including former Smallville actress Allison Mack, were arrested and later indicted on federal charges, with the founder convicted of racketeering and sex trafficking.
“I didn’t sign my daughter up for a sex cult,” says Oxenberg, who holds herself accountable for what ultimately happened to India. Intending to help her daughter on her journey into adulthood, she inadvertently introduced India, then 19 years old, to NXIVM in 2011.
“The truth is, what we went to was an intro for a leadership program,” Oxenberg continues. “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.”
According to the New York Times, “an estimated 16,000 people have enrolled in courses … designed to bring about greater self-fulfillment by eliminating psychological and emotional barriers. Most participants take some workshops, like the group’s Executive Success Programs, and resume their lives. But other people have become drawn more deeply into NXIVM, giving up careers, friends and families to become followers of its leader.” While Oxenberg was put off by her experiences with some of the courses, India had a more profound experience -- leading her deeper into the organization.
Over the next seven years, Oxenberg slowly lost India to Raniere’s machinations, from being forced to follow a 500-calorie-a-day diet by Mack to being pressured to engage in a sexual relationship with the founder. India was also branded on her lower abdomen with Raniere’s initials by a cauterizing pen. Mack, one of many actresses who ended up in the cult, was an alleged slave master who was in charge of India and other young women. “Alison was trying to have [India] get down to a certain weight,” a witness identified as Nicole testified during Mack’s trial, the New York Post reported. “It was just really hard to watch, sometimes ... It was tough on her.”
While Oxenberg attempted to get her daughter out of the cult, using media to expose NXIVM and create awareness for her story, India remained an active member until June 2018, shortly after Raniere was arrested and indicted on charges of sex trafficking, sex trafficking conspiracy and conspiracy to commit forced labor. “It was my life, 24/7 until I accomplished my goal, which was when I personally couldn’t affect her thinking. I was up against indoctrination,” says Oxenberg, who became integral in taking down the whole organization.
Oxenberg admits that when she initially failed at her intervention with India, she tried to help as many young women as possible get out of NXIVM. “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,” she says, revealing that she continues to help out when possible.
When it comes to the case built against Raniere and subsequent trial that took place over the summer, “I was the one that named sex trafficking and money laundering and a lot of the crimes that he was convicted of,” she says, revealing that an FBI agent later thanked her for breaking the story.
Raniere was eventually convicted on June 19, 2019, and it was reported soon after that Oxenberg “was sobbing with joy.” She tells ET, “The deepest relief I ever felt in my life; gratitude; the privilege of watching the wheels of justice turning and justice being served, it was closure for me. The ultimate closure for me will be his sentencing. I hope his body never gets out of jail.”
‘Escaping the NXIVM Cult’
While the memoir was written when her daughter was still trapped inside, the movie depicts the mother and daughter’s full journey with India returning home.
It was important for Oxenberg to tell her story on Lifetime because of the “extraordinary job” they did with exposing R. Kelly and the victims of his alleged, longtime abuse in the documentary Surviving R. Kelly. “They have become advocates for female issues,” she says.
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Lifetime's NXIVM Cult Movie Is Here: Watch the Creepy First Official Trailer! (Exclusive)
Of course, Lifetime was forced to condense seven years of “a horrendous, nightmarish ordeal” into a 90-minute program, meaning that there is a lot from the book that didn’t make it in. “But as far as highlighting and showcasing the most salient points and really exposing the grooming process and how women like my daughter were recruited and the level of deception and coercion involved, they’ve done a magnificent job,” Oxenberg says. “The focus is really how Allison sucked in India.”
While the key elements from Oxenberg’s accounts are in the film, India was not involved. “It’s very important that she has ownership over the telling of her own story,” her mother says.
She also turned down the chance to portray herself when she was first approached by another network to buy the rights to her book. “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!” (In the film, Oxenberg is portrayed by Andrea Roth while Jasper Parish plays India. Sara Fletcher, who bears an uncanny resemblance to the real-life Mack, portrays the former Smallville actress and Peter Facinelli takes on Raniere.)
But viewers wanting to get the full story and fill in the missing pieces can watch Lifetime’s companion documentary, Beyond the Headlines: Escaping the NXIVM Cult With Gretchen Carlson, which Oxenberg says features interviews with people not portrayed in the film who helped her take down the group. “You have a lot of behind the scenes and it completes the story really well.”