Catherine Oxenberg Reveals How She Lost Her Daughter to the Sex Cult NXIVM

It took the ex-‘Dynasty’ star years to rescue her daughter from the clutches of women-branding cult leader Keith Raniere. She talks to Amy Zimmerman about their harrowing journey.

Photo illustraiton by Sarah Rogers/The Daily Beast

Long before the arrest of Keith Raniere and the summer of headlines about his alleged sex-cult consigliere Allison Mack, there was Catherine Oxenberg.

The former Dynasty star and royal descendant appeared on Megyn Kelly Today in November 2017, cementing her role as the face of the uprising against Raniere and his cult, NXIVM. Oxenberg brought the media a story that was almost too strange to be true, reporting her daughter’s brainwashing into a secret sorority where women were trained as “slaves,” branded, and forced to follow orders at the risk of punishment or public humiliation. According to court documents—and unbeknownst to many of the initiates—Raniere, aka “Vanguard,” was the ultimate “master” behind the whole operation.

In 2011, Oxenberg introduced her 19-year-old daughter, India, to NXIVM’s Executive Success Programs, believing that the course would help her grow as a young entrepreneur. Over the next seven years, Oxenberg watched as India slowly transformed from an individual with dreams and aspirations of her own into an instrument and victim of Raniere’s increasingly sinister machinations. In the new book Captive: A Mother’s Crusade to Save Her Daughter from a Terrifying Cult, Oxenberg juxtaposes her personal journey from mother to cult buster against Raniere and NXIVM’s downfall. While the book triumphantly ends with Raniere in handcuffs, Oxenberg had no idea when she began to chronicle her crusade that NXIVM’s demise would soon be making headlines across the world.

In a midtown conference room Oxenberg, rushing between interviews, told The Daily Beast that Captive was initially born out of her urgent desire to share this story, even if no one was listening.

“When I signed on to write a book, India was still in NXIVM,” Oxenberg explained. “And so it was just one more resource at my fingertips, that I could get this information out and expose this group. This was back in December, so I didn’t anticipate that there were going to be arrests in March, April, and last month. I had no idea where this was going to go, if anywhere. So this might have been the only platform to expose them.”

A year ago, Oxenberg’s triumph was almost unimaginable. Captive’s prologue opens on a scene in May 2017, as Catherine confronts India about being branded. An ex-NXIVM member named Bonnie Piesse had reached out to Oxenberg to tell her about the secret sorority known as DOS, and warn her that India might be in danger. Piesse told Oxenberg that India was a member of a “secret slave-master group,” continuing, “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 had started to worry about India once Allison Mack singled her out for mentoring. “In this master-slave club,” she divulged, “there’s a lot of pressure for the women to sleep with Keith. [Allison Mack] must have influenced India to get close to him because that’s how Alli got his approval, by bringing him women.” 

Fearing for her daughter’s safety, Oxenberg drew India away from Albany’s NXIVM headquarters with the promise of a birthday party. “My first line of defense was an intervention, which failed horribly,” Oxenberg recalled. “I did everything wrong. Then, the more information I got, I decided to reach out to law enforcement. And I hit walls. It didn’t go anywhere.”

Ultimately, she had to make the difficult decision to use her fame and influence—the very qualities that made the Oxenbergs such appealing NXIVM recruits—to take down the cult, almost losing her daughter in the process.

“Going public was a last resort for me,” she explained, “because the idea of exposing my daughter at this level was horrendous, and I had an idea that it could cause permanent estrangement.” India went months without speaking to her mother, and became increasingly angry with her attempts to undermine NXIVM. Still, looking back, Oxenberg exclaimed, “Thank God I intervened when I did, because she could be sitting today where Allison Mack is sitting, facing 15 years to life! If I hadn’t stepped in when I did, before she was potentially encouraged to do things that could have had legal repercussions…” she trailed off. “I feel sick to my stomach even thinking about that.”

“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 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.”

One of the main turning points in Captive is when Oxenberg suspects India of trying to recruit young women to DOS at the birthday party she threw for her. Oxenberg writes, “It was heartbreaking enough that India was a danger to herself. But recruiting innocent friends to be punished, tortured, and branded? She’d crossed a moral line. And because she was doing it in my home, I’d become unwittingly complicit.”

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The actress’s personal crisis quickly escalated into a public crusade. With a growing army of NXIVM defectors by her side, Oxenberg launched a multi-pronged attack, gathering evidence and courting media attention in the hopes of pressuring law enforcement to take action. While Oxenberg played a crucial role in Keith Raniere’s eventual downfall, she’s reticent to take too much credit, citing a confluence of events that culminated in the recent slew of arrests. She cites the 2017 New York Times NXIVM exposé as a game-changing development that almost didn’t see the light of day.

He was allegedly raping underage girls over twenty years ago, even before the Bronfmans were involved. How he got away with this, I honestly don’t know.

Oxenberg told The Daily Beast, “When I was waiting for the story to be published, it was considered to be an evergreen story. There was no push in the New York Times to publish this story. It wasn’t particularly relevant. So I really think that if Me Too hadn’t coincided, they may have never run the story. If you think about what the Times Union did back in 2010 and 2012, they ran this huge exposé, they did run stories, and still nothing happened. And so the climate had changed drastically, thank God. It’s miraculous actually, everything that had to converge for this to happen.”

In Captive, Catherine Oxenberg provides cult context that goes beyond court documents and carefully-laid-out charges. In addition to being the mother of a DOS victim, Oxenberg was also enrolled in ESP herself. She quickly spotted red flags, from the creepy leader who was trailed by fawning female followers to the misogynistic underpinnings of the teachings he instilled in his students. But as she told The Daily Beast, “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.”

Oxenberg writes about an unsettling experience she had at a Jness workshop—a NXIVM spinoff group for women that Nancy Salzman, the co-founder of NXIVM, introduced her to. “When Nancy divulged proudly to the class that it was Vanguard himself who had benevolently and brilliantly devised the entire Jness program to guide women, bells went off inside me like a fire alarm,” Oxenberg writes. “This is ridiculous! A program about female empowerment devised by a man?… The nonsense Nancy was spouting was offensive. Why not just drag us by the hair back into a prehistoric cave or something?”

“I hadn’t been exposed to any type of misogynistic philosophy before, because that wasn’t part of their main curriculum,” Oxenberg told The Daily Beast. “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.” During one particularly revealing trip to Albany, Oxenberg was told by a NXIVM coach that, “the only way to true enlightenment is by having sex with Keith.”

Asked if she thought Raniere’s intent was always to cultivate a group of subservient, sexually-available women, Oxenberg replied, “I do. I think that, to some degree, he had been planning this all along. He just kept playing out his fantasies, and they got more and more outrageous as time went on.”

In the past, NXIVM critics have been mercilessly attacked by Raniere and his lackeys. At one point in her research on NXIVM, Oxenberg writes, “I discovered that Nxivm had spent more than $50 million against their critics and initiated more than fifty lawsuits, many of which the Bronfmans had either participated in or backed, targeting anyone who wrote or spoke negatively about the cult: former members, journalists, ex-girlfriends—anybody.”

Oxenberg quickly found herself on the receiving end of some textbook NXIVM intimidation. “I received threatening letters from a NXIVM lawyer and a state attorney general in Mexico, accusing me of numerous felonies, including fraud and extortion,” Oxenberg told The Daily Beast. “What was interesting for me was reading parts of the criminal complaints and some of the court documents from the prosecution, and learning that it had been Clare Bronfman and Keith in an email thread planning the demise of their enemies. So what they must have done is dispatch this task to NXIVM Mexico, because there was no lawyer in the United States who would have done this. And it just means that they’re all part and parcel of this criminal enterprise, and witness intimidation is just part of the larger scheme.” Still, she offered, “Every day someone else gets arrested I’m less afraid.”

As media coverage increased and law enforcement ramped up their investigation, Oxenberg began to fear that Raniere would order something drastic. “People who had left had said that there were many teachings about suicide and honor suicide,” she recalled. “Then I saw Allison Mack on her social media talking about Joan of Arc and sacrificing oneself for a higher idea, and I thought, oh my God, she has so much influence over my daughter, what could that mean for India?” Oxenberg continued, “The most dangerous groups are these smaller ones, because they’re so tightly wound around a leader, and the more psychotic he becomes…”

Simultaneously, there was the fear that India would be arrested and charged alongside Raniere, Mack, and the growing list of co-defendants. Even now, Oxenberg is loath to talk about that hypothetical outcome, saying only, “I see her clearly as a victim, and I would imagine that law enforcement does too.”

When Raniere finally appeared in court, Catherine Oxenberg was there: “I went because I needed to see for myself that it was real. Because I had been living on so much adrenaline, for so long, so many sleepless nights. And I was so afraid on so many levels—for my daughter, for my own safety, for my other children—that just to see with my own eyes that he was in chains behind bars, I was hoping it would give me a sense of closure.” And did it? “To some degree, yes.” But Oxenberg knows that this case is far from over. “There are more people that need to be held accountable,” she says. “I wouldn’t be surprised if there was another wave of arrests, to be honest, with more superseding indictments. Because there are still people who are blatant co-conspirators who haven’t been charged.”

And then there’s the question of Allison Mack. While Captive has few kind things to say about the Smallville actress, in person, Oxenberg is compassionate toward Mack. “She’s both victim and perpetrator,” Oxenberg mused. “And there will always be a philosophical argument about, where’s that line? And I don’t have an answer for you. But there are many people who feel that they’ve been traumatized by her and deceived and manipulated. So if she’s broken the law, there’s a price to pay for that. But at the same time, do I think that that’s what she started off wanting to be a part of? No I don’t. Nobody signed up for this, except Keith. He’s the only one who stood to benefit from any of this.”

As for India, she’s “doing really well.” She’s given her mother permission to be her spokesperson, and “she’s been very strict about what I can say.”

“She has written a script for me,” Oxenberg told The Daily Beast, “and I’m not allowed to deviate from it. I can’t risk another estrangement!”

According to the statement, India is “moving on with her life.” She asks for privacy, and promises that she “will share her side of the story in the near future.”

“She did script this,” Oxenberg continued, “but I wouldn’t say anything that I didn’t actually believe in, and she is actually doing really well, and she is a nuanced, brilliant, beautiful, young woman, who is integrating her experience, and is, in my opinion, the wiser for it.”

Now, Oxenberg is taking advice from India, who asked her back in June if she could “stop manipulating everything behind the scenes” and “go do something else” instead. “And I said, I’m really trying!” Oxenberg laughed. “So the truth is, I could get a life, separate from NXIVM, and it’s probably good for my mental health, because I feel like I’ve achieved everything I can achieve, and now it’s in the hands of the system. And I believe that the law will prevail, and I’m very encouraged by the investigation.”

Instead of attending every day of the upcoming trial, Oxenberg concluded, “I’ll do my best to get a life.”