How Socialite India Oxenberg Escaped the NXIVM Sex Cult—and Leader Keith Raniere
The star of the Starz docuseries “Seduced: Inside the NXIVM Cult” opens up to Marlow Stern about her involvement in the cult’s abusive sex-slave sorority and how she broke free.
A few years ago, I reached out to India Oxenberg via Facebook Messenger to discuss her experience in NXIVM. We share a few mutual friends, so I was curious to see if she’d be open to discussing her involvement with the Albany-based cult. But the socialite daughter of actress Catherine Oxenberg, and granddaughter to the princess of former Yugoslavia, was still very much under the spell of NXIVM and its sociopathic leader Keith Raniere, aka “Vanguard.”
Oxenberg, 27, was introduced to NXIVM at 19 by her mother—and soon became hooked. Like Scientology, the group presented as a high-priced self-help organization with a large number of Hollywood acolytes. And, after years of brainwashing by Raniere and his right-hand woman, the hypnotist Nancy Salzman, Oxenberg was inducted into DOS, a master-slave sex cult sorority within NXIVM, by Raniere’s enforcer Allison Mack (of Smallville fame).
Members of DOS—or “dominus obsequious sororium,” which Raniere thought was Latin for “master over slave women”—were forced to obey their “master,” each of whom had six “slaves” (constituting a “pod”). Slaves had to provide their master with collateral, in the form of nude images, financial information, or family secrets (essentially blackmail material); adhere to a starvation diet, causing their hair to fall out and periods to stop; sleep only a few hours a night; receive a pelvic brand of a “Latin symbol”; and perform sex acts on Raniere. As Mack’s slave, and with slaves under her, Oxenberg was pretty high up in the pyramid of abuse—with Raniere sitting at the very top.
Following Raniere, Salzman and Mack’s FBI arrests in 2018, Oxenberg left Albany for New York City, staying at Mack’s apartment in the East Village. Despite her mother’s impassioned pleas, including a series of high-profile press appearances, Oxenberg was still devoted to NXIVM—even insisting to the FBI that Raniere had never engaged in any bad behavior. Then she unearthed Mack’s hard drives and observed its contents, including audio of Raniere boasting of how he’d puppeteered his DOS slaves and burned his initials into them. That was it. Oxenberg walked away, and told the FBI everything.
“It’s twisted. It’s very twisted. I questioned my own sanity,” Oxenberg tells me. “How could I make choices like that? But the more I’ve thought about it, I’ve realized that I would never have done those things if I wasn’t in those circumstances.”
Oxenberg’s journey into—and out of—NXIVM is chronicled in Seduced: Inside the NXIVM Cult, a four-part docuseries premiering Oct. 18 on Starz. Unlike HBO’s The Vow, Cecilia Peck and Inbal B. Lessner’s show centers the stories of the sex slaves within DOS, providing what Oxenberg calls a “more human” take on NXIVM.
“It’s sparked something inside me that was dormant for a long time—ambition, and wanting a future,” Oxenberg says of coming forward and telling her story.
The first time I contacted you a few years back for an interview, you were still in NXIVM. How are you doing now?
Oh, I’m doing much better than then—that’s for sure.
It is interesting that you’re engaged to Patrick, a chef, given what you had to go through during NXIVM—with its starvation diet.
It’s healing. That’s how I see it. Having a healthy relationship is one thing, and having a relationship with a chef and learning to love food again, learning to eat, learning to experience pleasure and enjoyment—that’s part of life, and that was taken from me for a long time. It’s like I have to catch up.
There’s a very sweet part of the docuseries where you discuss how he helped you repair your relationship with food, by inserting one additional ingredient at a time.
It’s been a lot of trial and error. Not everything is easy—especially in a new relationship. We’ve been together for a couple of years, and in the beginning, it was really difficult because I hadn’t remembered everything I’d experienced while I was there. I didn’t have enough time or distance from it to reflect. So while we were first dating, I was having all these floods of memories of things that have happened while I was in NXIVM. I would turn to him, because he was my boyfriend at the time, and say, “This thing that I just remembered came up while I was sleeping,” and he thought for the longest time that I was lying, because he couldn’t understand how trauma works—how it can fragment your memory and your experience with time. As we got to know each other more he started to understand how that worked and what I was going through, and he’s not a judgmental guy so he was was sympathetic and understanding. It was scary though. While we were dating, I was like, “You know you got me at my worst, right? This is literally the worst version that you can get.” He just smiled and didn’t care.
It’s tough to trust someone enough to be in a relationship anyway. How difficult was it to trust someone again—let alone a man—in a relationship?
It was. My track record was pretty poor at that rate, having Keith Raniere as a person I’d had “relations” with, if you will. I did not trust myself at that point, and I was really nervous about entering into a new relationship, because I just didn’t know if he was there for the right reasons, or if he wanted information, or if he was going to try to get information to NXIVM. There was so much confusion for me at that time that it took me a while to realize that this was a genuinely good guy who wanted to have my back, and I hadn’t had that in so long.
I remember the tabloid coverage when you’d just got out of NXIVM and were managing a café in New York City, and that must have been difficult to go through—to be essentially stalked by the paparazzi while you’re trying to heal.
That’s when we first started dating, more or less. They were targeting me. It was a horrible, horrible time for me. I had so much distrust and disdain for the media at the point, I was like, I’m not talking to any of you assholes. They chased me around the East Village calling me “cult girl” and “sex slave,” and they were branding me with these headlines that were salacious and attention-grabbing. I felt like, there’s a person here who’s a human being just trying to live. I was just trying to go to work.
In Seduced, you revisit sites where bad things happened to you in NXIVM—like the base in Albany, the home where Keith Raniere first assaulted you. Was this about conquering your fears and reclaiming your past?
It was that in a lot of ways for me. For the longest time, I didn’t want to speak out at all, and I had HBO and members of the media wanting me to share my story, but I needed to focus on myself and my own wellbeing, so I declined. When I met with Cecilia [Peck] and Inbal [B. Lessner], the director and producer on the show, they had an interesting idea: to have a women’s team tell this story from a women’s perspective about things that happened to us while we were within NXIVM—specifically DOS. They wanted it to be educational, helpful, and to explain coercion. I thought, “This is a safe place for me to tell my story. These are people who understand that this is not for vanity, and this is complicated.” I’d been forced into this position and it was time for me to take my story back.
I’ve watched Seduced and The Vow, and The Vow is sort of the Mark Vicente show, while this one is more focused on your story and DOS. What is your relationship with Mark Vicente? Because in Seduced, and from what I’ve read about NXIVM, he was essentially one of the people controlling you and ordering you to do things while you were in the cult.
I think you’re kind of spot-on. I just want to be careful about what I saw about The Vow, because I want to be respectful of their project since my mom is in it, as well as other women who stuck their neck out and were incredibly brave to speak out. To me, they give the wider strokes of NXIVM whereas our show goes deeper into what it felt like internally to be there. It’s less about the details of NXIVM, more about the experience, and is more human. And I don’t have a relationship with Mark. I do with Sarah [Edmondson], and I have plenty of friends I speak with who have left NXIVM who I speak to regularly. Mark, I don’t. I have some mixed feelings about that as well.
About what happened between you two while inside NXIVM?
Yeah. Some of it happened inside, some of it happened with some of my friends, and I wasn’t pleased with the way they were treated as subjects in the documentary [The Vow]. There were things that made me cautious about who I was going to trust again. You go through a shedding process, and once you’re done, you realize that the people who are still there are your real friends.
There’s a powerful moment in the docuseries where you describe sitting in the courtroom and staring over at Keith Raniere, and realizing how small and insignificant and unimpressive he appeared. And I think this is something a lot of outsiders have had trouble wrapping their head around regarding Keith Raniere, which is: What did you see in him that made you think he was special? How did he con so many people into believing this incredible lie?
That is where he’s kind of a genius. Not to give the guy too much credit—because he doesn’t deserve that—but he’s a massive manipulator who was very good at setting up a system that supported him as this kind of messiah or guru, this enlightened guy, and he did that through other women. He had this caucus of women around him spreading his propaganda, saying he was a judo champion, the smartest man in the world, a scientist, a humanitarian. All of these things were propagated, like propaganda, in the community, so by the time you even meet the guy he’s on a pedestal. When I met him for the first time, I was unimpressed—and I felt guilt that I was unimpressed. I thought, “Oh my god…why don’t I think this guy is as cool as everybody else does?”
It’s this hive-mind mentality. Also, we’re talking about seven years of my life, so my experience when I first met him was drastically different than when I was in DOS, because that’s after five years of indoctrination. This wasn’t an accidental thing. This was systematic.
Did you ever see him do judo?
[Laughs] No, never! I mean, that’s the irony of it. I’m dyslexic, and apparently he’s dyslexic—because he was trying to bond with me over that—and I asked him, “What are you reading?” because I love to read, and he said, “Oh, I actually don’t read.” I was like, “You don’t…read? How can you not read?” I thought, “Well, maybe he just scans and absorbs and the information flows into his brain.” There were so many things where, if I wasn’t as compromised as I was—if I wasn’t sleep-deprived, under a 500-calorie diet, if there wasn’t collateral—I think I would have seen him in a very different way.
I’m also very curious if he knew more than one song on the piano, because from what I’ve seen in Seduced and The Vow, he just appears to play the same song over and over again—Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata”—while claiming he’s a master pianist.
[Laughs] I don’t know, but I wouldn’t put it past him to only memorize that one song to look cool and actually suck.
OK, one more not-so-serious question—the volleyball stuff.
Oh, I used to watch it. It’s funny!
It’s almost the opposite of the macho, oiled-up Top Gun volleyball sequence, because it’s this little scruffy, out of shape guy in a headband looking ridiculous. And he’s so tiny for someone who loves to play volleyball.
He’s so tiny! And that’s what really surprised me when I first met him. I was like, “He looks like a Teddy Graham”—with a belly and all. His stature was not what “wooed” me, if you can say that. It was more his mind, and his ability to convince you that he could give you what you wanted. But the volleyball stuff I couldn’t get into. I played volleyball in high school and they were always trying to get me to play, and I just didn’t want to. I had to go and sit there and watch—and be good.
Maybe you didn’t want to play with people who sucked.
[Laughs] That’s true! I was like, “I played at Malibu High. I’ll see you guys later.”
In Seduced, one of the ways Keith Raniere seems to have manipulated you is to separate you from your mother, and to convince you that you needed to dissolve that relationship and make you dependent on “Vanguard.”
That was definitely a part of it. I think what I’ve learned from leaving the group is there’s actually a term for that: predatory alienation. It’s something that people do—to strategically separate you from people that knew you before, in your former life. The people that really have your best interests at heart. They make you afraid of those people, and make you separate yourself from the people you really need, and you fall back further and further into a group—and into a person. The same thing happens in abusive relationships one-on-one.
You recount your first NXIVM meet-up in the docuseries, and you say you met quite a few celebrities there—including Rosario Dawson?
She was there. Yeah. I met her at the intro presentation. She was there for the first couple of days of the five-day, but then she had a family emergency and she left. I’m glad that she left and didn’t continue.
The Dalai Lama’s endorsement of NXIVM and Keith Raniere seemed to lend it quite a bit of legitimacy in the eyes of its adherents. Is that something that Keith Raniere really hung his hat on?
Oh yeah. They paid for that. They gave a sizeable donation to the Dalai Lama in the hopes of legitimizing themselves, and elevating Keith to that status. It was a total ploy.
It’s a strange story—that one of the Bronfman sisters who bankrolled NXIVM was allegedly having an affair with the Dalai Lama’s right-hand man, who helped convince the Dalai Lama to come to Albany and endorse NXIVM.
I’d heard about that too. It was Sara Bronfman I think, and Lama Tenzin. That was pre-me before I was involved, but I’d heard that rumor too and felt it was very weird and kind of fishy.
It makes you wonder whether Keith commissioned that.
I wouldn’t put it past him.
Keith Raniere’s sentencing is coming up. What do you think he deserves?
I believe that he should have life in prison, because I don’t think that he is capable of changing himself at all. And I’ve seen him still operating like a wannabe mob boss from prison. He still has people doing his bidding, if you will. He’s just not going to change. He’s someone who has one playbook, and if he’s released, he’s just going to do the same thing all over again, and that will put me in danger and other women in danger, and I don’t want that.
Did he himself—or through an intermediary—try to contact you and have you do his bidding from prison?
No. Actually…no one who has been charged has tried to contact me.
Not even Allison Mack?
What are your feelings toward Allison Mack? Maybe this speaks to your and Mark Vicente’s fractured relationship, but during his court testimony he claimed that you were “in love” with Allison Mack.
I remember reading that. I wouldn’t say “in love.” We never had a romantic relationship. She wanted to—but we didn’t. I…have sympathy for her, because I do see her as a victim of Keith. He really did break her severely, and I saw how tough she was on herself, and how tough he was on her, and it was cruel. And because of that, she did cruel things to myself and other women. She’s going to have to deal with that and face the consequences of that, and that’s in the judge’s hands. But I don’t think throwing someone like her—with that kind of fragile psyche—in prison is going to help her. I think what’s going to help her is intensive therapy, and having her reconcile with what she did, because she did a lot of cruel and criminal things.
In Seduced, you recount how Keith Raniere made you take “collateral” in the form of filming a video of Allison Mack administering corporal punishment on Dani Padilla. Was that one of the more traumatizing things you were forced to do?
That wasn’t, if you can believe it. That was something I was kind of a bystander in, and they asked me to film it—for their records, or to give to Keith—so I did that. All I remember thinking during it is, “I do not want this to happen to me.” For me, the things that were most hurtful from Allison were the ways she treated people that I cared about, and how she used her position of power to be hurtful to them. That was sometimes even worse than the physical punishments. I know that she did things that I did not do, and wouldn’t do.
DOS was almost like a pyramid scheme of abusive behavior. How have you come to terms with your place in that pyramid, because you had people both above and below you?
For the people that want to talk with me about it—those that I recruited into either NXIVM or DOS—I’ve been really willing to do that. Even if they’re just pissed, and want to say, “How could you do this to me?” I’m willing to share. But a lot of people have been very understanding. They know me, and they know my soul, and they know that I was not there to hurt people. They know I was well-intentioned, even though I did lie and do things that supported the group at other people’s expense. That is a hard thing to deal with. I still struggle with that today.
And you were placed in charge of Delegates. What was that program, exactly?
Keith placed me in charge of that, and it was almost like a janky version of Taskrabbit within the NXIVM community. Because everybody was leaving I didn’t have any work, and I wasn’t able to make any money. So it was basic errand-running and grocery pick-ups and stuff like that. I think I made a couple of hundred bucks.
From what I understand there were a lot of young girls from Mexico in Delegates, who had to perform the tasks.
There were a group of girls who were living within the Albany community who wanted to work, so I worked with them. We would go grocery shopping, clean people’s houses. I kind of managed it but it was all petty cash. It was such a bullshit company that I ended up turning it into a catering company, and I just fed people instead.
One of the big light-bulb moments for you, it seems, was reading the emails between Allison Mack and Keith Raniere—of Allison Mack basically trafficking you to Keith Raniere, because she had owed him a significant sum of money and offered you up as literal collateral.
It was something that was very shocking to me, because I never knew that any of those communications were happening between Keith and Allison. I knew they communicated all the time but I didn’t know that I was being traded like a commodity—that I was going to be “given” to somebody. When I saw the emails, it was hard to comprehend that that was what was going on. I was with my friend in the backseat of the courtroom who was also in my [DOS] pod, and we were gripping each other’s hands, like, “How did we not know this?” It really hurt to see me being used like that.
It certainly does seem like the endgame for DOS was to get someone in government who Keith Raniere could puppeteer—to infiltrate the government.
Those are Keith’s words. That’s what he wanted. He had this diabolical plan at world domination, because that’s the kind of pathology that he has. He’s a narcissist, and he believed that he would have hundreds and hundreds of women collateralized to do what he wanted, when he wanted. That’s what DOS was—it was for his own perverted desires.
There was something quite nefarious, at least to me, about texting members of DOS “ready,” and then having them constantly be at the ready for any command. It seemed Manson Family-esque, like, could you one day received that “ready” text and then be commanded to Helter Skelter? It seemed designed to have soldiers at the ready.
That is what it was. You were supposed to be ready to do whatever was needed of you at the drop of a hat. Just respond, and go. It was also very destabilizing, and I think that was the purpose of it—to keep you in a state of anxiety and hyperawareness, but not focused on your life or your thoughts. It’s like you can’t get a break from what you’re “ready” to do. I think that was training, and I think that was grooming.
One part of Seduced that stuck with me was the sequence where you were going in for consultations about removing the branding of Keith Raniere’s initials from your pelvis. And the surgical procedure sounds horrible—that they’d have to graft your skin in three separate procedures.
Horrible. I was like, “This can’t be worse than the actual branding. Are you kidding me?” I did not do it. I decided to not go in that direction because it was too retraumatizing, and I just didn’t want to be in this ongoing surgery for a year. I went and decided to tattoo over it instead, and I designed a tattoo that I felt good about so that I could reclaim that part of my body. I didn’t want to look at myself naked and see Keith’s initials. I wanted to feel like it was mine again. It’s an evil eye with a mandala around it, and inside it says Ancora imparo, which means “I’m still learning”—which is also the name of my book. I did that in the East Village and found a woman who specialized in covering over scars.
It must have been damaging to your physical health as well, being under this 500-calorie starvation diet and not sleeping. How is your health now, and have you had any complications?
I did. I’m healthy now and I’ve regained my strength and my muscle—I’ve gotten really into boxing, which is my thing. It’s physical therapy, it really is. For a while, I was really afraid that I wasn’t going to get my period again—but now I’m fine. That’s all good. The thing that’s lingering and that has been tough to deal with is heightened anxiety and panic attacks. That I still suffer from. When I get overstressed or haven’t eaten enough during the day, that’s when I start to feel it, and I’ll get loopy and feel negative thoughts. That’s the real, honest truth: I still struggle today but I have so many more resources than I had before to help me get out of it, and it doesn’t consume me like the depression used to. And thank God, because it was not a fun time.