‘Seduced: Inside the NXIVM Cult’ recap: Part 1, ‘Hooked’

India Oxenberg, the daughter of actress Catherine Oxenberg, speaks out for the first time about her involvement in NXIVM in Seduced: Inside the NXIVM Cult.

Seduced: Inside the NXIVM Cult is yet another docuseries revolving around the now-infamous self-help group turned horrifying tale of abuse and sex trafficking led my enigmatic leader Keith Raniere and a number of Hollywood actresses, most notably Allison Mack of Smallville fame.

At this point, you might have reached NXIVM fatigue, considering how many documentaries have already been produced this year. In particular, HBO’s exhaustive series The Vow, which has been renewed for a second season.

Content warning: The following recap contains a discussion about sexual abuse and exploitation.

So, what sets the Starz series apart from the rest? While I imagine a lot of the content will be a retread, it does feature India Oxenberg’s story. It’s one of the first times she’s come forward since escaping the cult. Her mother, Catherine Oxenberg, has previously discussed her perilous journey to helping India and trying to free her from Raniere’s clutches.

Also, unlike The Vow, which mostly glosses over the more sinister and harrowing details of the sexual assault and inner group called DOS, Seduced dives headfirst into the seedy underbelly of NXIVM.

As Decider points out, “If the point of ‘The Vow’ was to get viewers to emotionally understand its victims, ‘Seduced‘ is here to help us logically understand them.“

The premiere episode begins with India taking the film crew to the townhouse where she says she was branded for the first time. After reviewing some footage of Keith, Allison and the early days of NXIVM, we return to India. She remained a member of the group from 2011-2018, revealing she had joined in the hopes of leading a different kind of life, one that would empower her.

Seduced: Inside the NXIVM Cult premiere recap: The pitch

How did India and her mother first become involved with NXIVM? It began when a friend of Catherine’s suggested they attend an introductory meeting for the Executive Success Program (ESP) hosted by actress Sarah Edmonton and documentary filmmaker Mark Vicente.

India, in particular, thought the group could help her hone her culinary skills into a successful business. She claims she spoke with Rosario Dawson at the initial meeting and that celebrities like Gerard Butler, Richard Branson and Jennifer Aniston allegedly took courses in the past. Celebrity involvement helped make NXIVM seem more legitimate.

By the end of the meeting, India was interested in signing up for a five-day course with her mother, although it would cost them a cool $3,000 each. While Catherine was initially skeptical, she couldn’t resist the idea of bonding time with her 19-year-old daughter.

Seduced: Inside the NXIVM Cult

Seduced: Inside the NXIVM Cult – Courtesy of Starz Entertainment

Seduced: Inside the NXIVM Cult premiere recap: The lure, the five-day workshop

One of the first things a predatory group like NXIVM does is isolate its members. India and Catherine were separated almost immediately into different groups. On one workshop day, the mother-daughter pair dressed similarly by coincidence, and India was teased for being too “enmeshed” with her mother. The process to separate them began early, making India feel embarrassed by their closeness.

They also began to learn some of the inner-workings of the group. NXIVM counselors wore multicolored sashes to signify their rank. Everyone was to refer to Nancy Salzman, the president, as “Prefect,” while Keith was hailed as “Vanguard.”

Throughout history, cult leaders have often taken on titles to set themselves apart, and above, their underlings. Members spoke of Keith as if he were the smartest man in the world, a scientist, a concert pianist, a savior.

The teachings varied, with modules for almost anything you could think of, like why NXIVM wasn’t a cult or why sex with children was wrong. Early on, recruits were expected to learn that they could keep themselves from becoming a victim by repeating a mantra: I will not choose to be a victim.

Nancy instilled in them that having low self-esteem could make you one. Therefore if a woman then said she felt victimized, she was taught to think it was something she had brought upon herself.

Seduced: Inside the NXIVM Cult

Catherine and India Oxenberg, Nancy Salzamn, Seduced: Inside the NXIVM Cult – Courtesy of Starz Entertainment

Seduced: Inside the NXIVM Cult premiere recap: The Exploration of Meaning (EM)

At the culmination of the five-day workshop, Level 1 initiates would participate in an Exploration of Meaning, which basically meant each person would recount a traumatic moment in their lives and try to learn and grow from it. It was a way for NXIVM to find a weakness and exploit it, making it easier for them to lure people in. They would walk away from the EM on a high, leaving them susceptible to falling deeper down the rabbit hole.

Nancy Salzman came to the workshop on the day of Catherine’s EM. Because of Nancy’s status and rank within NXIVM, having her visit a group of Level 1 members was practically unheard of. Knowing that having Catherine and India Oxenberg in the group would be a big “get” for them, Nancy came to help facilitate their future involvement in NXIVM.

For Catherine, she walked away from her EM on a high. She made a profound connection between her audition anxiety and multiple moments in her life where she was sexually harassed by men in power. The breakthrough, for her, was potent enough to make her enthusiastic about her continued involvement with NXVIM.

Surprisingly, India didn’t have the same emotional catharsis and was ready to be done with NXIVM after the five-day workshop. She feigned her enthusiasm for her mother and family, who became increasingly devoted to the group. Looking back now, Catherine wishes she had known India was willing to walk away at the time.

Interestingly, no one in NXIVM was aware of Keith Raniere’s past as a multi-level marketing conman. His previous business, Consumer’s Buyline, was a pyramid scheme that fell prey to several financial investigations. Years later, in the era when self-improvement was at its most popular, he met Nancy. Together, they created Executive Success Programs, which later evolved into NXIVM.

As several cult experts interviewed for the documentary point out, Keith’s status as a “Vanguard” or a “revolutionary thinker” has always been suspect. The ideas utilized by ESPs are cobbled together from his multi-level marketing businesses, elements of other self-help groups and even Scientology.

The entire EM process is almost identical to a Scientology technique known as auditing. There’s nothing particularly unique about NXIVM, despite what Keith would have people believe.

Seduced: Inside the NXIVM Cult

Seduced: Inside the NXIVM Cult – Courtesy of Starz Entertainment

Seduced: Inside the NXIVM Cult premiere recap: Introducing the Jness program

How did NXIVM become a global enterprise? The group itself did not bring in millions of dollars. It wasn’t until Clare and Sara Bronfman, the billionaire Seagram Liquor heiresses, came onboard that NXIVM began to grow.

With the Seagrams money backing NXIVM, they were able to do things like invite the Dalai Llama to a convention and convince him to have his picture taken with Keith. They could then use that picture to show Keith’s power and legitimacy. He would soon go further into coaxing other powerful members of society, particularly their children, into the group.

That’s why India became such an integral part of NXIVM. Not only was she the daughter of actress Catherine Oxenberg, but their family had ties to the English crown via Catherine’s mother, Princess Elizabeth of Yugoslavia. Part of the appeal for Keith was taking these famous children and using them as a way to convince members of the group’s success. It’s like he was saying, “Hey look, these famous kids born to rich and powerful families were able to strike out on their own and find success with our assistance., and you can too”

Catherine has had to live with the guilt of being the one to introduce her daughter to NXIVM in the first place ever since. Once she completed her five-day workshop, she was later contacted by Nancy to host a Jness weekend program. Jness was advertised as an empowerment program for women only.

Everything touting Jness as a fierce feminist movement was false advertising. Keith used popular quotes and phrases from feminist marketing and twisted it to tear women down rather than build them up. But what attracted so many women to the group was the bonds they were making with the other women, more so than the curriculum itself.

That said, during the first initial Malibu weekend when Catherine hosted a retreat, her mother attended and immediately felt the entire thing was sketchy and rubbish. In hindsight, she wishes she’d said more.

Not long after that, India began to separate more and more from Catherine as she moved toward becoming a coach for ESP. It consumed her life as she had to pledge herself to the program and she was entranced with the many friendships and tight-knit community she was creating for herself.

Meanwhile, Catherine became less enthused by NXIVM. Her breaking point came when she and her husband were attending an advanced class in Albany, New York. They stayed with several of the coaches. While there, Catherine noticed a woman sleeping on the floor, her husband in the bed. When asked about it, the woman cheerfully told Catherine she was doing “penance.”

After that, an Albany newspaper published a scathing exposé accusing Keith of being a child molester. Catherine vowed to never take another NXIVM class. India was less convinced. Someone like Keith, who is used to bad publicity, had an entire PR team dedicated to calling all negative press “fake news.”

India believed that these publications were creating deliberate smear campaigns against Keith because he was such a great, renowned leader and others wanted to tear him down.

Seduced: Inside the NXIVM Cult

Seduced: Inside the NXIVM Cult – Courtesy of Starz Entertainment

Seduced: Inside the NXIVM Cult premiere recap: Vanguard Week

“It was like a summer camp for adults, that also gave tribute to Vanguard for his birthday.”

Vanguard Week was a summer corporate retreat that India first attended in August 2012 when she was training to become an ESP coach. In this episode, India returns to the place where the corporate retreat took place to try and make sense of what happened to her during those years.

According to cult experts, V-Week was an example of a high-arousal technique. The act of keeping visitors busy to the point of exhaustion, creating a sense of arousal and adrenaline to drive people into wanting more. Everything at the retreat was filmed and recorded by a special documentary team, but no one else was allowed to take photos or film anything.

V-Day itself was Keith’s birthday, and for many members, it was the first time meeting him and heavily hyped. All of the centers would practice for months and perform for Keith during Tribute Night as a gift for his birthday, “because he was this great genius who was here to make peoples’ lives better,” or so they believed.

Keith was known for kissing everyone on the lips. It was his thing. Several ex-members revealed that when they asked around, people said Keith was a renunciate, someone who doesn’t have sex, so there was no reason for them to feel uncomfortable with the kissing. If you question those things, they would say that you weren’t self-aware enough, that it would take a more advanced curriculum for you to evolve into a place of understanding.

In one particularly chilling clip, the docuseries shows Keith talking about the past when young children would begin sexual apprenticeships with adults. That, in one instance, he knew of a young girl whose father did sexual things to her and she enjoyed every part of it. But she didn’t recognize it as “abuse” (he puts the word in air quotes) until society told her it was. In 2019, Keith was charged with the possession and production of child pornography.

The experts note that Keith is a psychopathic narcissist who had an innate ability to desensitize people to the point where they were willing to do increasingly horrific things.

An earlier version of this article misstated the names of the Bronfman heiresses that joined NXIVM as it began to grow. The correct names are Clare and Sara Bronfman. 

Seduced: Inside the NXIVM Cult Part 2 will air next Sunday, Oct. 25 on Starz.