Celebrity connections played a key role in the righteous media crusade of 2017 to 2020 that led to the NXIVM cult’s downfall and its leader Keith Raniere’s possible life imprisonment. (Raniere is set to be sentenced later this month.) But one of NXIVM’s most prominent members, the until-now spotlight-shy India Oxenberg, has become solely famous for her victimization by the cult, especially after HBO’s The Vow foregrounded her mother Catherine Oxenberg’s multi-year attempt to wrest her daughter from Raniere’s influence.
Silent save for her tense correspondence with her mother in The Vow, the younger Oxenberg tells her own story in Starz’s Seduced: Inside the NXIVM Cult. Narrated and executive-produced by Oxenberg herself, the four-part documentary is very much a complement to The Vow, though it works as a standalone series, too. Whereas the just-renewed HBO doc uses its nine-hour runtime to immerse viewers in the loyalty-building, instinct-dissolving, selfhood-ceding process that NXIVM’s most dedicated members were put through, Seduced, contra its cringey title, spends much less time on what its adherents initially got out of it than all the horrors visited upon Raniere’s most ardent devotees.
Though the documentary includes talking-head interviews with former members (most of whom don’t appear in The Vow), Seduced focuses on Oxenberg’s experiences, while contextualizing them within the expertise of cult specialists and therapists. The former are especially insightful, with one deconstructing the ideological origins of Raniere’s teachings, and another warning that the smaller the cult (like NXIVM), the more dangerous they tend to be. But the latter, while illuminating in terms of how Oxenberg has come to grips with her seven years in NXIVM (she enrolled in her first course at age 19), adds to the sense that, however productive or effective Seduced might be in other respects, it is undeniably a public-relations project for a young woman who wants to be known as anything other than the survivor of a sex cult.
One of the larger points that Oxenberg and her directors Inbal B. Lessner and Cecilia Peck argue is that anyone can be taken in by a cult, regardless of wealth, power, intelligence or confidence. If anything, they assert, those qualities make one an even more desirable target for recruitment. Given her background, NXIVM leaders gave Catherine, a Dynasty actress and distant relative of the British royal family, the hard sell when she came in for an introductory session with her daughter.
But especially for those who’ve already seen The Vow, this more generalized, public-servicey perspective is a lot less compelling than the personal factors that made a seemingly insecure teenager dedicate her life to misogynistic nonsense. There are just enough details here — her dyslexia, an unspecified unease at college, a lifelong adjacency to show business, being starstruck by alleged NXIVM attendee Rosario Dawson and later Smallville actress Allison Mack — to want more. Based on Seduced, it’s hard to even associate Oxenberg with an archetype. And unfortunately, much of her narration, while obviously scripted, comes off too much as such, with line readings that are either distractingly affected or affectless.
Other scenes, like when Oxenberg returns to the NXIVM offices in Albany where she wasted so much of her twenties, feel like efforts to emotionally juice up a story that’s already plenty shocking. The documentary provides horrific or salacious details that not even The Vow covered in its manifold chapters: that the billionaire Bronfman sisters paid the Dalai Lama a million dollars to take a photo with Raniere; that Raniere deputy Mack seemingly delighted in taking advantage of her “slaves”; that one brainwashed member was imprisoned in a townhouse for two years; that the branding video of one vocal “apostate,” Sarah Edmondson, was leaked to the press after Raniere’s arrest as retaliation and a threat to the other defectors.
Much of the insidery footage here is similar to that of The Vow, but Seduced’s shorter runtime means the clips of, say, Raniere defending rape (it’s only abuse if the woman thinks of herself as a victim, he blusters) don’t get lost in the bloated shuffle. Other videos — particularly of men engaging in exercises of physical violence, like taking turns forcefully slapping whoever’s to their right — appear to corroborate the documentary’s assertion that the megalomaniacal Raniere had pie-in-the-sky aspirations for NXIVM, including potentially gaining political power by recruiting, then sexually blackmailing, a female politician.
But the one scene that The Vow viewers may have been most anticipating — the turning point when Oxenberg realizes that she’s been brainwashed and has to sort out how to respond to that epiphany — is curiously missing. Most likely, it wasn’t a single “aha!” moment that made Oxenberg turn on everything she’d known to be true for most of her adulthood thus far. But dramatically speaking, it makes for a glaring absence.
The series closes on a haunting yet somewhat absurd image: remaining Raniere loyalists protesting his incarceration outside his jail via dance. Anyone can fall prey to a cult. It’s unclear, sadly, whether everyone can get out of one.
Premieres Sunday, Oct. 18, at 9 p.m. ET/PT on Starz