India Oxenberg on NXIVM Deprogramming: "My Identity Had Become the Group's Identity"

India Oxenberg in 'Seduced: Inside the NXIVM Cult'
Starz

India Oxenberg in 'Seduced: Inside the NXIVM Cult'

The former cult member, who testified at leader Keith Raniere's sentencing, says she can at last "laugh again."

First Catherine Oxenberg relayed her elation to The Hollywood Reporter over Keith Raniere's sentence of 120 years, handed down Oct. 27, related to his running of the organization NXIVM — a sex cult dressed up as a self-help program that enslaved her daughter, India Oxenberg.

Now, nearly two years into a deprogramming regimen that has allowed her to reaccess her individuality and "laugh again," 29-year-old India herself — who tells her own story in Starz's Seduced: Inside the NXIVM Cult — sits down with THR to process her dark nightmare and the light that lies ahead.

Was there any part of you that thought Keith Raniere might get away with a light sentence?

I had that fear. But then as I continued to hear every statement and just the gravity of the charges, it was very affirming and I thought, "Oh no way, this guy’s toast."

You looked him in the eye when you read your statement. What was that like?  

I didn’t think I was going to do that at first. I started to address the judge — and then there were some particular lines that I then decided to look him directly in the eye. I wanted to address him. I didn’t want to hide. And it felt incredibly calm after I got off of the podium. I had also gone and watched, you know, six women go ahead of me and six behind me, so I felt very supported by everybody speaking.

What was his expression?

It was almost like he was watching a TV show — like there was nobody there. And he was putting on this part of the martyr, of, "Oh poor me." I even said this in my statement: "You’re pretending to be a lamb but you’re a deviant." And that’s the truth. This is just what he does. He tries to mask and manipulate and get people to believe his lies. I know that he’s a sociopath. He cannot feel and he doesn’t feel remorse and he doesn’t feel empathy for any of the women.

What was the reaction in the room when the sentence was announced?

I was in shock. I didn’t really look around. There weren’t that many people in the room because of COVID restrictions. We’re all spread out and we all have masks on, so we can’t see each other’s expressions very well. The way that the judge read the sentencing, he kind of calculated everything separately giving him the max in all the charges. So at first he was going, "20 years, 40 years, 30 years, 5 years," and I was like, what does that mean? I realized that he was calculating the max for all which accumulated to 120 years, so: life. And it was kind of dramatic.

Your mom was saying it’s been taking you years to feel normal, right?

At least a year and a half. I did deprogramming for a while, I’ve done therapy, I’ve done numerous types of things to help myself feel whole and like myself again.

How does deprogramming work? 

So it sounds so scientific and weird and like oh, deprogramming, like we’re talking about a computer, but really it’s not. It’s just a certain type of questioning that’s not as invasive as maybe traditional therapy could feel. And I know for myself, talk therapy was not good for me when I first came out of NXIVM. It actually really triggered me because it reminded me a lot of their techniques that they had butchered and stolen from therapy.

And the deprogram, in its essence, is just igniting critical thinking. Because when you’re in a situation like a high-control group or an abusive relationship, where somebody is trying to manipulate you to think the way that they think or change your mind about yourself, your critical thinking gets damaged. What the deprogrammers intended to do is ask you questions to start to get you to think like yourself again; to remember what your own opinions were, what you loved, what you cared about; reorienting to yourself rather than the group, because at a certain extent my identity had just become the group’s identity.

Watching the NXIVM footage, I kept noticing there’s so much of this light laughter at all the meetings. 

I didn’t notice that but I guess so. You’re right. It’s big joy.

Everything’s so hilarious. The viewer doesn't understand from the outside what people are laughing about. Meanwhile, clearly your ability to feel joy and laughter seems to be vanishing. What do you think of that?  And do you laugh now?  

Yes, I do. I laugh a lot actually now. I feel pretty good with that. I actually think that laughing for me and just humor in general has been also part of my healing because this is heavy stuff and sometimes you actually just need to crack a joke to just let people know that you’re OK.

For the NXIVM and The Vow stuff, I don’t really know [why there was] all the laughter except for it was supposed to be this joyful community, and maybe people were trying to cope and that was one of the ways that they coped, was just laughing and giggling about things. I laughed as well, but I also believed that these people were my friends and I trusted them.

Do you foresee giving statements at the sentencing hearings for the Salzmans and Allison Mack as well?  

No, Keith was really more my focus. I needed closure there in a different way than I feel about Nancy or Lauren or even Allison. I mean, I don’t live with the same kind of pain and torture that I have from Keith that I would from Nancy Salzman, for instance.

At different points in The Vow your mom tried to reach you and you responded via text message. Was Keith writing the responses?

He was not. Normally what would happen is if my mom or somebody outside of the group that had defected was trying to contact me, I would immediately have to tell Allison. And then Allison would either let me respond on my own or she would dictate a response or she would ask Keith how we should respond. So nothing really came from me unless I hid it. So sometimes I would just communicate with my mom privately and I wouldn’t tell [Allison] at all.

Sometimes they would script things — like Nancy had me create this whole document trying to discredit my mother that she actually wrote and had me give her information that she thought would discredit my mother’s claims. It was very manipulative and I didn’t want to do it. And I was feeling immense pressure from the higher-ranking members to sue my mother, discredit her, get information out of her so they could use it against her. It was really horrible.

What about all the "collateral" they’d been collecting — compromising photos, videos and information they could use to blackmail you? What happened to that stuff?

We don’t know where all of it is. The FBI has some. I believe that [Battlestar Galactica actress turned Raniere adherent] Nicky Clyne has a lot of it, or she’s given it to her lawyers. There’s copies of a lot of things that many people have. I think that’s been a deterrent from many people speaking out because we don’t know where our collateral is entirely. And that’s a scary thought.

In Seduced, it's mentioned the stars of The Vow  — Mark Vicente, Bonnie Piesse, Sarah Edmonson and Anthony "Nippy" Ames — were making a good deal of money inside NXIVM by recruiting new members. You were never making money from NXIVM?

No. It was impossible because I was never promoted to the places that they were promoted to. I believed at the time it was a ranking system that was measurable. Ultimately, I realized that it was rigged and it was totally arbitrary and it was ultimately decided by Keith who got promoted or not or where they got stuck or where they excelled. Some of those people were able to become salespeople and they were making commissions. I never got to that point. I was not really a good recruiter.

Do you know how much they were making?

I don’t. But I mean, enough to support their lifestyles.

Well, it's reassuring to talk to you. You sound normal and healthy.

See, I told you — I laugh now.