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With Keith Raniere’s sentencing on Tuesday of 120 years behind bars for a litany of horrific NXIVM-related crimes, a chapter closes for Catherine Oxenberg, the former Dynasty star who spent nearly four years on a solo crusade to rescue her indoctrinated daughter India Oxenberg from his clutches. (Their story is told in two documentary series on the subject — HBO’s The Vow and Starz’s Seduced: Inside the NXIVM Cult, the second of which India produced and participates in.)
Hours after that resounding judgment, Oxenberg, 59, spoke to The Hollywood Reporter about the message the punishment sends to would-be sex traffickers and master manipulators, the fragility of the human mind and the delicate process of rebuilding her relationship with her daughter.
I guess I want to say congratulations. I mean, it’s not a happy story, but I guess it is a happy moment for you.
For me, it’s a very happy moment.
Tell me why.
Because I have been on the warpath to put this man away for three and a half years. And in the past, he’s always managed to wriggle out of everything because of his money, power, privilege. He’s had access to unlimited wealth and he has used his power to silence victims, to intimidate victims, to terrorized, exploit, abuse — sadly, my daughter included.
This man would never stop. I think that much was clear even at his sentencing, where he basically called his victims liars. He has absolutely no remorse, which I think, in essence, makes him a sociopath. But it’s over for him. And the sentence of 120 years to me says the judge recognizes how much of a danger this man is to society and how it’s absolutely impossible for this man to be rehabilitated. And that if he has any contact with the outside world, that all he will do is cause destruction. I think it’s a fair sentence.
I was actually thinking, he could cause further destruction in prison. I mean, people like that can organize and lead prison populations. It’ll never really be over for manipulators like that.
Let me just address that: In order to fall prey to Keith Raniere, you have to go through an indoctrination process. Because if you look at the guy, this is not exactly a charismatic, magnetic, enthralling person. He’s a troll. He’s an ugly little dumpling, literally one of the most innocuous people you’ve ever seen in your life. He is a nothing.
So he created a whole system of indoctrination with people who believed he was larger than life. He was this “Vanguard.” So he built a system with people who propagated this myth about him. I’m telling you, it’s not going to go well [in jail]. He’s been in jail for two years already and it’s not going well for him. He’s not going to get to boast about raping 15-year-olds. They’re going to take him out. I think a prison population is actually going to know how to handle a Keith Raniere. They’re not going to buy his sick BS.
I’ve watched both of the NXIVM documentaries now, The Vow and Seduced. You’ve come across as incredibly courageous and strong, particularly because we’re with you at a point when you don’t even know that you’re ever going to see your daughter again, much less that Raniere will be arrested.
So first of all, my hat is off to you for having the strength. Also, you know, you being the one true outsider — everyone else was indoctrinated and got out, but you were never in. You always had your head screwed on straight.
(Laughs.) Thank you very much. I’ll take that compliment. Although I felt like I was going to lose my mind periodically over three and a half years of fighting this. Is there a question there, because thank you for being very honoring and sharing that with me.
What was giving you the strength through all of this? It just seemed like a very lonely, very scary journey. And I’m wondering where you found the strength to see it through to the end.
It was a very lonely, very painful journey. My faith was tested because I didn’t have a roadmap. Every day, a door would close, but I would try a different strategy and I just didn’t stop. And somehow through this experience, I found I had access to a strength that I didn’t know I had. And you could call it some primal, maternal kind of fire. I don’t wish what I went through on anybody to discover that they’re more than they thought they were. But I discovered that there was this unstoppable piece of me that I could not, I could not let her go. I couldn’t.
So I would say probably love. I used to say that my children taught me what unconditional love was, and now that love has really been tested. And my unconditional love has grown in ways that are unimaginable. So that’s what powered me through: unconditional love. And then faith, because there were moments that I had no evidence at all that it was going to work out or that I’d get her back or that we’d even take Keith down. And yet, somehow I believed that I would prevail. And then I would say my mom. Those were the three things that kept me going.
Your mother is so great. I loved the moment in Seduced where she talked about attending an introductory NXIVM seminar and how she saw right through it from the beginning. She doesn’t suffer these fools. That’s what it is to me: just fools. Nothing that came out of any of their mouths made any sense. And yet everyone was so enthralled by it.
You have to understand the power of indoctrination. Look at a totalitarian regime, look at Nazi Germany: You think, how could these people have fallen for this ideology? It makes no sense, it’s inhumane, it’s hideous. And yet the structure of indoctrination is very interesting. What I realized through all this is just how fragile and how susceptible to being manipulated the human mind is, and how easy it is to be changed in your thinking without you even knowing.
So these were not fools. Many of his followers are Ivy League Ph.D. doctors. They’re not uneducated people. So that’s what makes it more perplexing. How do people fall for this stuff? It’s a slow drip, systematic. I did a lot of research about cults and how this happens because I didn’t believe it was possible.
What do you think should happen to [chief NXIVM architects and recruiters] Nancy Salzman, Lauren Salzman and Allison Mack?
OK. So these are great questions and I’ve thought long and hard, and ultimately, as embedded as I’ve been and how I’ve been running on fumes for so long, what’s healthiest for me is literally just sort of having a hands-off approach. I trust the government. The government has led an impeccable investigation truthfully, and they know who deserves what better than I do. I mean, if they’re giving Keith Raniere 120 years, I think they got it handled without any opinions from me.
But do you think they’re complicit? Are they guilty, or were they victims as well?
Oh God, this is such a toughie. OK. So let’s just look at it from the standpoint of Keith being a sociopath. The nature of any group that is run by somebody who has his temperament is that there’s a trickle down and everyone kind of adopts and is infected by the sociopathology of the leader. And so the whole culture, same as in Nazi Germany, becomes sort of a sadistic reflection of the leader.
And so you see the same behaviors are acted out by the Nancys, by the Laurens, by the Allisons. Nancy built the company with Keith. Keith was apparently raping underage girls before his involvement with Nancy. I don’t think he has ever had a good bone in his body. I think that he’s been a predator from the beginning, and that is his game, how he’s a monster manipulator. Was Nancy a good person at the beginning? I don’t know that. Do I think people are complicated? Yes. And they will be held accountable for their crimes. And yet they’re also victims of Keith. So, you know, it’s a complicated answer. He turns people into awful human beings. That’s the power of this man. He has the power to corrupt.
India testified today at Keith Raniere’s sentencing hearing.
She gave her victim impact statement.
Where were you during that?
This is the first time that I’ve actually not gone, and she made the decision. I was ready to go with her, but she said, “Look, you’re not going to be allowed in the courtroom. You’ll just see me from the overflow room. I can do this on my own.” But I have been with her the whole day. I have had a hard time functioning knowing what she’s doing and that she’s facing her abuser. And it was a tremendous relief to me to hear how empowered she sounded after she had done it. She sounded incredibly empowered. I was concerned and I think she made the right choice to go. And it was very liberating for her.
And what were the first words between you after his sentencing?
I just said I was so proud of her. I was just so incredibly proud of her. It takes a lot for the victim to stand up and confront their abuser. And she said, “You know, Mom, I was a little bit nervous in the beginning, because it’s public speaking. But I decided to look at him in the eyes. I decided to look at him directly.” And I think that was her taking back control of her life or not being afraid of him anymore.
The two shows are so different. I found myself frustrated at times with The Vow, which meandered and withheld very crucial information — something as basic as who is Keith Raniere and where did he come from? It took many episodes to get to that answer. Seduced was much more efficient at relaying the necessary information. And it was better at depicting, I felt, just how dangerous a predator he was. I’m wondering how you feel about your depiction in The Vow versus in your documentary?
Thank you for calling it my documentary. Actually, I don’t have any producerial involvement with either project. But India does [with Seduced]. And that was part of her taking the reins back of her life, was having control over her own story. First, I told the story against her will. Then I basically was her spokesperson for two years when she was trying to figure herself out. And then she was ready to tell her own story, in her own words.
The Vow, interestingly enough, was not an HBO documentary series when I first met them. They were connected with Mark [Vicente] and Bonnie [Piesse] and they said they were passionately interested in helping expose this organization. I thought it was an interview. And then they stayed at my house and filmed for a year.
And so the reason that I separated from [the makers of The Vow] was because a year later, a few months after Allison had been arrested, India reached out and was ready to start talking to me. And I knew that she didn’t trust me and that if I had cameras around me, there was no way she would have ever, ever reconciled. So I said, “I can’t have you guys follow me around anymore beyond that.” So I don’t know what’s going to be in any of the episodes. I watch it as you do, as a viewer. They followed my story in real time. I filmed with them three years ago. But what’s in Seduced was filmed with India now, when she was ready to speak. My book, actually, was the only one that clearly captures my story from my perspective as it unfolded.
I’m so happy you have your daughter back and hopefully, you can rebuild your life and your relationship. And then we can move on.
I watched her go through the deprogramming. It’s so easy to lose yourself. But it’s much harder to claim yourself back. It took a lot of hard work for her. I thought I would get her back physically and it would all be hunky-dory. But the last part to return was her heart. There was a moment after I had her back and she was through three months of deprogramming and she said, “Mom, I know I love you, but I can’t feel it.” So what this man did is literally take out her heart — and we have that back. So I would say that our relationship has taken two years to heal, but she’s back. And our relationship is stronger than ever. I’m incredibly grateful, but it was heartbreaking to think I could get her back physically, but I might never get her back emotionally.
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