It’s hard to imagine a more horrific experience for a parent than watching your child suffer as they push you away and refuse any help — especially if you feel responsible. But that’s what “Dynasty” actress Catherine Oxenberg lived through when her daughter India, then in her early 20s, joined a cult.
India Oxenberg, now 29, spent seven years in NXIVM. During that time she was branded, starved, and ordered to have sex with leader Keith Raniere, who was more than double her age and who was having sexual relationships with many of the women and girls in the group.
For years, Catherine worked tirelessly to break her daughter out of the group, but the very nature of the cult meant that India didn’t want to leave. She kept repeating that she was happy, that she chose to be there, that the allegations about Raniere grooming sex slaves or assaulting underage girls were exaggerations by jealous enemies.
“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.'”
In a new four-part documentary about India’s experience, called “Seduced: Inside the NXIVM Cult,” Catherine talks about wrestling with her own guilt over unknowingly introducing her daughter to the cult, back when it was still known as a self-help group. In 2011, Catherine joined a NXIVM class at a friend’s recommendation and brought India, who had just returned to L.A. after deciding to leave college in Boston. She knew India was searching for a sense of direction after leaving school, and at first she was encouraged that her daughter seemed so motivated, she said in the show.
But the warning signs came quickly, Catherine said. When she and India were in the same classes, the coaches separated them from one another. They quickly started poisoning India against her mother, telling her that her dependence on her family was hindering her development.
“In hindsight, I can see that this was all part of the cult strategy to suck her in,” Catherine said.
India, one of 15 of Raniere’s victims who spoke at his sentencing on Monday, left NXIVM in 2018. By that time both Raniere and NXIVM higher-ups including “Smallville” actress Allison Mack, who ordered India to “seduce” Keith, had been arrested in Mexico.
By that time, Catherine was several years into her attempt to save India. She always made herself available if India wanted to talk, even though her calls were rarely returned. She connected with other former members, who could give her insights into what her daughter was likely experiencing. She spoke with the media about India’s situation, repeating over and over that her daughter could always come home, no questions asked. Catherine’s progress was undoubtedly aided by the fact she was a well-known actress with royal connections. In one episode of the HBO documentary series “The Vow,” after the Dalai Lama is set to meet with Raniere, she asks her mother, Princess Elizabeth of Yugoslavia, if Prince Charles can help her get in touch with the spiritual leader of Tibet. (The heir to the British throne is her mom’s second cousin.)
While that privilege certainly helped, it also took love, grit and perseverance for Catherine to keep going in her years-long mission to save her daughter from mind programming and abuse.
“It was a very lonely, very painful journey,” Catherine told the Hollywood Reporter. “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.”
While India resented her mother’s interference at the time, she’s now “grateful” that her mom spent so much time trying to help.
“The truth is, I didn’t see a future for myself when I was there. I was really kind of committed to being there forever, indefinitely,” she told People.
Staying in touch with someone in a cult is one of the most important ways to remind them of the outside world, sociology professor and cult expert Janja Lalich told the New York Times in 2018. (Lalich also appears as one of several cult researchers weighing in on NXIVM in “Seduced.”)
While it can be hard to avoid telling someone they’re brainwashed, bringing up testimony from former member of their group or asking them to explain the contradictions is more effective, Lalich said. She describes someone in a cult as having a little shelf in the back of their mind where they store their doubts and questions.
“At some point all of those things get too heavy and the shelf breaks and that’s when they’ll realize they need to get out,” she explained. “Your job is to get them to put more things on their shelf.”
Even after India left the cult, it would be a long time before she processed everything she went through and even knew how to approach normal relationships.
“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,’” Catherine told the Hollywood Reporter. “It was heartbreaking to think I could get her back physically, but I might never get her back emotionally.”
Now, she says, their relationship is “stronger than ever.” But that took a lot of time.
“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,” Catherine said.
This is all normal, according to Lalich, the cult expert.
“It may take up to five years for the person to figure out who they are again,” Lalich told the New York Times. “Be gentle with them.”