UPDATE: That’s all the time we have but thank you so much for all of your questions. We hope you’ll tune in to the finale of “Seduced: Inside the NXIVM Cult” Sunday on STARZ to hear not only our stories, but the stories of so many other brave women. Learn more about the show here.
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We also want to use our platform to promote resources for those who are in a cult, high-control group, or coercive relationship, or know someone who might be. Bringing awareness to this issue and being able to help others in similar situations has been a silver lining to this journey. We, and many of the incredible other women on this project, have collaborated on http://seduceddocumentary.com, which we hope will be a safe space for those who need it to tell their stories and get help.
I’m India Oxenberg—advocate, author of “Still Learning” on Audible, and former member of NXIVM—and I’m here to answer your questions. I’m joined by Rachel Bernstein, a family therapist, cult specialist, educator, and host of the podcast IndoctriNation, who has been integral to my journey of recovery. Together we both appear in the four-part STARZ docu-series “Seduced: Inside the NXIVM Cult.”
I spent seven years in NXIVM, starting at age 19. At the time I joined, I didn’t recognize that it was a cult. I was unknowingly being groomed by the group's leader, Keith Raniere (who was just sentenced to 120 years in prison last week) and his inner circle of enablers.
Coming to terms with what happened to me—discovering what was true as opposed to what I was indoctrinated to believe—has been a long process. And it didn’t begin until Keith was arrested and I began cooperating with the FBI. My life had been hijacked and my free will systematically manipulated by the organization’s secret Master slave group, DOS.
People often ask, “How could this have happened?” The answers aren’t simple and telling my story for the first time in the series wasn’t easy, but I’m doing it in the hopes that abusers of power like this will be stopped and held accountable—and so that this never happens to anyone else.
Many years ago, I worked for a multi-level marketing company that offered self-help educational programs that are not that dissimilar from NXIUM. One of the elements of the NXIUM programs that is not coming across clearly in The Vow or Seduced is the vast sums of money its members were spending to continue with the programming. In the recent episode of Seduced, India discusses trying to reach the level where you begin making money by signing up new students, but it seems she never quite gets there. Why do you think that is, given that you had essentially devoted all of your time/resources to NXIUM? Were there certain factors or conditions required for a member to get to the financial-renumeration tier that are not being discussed in The Vow or Seduced?
What’s true in cult groups is that the leader will decide what he or she has in mind for you and if, in this case, Keith felt he could use you in another way he would then derail you from the original goal you had of moving up the levels in order to make money and instead would get you involved in whatever activity or alternate group or alternate path he decided upon all the while convincing you that this was the better path for you with success defined in other ways besides making money. DOS was a way of showing your success by being specially chosen and making you feel that this was your way to develop your strength and resolve and commitment after which you might then think you’ll be allowed to go back on track to move farther up in the executive levels. But of course that decision will ultimately be up to Keith and once again he will convince you he knows what’s best for you. Keith also did not need for people to move up certain levels to make more money from the group and for the group as much as an MLM does because he was being bank rolled and had money to spare. - RB
Hi India, How do we find out more about Nancy Salzman? There is curiously little about her online. Did she know about DOS? Also, did Claire Bronfman know about it as well? Lastly, did Lauren know that her mother was also sleeping with Keith? I’ve read every book on the market so far about Nxivm. Just got yours the other day. I’m so proud of your writing and your healing. Keep up the good work!
Thank you for getting the book, first of all! These are such great questions and actually questions I’ve asked myself many times. It’s so hard to know the truth of everybody’s culpability because so many people were trained to lie to protect Keith. As for Claire, I don’t believe she knew anything about DOS beforehand, but she knew about plenty of Keith’s crimes that she supported financially and she was abusive to many people, especially those she employed. As for Nancy, I don’t know if she knew about DOS either but once again, she knew about Keith’s behavior from the beginning and it’s possible that Keith spun them alternative stories and concealed the truth but it’s hard for me to believe that given how close a relationship they all had. Nancy also knew about both of her daughters having sexual relationships with Keith so once again, it’s up to us to decide how much we believe they really knew or not and obviously, the court will have final say. -IO
What would you most like to tell us that no one ever asks about?
Most people will ask the victims of cults how they could let this happen to them, but people don’t often ask why it is that all of us are prone given the right set of circumstances to be seduced, to be influenced, to do things that are wrong for us, dangerous for us and against our better instincts. Our minds are malleable because of an evolutionary need for survival by being social animals and by being influenced by others and to be able to influence others originally for our own safety, but it can also be used to put us in grave danger without our awareness and by somebody who is all too good at manipulation, like Keith, knowing how to take the breaks off of the runaway train that is in our minds. So it’s a bigger question than what makes Keith tick and why India found herself in this horrible situation because it’s about what we all need to recognize in our minds that we need to learn how to protect. Seduction isn’t just sexual. Seduction is a form of intense manipulation that lowers our boundaries and draws us in as though we are in a trance because somebody has tapped into the part of our brain that is the same part of the brain that can make you feel like you’re high off a drug and it quiets the parts of the brain that are our safety nets that engage our critical thinking and our reasoning and judgment. We have to learn, no matter how appealing and forceful the seduction seems to be, to consistently keep that part of our brain working and awake in order to keep us safe. If you know you’re potentially prone to this kind of influence, make sure to surround yourself with people who will help bring you back down to earth and help you see what’s happening and take in all the evidence of your senses and people who will gently but consistently help you take your blinders off. Manipulators know how to put our blinders on and sometimes when we want the magic they’re offering to be true and real, we keep those blinders on longer than is safe for us to do so. This is part of the human condition and we need to understand it as such and not blame the victim, but learn to protect ourselves from those who want to play on and prey on our susceptibility to influence. -RB
Thanks for sharing your story. It was so heartbreaking to read about what you and others endured and I’m so proud of all the wonderful (mostly women) who took him down. Im excited to read your book! I’m curious about what was going on when Keith first fled to Mexico. When that happened, were you alarmed and what was your response? Secondly, when you got your first job outside of NXVIM, what was that like? Did seeing other people in a normal workplace impact your thoughts about the cult at the time?
I didn’t know that Keith had left for Mexico until after the fact. They kept that pretty secret within the community and the justification that they gave was that he was leaving for his own protection, not that he was leaving to evade the law. So it was all very confusing and hard to grasp what was really going on because I was still trusting the people within the group at that time. It wasn’t until much later that I learned the real story while reading my mother’s book Captive. She filled in a lot of the gaps that they were hiding from me.
As for work, I applied to 20 different jobs at the time, got rejected from most of them because my Google profile was pretty lame, to say the least, but eventually I got hired to work for a company called Matthew Kenney Cuisine, which was a group of vegan and plant-based restaurants. I became the manager of one of their cafes really quickly, because all I wanted to do was focus on work and not the disaster of what my life felt like at the time. It helped a lot to actually start interfacing with the real world and outside of the NXIVM bubble even though they still had a lot of influence over me, even then. -IO
Hello India! I hope that you have a good day today. I’ve been watching “Seduced” and “The Vow” and started to get wrapped up in this story. Recently, the courts sentenced Keith Rainiere to 120 years in prison and my question for you is what were you doing the day that news broke and what was your reaction to it? Was it peace or was it mixed emotions?
Actually I was in the courtroom when it happened because I gave my victim impact statement that day with fourteen other people. I was so happy and in all honesty, it was hard to take it all in. I feel like I’m still actually absorbing what a huge victory that was for all of us. I felt a sense of closure and relief that I really needed. And I also felt very supported and empowered by the other people who shared their truths. But it did take a lot out of me and I’m still trying to catch up on sleep. -IO
I grew up in the Albany suburbs but had very little awareness of the group. It’s been eye opening to watch the documentaries and I’m sad that the local community seems to have turned a blind eye to it to some extent. Were people in the community, such as neighbors in the townhouse development, ever show concern about what was going on or did it go unnoticed?
In general, there are a few issues at play that keep neighbors from getting involved. The first is that these groups look like any other kind of group, typically they are not dressed differently and are not acting differently to the general public. The things that are happening in the home seem mellow and often the abuse will happen at night while the neighbors are sleeping. Keith was also very serious about people keeping his secrets, he was able to continue his reign because of the fear he instilled in them to stay quiet, so much so that India could be in his home and not even know that there was a girl in one of the rooms locked away. The other issue for neighbors is that even when they suspect something is going on they are either afraid to get involved or are afraid that once they do get involved there is an expectation that they need to follow through and need to talk to the police and there are too few people who are willing to make that type of long term commitment. So many people don’t know what’s going on next door, and if they do it’s easier to go about their lives and have willful blindness about it. I think also the fact that Keith went on walks in the neighborhood with some of the women in his group made him a known figure in the neighborhood in an innocuous way. He looked like someone who was walking and talking to a friend of his and did not at all seem like a threat. In that way, he lowered people’s defenses about him and did not come across as dangerous or as a stranger to the people in the neighborhood. -RB
First of all, I’m not an expert, but I can speak from my own experience that healing is a lot of trial and error. For me, at first, talk therapy was very triggering and not helpful so I worked with a woman named Diane Benscoter. She helped me immensely to rebuild my critical thinking and reconnect me back to myself. She did it in such a gentle and kind way that it helped me start to be able to talk about things that at first, I couldn’t even express in words. I’ve also done a lot of therapy since then with Rachel Bernstein. Reading my mother’s book showed me a lot of the truths that were being hidden from me when I was in NXIVM and was also very healing.
I’ve also gotten back into sports like boxing, which has helped me process a lot of my anxiety and anger but on top of it, has helped me rebuild my muscles, strength, and confidence. So like I said, it’s been a lot of things. I think one day I’ll write a whole list of them. That also includes books, documentaries, podcasts, you name it… I was really on a mission to figure it out.
Chanel Miller’s “Know My Name” was a stunning book about resilience and the differences between surviving and how people perceive victims that most people don’t get to see. Another huge book was “She Said” about the women that broke the Weinstein story. It broke down and exposed the system of predatory behavior. I mean, there’s so many. Even reading Maya Angelou’s “Letter to my Daughter” was healing. Whatever helped connect me back to who I am, I found helpful. -IO
Hello India. I just finished watching The Vow but I do not have Starz. I just wanted to express how happy I am that you found your way out and that you have support around you. I was really impressed with your mother and that she never quit fighting for you. I’ve been wondering...how is your relationship with her today?
Thank you for reaching out. I hope that you get to watch Seduced at one point because my mother and I have worked really hard to build our trust and love back and you get to see that in the series. I feel really proud and honored that I get to have my family back in my life. -IO
What advice do you have for people to avoid these destructive groups? Thank you and loved your audiobook! Rooting for you!
Researching about how cults operate, but learning about malignant narcissism and sociopaths as well, and how charming these people are and how quickly they will seduce you emotionally, to start doing what they tell you to do no matter how uncomfortable it is and believing that it’s for your own good, and getting you to ignore that voice inside of you that’s telling you that something’s not quite right here. They will do that by making you feel that that inner voice is getting in the way of you achieving your goals and letting them help you achieve your goals. But really that inner voice is your safety net, don’t let anyone take it away.
Realize that this seems too good to be true at first and take a step back and research and find out about the group, wait a day to see if the spell wears off, and then you can see things more clearly. Cult leaders don’t give you a moment to think. Take that moment away to think. It may save you from being brought down the rabbit hole. - RB
Hi India - I finished your book yesterday and was literally sobbing at the end. Thank you for sharing such a personal and traumatic experience. I hoped it helped in your healing journey. I'm wondering how you feel about the NXIVM-5 dancing in front of the prison, and trying to create a media narrative that is the opposite of what the courts have proven? They seem to have very little social media following, but the fact that they are still trying to do Keith's work after he has been jailed must be troubling to you (and me!)
Thank you so much for taking the time to listen to my book! I poured my whole heart into it. It was very healing because for a long time writing my feelings on paper felt like the safest way to get it out until I was ready to speak up. I’ve been watching the NXIVM-5 and the other people who still are loyal to Keith and it makes me so sad. It’s really painful to see that because some of those people were my closest friends for a long time. The truth is, they’re still serving Keith and they can’t even see it. They haven’t been able to reclaim their minds or their thoughts yet because they haven’t been willing to question the indoctrination. That is a sad thing because that is a lot of life that’s lost, in my opinion. I even tried, during my victim impact statement, to say things that I thought might provoke or wake them up and I don’t think I was able to penetrate it. That’s how strong and dangerous coercive manipulation is. It’s driving them to the point of social suicide while they protect a convicted predator. That’s what I’ll say to that. -IO
India, what if any involvement did you have in the human fright experiment? If you did not have direct experience with it, were you at least aware it was taking place?
I never participated in the fright experiment and I was not aware of the details, but I did put the cap on during some trainings, maybe two or three times where they told me they were monitoring my brain, but I didn’t like the way it felt so I made up a lie that the glue made my head itchy so I could avoid having them put the cap on me. That was my way out of it. The truth is, they still put a lot of pressure on me but eventually went after other people for it. -IO
I’m so happy you are out and are in the process of healing. I don’t have any specific questions relating to your past experience, but I was wondering if you could speculate on a hypothetical situation. I hope this isn’t an inappropriate question. Apologies if it is...
If Nxivm was still operating as usual, how would it have been affected by COVID-19? How many people do you think it would have infected and considering the fragile health of many of the women in the inner circle, how many would have succumbed to it? I’m just imagining all of the people Keith kissed hello to, the communal living arrangements, etc would have made quite an impact. Were members discouraged from going to the doctor or seeking medical help?
Good question. Probably a lot of them, because within the group, you were told to reject the news as generally fake. If Keith, who pronounced himself the almighty doctor of the group, announced that COVID wasn’t a thing, many people probably would have fallen ill. It’s a sad thing to think about now, actually. Pretty scary. -IO
Why have there been so many shows/documentaries/what have you about this cult? Unfiltered opinion here, it seems to me that a bunch of rich people got duped, and are now recouping their losses by selling their stories about being duped. While what went on is no doubt abhorrent, it seems like this money and energy could go towards a more helpful cause.
Actually I think you’re right about using our energy towards more helpful causes. I have a foundation that is allocating funds for people to get therapy who have left groups like this and hopefully if I can raise enough money for educational grants, they can start their lives over. Oftentimes people leave cults with no money, their reputations destroyed, and are cut off from their families for many years. In a lot of ways, leaving a group like this leaves you stunted and I hope the funds we are able to raise will help people take their lives back into their own hands like I have been able to do for myself.
Any information that raises awareness about cults and shows the red flags is important and actually I wish that I would have known it myself. -IO
Hello. I was wondering how exactly DOS would try to gain political power. Did Keith (or any of the other leaders of DOS or NXIVM) have a specific plan for this acquisition of power or was it just a small idea that was just talked about? I found that to be very interesting and concerning. You don't have to answer if you are uncomfortable.
In general, Keith like other cult leaders wanted to have as much protection to continue doing truly whatever he wanted to do and also to grow his empire and have unchecked power. If you reach out to government officials and know that you can be charming and believable, they will be open to connecting with you if you can convince them you’re providing the general public or the people within their district with something that will help them be more productive citizens and that you’re offering them a gift, not only emotionally, but to help them become more successful in this world. It also does something that I call ‘laundering your reputation’, so if you can get a photo with the Dalai Lama or a local governor, or be put on one of their boards, people will no longer assume that you are a monster because they will think that you are ‘good by association’ and that you have been vetted by the politicians and leaders who are supporting you, even though none of those things have happened. -RB
Hi India! I’ve been following the NXIVM story since it broke in 2017! I hope you are doing well and you are so brave to talk. My question for you is what was the final straw that made you realize you had to get out?
Thank you so much for your kindness! So, unfortunately, there wasn’t a final straw but a series of revelations that got me closer to seeing the truth of what NXIVM really was. It wasn’t until I really started distancing myself that I was able to actually have the space to think and have my own opinions but there have been many significant moments along the way. A lot of it I had to do on my own but I also had help from my friends and family and professionals to begin to heal and understand what I had been involved in. -IO
How did you and Rachel find eachother? It cannot have been an easy step between realizing you were in a cult to seeking help for the trauma and indoctrination you went through.
Catherine originally contacted me when she was finding out that India was in danger. She had planned an intervention that had not been successful and then wanted some guidance about how to intervene again in a way that didn’t push her daughter farther back into the group. Once India came out, Catherine brought her to see me, and then I started working with India alone. India was in my office, but she wasn’t present during our first session. She was still in a trance. - RB
Curious about Allison Mack’s involvement from your perspectives. Can you tell us a bit more about how she was in NXIVM or your interactions with her?
I go pretty in depth about her and my relationship with her in my book because we didn’t have a relationship before she recruited me to DOS. I only knew what I saw of her in the community. I know she went into NXIVM looking for more depth in her life. I believe that she was very malleable and that Keith took advantage of that like he did with anybody that he exploited but Allison did do a lot of things that were criminal and cruel and she’s going to have to face that. -IO
From watching your documentary I realized that the persistent brand of « sex cult girl » seems mortifying to you, and that you are working hard ( and succeeding ) to erase that. As a way of putting this out on the universe, what are the labels that you imagine attached to your identity / name in the future, instead of that?
Thank you for this question! For a long time within NXIVM I didn’t have the capacity to think about my future. I thought I would be in Albany for the rest of my life. So I’m so grateful to have my life as it is now and I would like to imagine attaching things like author, activist, mother, daughter, wife, and producer to my future. Those are all things that I’m looking forward to exploring in my life. I actually wrote a book for Audible called “Still Learning” that I recorded and it was incredibly healing for me to put that all out in words. -IO
Do you foresee ever speaking to Allison Mack again?
As of now, no I don’t. I think that I’ve gotten a lot of closure through writing about my experiences with her and speaking at Keith’s sentencing was the primary closure that I needed. But I might if I feel compelled when her sentencing date is set. -IO
India You have the right attitude about learning from this painful experience you have had. When you have regrets, you can console yourself with having learned powerful lessons about thinking for yourself and never again giving up your personhood. I think an experience like this is the opportunity to give yourself powerful attributes that you can build on forever. Even though this experience will be painful for some time, I feel like you will never stray from your true self ever again - whether it be a relationship, job or any organization you become involved in - you will always have built up a basis for setting up limits and walking away if you feel anyway compromised - any comments?
Aww, this makes me want to cry! Such a thoughtful and kind message. I couldn’t agree with you more. I think anybody who gets themselves out of a traumatic or difficult situation is worth celebrating because it’s so hard. I like myself a lot more nowadays than I used to so I consider that a big win! These experiences have been very painful and difficult but I feel more myself now than I ever have and I do think now knowing what to look out for and understanding how predatory groups and people like this work, I’ll never stray away from the truth again. That’s my hope, for myself and other people! -IO
Thank you for sharing your story with us. I was wondering when the final two episodes will be released?
The third episode came out last night and the finale will be out next Sunday! -IO
Are there members you believe had generally positive or beneficial experiences in the cult? If so, how would you engineer a future cult to be only that?
No, I don't believe that that's possible when there's a totalitarian leader that removes people's free will. I think community is a better thing to try to build in a healthy way. -IO
Rachel will you be having more podcast on this topic? How do we find them?
Yes, some former members have contacted me saying that they would like to share their particular stories as well. Those will be recorded soon and released hopefully within the next month or two. It takes a while to feel comfortable to share your story, but some women have let me know they’re feeling like it’s time to lend their voices to do education and prevention.
You can find the podcast on all platforms: SoundCloud, NPR, Itunes with some clips also on Youtube and on patreon.com/IndoctriNation. I also have IndoctriNation Twitter and Facebook pages. - RB
I was forced to recruit women and to take collateral from them, the same types of collateral that were demanded of me. Allison instructed me to give one of them the assignment. Thank goodness that she got out of the organization before I got out and didn’t have to have any of these encounters with Keith and none of them were branded. That is one of the things that I am most grateful for, that they saw the truth before I did. -IO
India: In ten years from now, this will be in your rearview mirror, and yet, you will likely still be on the path to recovery. Where do you see yourself in ten years? What do you think future India would say to present India?
I would say to that: thank you! I like to think about my life like that as well. It gives me a lot of peace to know that one day this will be behind me and me and my fiancé can just have the normal life that we very much want, whatever that means nowadays! But I think if anything, I think future India would hug the now India who feels really tired and say “you’ve got this. I know you’re stronger than you might think you are” and just give me a little push forward, a gentle one. Sometimes I find that I get scared of messing things up or upsetting people, even now, I get afraid of the judgements and criticism but I don’t want to live the rest of my life like that. I want to be free of the shame and just know that love is really the strongest force out there. That’s what I try to tell myself so #stilllearning. -IO