Catherine Oxenberg is many things. She’s enviably beautiful. She’s intelligent and she’s kind. She’s also “royal” – her mother is Princess Elizabeth of Yugoslavia – in addition to having played royalty on televisions as an actress.
But these days Catherine Oxenberg is known for more than her television roles, most notably for starring on Dynasty, and her lineage. These days she’s known as a fierce crusader and a fighter, one who took on a cult and didn’t back down until she knew her daughter was safe. It is a group that has threatened its detractors, terrorized them via bogus litigation, and maligned former members. Yes, it is the cult that is the subject of many conversations and is currently all over the media. The one that fronted as a mainly innocuous, but money-sucking, professional empowerment/self-help group and has changed names many times, but is now known by one represented by Roman numerals. The cult that – it was subsequently discovered – had a unique division devoted to the sexual slavery of women. That division, called DOS, called for fierce loyalty pledges from members, requiring the handing over of “collateral” (incriminating information/pictures that would mortify the individual should they defect from the sorority) and branding in the pubic region.
As Catherine details in her new book Captive: A Mother’s Crusade To Save Her Daughter From a Terrifying Cult, she and her daughter India went to a meeting for what appeared to be a self help group back in 2011. Catherine’s then-husband made a somewhat offhanded and jokey remark, following some creepy observations about the group’s leader Keith Raniere. He suspected aloud to her that Keith was involved sexually with the group’s women. Catherine remembers the comment (which would prove to be a confirmed truth) in hindsight, but it was stated in such an off-the-cuff manner that she didn’t focus deeply on it. She had also only briefly met the cult leader.
Following that fateful meeting, Catherine took some NXIVM courses that promised success in business and taught about the tools and skills to excel. She reflects now: “A lot of what you hear Keith say about NXIVM’s philosophy sounds like gobbledygook when you listen to him on YouTube and see how captivated (former Smallville actress) Allison Mack is by his words. He has this ability to break you down and then reel you in.”
Catherine said that she gets annoyed by how people undermine those who are susceptible to brainwashing: “Anyone is susceptible because the person doing it is clever and has a strategy. It’s about appealing to an individual’s interests and goals. India is a confident and self-assured woman. There were prominent, highly intelligent people who took NXIVM courses. It’s very insulting when people criticize and judge how one can be taken in by this group. Aside from offering community, NXIVM offers the promise of doing something and being a part of something special that will make a difference in the world.”
When they were first introduced to the group, India was committed to improving her own business skills following a failed food-related venture. Catherine describes India as someone who sees the kindness in people and who is committing to bettering humanity.
“That is something that this group looks for in individuals,” says Catherine, explaining that India was a prime recruit for the group because of her uniquely innate desire to help people and contribute to society. “They slowly convince people – there are brilliant people who have become involved! – that they are part of something that is going to make a huge difference.”
Catherine took some overly pricey NXIVM courses and despite initial interest, became more skeptical and more disenchanted over a three year period. She gave up on NXIVM, but India only became more committed. Then she moved to Albany to be with the group and surrounded by its members.
In Catherine’s book, and on a recent episode of Dateline (in which Megyn Kelly is the interviewer), Catherine speaks about the former NXIVM member who reached out furtively and fearfully to alert her that her daughter was in danger. Catherine was then provided with evidence and became invested in amassing more evidence – which she eventually turned over to the New York State General Attorney’s office.
Although the authorities had been repeatedly pointed to the unethical practices of the group (including shady financial transactions and Keith Raniere’s sexual relationships with women under the age of consent), it was Catherine’s diligently collected mountain of evidence that helped spur law enforcement to serious action.
I ask her if she thinks her status as an actress and coming from royalty helped with her being taken seriously. She laughs: “I think they were tired of being hounded by me and knew I was this mother who wasn’t going to give up!”
While all of this was happening, India had essentially estranged herself from a mother pleading for her return. Mother could not get in touch with daughter or be sure of her whereabouts for a lengthy period of time, and while India was now an adult, Catherine knew the dangers of NXIVM and saw no choice other than to speak out publicly.
This was a move that would have repercussions for Catherine, with India further evading her and ensuring more secrecy regarding her whereabouts.
Going to the media was something that pained Catherine to do, but it was a last resort and a desperate measure called for by a desperate time. Having been in the limelight many years before as an actress and as the daughter of a princess, she would much rather have avoided the media than begged them to shine a spotlight on something.
But in this case, there was a singular goal in mind: getting her daughter out of harm’s way as quickly as possible and to safety.
You will have to read Catherine’s book to see how complicated this journey was. Her daughter India has asked for privacy during this time. We do not know if and how she was culpable in NXIVM’s illicit activities, but few question that she was a victim of Raniere’s intense mind control.
I ask Catherine if India now knows she was “brainwashed.”
“She does not like that word, Catherine states adamantly, “That’s definitely not a word that gets a good reaction so I stopped bringing it up. India feels for the ordeal that I’ve been through. She feels for the ordeals of others.”
By “others”, I privately hope that in time, the empathic India Oxenberg will have little to no sympathy for Keith Raniere.
For now, mums the word, but India has told her mom that she’ll tell her story her way and specifically, in her own time.
To hear India’s carefully crafted statement to the media, you’ll have to check out the Dateline episode. Catherine was able to share with me (and with Megyn Kelly) that she recently reconnected with her daughter and India is safe. The media has reported that she’s away from NXIVM (or what’s left of it currently) now.
When questioned by Megyn Kelly about India’s future (with the allusion of possible lingering effects of NXIVM), Catherine smiled at the interviewer. It was an authentic and heartfelt smile that she hadn’t exhibited publicly in a long, long time. “She will be fine,” she replied, then paused as her smile widened a bit: “…more than fine.”