Seduced: Ep. 1 “Hooked”

The shiny happy people of Nxivm.

Before we begin. This documentary served the purpose of enabling India Oxenberg–daughter of actress/model Catherine Oxenberg– to take back the narrative of her experience of being in Nxivm rather than only what was reported in the press. Through this series she was able to tell her story from her perspective. I get it and I think that’s a positive thing. But it also served the purpose of defining India as victim rather than perpetrator, which she initially had been classified as by the prosecution. So, at times I found her narration a teeny bit self-serving and sometimes unfair to other people that were in the cult, too. That said, in no way do I think India was anything but a victim of Nxivm and I am glad that she became a witness against Keith Raniere rather than being prosecuted herself. Onto the recap.

We open with India walking towards the townhouse where she was branded. She points in the direction of the window of the room where it happened. We then quickly cut to her sitting in a blue bedroom, I guess at her mom’s house, giving us a little detail of what happened.

That’s how it’s going to be. We’re going to cut from India talking to us in this bedroom to walking with her around the various locales where certain events took place. She will be talking to a therapist and talking to some former members of Nxvim. The former members will tell us about some of their experiences, too. India’s mother Catherine and her grandmother, will be offering their thoughts. We will see illustrated reenactments and cult experts offering their viewpoints. Journalists, lawyers and some other people will weigh in, too. It’s a mish-mash. There will be some footage of Keith, just not in the same volume as “The Vow.” There won’t be the slow boil like there was in “The Vow” either. We are going to jump straight into the bad stuff, hearing about the fucked up shit that went on.

Back to India. She was the first of the women in her group to be branded and a cauterizing pen was used. The stench of burning flesh was intense. She calls it torture and says that she doesn’t even know how to explain how something like this happens.

We are told that the series contains footage from anonymous sources and some of it was never meant to be seen by the public. Well, let’s get going.

We cut to footage of Keith lecturing a large group of people about the problems with materialism. I don’t really care what Keith has to say about it so I won’t bother to recap this blurb. We then cut to footage of shiny happy people at Vanguard week (will be described a bit later in the episode.) Actress Nicki Clyne says in a promo video that Nxivm is “magnificence times infinity.” Whatever, Nicki. Footage of a woman named Pam Cafritz talking about what Keith has done for women. “We are very thankful to Keith Raniere. He created a wonderful opportunity for women to grow to the next level.” Whatever, Pam.

India says that she got into Nxivm because she wanted to lead a more purposeful life. We cut to a former member named Naomi who says that at first she felt like she had found a deep sense of community with caring people. Another former member, Ashley, says it felt like a safe space with really good people.

We cut to cult expert Rick Ross who says that there have been many dangerous cults. He lists quite a few of them (including Scientology) and says that some have ended catastrophically. Rick feels that Nxivm will go down as one of the most destructive “in history.” We then immediately cut to Keith asking an audience, “Do you understand how you could rape a baby? I can make it a baby that is very rapeable [sic].” Wow. That is… no words. Then we cut to Dr. Janja Lalich, another cult expert, that says “Keith Raniere is the most abusive cult leader” that she has ever heard of in her “thirty years of doing this work.”

Then we have a lot of fast cuts of this and that and then back to India. She tells us that while her mother saw her as a brainwashed victim of Keith’s, she did not see it that way. She felt that the people in Nxivm were her friends. In fact, she thought her mother might have lost her mind. “I didn’t want to be saved,” India says. She tells us she was in Nxivm for seven years. She’s still trying to work out what happened.

ESP

Catherine tells us she introduced India to Nxivm by taking her to an ESP five-day training course. It was seen as a simple self-improvement type thing. Not a big deal. Like Sarah, Mark and Bonnie from “The Vow,” India was at a bit of crossroads in her life when she was introduced to ESP. She didn’t feel college was for her and she had thoughts of maybe starting her own catering business. Since she was only 19 years old at the time, she had more questions than answers as to what her best next course of action should be.

Catherine tells us that Mark Vicente and Sarah Edmonson, two members of Nxivm who were featured in “The Vow,” were the hosts of the intensive. I felt like I could hear a tinge of blame in Catherine’s voice when she said their names. Honestly, it could be my interpretation is totally off, but the way Catherine distances herself from both of them, as if they are strangers, makes it seem like she considers them some of the bad guys in all of this. That is very different than how she related to them in “The Vow.”

We hear from various people about how various celebrities were said to be a part of Nxivm. Some genuinely were and some were implied to be a part of it, but weren’t really, like Jennifer Aniston. Dr. Lalich says celebrity was used to give the cult validity. Scientology does that too, by the way. I’m just saying. Yet another cult expert, Dr. Christine Marie Katas tells us that celebrity endorsements serve as a sort of “Okay, this is legit” message to the brain.

Catherine says the course was offered at $3,000. She wondered at that amount what was involved over the five days, but Catherine saw it as a chance to hang/bond with India for five days while doing some self-growth. So, even though it was expensive, she thought it was worth it.

India tells us that she felt very loved as a child. She has always been really close to her mom whom she describes as a bit of a “seeker.” Anyway, she too, saw the intensive as an opportunity for some quality time with her mom.

If you have seen the “The Vow” you already know how day one goes down. Video of Nxivm co-leader Nancy Salzman is shown to the attendees and she gives an intro as to what the whole program is about. India was separated from her mom at that point and put into a different group. Apparently, separating members from family and friends was standard. A man named Neil Glazer (a lawyer who represents a lot of former members of Nxivm) tells us predatory organizations always look to separate friends and family, because individuals become easier to manipulate.

India tells us about what was involved over the five days and I am hoping this image is readable. She said that some of the modules were really intriguing, especially “Communications and Being at Cause.” Being “at cause” is all about not being a victim. You can create whatever emotional reaction you choose to any situation you encounter. Which can be empowering depending on the circumstances.

India said that taking these modules makes you feel like you’re getting your brain scrambled and she found that kind of “exciting.” You do you, India. Catherine thought some of it was weird. The traditions of wearing scarves to indicate your rank, having to bow when you entered or left a room and say, “Thank you Prefect” (Nancy Salzman) and “Thank you, Vanguard” (Keith Raniere), even if they weren’t in the room, bugged her.

The Grand Finale

The “Exploration of Meaning” (aka EM) was the big “grand finale” says Catherine. One on one, people would sit with a coach to work on various issues. Everyone had emotional breakthroughs. Right before Catherine was to do her EM session, Nancy Salzman showed up in person. Very big deal. Nancy only appeared in person when there were VIPS in attendance.

Nancy conducted the EM session with Catherine who chose her audition anxiety as the issue she wanted to address. It was actually a pretty profound experience where she felt she had a cathartic breakthrough. Dr. Lalich tells us that such a session could have potentially traumatic results since people can get into some serious stuff and they are not working with trained licensed therapists. Rick Ross says it’s revealing vulnerable aspects of yourself to people that can use that later to control and manipulate you. After you experience the cathartic breakthrough, you’re on a high pretty much and that is when you are pushed to sign up for the next course, says Catherine.

1990

India tells us that as she and Catherine continued taking courses at Nxivm they had no idea of Keith’s past. Ohhhh, here is the draggy part of recapping two different series on the same topic. I covered all of this in “The Vow.” I don’t wanna recap it all again. Suffice to say that Keith was a businessman before he was a cult leader and he got in trouble with the law because his business had been a pyramid scheme. He was sued, had to pay a fine and his business was shut down.

Kind of like the Sonny and Cher of cult leaders.

Not too long after, he met Nancy Salzman and they started Executive Success Program together as a self-improvement methodology for businesses and corporations. Self-improvement was huge in the 90’s so this was right inline with the mainstream. Corporations were not interested in working with Keith so he and Nancy repackaged their program and called it Nxivm/ESP and sold it to individuals.

Nxivm was comprised of a lot of ideas cobbled together from other sources, Rick Ross tells us. A little Amway, a bit of Scientology, some stuff from Ayn Rand, a bit from Erhard Seminars Training, a chunk of Neuro-linquistic Programming and maybe some hypnosis. Other organizations were started under the Nxivm umbrella additional to ESP and satellite ESP centers sprung up all over the world. If you wanted to participate in other stuff like Jness (woman’s group) or SOP (men’s group) you had to be in Albany, New York. Albany was the main hub of Nxivm and where Keith lived.

Journalist Barry Meier of the New York Times tells us that Nxivm was bullshit as far as businesses were concerned because it didn’t generate much money. Instead, the whole organization was sustained by the Bronfman sisters, Clare and Sara, heiresses to the multi-billion dollar Seagram’s fortune. Once the Bronfman sisters joined Nxivm, the company became much more powerful and had greater reach. They got the Dalai Lama to come to Albany, for example, which lent a lot of clout to Keith and Nxivm. Overall, the Bronfman sisters spent hundreds of millions of dollars bankrolling Keith through the years. Rick thinks that Keith was able to hook adult children of prominent people, like Sara and Clare, by appealing to their desire to forge their own identities. He thinks that was the pull for India, too.

We meet India’s grandmother Princess Elizabeth of Yugoslavia. She’s a really cool lady, but I’m not interested in the royalty stuff. All you really need to know is that India has royal blood. Elizabeth tells us that India was so young when she got involved with Nxivm.

India tells us she was less about the five day intensive and more about the feeling of being understood that drew her in. Catherine left the intensive on a high and ended up taking “all of level one.” Then Nancy called Catherine and asked if she would be willing to host a Jness weekend? Jness was the Nxivm women’s group that was supposed to be about female empowerment. Being a feminist, Catherine was open to it and agreed. India and Elizabeth attended the weekend, too.

“The first women’s movement created by a man.”

“A very unique man,” gushes Nancy, in a promotional video. “A very amazing man in many, many, many, ways.” She gets teary eyed saying Jness is the most amazing thing she has ever done. Cut to Elizabeth who says, “I thought it was complete rubbish.” She also thought Nancy was “an idiot.” She decided to hold her tongue rather than be seen as “the rude mother.”

In footage we see Nancy leading the meeting and saying that a lot of women don’t understand how men grow up knowing they have to be responsible in the world and responsible for women, too. India tells us that the group was taught that men are more linear and logical than women; women lacked structure and character. I have an anger hangover, I swear to God. I just covered Keith’s endless moronic misogyny in a recap for “The Vow.” One whole episode dedicated to Keith hating on women. And here I am again. Guess who’s back. Back again.

Dr. Lalich says that Jness was pure misogyny disguised as empowerment. But India got into it and signed up for more Jness classes that met once a week. Former member Ashley found the group supportive. We see footage of Nancy saying that “Women feel, men think.” That old stupid trope. India tells us that it wasn’t so much the topics covered in the meetings that appealed to her (well, thank God for that) as it was about the people and bonding with each other.

India told Catherine that she planned to become an ESP coach. “At a gut level,” says Catherine, “I knew this was a bad thing.” What India was doing in Nxivm had become her thing, something she was good at. This was good from the perspective of India’s coaches, because she was told she was too dependent on her mom and she needed to work on that. From Catherine’s perspective, she saw India being consumed by the program with no time for anything else.

Catherine was becoming a bit “disgruntled” with ESP, but at the same time she had already paid in advance for level 2 courses. It was a lot of money and she felt reluctant to just walk away. So, she and her husband at the time, Casper Van Dien, headed out to Albany to take an advanced class that was only offered there. They were hosted by married couple Mark Vicente, a filmmaker and Bonnie Peisse, an actress/singer who were members of Nxivm.

Catherine does not refer to them by name, though. Which is so weird after watching “The Vow” and how close she was to this couple. Perhaps leaving their names out of it was done out of respect? I don’t know, but I am curious. Anyway, she tells us about how she noticed that “the wife” was sleeping on the floor while “the husband” slept on the bed. Catherine asked what was going on and [Bonnie] told her she was doing “a penance.” Catherine says it was a “giant red flag.” For sure, damn.

Next, an exposé in the Albany Times Union came out alleging that Keith had sexually molested girls as young as 12. Catherine was officially done with Nxivm. She discussed the article with India who dismissed it as a smear campaign. “Keith would never do anything like this,” she told her mother.

Catherine backed off and wondered if Keith was genuinely guilty, why had he not been charged? Stage one: rationalization. On Catherine’s part, I mean. This is not a criticism. It’s clear that Catherine knew intuitively that the organization was no good—regardless of any positive experiences she had with it—and that it was therefore not good that India was getting so sucked in. Accepting that one’s intuition is spot on can come in stages and stage one is not typically going to be, “Oh hey! My daughter is in a cult!”

Meanwhile, India had been told by her coaches to “trust her own experience with the curriculum” as well as the people she had gotten to know in Nxivm. Keith was being unfairly attacked. India believed it. Dr. Lalich said that cult leaders are used to bad publicity so they always have a ready defense. The story fades eventually and they are left unscathed.

As a coach, India was told she needed to attend Vanguard week. It was like summer camp, but for adults. It was also a week long tribute to Vanguard a.k.a. Keith for his birthday. Can you imagine? I feel like on some level I would feel it was bullshit to have a week long tribute to such a dweeb. Keith is dangerous too, I know, but he’s also a giant dweeb. We hear Mark Vicente in voice over call Vanguard week “an extraordinary experience” to get to hang out with Keith. Ew, gross.

India tells us the first Vanguard week she attended was in August of 2012. We go with her as she drives to upstate New York to the resort hotel where V-week was held. India feels she is confronting a fear by being back there.

Vanguard promo video.

We cut to footage of Keith giving a lecture. He describes V-week as a coming together to share a vision for the world or some jazz. It honestly doesn’t matter, because it’s all horseshit. Then we see a promotional video for V-week with clips of various activities that go on with words across the screen like “creating a civilized, non-violent world” and “building an ethical community.”

Former member Naomi said she signed up for V-week after watching the promo video. Former member Tabby saw the video too and couldn’t wait to attend. She swore to herself she would figure out how to get the money to go. I would love to know how much it all cost. Former member Kelly said all the activities were called “objectives” and you could sign up to do anything from drumming classes to chess playing. Former member Elena describes the week as “exhausting.” India says it was “incredibly exhausting.” The whole point of these objectives was to push yourself beyond your limit and India said it felt like they were all building something greater than themselves. I can see that. I mean the variety of activities was pretty incredible. And the constant striving to be stronger, better and more capable than you ever had been kind of stuff would create that sense of accomplishment.

Dr. Lalich describes V-week as “high arousal technique”, because it creates all this energy which can be addicting. Thus making people more vulnerable and susceptible to sign on for the next thing. Strangely, participants of V-week were not allowed to take any pictures. But of course, there was the Nxivm video team, lead by Mark Vicente. Former member Debora thought that was weird. Dr. Lalich tells us that because Keith thought of himself as this brilliant genius that was going to make his mark on history, all the filming would serve as an archive. “Every word that came out of his mouth was precious,” Dr. Lalich says sarcastically.

We see footage of Nancy in an auditorium telling the audience that today is V-day of V-week. Keith’s actual birthday. The crowd cheers. India tells us that for a lot of people it was the first time they would meet Keith and there was a lot of hype and build-up. India wasn’t impressed by Keith the first time she met him (no one ever is.) But she went with the flow and the flow was certainly that Keith was this super awesome genius so…

The night of V-day was called Tribute Night where everyone performed for Keith. We see the Los Angeles ESP group, including India, give a pretty cringe inducing performance of the Beach Boys’ “California Girls.” But some of the performances were pretty good. India tells us that all the centers practiced “for months” for this night. We see individuals stand on stage and express their gratitude for Keith while he sits in the audience with this expression on his face of… I don’t even know what. He looks a bit gleeful.

Former member Debora tells us that meeting Keith for the first time felt “intimate and connected.” Plus, Keith did that kissing on the lips thing. Everyone, no matter who you were, got kissed on the lips in greeting by Keith. Naomi preferred to kiss on the cheek, but she admits that was awkward to do since Keith would zero in on the mouth. Plus, she wondered why she had a problem with it when no one else seemed to. India says that anyone who had a problem with the kissing thing was told they weren’t far enough in the curriculum to be “evolved.”

Hilariously, when Naomi asked who Keith was with romantically she was told he was a renunciate. I had no idea he was keeping up that facade so late in the game. I knew he had declared himself celibate when Nxivm first started, because ex-girlfriend Toni Natalie’s discussed it in her book “The Program: Inside the Mind of Keith Raniere and the Rise and Fall of Nxivm”, but this was over ten years later and he was sleeping with a lot of women as he always had been. So, I am surprised everyone was keeping up the ruse.

We cut to Keith giving a lecture where he discusses how in Ancient Greece older adults had sex with children six to eight years old as a “type of sexual apprenticeship. It was common,” he says. Now it gets even grosser. Keith speaks of a girl he knew that had a sexual relationship with her father when she was a child and “really loved it.” That is until she was told it was abuse by society.

Rick Ross calls Keith a sociopathic narcissist who wanted his own personal harem of sex slaves. He was good at desensitizing people so they could do increasingly horrific things without feeling anything about it. Catherine tells us her daughter had been in the presence of such evil. India says it has taken her 50 hours working with a therapist to even admit that “something sexual did happen between Keith and I.”

We cut to footage of V-week where a group of people are singing, ” All we are saying, is give Keith a chance.” Ew. And end.

Next episode: Episode 2 “Indoctrinated.” India takes part in Jness Tracks and SOP Complete. We hear more about some of the shitty things that were going on in Nxivm that wasn’t covered in “The Vow,” like these fucked up brain experiments. Allison introduces India to DOS.

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