Everything we learned from 'Seduced,' the 4-part docuseries on alleged sex cult Nxivm

Julia Naftulin
India Oxenberg courtesy of STARZ
India Oxenberg. Courtesy of STARZ
  • The new Starz docuseries "Seduced" centers around former Nxivm sex slave India Oxenberg, who executive-produced the four-part series.

  • "Seduced" offers intimate details about Nxivm founder Keith Raniere's brainwashing methods, especially those allegedly he used to manipulate some women members into sex.

  • Raniere, who will serve a lifetime prison sentence for child sex trafficking and conspiracy to commit forced labor, orchestrated the branding of his initials, sharing of private information, and sexual abuse, according to the series.

  • Visit Insider's homepage for more stories.

Editor's note: This post mentions sexual assault, eating disorders, and psychological abuse.

In the years leading up to Nxivm founder and leader Keith Raniere's sentencing to life in prison on October 26, former members of the alleged sex cult endured psychological, and sometimes physical, abuse and manipulation.

The four-part docuseries "Seduced" on streaming platform Starz walks viewers through how Nxivm members joined the group with intentions of finding personal fulfillment, but ended up Raniere's pawns.

India Oxenberg, who executive produced "Seduced" and said she became a sex slave in Nxivm's secret sorority DOS, detailed how she was brainwashed despite the red flags she and others saw.

Unlike the HBO docuseries "The Vow," which focuses on Oxenberg's mother Catherine as she attempts to convince Oxenberg to leave Nxivm, "Seduced" centers around Oxenberg's story after she left and reveals new details about the insidious nature of Raniere's methods.

India's mother, actress Catherine Oxenberg, introduced her to Nxivm.

India Oxenberg and her mother, Catherine Oxenberg.
India Oxenberg and her mother, Catherine Oxenberg. YouTube/Good Morning America

Former members learned about Nxivm through friends and family who were impressed by their self-help courses, and Oxenberg was no different.

Her mother, "Dynasty" actress Catherine Oxenberg, heard about Nxivm courses through a trusted friend who said her business grew after taking just one class. During that conversation, Oxenberg happened to be home, so she signed up for the course and attended along side her mother.

Catherine said she's still grappling with her role in her daughter's involvement to this day.

"One of the hardest things for me to reconcile is I was the one who introduced India to Nxivm and that I did not recognize the warning signs, the red flags," she said in "Seduced."

Jennifer Aniston and Gerard Butler took Nxivm courses.

jennifer aniston 90s
Jennifer Aniston in 1997. Dave Allocca/DMI/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Nxivm lured in the rich and famous, like Seagrams heiresses Sara and Clare Bronfman and wealthy Mexican politicians' families, so they could recruit even more people in their elite networks and use their fortunes to fund legal battles.

But they also used people's celebrity statuses to make the group seem more authoritative, Oxenberg said in "Seduced."

After a celebrity took Nxivm's introductory course, they'd tout that person's name to entice others into the courses.

According to Oxenberg, high-ranking members would mention how Jennifer Aniston, Gerard Butler, and Sir Richard Branson took Nxivm classes, even if they didn't become full-fledged members and take more courses.

Sometimes, Oxenberg met these high-profile people in person at the introductory courses.

"There were entrepreneurs and strong powerful women like Rosario Dawson, who I just got to strike up a conversation with. I was impressed," Oxenberg said in the docuseries.

Nxivm seminars were designed to burn out members, cult researchers said.

 The exterior of the NXIVM Executive Success Programs office at 455 New Karner Road on April 26, 2018 in Albany, New York.
The exterior of the NXIVM Executive Success Programs office at 455 New Karner Road on April 26, 2018 in Albany, New York. (Photo by Amy Luke/Getty Images

To an outsider, the accountability exercises Nxivm members would partake in, like waking up at 3 AM for a cold shower or sleeping on the ground, might seem outlandish.

But these non-stop requirements were purposeful, cult researchers in "Seduced" explained.

These drills, plus the week-long "Vanguard Week" camping-trip-meets-seminar to celebrate Raniere's birthday, wore down members so they'd be exhausted and easier to influence.

"What Keith was a genius at was tweaking and working this curriculum with the deliberate attempt of breaking people down," cult researcher Rick Alan Ross told Oxenberg in "Seduced."

Ross said this is called a "high arousal technique" and said it's used to keep cult followers busy and addicted to feelings of happiness and contentment so they don't ask questions and want to keep coming back.

Raniere kissed members on the lips.

keith raniere the vow hbo
HBO

Footage in "The Vow" and "Seduced" show Raniere kissing Nxivm members, both men and women, on the lips following seminars.

Raniere denied he was dating anyone in the group, and made the kisses out to be the way Nxivm members greeted each other.

But if a member opposed a kiss, they were intentionally embarrassed and asked to think about their aversion, Oxenberg said in "Seduced."

She said this framing was a way to make Nxivm members feel dumb and like any hesitation they had was a personal failing, so they'd fall deeper into Raniere's influence.

Members were asked to wear electrode caps for psychology experiments.

The NXIVM Executive Success Programs sign outside of the office at 455 New Karner Road on April 26, 2018 in Albany, New York.
The NXIVM Executive Success Programs sign outside of the office at 455 New Karner Road on April 26, 2018 in Albany, New York. Photo by Amy Luke/Getty Images

Oxenberg also said that members were often asked to wear electrode caps, head-shaped pieces of fabric with wires attached that can track and record brain wave patterns, while discussing past traumas or watching traumatic videos.

Brandon B. Porter was the Nxivm member who spearheaded this initiative and later was charged with medical misconduct following Raniere's arrest in 2015.

In "Seduced," one anonymous former member recalled that Porter sat women members in chairs and showed them images and videos of abuse while they wore electrode caps. He filmed how they reacted to tapes of women getting their heads cut off and Mexican drug lords holding the heads in the air, the anonymous source said.

India needed 50 hours of therapy to admit Raniere sexually abused her.

India Oxenberg courtesy of STARZ
India Oxenberg. Courtesy of STARZ

Former members have mentioned the amount of therapy and support they've needed in their recoveries, but Oxenberg took it a step further, getting specific about how much time it's taken for her to comes to terms with her trauma.

In the first part of "Seduced," Oxenberg said it took her 50 hours of therapy to be able to admit Raniere sexually abused her.

Mark Vicente guilt-tripped India when she didn't prioritize Nxivm.

HBO's "The Vow" focuses on Vicente's life after he left Nxivm, but "Seduced" offers more insight into his role in the organization.

Vicente met Raniere while on a vacation and after they hit it off, Vicente joined Nxivm. He soon rose to the top of the ranks, and Raniere recruited him to document various self-help courses and group meetings for a future documentary on Raniere's work and impact.

But after Vicente's wife Bonnie Piesse left Nxivm, Vicente came to realize the group's insidious nature and left himself.

During his time there, however, Vicente unknowingly helped Raniere keep members in the cult.

In "Seduced," Oxenberg recalled that Vicente guilt-tripped her into staying with the group, crying to her at one point because he felt she wasn't working hard enough.

Oxenberg, who had previously dabbled in the entertainment industry, had agreed to work on a movie set in Belgrade, Serbia, a job her mother set up for her.

But doing so required she leave Nxivm headquarters and her coaching job there temporarily. She said she received pushback from higher-ups like Vicente, but went anyway.

Once she was there, they continued to call and text her non-stop so she couldn't mentally escape the group, even for a moment, Oxenberg recalled.

Raniere said rape was a way to claim victimization, and sex with minors isn't inherently bad.

keith raniere nxivm sentencing
REUTERS/Jane Rosenberg

"Seduced" contains footage of Raniere teaching various Nxivm courses.

His rhetoric shed light on his underlying beliefs, like the idea that victimization is a mindset in any and all circumstances.

"So what's abuse in one area is not abuse in another. So what is abuse really? Abuse is, 'is the person a child, or is the person adult-like?' Some children are perfectly happy with it," Raniere said in one video recording where he posits the definition of child sexual abuse.

In another clip, Raniere went as far to suggest the word "rape" comes from a singular person, the victim, and their perspective. He said that rape is a victimization strategy, and that there must be more than one side to every story if a supposed rapist enjoyed the experience.

These clips illustrated why Raniere felt entitled to women.

There were 150 known DOS sex slaves.

nxivm sex slave 4x3
Yutong Yuan/Business Insider

Like Nxivm itself, DOS, the secret sex-slave sorority within the organization, operated as a pyramid scheme, according to the docuseries.

Members in both Nxivm and DOS were required to recruit new members, who reported to them. In Nxivm, new recruits reported to coaches, while in DOS, "slaves" reported to their "masters."

Each master had multiple slaves, Oxenberg said, and they were called "pods."

The slaves weren't told how many pods there were in total, or how many women were in each pod, but investigations presented in "Seduced" showed there were at least 150 DOS sex slaves.

Allison Mack told Oxenberg to seduce Raniere as a self-improvement exercise.

Allison Mack.JPG
Actress Allison Mack departs the Brooklyn Federal Courthouse SHANNON STAPLETON/Reuters

It wasn't clear from the moment Oxenberg joined DOS that she'd later be forced into sex with Raniere, she said on the third episode.

Even when Mack assigned her the task of seducing Raniere in January 2016, Oxenberg said she believed the command was an exercise in overcoming fear and reaching her goals, since that's what Nxivm taught her.

"I believed Keith didn't even have sex," because everyone said he was voluntarily celibate, Oxenberg said. That's why she didn't initially find Mack's ask a red flag.

But after leaving Nxivm, Oxenberg learned that seducing Raniere was a command every DOS master had to ask their slaves to complete.

Oxenberg's hair fell out and period stopped out due to extreme calorie restriction. She alerted Nancy Salzman, who told her that was normal.

Nancy Salzman, exits following a hearing on charges in relation to the Albany based organization Nxivm at the United States Federal Courthouse in Brooklyn at New York..JPG
Nancy Salzman exits following a hearing on charges in relation to the Albany-based organization Nxivm at the United States Federal Courthouse in Brooklyn at New York. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

Raniere had DOS masters and their slaves eat between 500 and 900 calories daily and complete a daily workout regimen to stay thin and underweight.

Mack tasked Oxenberg with losing so much weight that her weight goal was that of her 12-year-old self, Oxenberg said. She had to ask Mack permission to eat anything, and texted her exact calories to get that approval.

While on this dangerously restrictive diet, Oxenberg's hair started to fall out. Worried, Oxenberg alerted Nxivm co-founder Nancy Salzman, who told Oxenberg hair loss was normal during diets, and it happened whenever she dieted.

Oxenberg, Mack, and other DOS members stopped getting their periods due to the extreme weight loss too.

Raniere used nighttime walks to become close with, and then sexually assault, DOS women.

NXIVM cult leader Keith Raniere stands during his sentencing hearing in a sex trafficking and racketeering case inside the Brooklyn Federal Courthouse in New York, on October 27, 2020 in this courtroom sketch.
NXIVM cult leader Keith Raniere stands during his sentencing hearing in a sex trafficking and racketeering case inside the Brooklyn Federal Courthouse in New York, on October 27, 2020 in this courtroom sketch. REUTERS/Jane Rosenberg

After being in DOS for about six months, Oxenberg said she noticed Raniere taking more interest in her, and he asked her to meet him for his ritual of nighttime walks.

Raniere would sleep during the day and stay up late walking around Clifton Park, New York — a suburb of Albany where Nxivm was located. He said nighttime walks were when he got his best thinking done.

When Oxenberg got Raniere's invitation to join, she thought it was because she earned his mentorship, and his help on her business plan, because she completed a once-and-done assignment to seduce him.

But following Oxenberg's first walk with Raniere, Mack told Oxenberg she had to continue sending Raniere nude photos and bow to his sexual requests, which included "up close" images of Oxenberg's vagina and non-consensual oral sex, she said in the docuseries.

"Keith told me sending these pictures was a practice in pushing myself out of my comfort zone," Oxenberg said, adding that this went on for a year.

She didn't know other DOS women were being forced into sending similar pictures and having sex with Raniere because they didn't talk about it.

"I thought that everything that we were doing related to vulnerability, or related to submission, or for our personal growth was for us, but really it was all just tools to prepare us for something like this," Oxenberg said of Raniere's grooming methods.

Raniere's history of sexual assault and child abuse dates back to pre-Nxivm days.

In this courtroom drawing, defendant Keith Raniere, center, is seated between his attorneys Paul DerOhannesian, left, and Marc Agnifilo during the first day of his sex trafficking trial, Tuesday, May 7, 2019. Raniere, the former leader of the self help group called NXIVM, has pleaded not guilty to the charges that he turned his followers into sex slaves. (Elizabeth Williams via AP)
In this courtroom drawing, defendant Keith Raniere, center, is seated between his attorneys Paul DerOhannesian, left, and Marc Agnifilo during the first day of his sex trafficking trial, Tuesday, May 7, 2019. Raniere, the former leader of the self help group called NXIVM, has pleaded not guilty to the charges that he turned his followers into sex slaves. (Elizabeth Williams via AP) Associated Press

Nxivm and DOS, where Raniere was found guilty of child sex trafficking, weren't the first places he was accused of sexually abusing children.

In the third episode of "Seduced," an anonymous woman said that Raniere and her mother became friends when they worked together at Consumer Buyline, another multi-level marketing company.

Her mother hired Raniere to be a tutor. She was 12 at the time when Raniere sexually abused her, she said.

Raniere imagined DOS as a network of thousands of "slaves," and that they'd have government power.

The exterior of the former townhome of NXIVM founder Keith Raniere at 3 Flintlock Lane in Clifton Park, New York on Thursday, May 3, 2018.
The exterior of the former townhome of NXIVM founder Keith Raniere at 3 Flintlock Lane in Clifton Park, New York on Thursday, May 3, 2018. Photo by Amy Luke/Getty Images

Raniere and Mack told slaves underneath them in DOS that they needed to recruit their own slaves to grow the network, Oxenberg said.

She said Raniere's goal was to make DOS comprise of thousands of women.

In one piece of video footage, Raniere is shown saying (to no one in particular) he wants to get DOS slaves involved in government so they can spread the ideas he taught and they followed through society.

Oxenberg underwent a psychiatric evaluation to prove she wasn't brainwashed. Nxivm executive Clare Bronfman paid for it.

ClareBronfman.JPG
Clare Bronfman, an heiress of the Seagram's liquor empire, arrives for a hearing at the Brooklyn Federal Courthouse. BRENDAN MCDERMID/ Reuters

Following a October 2017 New York Times exposé about the cult, Raniere and other high-ranking members doubled down on efforts to disprove the story's claims.

Oxenberg was forced to write Facebook posts saying she was fine and chose to be part of the group, which Raniere approved before she posted. The group also had her undergo a psychiatric evaluation.

It was paid for by Clare Bronfman, a Seagram's liquor fortune heiress who also paid Raniere's legal fees when he sued people who left Nxivm.

Since leaving Nxivm, Oxenberg said she now realizes the evaluation was a hoax to protect Raniere.

"The conclusion was that I was fine. I guess money can pay for any diagnosis you need," Oxenberg said in the fourth and final docuseries episode. 

When Raniere escaped to Mexico, DOS and Nxivm member Nicki Clyne accidentally revealed his location in an Instagram post. It led to Raniere's arrest.

nicki clyne
Kena Betancur via Getty Images

In November 2o17, Raniere fled to Mexico along with Allison Mack, Nicki Clyne, and other DOS members, while Oxenberg remained in Mack's Brooklyn apartment.

The FBI was investigating Raniere and attempting to track him down, when Clyne shared an Instagram post of a popular Puerto Vallarta landmark and mistakenly revealed their location, Catherine Oxenberg said in "Seduced."

Soon after, Mexican police arrived at Raniere's compound with machine guns and deported him back to the US.

Flash drive audio files proved Raniere was behind the DOS branding, which contained his initials.

Scarred sarah edmondson NXIVM book
Sarah Edmondson was branded during her brief time in DOS. Chronicle Books

Following Raniere's arrest, Oxenberg found flash drives in her duffel bag that contained incriminating audio files.

In the files, Raniere, who claimed he had no part in DOS, gives detailed instruction to unnamed women about what the brands should look like on women's bodies and how the branding rituals should take place.

He also told Mack to film each woman's branding procedure from multiple angles, and to save the footage to hold them accountable for their loyalty to DOS.

Oxenberg turned these flash drives over to the FBI and their contents played a major role in Raniere's guilty verdict and sentencing.

One member said Nxivm teachings caused her psychotic break. In 2003, another Nxivm follower disappeared from training, left a suicide note, and never returned.

In this courtroom sketch Keith Raniere, second from right, leader of the secretive group NXIVM, attends a court hearing Friday, April 13, 2018.
In this courtroom sketch Keith Raniere, second from right, leader of the secretive group NXIVM, attends a court hearing Friday, April 13, 2018. Elizabeth Williams via AP

Though much of the media coverage on Nxivm focuses on former members who escaped and worked towards recovering from cult-induced trauma, that wasn't the case for everyone.

"Seduced" said Nxivm trainings would sometimes lead members to have mental breakdowns.

Ana Cecilia, who was in Nxivm for 6 months starting in 2002, recounted what she described as a "psychotic break" after taking a series of Nxivm courses in Albany headquarters.

Cecilia traveled there from Mexico, and said both the course and co-founder Nancy Salzman's comments made her question what was real and what was fake, to the point that she was sent back to her hotel room to rest.

When her boyfriend came to check on her and take her back to the Nxivm course, Cecilia said, she ran out of the hotel naked, screaming, and making a scene.

In another case, a member named Kristin Marie Snyder left a suicide note that other members found after she disappeared during a Nxivm training in 2003. She was never found.

In "Seduced," former members said Snyder wrote in her suicide note that the trainings brainwashed her.

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