The Real Story Behind Lifetime's 'Escaping The NXIVM Cult' Movie Is Terrifying

Korin Miller
Photo credit: Conversations With Keith Raniere

From Women's Health

When something scandalous happens IRL, it's not long before Lifetime makes a campy, must-watch movie about it. Case in point: The channel's newest film, Escaping the NXIVM Cult: A Mother’s Fight to Save Her Daughter, which is based on a true story (that also, btw, happens to be truly bizarre).

The fictionalized film version centers on real-life actress Catherine Oxenberg, best known for playing Amanda Carrington on Dynasty in the 1980s. She takes her 20-year-old daughter, India, to a leadership seminar from a new organization called NXIVM, led by the "extremely enigmatic" Keith Raniere, according to Lifetime's official film description.

Just as in real life, the film shows Catherine quickly getting the sense that something is off with the organization, while India gets sucked in. Eventually, the young woman joins a secret sorority of female NXIVM members who are branded with the cult leader’s initials, ordered to maintain a restricted diet, and forced to recruit other women as sex slaves. Catherine must try to get India back—and will stop at nothing until she does.

While the film's premise certainly seems like a work of fiction, it was actually inspired by Catherine's nonfiction book, Captive: A Mother's Crusade to Save Her Daughter from the Terrifying Cult Nxivm. Here’s what you need to know about the real-life NXIVM cult:

At first, NXIVM seemed like a self-help organization.

The now-infamous cult was originally founded by Raniere in the '90s in upstate New York, according to The New York Times. He set himself up as a self-help guru and humanitarian, even though his motives were far more sinister.

Photo credit: Conversations With Keith Raniere

Women were called "slaves" and sexually assaulted in the name of "fulfillment."

Women were recruited into NXIVM and some, including Catherine's daughter India, even became involved in an elite "sorority" within the cult called "Dos." Those women then recruited other women into the organization as "slaves," which was presented as an avenue toward "fulfillment," according to The New York Times. Their sensitive personal information was taken and used to control them.

One such woman, who was only identified in court documents as Nicole, told the story of how Raniere led her to a house blindfolded, ordered her to undress, and tied her wrists and ankles to a table. He then asked questions about her sexual history as someone performed oral sex on her. "I was so confused," Nicole said in court, per the Times. "It’s terrifying."

Women were branded with Raniere's initials.

Yes, that kind of branded. Raniere designed a sacrifice-like ritual in which women were nude, strapped to a table, and branded with his initials, per the Times. India was one of those women, according to Catherine's book.

Not only that, but Raniere said in a recording that later came out in court: "The person should ask to be branded. She should say, 'Please brand me. It would be an honor'—or something like that—'an honor I want to wear for the rest of my life.'"

Besides Catherine and India, some other big names were involved in the NXIVM cult.

Smallville actress Allison Mack and Seagram's heir Claire Bronfman were charged with sex trafficking, kidnapping, money laundering and other charges for coercing women into having sex with Raniere, per the Times. Mack pleaded guilty to racketeering and racketeering conspiracy, facing up to 20 years in prison if convicted, according to Newsweek.

NXIVM's cofounder admitted to tracking women in the cult.

Nancy Salzman, who cofounded the cult with Raniere, pled guilty to racketeering conspiracy, confessing in court that she monitored the usernames and passwords of suspected moles in the group to make sure they weren’t leaking information. She also admitted to ordering people to "destroy video tapes."

"I want you to know I am pleading guilty because I am, in fact, guilty," she said, sobbing, per the New York Post. "I accept that some of the things I did were not just wrong, but sometimes criminal."

Photo credit: Amy Luke - Getty Images

Raniere was found guilty, too.

In June 2019, NXIVM's leader was convicted of multiple charges, including sex trafficking, conspiracy, racketeering, and possession of child pornography, according to NBC News. Raniere's sentencing has been delayed until 2020.

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