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India Oxenberg opens up about NXIVM cult leader Keith Raniere

The 29-year-old appeared with 14 other women in court to give victim impact statements at Keith Raniere’s sentencing last week.
/ Source: TODAY

Two years after leaving what prosecutors called a "cult-like" organization that she said abused her physically and psychologically, India Oxenberg faced NXIVM leader Keith Raniere on a cathartic day in court in which he was sentenced to 120 years in prison on charges that include sex trafficking and racketeering.

Oxenberg, 29, was one of 15 women who appeared in court at Raniere's sentencing last week to give victim impact statements.

"There was something about being in that room and seeing these women speak and the amount of resilience — it was inspiring," she said during an interview with TODAY's Hoda Kotb. "I felt so much stronger just being with them.

"There was something about the closure that I needed. I needed him to know that no one was going to believe his lies anymore, and that felt really good."

Oxenberg was overwhelmed after hearing the verdict against Raniere.

"It was kind of remarkable," she said. "It was shocking to me in the moment because it was just starting to sink in."

NXIVM (NEHK'-see-uhm) was a shadowy group based in Albany, New York, that appeared on the surface to offer expensive self-improvement workshops but prosecutors said it eventually employed tactics like psychological manipulation, isolating members from family and friends and sexual and mental abuse.

Oxenberg is sharing her agonizing experiences with the group in the Starz docuseries "Seduced: Inside the NXIVM Cult," which airs on Sunday night, in which she details abuse at the hands of Raniere and former "Smallville" actor Allison Mack, the latter of whom has pleaded guilty to racketeering charges and is awaiting sentencing.

Oxenberg and her mom, former "Dynasty" star Catherine Oxenberg, spoke extensively on TODAY Friday about the traumatizing experience with the organization led by Raniere.

"We had a deprogrammer mediate, and it took months and months and months," Catherine Oxenberg said about her daughter's therapy after leaving the group. "And I will tell you the most painful thing, because I expected this big, open-armed reunion, was her looking at me and saying, 'I know I love you, but I can't feel it.'"

"He not only silenced people, he threatened them," India Oxenberg said about Raniere. "There were many people who were terrified to speak out.

"That's why I think anybody who leaves a group like this is incredibly brave and deserves that respect because, I've said it before, it takes the average woman seven times to leave an abusive relationship. Now imagine that from an entire organization. It's very difficult."

The mother and daughter initially started in the group together in 2011 with the belief that it was simply a series of seminars.

"I was 19 years old, looking for structure and guidance, and I thought that this was the thing that I needed," India Oxenberg said. "And so I went all in from that perspective."

Catherine Oxenberg, who was the one who first suggested the two attend seminars, quickly grew skeptical but acquiesced when her daughter asked to take more classes. She ultimately quit the group, while her daughter got sucked in deeper and deeper.

"Not being able to reach her, at first, was incredibly confusing," Catherine Oxenberg told Hoda. "She was there physically, but inside she was a different person. When I looked in her eyes, I didn't recognize her anymore. And that's a very scary thing."

"I thought at the time that I was 'individuating' because that's what I was being told," India Oxenberg said. "When the reality was, I was actually being changed."

Five years after joining NXIVM, India Oxenberg said she joined a secret sorority within the organization called DOS, and she said it involved master-slave relationships. Those who were indoctrinated also were required to hand over collateral, whether it was photographs or damaging private information, in order to demonstrate their loyalty to the group, she said.

"Back in the beginning, when I found out, the first thing I said was, 'I know you've given collateral about me, I couldn't care less what you've said about me,''' Catherine Oxenberg said. "Don't let that be the reason you stay in. Don't think twice."

"At that point, I was too in, and I was too indoctrinated and too scared, really, to look at the truth," India Oxenberg said. "And I couldn't. At that point, I retreated back to NXIVM even deeper."

The slaves had to ask permission from their masters to be able to eat or sleep and were often asked to dramatically lose weight, according to India Oxenberg. She said in the docuseries that she was limited to 500 calories per day at one point.

"I was actually being told that I was on a diet for discipline and to build character and to improve my ability to be precise," she told Hoda. "I had to ask permission for any calories that I was going to consume. ... I would have to say, 'Master, may I have 100 calories?' And my entire day was consumed with when I could eat, what I could eat."

The weight-loss directive came from Raniere, according to India Oxenberg.

"Because he is perverted, and he is a sexual predator that preys specifically on young women," she said. "And he desired the body of a 12-year-old. And he actually required me to be 106 pounds."

She said that as part of DOS, she and other women were also branded with what they later learned were Raniere's initials.

He exploited our trust.

"We were lied to," she told Hoda. "We were told that we were going to get a tiny little tattoo like the size of a quarter. When we were branded, we actually thought that it was a bonding experience. He exploited our trust in that way immensely."

Dr. Janja Lalich, an author and cult expert, said the women's mental states at that point resulted in no one questioning the branding.

"We have to remember that these women were in a very closed reality, and everything around them, every input, was reinforcing this one belief: Do everything to make Keith happy," Lalich says on the docuseries.

In a bid to get her daughter back, Catherine Oxenberg launched a media campaign against NXIVM in 2017 and worked with authorities investigating Raniere. The NXIVM leader and several other members of his inner circle were arrested in 2018, and India Oxenberg finally left the group.

"It's been a very intense process," Catherine Oxenberg said about her daughter's recovery. "I will say, she's 100% and maybe 200% back, and I'm so grateful."

India Oxenberg has now written a memoir about her experiences and gotten engaged, while her mom is grateful for her daughter's return to her life.

"I feel so incredibly just blessed to have this love," Catherine Oxenberg said. "It's kind of like, OK, as a mom and a daughter, you know you love each other, but it's kind of in the closet. But we, it's out there. I love her unconditionally.

"I'll say this: Mothers and daughters united can change the world. They really can move mountains."