Catherine Oxenberg's Daughter Was 'Branded' with 'Cult' Leader's Initials: 'I Was Horrified'
"I could never believe anything that like that could have happened to my daughter," Oxenberg tells PEOPLE.
It was a moment that filled Catherine Oxenberg with horror and despair. In May 2017, as she was driving her daughter, India, to a doctor’s appointment, she asked her: “India, have you been branded?”
India, then 25, was deeply involved in a controversial group called Nxivm, which billed itself as a “self help” group, but which Oxenberg and other former members claim is a “cult,” led by Keith Raniere, whom members refer to as “Vanguard.”
“Yes, Mom, I have been branded,” India told her. “But why is that a problem? It’s been a good experience for me.”
“I was horrified,” Oxenberg tells PEOPLE. “It was horror and disbelief. I could never believe anything like that could have happened to my daughter. It seems so aberrant and it was so twisted. And how had it gone from a group about ‘self help’ to suddenly being about branding women? “
Oxenberg, 56, tells the story in her new memoir Captive: A Mother’s Crusade to Save Her Daughter from a Terrifying Cult, which was cowritten by former PEOPLE writer Natasha Stoynoff. The story is featured in this week’s PEOPLE, on stands Friday.
The new book details her efforts to save India and convince her of the dangers of the group led by Raniere, who was arrested in March 2018 by federal officials on charges of sex trafficking, racketeering and money laundering. Raniere is currently in prison awaiting trial next year.
In the process of trying to get her daughter out of Nxivm, Catherine learned that India was part of a secret group of women within the group, who were recruited to be “slaves,” put on a starvation diet and were branded with Raniere’s initials with a cauterizing pen.
• For more on Catherine Oxenberg and Nxivm, pick up this week’s issue of PEOPLE, on stands Friday
Oxenberg, who costarred on Dynasty in the ’80s, had been careful about how to approach the issue with her daughter. Their relationship was strained after Oxenberg fought to expose Nxivm, contacting law enforcement with a plea to investigate the group. At the same time, she did not want to alienate her daughter, who had moved to Albany, where the group was headquartered, and was then home on a rare visit.
“When I confronted her, I was concerned. I wasn’t angry at her,” says Oxenberg. “She admitted it was true and she didn’t think there was a problem with it and I explained gently that there was a problem that she didn’t think it was a problem. How they had ‘normalized’ it. And then I began to realize how indoctrination really works — and it works because it can change the way you think.”
“I told her it was Keith’s initials and she seemed surprised,” notes Oxenberg. “She thought it was something else and she said it was a Latin symbol. And I said ‘You mean you don’t know what is marked on your body permanently?’ And she said whatever it was, didn’t matter and they were told whatever it was, would be ‘strengthening.’”
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After going public with her story to save her daughter in PEOPLE last fall, Oxenberg met with state investigators and helped trigger a massive investigation by the New York State Attorney General’s office which led to the arrest of not only Raniere but also other senior members, including Smallville actress Allison Mack, who was also charged with sex trafficking and forced labor conspiracy, according to a statement by the United State Attorney for the Eastern District of New York. Mack is now out on bail, awaiting trial.
All of the defendants have pleaded not guilty to their charges.
Meanwhile, Oxenberg is in the gradual process of rebuilding her relationship with her daughter, who has left the group: “She is moving forward with her life and will share her story when she is ready.”