For Catherine Oxenberg, the “red flags” she could never quite see suddenly came into sharp, horrifying focus one afternoon last April when a friend reached out with news about her eldest daughter, India.
For the past several years, the former Dynasty actress had grown concerned about how increasingly “reserved, distant and burdened” her daughter had become after joining Nxivm, a controversial self-empowerment group in 2011.
But it wasn’t until her conversation with a friend, Bonnie Piesse, who had left Nxivm months earlier, that all the pieces to the terrifying puzzle fell into place.
“You need to save your daughter,” Piesse, 34, told Oxenberg. “You need to save India.”
By the time Piesse had finished detailing India’s role in what Oxenberg, 56, calls a “secret sisterhood” within Nxivm, she says she felt “sick to my stomach” and desperate to piece together everything she could about the organization she believes has “brainwashed” her 26-year-old daughter.
The more Oxenberg learned, the more determined she became to do whatever she could to get her out of the organization.
For the past two decades, an estimated 16,000 people have paid as much as $3400.00 for an executive coaching workshop offered by the Albany, N.Y-based group. Nxivm’s founder, Keith Raniere, 57, known as “Vanguard” to his followers, promises to take participants on a journey of personal discovery and development.
But insiders who have left Nxivm—and scores reportedly have in recent months—paint a disturbing picture of what life is like for the group’s most hardcore followers.
Watch the full episode of People Features: Catherine Oxenberg – Trying to Save My Daughter, streaming now on PeopleTV. Go to PeopleTV.com, or download the PeopleTV app on your favorite mobile or connected TV device.
“It was the most painful, traumatic moment of my life,” recalls Sarah Edmondson, who was branded last March below her hip with what she later found out were Raniere’s initials during an initiation rite for what she described as the same “secret women’s group” that India belonged to.
The 40-year-old Canadian actress, who says she left the group shortly after being branded by a “cauterizing iron,” found her way to Nxivm in 2005.
She became convinced after a five-day class, she says, that Raniere’s teachings could help make her a “better actress and figure out what was stopping me from booking more auditions.”
She was soon telling all her friends about the group and quickly went from being a student to a coach, then began running workshops for Nxivm and helping run the organization’s center in Vancouver, British Columbia.
“It was like a whole spring cleaning of my belief systems,” Edmondson recalls initially thinking. “I had huge shifts in my awareness and understanding of why I was the way that I was and how to change those things, and many of those things did change in that short period of time.”
As the years passed, she says she began to detect a “weird and dark” side to the organization that culminated with her being invited to join what she was told was a “top-secret, life-changing” women’s group in January.
But there was just one catch. Edmondson says she was urged to give a sort of “collateral, something to verify and confirm” that she would never tell anyone about the group’s existence. Reluctantly, she handed over a “nude photo,” she says, “along with some other things.”
In March, Edmondson was invited to Albany for her initiation ceremony with five other women.
One by one, the women stripped and took turns laying on a massage table, Edmondson says, while the others held down their arms and legs as the white-hot iron cut into their flesh.
The pain, she says, was unbearable. “It was like something out of a horror movie,” she recalls.
Piesse last saw Oxenberg’s daughter not long before she left Nxivm in January 2017, a few months before Edmondson’s departure.
“India was in a bad situation,” Piesse says. “One time she told me that she wasn’t going to eat for three days [out of] penance to try and correct her behavior.”
She recalls becoming alarmed in 2015 over one “extremely thin” female member who she pull aside and said, “I’m really worried because you look so thin. I think you’re sick.”
Piesse says the woman replied by telling her, “No, I’m doing better than ever. Keith is measuring my calories and he says I’m doing fine.”
Edmondson says she met women in the sisterhood who told her they weren’t allowed to eat more than 800 calories per day.
Oxenberg last saw India, whom she describes as being “superskinny,” in May when she returned to Los Angeles for her birthday.
Her mother begged her daughter to get help and leave Nxivm, but she dismissed her concerns and returned to Albany the next day.
On Oct. 19, India posted a message on her Facebook page: “I’m absolutely fine, great actually. I would never put myself or the people I love into any danger.”
Piesse’s husband Mark Vicente, 52, who served on the Nxivm’s executive board, explains that he “was horrified” when he finally began “to piece this stuff together.”
He confronted Raniere in April, he says, telling him, “Look, I don’t know what is going on, but it ain’t good.”
Raniere, he claims, replied, “I’m not sure what you’re talking about.”
Vicente says he exclaimed, “Dude, there’s no way you don’t know what’s going on.”
Nxivm did not respond to numerous interview requests and calls from PEOPLE.
In response to a recent New York Times article about the organization and India, Nxivm issued a statement calling the story “a criminal product of criminal minds.” Recent allegations about the group have prompted the New York State Govenor’s Counsel to launch a review into the matter.
- With reporting by LIZ MCNEIL