It was a moment that filled Dynasty actress Catherine Oxenberg with abject horror.
In May of last year, as she was driving her daughter, India, to a doctor’s appointment in Manhattan, she asked her: “India, have you been branded?” India, then 25, was deeply involved in a sinister group of which Catherine knew very little. “Yes, Mom, I have been branded,” India told her, blankly. “But why is that a problem? It’s been a good experience for me.”
Catherine’s dismay was all the greater because, in a sense, it was she who had set in train the events that brought her daughter to this low point in her life. After India had been reeling from a failed business venture in 2011, Catherine had decided to try to lift her spirits by enrolling her in a New York-based life coaching and business course called Executive Success Programmes.
Catherine believed the course would augment India’s entrepreneurial skills. Instead, she watched as her daughter slipped further and further into an organisation which placed ever greater strains on her finances and mental health. Eventually Catherine began to take matters into her own hands and started investigating this nefarious group which had started to exert such control over her daughter. She began to chronicle her findings in what would become a book: Captive: A Mother’s Crusade to Save Her Daughter from a Terrifying Cult. In it, Oxenberg juxtaposes her personal journey from mother to cult buster. And she charts how her efforts led to the involvement of law enforcement and headlines all around the world.
For many years Nxivm (pronounced ‘Nexium’), the umbrella organisation for Executive Success Programs, had peddled a sort of strange mixture of self-help and life coaching on both sides of the Atlantic. The organisation had offices all over the world, including one in Belfast, and a cheerful corporate-meets-new age image, but there were constantly rumours that it had a more sinister side. Last year, Nxivm’s reputation started to unravel publicly after, thanks in part to Catherine Oxenberg’s efforts, The New York Times reported that women, who were part of a secret harem within the group, were physically branded with a symbol that contained group leader Keith Raniere’s initials.
The revelations led to authorities moving on the company. Attention around the case was also stoked by the involvement of several household names, including the Smallville actress, Allison Mack.
In March, Raniere was charged in an American court with coercing women into having sex with him by threatening to reveal damaging personal secrets they had disclosed in order to join the sexual sorority.
The spring charges were the culmination of years of various nets beginning to close around Nxivm. It seems that even as allegations continued to pile up against Raniere, he was defended financially and legally by Clare Bronfman, heiress to the Seagram’s drinks fortune. How and why Bronfman fell under the spell of this cult leader will be at the heart of the upcoming criminal case – it is due to be heard in New York next year. Her metamorphosis from society dame to criminal defendant, court filings suggest, appears to be the story of a child of wealth who fell under the influence of a skilful manipulator who offered power, a sense of purpose and emotional security. And yet there are those who allege that, far from being some hapless victim, she was a driving force behind an organisation whose nefarious dealings put Scientology in the shade.
Bronfman’s arrest this summer was all the more dramatic because of her family’s standing in New York business and philanthropic circles. Her father, Edgar senior, was a major benefactor of Jewish organisations, and several of the five children from his first marriage have had high-profile careers; Clare’s brother, Edgar Bronfman Jr, once served as chief executive of Warner Music. Her parents split when she was four and she divided her childhood between her father’s many American estates and Kenya and England where her mother was alternately based. It was Sara Bronfman, Clare’s younger sister, who first introduced her sister to Nxivm in the early 2000s. The group, which was based in Albany, New York, offered its members workshops that, it said, were designed to help participants achieve greater life satisfaction by removing emotional and psychological impediments to personal fulfilment.
Read more: Explainer: What exactly is going on with Smallville actress Allison Mack and NXIVM, the ‘abusive sex cult’
These were alluring goals for India Oxenberg, who, in 2011 was also yearning for some deeper meaning in her life. The business coaching quickly fell by the wayside. Soon, at the behest of Raniere, she was put on a severe diet and signed away her financial independence to become part of a secret sorority in which she was treated as a slave. She was branded with his initials, and forced to follow orders at the risk of punishment or public humiliation. According to court documents – and unbeknownst to many of the initiates – Raniere, known to all of the women in Nxivm as “Vanguard”, was the ultimate “master” behind the whole operation. And yet most of them knew very little about him. As Catherine Oxenberg would later discover, Raniere was a fellow New Yorker with a long and chequered history. He grew up in New York, about two hours south of Albany. His father was in advertising and his mother was a dance teacher who died when Raniere was 17. He went to a local polytechnic where he got a science diploma and after college started a business called Consumers’ Buyline. It collapsed in 1994, because various state and federal authorities suspected it was a pyramid scheme. After that, Raniere re-branded himself as a self-help guru. He founded a business called Executive Success Programs, which later became part of Nxivm, and began recruiting followers in the US, Mexico and Canada, including as many high-profile names as he could. Members spread the legend of Raniere as a Dalai Lama-like figure: a humanitarian who developed a system that could unleash anybody’s true potential and create a better, more ethical world in the process.
A lot of what has come out so far about Nxivm and Raniere comes from Catherine Oxenberg’s memoir, which was written while India was still under the influence of the group. “I just wanted my daughter back,” says Oxenberg, who is the daughter of Princess Elizabeth of Yugoslavia, and as such is 1,375th in line to the British throne. The catalyst to do so was a call from a former Nxivm member, who approached Catherine and said she had to try to save her daughter. When India revealed she had been branded, Oxenberg was impelled to take more decisive action. As she recalls: “India kept telling me ‘I haven’t been brainwashed. This was all my decision’.” Oxenberg took matters into her own hands, compiling research, speaking to former members and cult experts and putting the information into a report. She presented that report to the New York Attorney General and the FBI, which, in part, led to their investigation of the group, which resulted in several arrests.
But her crusade further alienated her daughter, who, by then, had begun recruiting friends to the group and had moved to Albany, New York, where Nxivm was headquartered. It wasn’t until June, after Nxivm announced it was suspending its operations, that Oxenberg reunited with her daughter and they began to rebuild their strained relationship.
Parental involvement in Nxivm was something of a theme for the organisation over the years. About 15 years ago, Clare Bronfman’s father, Edgar Sr, took some of the same VIP Nxivm courses that would later be offered to Catherine Oxenberg, but the businessman, like the actress, quickly became disillusioned with the group’s message. When a 2003 Forbes article depicted Nxivm as a cult, Raniere suspected Edgar Bronfman Sr of being behind it. This was a source of great tension in the Bronfman family, even as Clare continued to rise through the ranks of Nxivm and pumped tens of millions of her family’s fortunes into the group.
If the Oxenbergs were a thorn in Raniere’s side, Clare Bronfman, it is alleged, was his right-hand woman. Prosecutors allege that Bronfman was involved in helping Raniere use the credit card of a girlfriend of his who had died, and that she was involved in the recruitment of Allison Mack, the Smallville actress, who, it was hoped, would do for Nxivm what Tom Cruise had done for Scientology (Mack has also been charged with helping supply ‘sex slaves’ to Raniere). For more than a decade, Clare and Sara used their substantial fortunes to underwrite Nxivm in a variety of ways. To raise Raniere’s profile, they once arranged for the Dalai Lama to visit New York.
Even as suspicions mounted about Raniere, Clare Bronfman continued to defend him. On her father’s deathbed, she asked him to record a message denouncing his previous denouncement of Raniere. At the end of last year, she released a statement that described the sorority as a voluntary group whose members benefited from it. “I’ve seen so much good come from both our programs and from Keith himself,” she wrote on her Facebook page. “It would be a tragedy to lose the innovative and transformational ideas and tools that continue to improve the lives of so many.”
Even as she wrote these words, the Justice Department’s investigation into Nxivm was underway, and the story’s more lurid aspects – sex trafficking and human branding – had created a media feeding frenzy, the phrase “sex cult” was already being thrown around and it became known that Clare and Sara Bronfman had pumped $150m of their fortune into Nxivm. The New York Times also reported that Clare was behind the $10m bail that Raniere offered in his criminal case.
In fact, Bronfman would end up needing every penny of her remaining fortune for her own bail. She was arrested in July and her own bond was set at $100m.
During a hearing in a Brooklyn courtroom, she sat on a wooden bench, looking agitated and desolate while she held the hands of her mother and her sister’s husband. They had come to court to assure the judge that they would make certain she complied with the terms of her release.
While they answered questions, Bronfman, who was wearing a thin blue jumper and baggy blue trousers, wiped at her eyes with a tissue. Across from her on a bench sat Raniere, his once lustrously dark tresses now alarmingly grey. The loss of his influence and colourful sex life, might be bad enough, but, even more alarmingly, they don’t allow hair dye in prison.
Catherine Oxenberg, meanwhile, continues to rebuild her life with her daughter to whom she gives the credit. “She figured it out,” Catherine told Megyn Kelly in early October. “She did it. She’s the hero in all of this.”
Famous following: Hollywood stars with links to cults
Glenn Close’s parents joined the Moral Re-Armament (MRA) cult, an extreme conservative group, when she was seven years old. Her family remained involved in the group for 15 years, living in several communal centres. Practices and beliefs were based around four absolutes: absolute honesty, absolute purity, absolute unselfishness, and absolute love. Close went to boarding school, but also toured the world with the MRA singing group, Up With People, until she was in college. Interestingly, she now claims that being in the cult helped her with her acting career, as she always had to pretend she believed what the group told her.
When Michelle Pfeiffer first moved to Los Angeles at 20 years of age, she become involved with a couple who believed in breatharianism – the ability to live without food or water, as sunlight will allegedly provide all the nourishment you need. The couple worked with others, putting them on diets and showing them how to lift weights. Only people who had reach the highest state of “enlightenment” were true breatharians. She was ”saved” when she was introduced to her first husband, Peter Horton, the actor. He had been cast in a film about the Moonies, the name given to followers of Rev Moon Sun-myung’s Unification Church. She said that while she was helping him with research “on this cult” she realised: “I was in one”
Phoenix’s parents were missionaries for the cult, Children of God. The cult later became infamous for its seedy sex practices, and, horrifyingly, its abuse of children. Thankfully, the family left the cult while Phoenix was still young. “The Children of God was a Christian sex cult. They believed that sex was a sacrament, and that sort of everyone should be engaged in it. And this, you know, extended to sort of partner swapping”, said Gavin Edwards, author of Last Night at the Viper Room. The family of actress Rose MacGowan were also involved in the same cult for a while but they left and she was not sexually interfered with.
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