India Oxenberg can vividly recall how she ended up involved with a cult.
The daughter of actress Catherine Oxenberg was recruited to NXIVM's master-slave sorority known as DOS by "Smallville" alum Allison Mack.
"I was 19 years old when I was recruited by members of a cult called NXIVM," the 30-year-old told People magazine on Thursday. "I felt directionless at the time and was looking for structure and guidance. I felt vulnerable and ill-equipped for life on my own."
"I thought I needed to know certain things about myself to move forward with my goals and dreams," she shared. "I believed that NXIVM, and the people there, could mentor me toward becoming stronger and more capable of starting my own small business and help me in my own self-discovery."
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Looking back at her experience, Oxenberg said it wasn't difficult to "trust them" initially.
"These people seemed like they had it all together," she explained to the outlet. "They were intelligent, successful, and charismatic. These were all the things I wanted for myself. Little did I know, at the time, that this facade was one of many consumer-front products and companies used to lure, target, and recruit new members."
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"Targeted recruits were unprotected and malleable, but also people who provided value," said Oxenberg. "The trickier part of it all was that from the outside looking in, a lot of it could pass as a normal, seemingly legitimate, company with at the very least some unconventional practices - or alternative, as they would describe them."
Mack, 38, was once part of the inner circle of NXIVM leader Keith Raniere, whose group had millionaires and actors among its adherents. Prosecutors said she became a "master" for "slaves" she ordered "to perform labor, take nude photographs, and in some cases, to engage in sex acts with Raniere."
Oxenberg said she "was groomed for the leader of NXIVM through his higher-rank members and the education that they taught."
"It wasn't until I entered into the higher controlled group that he actually had sexual access to me because of the blackmail and the grooming done by Allison Mack," said Oxenberg. "It made me an easier target for that kind of abuse because he knew I wouldn't and couldn't tell anyone anything. Two of those years were spent in an even higher controlled inner circle within the organization that maintained secrecy with the use of blackmail, extortion, and destabilization of its victims/recruits to the point where we were incapable of making our own sound decisions."
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"For my own sanity and safety, it was easier to accept the lies and not consider that it was nefarious or that the 'lies' were not the truth," she said. "In other words, there is a normalization and concealment of the perpetrators' behavior so that outsiders would have no idea what they were getting themselves into."
Today, Oxenberg said she hopes her story will serve as an example of how anyone can be vulnerable to "manipulation." One of the biggest red flags, she noted, is when someone attempts to isolate you from your family and loved ones. And force from a predator isn't always physical.
"When someone tries to coerce you, it is difficult to actually see the reality of the situation when you're conditioned and gaslighted into questioning your own instincts," she said. "This creates confusion and chaos, and it becomes difficult to know who to trust when the primary person - yourself - is no longer a safe place to come back to. Your whole world becomes about supporting the perpetrators' lies as they try to diminish your value and confidence in your ability to make decisions outside of the lies you're being told."
"In my experience, leaders tried to normalize sex and intimacy as part of my duties to the group, telling me that my issues had to do with intimacy and that I didn't have the choice to not 'complete the assignment,'" Oxenberg added.
Oxenberg is on a path to healing - but the road isn't easy.
"After I left NXIVM and processed my experiences, there were moments where I felt shame and guilt," she admitted. "These are emotions that many survivors face after experiencing abuse or sexual violence. People often ask: 'How could this have happened?' The answers aren't simple, but one of the most important things I've learned, that I want to share with you, is that when abuse happens, it is not your fault. It doesn't matter what you wear, who you trust, whether you drink or are at a party, there is nothing you can do to deserve to experience violence. The shame, the guilt, and the blame always belong to the perpetrators.
"Whether you experienced sexual violence on your college campus or with a trusted community group, it's not your fault, and taking care of yourself after experiencing trauma is important. Whether it happened recently or years ago, self-care can help you cope with the short- and long-term effects of trauma like sexual assault."
In June, Mack was sentenced to three years in prison on charges she manipulated women into becoming sex slaves for the self-improvement guru. Raniere was sentenced last year to 120 years in prison for his conviction on sex trafficking charges. A 41-year-old heir to the Seagram's fortune, Clare Bronfman, was sentenced to nearly seven years in prison in September for her role as Raniere's unwavering benefactor.