How Dy­nasty star Cather­ine res­cued her daugh­ter from a sin­is­ter cult

New Yorker Keith Raniere styled him­self as a self-help guru, how­ever oth­ers be­lieve that his or­gan­i­sa­tion, which had of­fices around the world in­clud­ing one in Belfast, held darker se­crets. He and his heiress backer now face crim­i­nal charges. Donal Lynch r

Belfast Telegraph - Weekend - - REPORTAGE -

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 Pro­grams.

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 in 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 CHARGED: 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 Snr, 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 Jnr, 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, 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.

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.

“I just wanted my daugh­ter back,” says Ox­en­berg. 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, 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 Snr, 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.

heiress Clare Bronf­man and (be­low) KeithRaniere

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