I grew up with a mother who was a spiritual seeker. She always seemed to be on a quest to explore a new religion—we had the Bible, the Book of Mormon, the Quran, and the Bhagavad Gita on our bookshelves. She also had a New Age side to her, we had our auras read together, she used to be into crystals, and there was a year when I was in junior high that she participated in sweat lodge ceremonies every weekend (I tried it once and it was way too hot for me!).
One of my most memorable experiences has to have been a conversation with one of my mom’s gurus, who was convinced that her son was an incarnation of a lama and had the ability, at birth, to turn a bottle of water into milk. Even at a young age, I was always the skeptic at the outings with my mother. And to this day, the most woo-woo part of me is that I read Susan Miller’s Astrology Zone every month.
With this kind of upbringing, it’s no surprise that I was so curious to read actress Catherine Oxenberg’s Captive, a memoir about trying to save her daughter India from the cult NXIVM. Oxenberg also describes herself as a seeker, and her daughter was her constant companion on her spiritual journey. Catherine and her daughter initially signed up for NXIVM classes that were advertised as workshops to strengthen their entrepreneurial skills. However, India became recruited into a secret society within NXIVM, which ultimately led to her cutting off ties with her mother.
The memoir is fascinating reading, and we have an excerpt to give you a sense of it.
Malibu, California, May 30, 2017
It was a question no mother should ever have to ask her daughter. But I had no choice—her life was in danger. I needed to get to the truth, and fast.
India was on the tail end of a five-day visit home from New York. We were driving along the Pacific Coast Highway to a doctor’s appointment when I asked her point-blank:
“India . . . have you been branded?”
Words I never thought I’d hear come out of my mouth. Not in a million years.
Sitting next to me in the passenger seat, my daughter looked gaunt and sleep deprived. Her golden blonde hair had been falling out in clumps, and, at twenty-five, she hadn’t had her period in a year—the reason she was seeing the doctor that day. Adding to that, my lighthearted, free-spirited daughter had grown distant and burdened in recent months, to the point where I barely recognized her.
A few weeks earlier, to my horror, I had discovered why.
A friend called to warn me that India was involved in a secret master-slave sorority in which women were put on a starvation diet and, in a secret ceremony, held down naked and branded on the pubic region with a searing-hot cauterizing iron—like cattle.
“You’ve got to save her!” my friend urged.
My head spun. What? Not India! In my mind, I could hear the women’s screams and smell their burning flesh. I prayed my sweet daughter had not gone so far as to allow someone to barbarically mutilate and torture her, but I feared the worst.
I clutched the steering wheel as I awaited her answer.
“Yes, Mom,” India admitted hesitantly. “I’ve been branded. But why is that a problem? It was a good experience for me!”
My heart broke. No, no, no! I gripped the wheel tighter and forced my eyes to stay on the road. How had I failed to notice she’d fallen so deeply into such a dark and evil world? I knew if I became judgmental, I’d push her even further away—beyond my help. So I tried to appeal to her sense of logic.
“Darling,” I said as calmly as I could, “if you can convince me how being branded can be a good experience, please, go ahead.”
India fell silent. She seemed confused as she struggled to answer me. Finally, she looked at me with childlike sincerity through her weary eyes and said: “It’s a good thing because it’s . . . character building.”
I wanted to scream. It was as if someone had tampered with her brain so she couldn’t think clearly or had replaced her with an imposter—like in that 1950s science-fiction horror movie Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Her words and phrasing sounded preprogrammed, drilled into her head by a deviant master.
I answered slowly, reasonably.
“But India, the fact that you think mutilating your body permanently is character building is proof that you’re brainwashed.”
Again she looked bewildered and shook her head.
“I’m not brainwashed.”
“Angel, you’re being manipulated by a psychopath.”
“Mom, I’m not.”
There was no getting through to her. Nothing I said could break the spell she was under.
A few hours later, she’d be on a plane to the cult’s headquarters in Albany, New York, to take part in the next victim’s branding ceremony the following week.
I’d lost her, I was sure I’d lost her. And I felt like I was losing my mind.
But there were two other truths I was immediately certain of in that devastating moment.
I was going to do whatever it took to save my daughter from the clutches of this vicious cult and get her back. And I was going to take this cult down. Not just for my daughter’s sake but also for the countless other sons and daughters in this country who get lured into these exploitive, abusive traps every day.
I was a mother with a mission; I was on a crusade.
And I was not going to rest until our children were safe and the last enemy was down.