Escaping the NXIVM Cult: A Mother’s Fight to Save Her Daughter premiered this weekend on Lifetime, and instead of telling the story of how Mack became one of the leaders of the group that resulted in her pleading guilty to racketeering and racketeering conspiracy charges, viewers actually saw the true-crime case play out from Catherine Oxenberg’s perspective as her daughter India became brainwashed by the group. Dynasty actress Oxenberg used her own memories and writing from her book Captive: A Mother’s Crusade to Save Her Daughter from a Terrifying Cult as well as all the research she did into NXIVM for the movie’s plot. The Lifetime adaptation spans the years Oxenberg spent trying to take down the cult and free her daughter.
In fact, Oxenberg even appears in the film herself, introducing the story at the very beginning by addressing the camera directly. “Hi, I’m Catherine Oxenburg,” she says. “My family was fractured by horrific circumstances and we were able to come back together again. This is my story.” Warning: spoilers ahead!
Escaping the NXIVM Cult then transitions to the dramatization of the story, with Andrea Roth playing Oxenberg. It starts off by showing how NXIVM came into her life — turns out it was actually her friend who dragged her to a NXIVM business seminar, and she in turn took India with her as her daughter was struggling with her fledgling baking business.
Real-life NXIVM co-founder and president Nancy Salzman pled guilty to racketeering conspiracy, and a fictionalized version of her shows up at Oxenberg and India’s first class. Real-life NXIVM survivor Sarah Edmondson, who escaped the cult and helped bring it down with her testimony, also gets a Lifetime version as she leads the class. India and Oxenberg are immediately separated so that India can get the “full experience,” while Oxenberg is clearly skeptical and is shocked to learn that she signed an NDA in her welcome packet, further tipping off her doubts. After their first class, Oxenberg and India go on a retreat in Albany — Oxenberg only continues with it because she wants an experience she can share with India. But India really believes in the group’s message.
At the “female empowerment retreat,” a fictionalized version of Mack (played by Sarah Fletcher) is introduced when an awed India whispers to Oxenberg, “That’s Allison Mack — she played Chloe on Smallville,” during her welcome speech. Immediately, Mack’s manipulations become clear as she begins to dismantle how women don’t have to conform to what society deems “normal” by having everyone raise their hands as high as they can, but points out that no one stood up to get as high as possible. It lays the groundwork for the cult later by gaining India’s trust for her and Raniere (played by Peter Facinelli), who makes his entrance into the movie while playing in an all-male midnight volleyball game where he manipulates the rules to make sure his team wins. Oxenberg sees him kissing multiple women, and that’s when he meets India.
Later at the retreat, Oxenberg is shocked when she finds one woman in the middle of the night sleeping on the floor for “penance” for being defiant to her husband. Horrified, she decides to leave but India stays to “find” herself. Mack continues to bond with India, revealing she’s on a strict calorie reduction diet because Raniere is “hurt” when she’s heavier. Her goal is to get to 106 lbs and she wants the same for India. She also dangles India’s dream of running her own café, saying that Raniere gives back “as long as he’s reciprocated accordingly.”
A year passes, and India barely comes home. She finally comes back to Malibu for her birthday party but she uses her birthday speech to recruit her friends and family for NXIVM classes. She also uses her inheritance to enroll in NXIVM University full-time. At the V-Week “celebration” of Raniere, he showers her with compliments and brainwashes her into being obedient and never complain. He kisses her and she backs away, and he promises that won’t ever happen again unless she wants it to.
NXIVM eventually opens the café for India to work at, and her family starts to wonder if she’s in a cult. Oxenberg vows to get her out of it. That’s when Mack recruits India into DOS, a “secret society sorority” for a “lifetime of sisterhood.” But there are rules and rituals no one can know about, and there will be “real consequences” for betraying Mack and Raniere, so India promises to never tell a soul. Her initiation involves being held down naked and getting burned with Raniere’s initials. Meanwhile, one of the women tips Oxenberg off to the danger that India is in with DOS and the master/slave dynamic and how the DOS is actually a sex cult.
Oxenberg reaches out to a cult deprogrammer to stage an intervention for India, and contacts the FBI to try to get them to open up an investigation. After speaking to many others who tried to take out Raniere in the past, she calls the New York Times. It isn’t until Edmondson defects from the cult and allows the NYT to publish photos of her branding for the article, revealing that she finally saw how “evil” NXIVM was when she realized her branding wasn’t a symbol but actually Raniere’s initials. The FBI finally opens an official investigation now that the agents have real proof of crimes being committed.
Oxenberg gets India to come to Malibu for two days with plans to stage an intervention, but she ruins it by confronting India over getting branded and being brainwashed before the intervention can begin. India runs off and so Oxenberg, out of other options, starts talking to the press about her crusade, going public with her fight against NXIVM. Starting to feel the pressure, Mack makes India post that she’s fine on Facebook and tries to get collateral from her on Oxenberg to discredit her claims but India refuses. Oxenberg’s press tour results in dozens of women defecting from NXIVM, but Raniere isn’t worried.
Oxenberg then brings evidence of sex trafficking and racketeering to the FBI in exchange for them taking down NXIVM and keeping India safe. Mack and Salzman’s daughter Lauren help Raniere escape to Mexico to stay away from the authorities while Salzman stays behind to shred documents at the NXIVM office. But Raniere is arrested in Mexico and India is picked up by the FBI. The film then jumps ahead to Raniere and Mack’s arraignment, where Lifetime recreated the walk to court perfectly as it happened in real life, all the way down to Mack’s outfit and hairstyle. The movie then recreates all the real-life testimonies given by the women taken down by the authorities, including Mack, Salzman and her daughter Lauren, as well as Seagram’s liquor heiress Claire Bronfman, who helped fund NXIVM. Raniere, who was found guilty of all charges against him, including racketeering, wire fraud, forced labor conspiracy and sex trafficking, is shown in prison, and it’s revealed that he is currently on suicide watch. India calls the cult deprogrammer her mother recommended to her, ready to talk.
The real Oxenberg then returns at the end of the movie, addressing viewers again about how as a last result to save her daughter, she went public with her story. She now runs the Catherine Oxenberg Foundation, a human rights organization dedicated to preventing women from being exploited and abused, to help others defect from NXIVM with cult exit counseling as well as other victims of trafficking. She hopes her story helps to educate others about widespread and systemic predatory abuse.
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