NXIVM was presented as a self-help group, boasting such enticing but vaguely named seminars as Executive Success Programs (ESP), but the reality was that it was actually a sex cult that targeted young women, masterminded by founder Keith Raniere. And Cecilia Peck, director and co-executive producer of “Seduced: Inside the NXIVM Cult,” was one of the many women targeted for recruitment.
“Inbal [B. Lessner, lead editor and co-executive producer of the series] and I had an intern from a former project who was a college graduate and extremely intelligent and motivated. We had lost touch with her but in 2013 and ’14, I started receiving emails inviting me first to a women’s group and becoming more and more persistent in telling me I should come and it would change my life,” Peck shares at Gold Derby’s Meet the Experts: Documentary panel. “And I never ended up attending any of the events, but when she emerged from NXIVM, she called and said, ‘I’m so sorry, I didn’t realize I was in a cult and I was being forced to recruit you.'”
Peck met up with the woman, who told her about NXIVM and introduced her to other survivors who were willing to speak on camera about their experiences (the former intern did not participate in the series). Eventually, Peck and Lessner met India Oxenberg, daughter of “Dynasty” star Catherine Oxenberg, who was a member from 2011-18, having been recruited when she was just 19 years old. Catherine worked tirelessly for years to expose NXIVM and save India, and the mother-daughter story is the central storyline in “Seduced,” which also follows India present day as she attends therapy and revisits former dwellings of the cult.
“Our interest was always in exploring coercion and how it was used as a tool of manipulation and why are we vulnerable, what makes our minds susceptible to influences, especially a kind that is unethical, so those women became the basis of telling that story,” Peck says. “India Oxenberg and her journey as an educated, young, loved woman at 19 all the way to becoming eventually sexually victimized and branded in that cult … provided us with an overarching through line.”
The four-part Starz series breaks down the indoctrination process of NXIVM and the manipulation tactics used by Raniere, who was sentenced to 120 years in prison in October, to essentially brainwash these women into doing things he wanted them to do. Unseemly requests like sending a nude photo of oneself to him would be couched as having to do it to overcome one’s fear.
“I think, for us, the most interesting was the story of misogyny, the story of how most of these women were lured in with the promise of empowerment, this community of strong women,” Lessner states. “It was really a bait and switch because they became really subjugated and kind of trained to hate themselves. They’re being trained with this curriculum that was infused with a lot of hatred of women. I think following that process became our main point of view into this very complicated story.”
Adds Peck: “They really turned feminine empowerment language around and used it to subjugate women. I think some of the challenges for us was really holding a safe space for those women who were talking about very difficult things on camera and make sure they felt supported. [They] were so courageous to come forward. … We really did try to create a safe environment for them and we’re so grateful and so proud of them. They came forward for different reasons but mainly overall to share what happened to them in order to educate and warn others and also because they’re on a healing journey now that they wanted to share, and that was important to us … to tell a story of healing and empowerment.”
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