How Starz's 'Seduced' Proved We Needed Another NXIVM Cult Documentary
Last week, Keith Raniere, the leader of alleged sex cult NXIVM, was sentenced to 120 years in prison for crimes including sex trafficking and child pornography -- just in time for the finale of Seduced: Inside The NXIVM Cult. The four-part documentary series on Starz explores NXIVM through the experiences of former members, as well as cult experts. It airs this Sunday.
For the series' filmmakers, including series director/co-writer Cecilia Peck, the project was personal. They wanted to explore the ways NXIVM and groups like it condition and control their members.
"I had actually been targeted for recruitment by NXIVM by a colleague of mine and [series co-writer/editor Inbal Lessner's]," Peck said.
DON'T MISS ANY L.A. CORONAVIRUS NEWS
Get our daily newsletters for the latest on COVID-19 and other top local headlines.
Despite persistent texts, emails, and calls, she never went to a NXIVM meeting.
"But in 2017, I got a call from her saying, 'I'm so sorry -- I was in a cult, and I didn't know it, and I was being forced to recruit. Can you forgive me?'" Peck said.
Then more former members came forward to talk about their experiences. The series starts with how people were lured into joining the group, how they were indoctrinated, and ultimately, how these women were drawn into master-slave relationships with Raniere. Within NXIVM, Raniere had started a secret society known as "DOS" -- which members allege was used to recruit women into having sex with him.
Although it hasn't received as much attention as HBO's recent nine-part series The Vow (which has a second season in the works), the four-part Seduced features numerous details that aren't in The Vow.
One thing that sets Seduced apart: the participation of Los Angeles native India Oxenberg. Her mother, Dynasty star Catherine Oxenberg, participated in both documentaries, but India's story anchors Seduced.
"What we set to do is follow India through all of the stages that she went through, and to really try to understand how indoctrination works," Peck said. "Because when it's happening, it doesn't feel like brainwashing. India and the women in the story were taking courses that they believed were giving them skills that would help them succeed in their lives."
India went through a long process of cult deprogramming, as well as working with the FBI to provide them with information about NXIVM.
"India was at the forefront of helping the prosecution convict Keith Raniere. So she had to go through a lot before she was ready to talk," Peck said.
When Seduced started production, they were able to connect with India and Catherine at the courthouse via a Starz executive. Peck said she believes that made the Oxenbergs feel safe about their participation in the series.
"I think they both appreciated that it was a women-driven production, that we wanted to focus on women's stories," Peck said.
Seduced covers how NXIVM recruited members in Los Angeles, going after high-profile actors and other notable figures who were seen as a source of both attention and funds for the organization.
"They were able to populate their introductory meetings, and introductory five-day courses, with the presence of celebrities who made it feel very legitimate to people out here who were in the entertainment industry, or looking for a mentorship in the business," Peck said.
Both series feature extensive footage filmed within NXIVM, although Seduced is more critical of several of the lead participants in The Vow. That includes more of a focus by Seduced on those members' role in recruiting others into the organization.
Seduced provides a narrative that follows India's journey into the cult and her eventual exit -- as well as details about the trial against high-ranking NXIVM members. The Vow's first season ended before getting into the trial.
While The Vow follows the journey of former high-ranking members coming to terms with their own experience in NXIVM, Seduced features cult experts who provide context about how people get lured into such a group and how these groups control their members.
"It's an ongoing tension between what the members thought that this was about versus what was really going on," series co-writer/editor Inbal Lessner told LAist.
The organization also bears similarities to what's been reported about the workings of Scientology, with Raniere using techniques pulled from a variety of self-help groups and alleged cults.
Seduced had locked their episodes before The Vow started airing, and Lessner said the HBO series didn't influence what they chose to include.
Women were in key positions throughout the production of Seduced, with an all-women crew on some days, Lessner said. Everyone on the crew was also trained in a sensitivity protocol to help support the women who participated in the documentary.
"It was really special, and it did provide a really safe space for the women on camera to feel supported, to feel listened to," Lessner said.
Part of that sensitivity was also setting up a fund to offer therapy for former members who were interviewed for the documentary.
"We understood that you can't just ask people triggering questions without caring for them," Peck said.
Members of the production and editing teams were "triggered" by watching some of the footage, Lessner said, and they were offered the same support.
The filmmakers hope that their series shifts viewers' attention away from what made certain people susceptible to joining the cult to how sophisticated NXIVM's techniques were -- and the red flags to watch for yourself, Lessner said.
The finale of Seduced focuses on the media attention that started to fall on NXIVM after Catherine Oxenberg spoke out about her daughter's participation in the organization. It also follows Raniere's trial and follows what happened to women after leaving the organization.
"For us, the last piece that was super important is to follow their healing, and how they put their lives together after the fall of NXIVM," Lessner said. "We didn't want just to stop at the guilty conviction, or the higher-ups going to prison."
The filmmakers also worked with former members Tabby and Naomi, who are profiled in Seduced, to create a website featuring details about the series and educational information, including a questionnaire to help you figure out whether you or someone you know is in a cult. You can find that at SeducedDocumentary.com.