Not long after she escaped the cult, India Oxenberg had a mandala tattooed over the spot where a brand had once been burnt into her skin.
The brand was part of her initiation into DOS — the secret "master-slave sisterhood" within Nxivm, the upstate New York group run by now-convicted sex criminal Keith Raniere that prosecutors described as a "sex cult." The mandala was a sign of healing, one of the steps she took in coming to terms with the dark chapter in her life which had lasted seven years.
"I created a mandala with an evil eye to ward off bad energy and lies," Oxenberg tells PEOPLE. "It has the latin phrase ancora imparo, with means, 'Still, I'm learning.' And I still am."
Oxenberg, 29, shares the story of her life in Nxivm and how she finally broke free in the upcoming STARZ docuseries, Seduced: Life Inside the Nxivm Cult, which premieres on Oct 18. For the first time, she details how the purported self-help group — which had promised enlightenment — ensnared and exploited her and other female members into submission in order to serve Raniere, who now sits in prison.
"I want to help people and reclaim my voice and be me again and not a headline of 'cult girl,'" says India. "I want people to know who I really am."
After the investigation into Nxivm began to heat up in 2018 and Raniere and his top lieutenants fled to Mexico, where he was eventually arrested, India moved back to Los Angeles and began the long process of breaking free. She lived with her mom, Catherine Oxenberg, who had fought to get her daughter out of the group's clutches. The mother relied on a team of therapists and deprogrammers in the healing process, and she chronicled her efforts in her 2018 memoir Captive.
"She made a safe place for me to talk and she would listen when memories would come flooding back, and I remembered more and more about what happened," recalls India. "Sometimes I would have panic attacks and my mom would just hold me and tell me I was safe."
India also took up boxing to regain her strength. "I had to rebuild my confidence," she says. "I've never been stronger."
In the process, she has learned the scars ran deeper than she ever knew.
""I was living the experience of being abused and being told it was good for me," she explains. "I was so ashamed I couldn't even talk or get the words out. I feel shame and embarrassment but I also have forgiveness for myself. Women who experience this kind of abuse do strange things in their mind to be okay with it."
Now, she says, "I'm okay with being the one to share these things because I want the truth out there."
Looking back on her ordeal, she says, "We did not know we were dealing with a master manipulator, someone who spends their time breaking people. But I'm not broken. The truth is you have no idea what you're made of until you are tested."
Newly engaged to a pizza chef, India is now planning her wedding. "I literally thought I would have the worst dating profile possible," she says with a laugh. "I felt like such damaged goods. I judged myself harshly and he did not."
"I'm grateful for the opportunity to share my story," she adds. "No one wants to be associated with these things, thinking it will tarnish them forever. But I don't believe that. I think we are much more resilient than we perceive. I still feel afraid and nervous even now, but that's being overshadowed by the potential to make change and show how love can win."
Raniere was found guilty of sex trafficking racketeering and conspiracy, and awaits sentencing on October 27. He now faces life in prison.
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