What I Wish I Knew About Grooming: India Oxenberg Reflects on Her Experience in Nxivm

India Oxenberg is a survivor of the Nxivm cult, whose top leaders, including Keith Raniere and Allison Mack, were sentenced to prison

People/August 26, 2021

By India Oxenberg

As students head back to campus — things can feel a little tricky when it comes to personal relationships that are in-person again. Establishing boundaries and navigating relationships may not look the same as they did two years ago. You may feel uncertainty, anxiety, or have feelings of vulnerability wanting to belong or be accepted.

I remember those feelings clearly. Unfortunately, those feelings of vulnerability led me to trust the wrong people — and that's how I ended up in a cult. I was 19 years old when I was recruited by members of a cult called Nxivm. I felt directionless at the time and was looking for structure and guidance. I felt vulnerable and ill-equipped for life on my own.

I thought I needed to know certain things about myself to move forward with my goals and dreams. I believed that Nxivm, and the people there, could mentor me toward becoming stronger and more capable of starting my own small business and help me in my own self-discovery.

I trusted them; these people seemed like they had it all together. They were intelligent, successful, and charismatic. These were all the things I wanted for myself. Little did I know, at the time, that this facade was one of many consumer-front products and companies used to lure, target, and recruit new members. Targeted recruits were unprotected and malleable, but also people who provided value. The trickier part of it all was that from the outside looking in, a lot of it could pass as a normal, seemingly legitimate, company with at the very least some unconventional practices — or alternative, as they would describe them.

A predator knows how to identify and use people for their own desires. I was groomed for the leader of Nxivm through his higher-ranking members and the education that they taught. It wasn't until I entered into the higher controlled group that he actually had sexual access to me because of the blackmail and the grooming done by Allison Mack. It made me an easier target for that kind of abuse because he knew I wouldn't and couldn't tell anyone anything. Two of those years were spent in an even higher controlled inner circle within the organization that maintained secrecy with the use of blackmail, extortion, and destabilization of its victims/recruits to the point where we were incapable of making our own sound decisions. For my own sanity and safety, it was easier to accept the lies and not consider that it was nefarious or that the "lies" were not the truth. In other words, there is a normalization and concealment of the perpetrators' behavior so that outsiders would have no idea what they were getting themselves into.

This is meant to be a cautionary tale. Not one that instills fear to the point of self-isolation, but one that brings awareness to the levels of manipulation that exist in positions of power or, in my case, a seemingly benign superb of Albany, New York. I hope that my story serves as an example of how anyone, especially those in times of transition, can be vulnerable to coercion and manipulation.

Being independent and away from family and support for the first time can be exciting. Living independently is a huge milestone for anyone, but it's also important to be aware of your surroundings. Below are the warning signs that I experienced when I moved away and met Nxivm for the first time.

1. Learn to recognize "love bombing"

"Love bombing" is an attempt to shower an individual with admiration, excessive attention and affection that can feel good at first. As time goes along, "love bombing" can become manipulative and overwhelming, taking on many forms.

In my experience, the perpetrator would gaslight me. Gaslighting is a behavior used to manipulate a person into questioning their own feelings, sanity, and reality. When you are being gaslighted, you are told your feelings are often wrong or your feelings are constantly invalidated. You're being trained into believing what serves the perpetrator and the way the perpetrator thinks. Overall, the perpetrator creates an incurable problem that only they can fix.

Sexual violence, gaslighting and "love bombing" can also happen on college campuses. Learning the warning signs for sexual violence in children, teens, and college-age adults is important, particularly if the perpetrator is part of a friend group, a classmate, or someone who is well-liked and well-known by other peers.

2. Beware of attempts to isolate you

Isolation tactics are used to keep the at-risk individual under control and under monitoring. I was imported into their inner circle, which normalized and concealed all of Keith's (the leader's) behaviors so that those from the outside had no idea what I was experiencing. People believed the propaganda: that this was a step closer in your own personal growth and commitment "to yourself." Ironically, this group did the complete opposite, by eroding your pre-cult persona until you were merely a robot or a lure to recruit others. I was still desperately convincing myself that what I was doing was good, because I wasn't allowed to think otherwise or ask any questions.

Abusers will attempt to separate a victim physically and/or emotionally from those protecting them and will often seek out positions in which they have contact with minors and college-aged adults. It is important to know what grooming warning signs to look out for and to know how perpetrators begin the grooming process, particularly on college campuses.

3. Watch for coercive behaviors

Coercive behaviors can be used to pressure, force, manipulate, or trick someone into doing something they don't want to do. Force and coercion don't always refer to physical pressure. Perpetrators may use emotional coercion, psychological force, or manipulation to coerce a victim into non-consensual sex. When someone tries to coerce you, it is difficult to actually see the reality of the situation when you're conditioned and gaslighted into questioning your own instincts. This creates confusion and chaos, and it becomes difficult to know who to trust when the primary person—yourself—is no longer a safe place to come back to. Your whole world becomes about supporting the perpetrators' lies as they try to diminish your value and confidence in your ability to make decisions outside of the lies you're being told. In my experience, leaders tried to normalize sex and intimacy as part of my duties to the group, telling me that my issues had to do with intimacy and that I didn't have the choice to not "complete the assignment."

If you or someone you know has been affected by coercive behavior, I am so sorry that your boundaries were not respected. A good partner or friend will honor your level of comfort and get consent. Consent is an ongoing process of discussing boundaries and what you're comfortable with. Especially as you move away and live on your own for the first time, it's important to get consent for any activity that may interact with another person's boundaries. It can be difficult to establish boundaries in relationships, but I've found that each time I do it, it gets a little bit easier and I feel more confident.

4. Listen to your intuition

As part of the grooming process and manipulation, I was taught not to trust myself, to put my gut feelings aside and to just listen to what I was told. Learning how to trust myself again has been an essential part of my healing and growth. I re-learned how to trust my instincts by practicing grounding exercises and to build confidence in my body through boxing classes.

Everyone is different when it comes to self-care, and you know what's best for your own journey. Not sure where to start? I love using RAINN's App for self-care exercises like tracking my mood, breathing exercises, and having quick access to support. If you have time between classes, or if you can take out time to sit on a bench on your walk around campus, practicing breathing exercises can help ground you.

5. It's not your fault

After I left Nxivm and processed my experiences, there were moments where I felt shame and guilt. These are emotions that many survivors face after experiencing abuse or sexual violence. People often ask: "How could this have happened?" The answers aren't simple, but one of the most important things I've learned, that I want to share with you, is that when abuse happens, it is not your fault. It doesn't matter what you wear, who you trust, whether you drink or are at a party, there is nothing you can do to deserve to experience violence. The shame, the guilt, and the blame always belong to the perpetrators.

Whether you experienced sexual violence on your college campus or with a trusted community group, it's not your fault, and taking care of yourself after experiencing trauma is important. Whether it happened recently or years ago, self-care can help you cope with the short- and long-term effects of trauma like sexual assault.

6. Find your source of strength

Healing is nonlinear and can sometimes feel discouraging when you have setbacks or triggers. However, as long as you're committed to getting to know yourself, you can get curious rather than afraid and shut down. When it comes to post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and complex post traumatic disorder (CPTSD), it's not a one and done situation. Triggers happen from time to time and it's a part of healing from trauma. Don't let it take you down forever; you are not alone, you are not broken. You may feel and think those things, but those thoughts can also be damaging ideas your abusers wanted you to believe.

For myself, I've actively worked against negative programming and learned along the way how to be my own parent or my own best friend, even in my inner thoughts. It's also important to stay connected to people and communities that offer support, like your roommates, campus clubs, or a trusted staff member. Having my mother and family by my side as a continuous source of comfort is a crucial part of my healing journey and I encourage everyone to learn how to support survivors with empathy.

If you're a loved one who wants to be there for a survivor but isn't sure how, remember this method from my friends at RAINN, the nation's largest anti-sexual violence organization: TALK. Thank them for telling you. Ask how you can help. Listen without judgment. Keep supporting. Your support makes all the difference to survivors of trauma.

7. Use your voice if you're ready

Speaking out is a personal decision and it's up to you how you share your story and what you're comfortable with. You may not be ready yet, and I'm here to tell you that is okay. I was asked if I wanted to share what happened to me a few times before I felt mentally and emotionally ready. Telling my story for the first timewasn't easy, but I'm motivated by the hope that my story can help stop abusers and hold them accountable so that this never happens to anyone else.

If you feel ready to speak with someone who is trained to help, call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800.656.HOPE (4673) or chat online at online.rainn.org. Survivors, you are not alone, and I believe you.

India Oxenberg is an advocate, author of "Still Learning: A Memoir" on Audible, and former member of Nxivm. Oxenberg starred as the subject and executive producedthe four-part STARZ documentary series "Seduced: Inside the Nxivm Cult." Oxenberg is a part of RAINN's National Leadership Council, which comprises individuals who have demonstrated their commitment to RAINN's mission of supporting survivors and ending sexual violence.

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