Why HBO’s ‘The Vow’ Doesn’t Capture Catherine Oxenberg’s Reunion With Daughter India

Actor, author and producer Catherine Oxenberg would stop at nothing to save her daughter India from the clutches of Keith Raniere, Allison Mack and their dangerous so-called self-empowerment group NXIVM, a subgroup of which subjected the younger Oxenberg to sexual assault and branding.

Her tireless work included deep-dives on the history of predatory behavior in cults, in addition to equally extensive research into Raniere and NXIVM themselves. She told her story to Frank Parlato of the “Frank Report” blog, as well as to Barry Meier of the New York Times, who ultimately broke the story about the branding practice. She wrote a book (“Captive: A Mother’s Crusade to Save Her Daughter from a Terrifying Cult”), and she allowed documentary filmmakers Karim Amer and Jehane Noujaim to follow her in real-time as she did these things – all with the goal of bringing India home.

“If [India] had listened to me in 2017, we would have walked off arm-in-arm, but Keith Raniere would be still up and running, branding, having sex and exploiting women. It was only because she dug her heels in that I had to expand my strategy. I couldn’t get her out, so I had to take down the whole organization,” Catherine Oxenberg tells Variety.

Catherine Oxenberg’s journey to tell India’s story using her platform as a public persona is captured in Amer and Noujaim’s docuseries “The Vow,” airing through Oct. 18 on HBO. Though the project did not yet have a home when they first approached Catherine Oxenberg about an interview, she saw the experience as an opportunity to tell her and India’s story so that it could “be used to bring Keith to justice.”

“To be honest, I was so focused on my goal that I don’t even remember the cameras being there, I don’t remember saying half the things I said,” Catherine Oxenberg says of “The Vow,” adding that reliving it now is “very painful.”

After Catherine Oxenberg confronted her daughter about her concerns in June 2017, she was dismissed and India Oxenberg returned to Albany, which was where she was living to be a part of the central hub of NXIVM. The interview Catherine Oxenberg granted Amer and Noujaim shortly after that event turned into a year of their cameras capturing her plight. “They just never left the house,” she says. Her story begins in the fourth episode of “The Vow,” and it includes discussions with Parlato, as well as concerns that the New York Times is sitting on the story too long because they considered it “evergreen.”

But, India Oxenberg’s story is not captured within “The Vow.” This is because Catherine Oxenberg made the deliberate decision to separate from Amer and Noujaim after Mack and Raniere were arrested in 2018.

“She finally reached out to me,” Oxenberg says of her daughter. “And I knew at the point, given how much mistrust they had planted in her against me and what they had done to her as far as alienating her from me, that I could not afford to have cameras around; she would have never agreed to even meet with me.”

It has now been another two years since that initial rekindling of their mother-daughter relationship. In 2019, Catherine Oxenberg’s story was dramatized for an original TV movie on Lifetime. Though Raniere and Mack have yet to be sentenced, Seagram heiress Clare Bronfman recently received just under seven years in prison for her involvement with NXIVM.

Catherine Oxenberg, for the record, says she has “complete confidence in the government” when it comes to the future sentencing.

“The way this case is being handled has been impeccable. At every step of the way, they have taken the most courageous route, as far as I’m concerned,” she says. “They went for the sex trafficking crimes, versus financial crimes. That takes balls; that is not a slam-dunk. And the way they laid out the case so that a jury would understand coercive control, which is not well-defined in this country specifically, was brilliant and made it crystal clear that these women did not have consent. And so, as far as justice for Keith, a life sentence [is what I want] — and that’s what the government is asking for.”

“This man is unrepentant,” she continues. “He has all of the characteristics of a psychopath; he has absolutely no empathy, no remorse. I’ve read some of the transcripts of his communications from jail. You would think sitting in the hell-hole of MDC, as he’s done for over two years, that something would percolate as far as what he’s done — nothing. He will never be rehabilitated. And the other thing is, even in his limited capacity, he’s still trying to control the poor few stragglers that remain. If I was the judge I would send him to the supermax underground in Colorado where he can’t influence anybody.”

Still, there are times when Catherine Oxenberg wrestles with the guilt she feels over attending introductory NXIVM classes with her daughter and later putting her story in the media spotlight without her approval — even though that latter part meant saving her from further psychological and physical harm.

“All I wanted was to get her back, and that took a while,” Catherine Oxenberg says. “There were so many times I was terrified beyond belief, but that being said, my faith was stronger than my fear. And I knew that eventually I would get her back. And today I have her back, but I won’t say that it was overnight. She had to work really, really hard to unravel all of this indoctrination.”

“The Vow” airs Sundays at 10 p.m. on HBO.