Read an excerpt of Catherine Oxenberg's new book about her experience: 'Captive.'
As always, India and I were excited to set out on a new adventure together.
We made our way along the Venice Beach boardwalk early one morning in May 2011—past the maze of street performers, mystics, artists, funky shops, and bikinied girls on roller skates—until we reached our destination: a modern-looking duplex a block from the ocean.
It was our first day of a five-day “personal and professional growth” seminar called Executive Success Programs (ESP)—a course, I was told, intended for people looking to bolster their business acumen and develop their communication skills; entrepreneurs who wanted to be successful and make money, but in an ethical, humanitarian way.
“It’s conscious capitalism,” an acquaintance of mine, who’d been urging me to sign up for months, told me. “And it’s the best thing I have ever done. Truly life changing.”
A business seminar, life changing?
Hmm. I’d heard that line before.
At fifty, I was a veteran of the self-help, self-improvement, self-realization genre. In an eﬀort to overcome a tenacious, life-threatening eating disorder that I’d struggled with from age sixteen up until my midthirties, I tried every kooky idea out there that promised to heal my body, enlighten my mind, and, hopefully, save my life.
In no particular order, I’d been rolfed, rebirthed, chelated, Deeksha-ed, magnetized, fêng shui-ed, baptized, ozoned, watsu-ed, and hypnotized. I’d meditated, chanted, 12-stepped, past-life-regressed, fasted, rehabbed, and sweated in lodges. I’d listened to Jungians, herbalists, angels, yogis, shamans, astrologers, Apache medicine men, Buddhist monks, Chopra, Robbins, Kabbalah, the maharishi who hung out with the Beatles, the constellations, and even my own dreams.
I drank a Peruvian tea that makes you hallucinate and vomit; I ran across hot coals and floated in sensory deprivation tanks; I flung myself oﬀ a sixty-foot telephone pole in the middle of a winter blizzard in Oklahoma.
I did everything I could to try freeing myself from the addictive clutches of a disorder that held me in its grip. Subsequently, self-help became a way of life. A badge of honor.
Did any of them help? Some did, some didn’t. It always seemed that the more they cost, the less eﬀect they had.
What my experiences did do for me was make me skeptical about anyone or anything that promised to have The Answer and guaranteed to truly change your life. My life and I were just fine now, thank you very much. I’d recently entered a new decade and made peace with my past and with myself. I was done looking for that one magical, miraculous recipe that would make me perfect.
Life didn’t work that way, I’d learned. And human perfection was an oxymoron.
My sweet India, on the other hand, was a young woman on the threshold of seeking, trying, questioning, and experiencing everything life had to oﬀer—as one should be at nineteen.
Back home after a year studying entertainment media at Bay State College in Boston, she was head over heels in love with her high school sweetheart, Hudson, and embarking on a new business venture with a friend: a gluten-free baking company called Scrumptious Soul.
India was a born entrepreneur and foodie. As a little girl, she watched the Food Network as passionately as other kids watched car- toons. At six, she was whipping up those premixed, chemical-filled Easy-Bake Oven cakes (that Mom ate dutifully with a smile), and by seven, she’d graduated to artfully arranged vegetable and burrata platters (that Mom devoured!).
When we’d attended the ESP introductory meeting three months earlier, she’d been in the happy throes of creating her company and shooting a pilot for a potential TV series about their mobile bakery truck called Food Angels.
I was helping her launch this dream career of hers, so the opportunity to take a course that would hone India’s business skills (and in a humanitarian way!) sounded like a good idea.
India and I sat in a rented conference room with a small group of other wannabe entrepreneurs, ready and eager to hear how to be successful businesswomen with heart.
Mark Vicente, a high-ranking member of ESP, began by explaining that the program was based on a revolutionary, patent-pending “technology” called Rational Inquiry, created by a scientist and philosopher named Keith Raniere.
“As we develop, we form beliefs about ourselves and the world, often innocently making associations that are inconsistent with reality,” said Mark. “Our technology allows you to uncover, reexamine, and integrate these mistaken perceptions. We oﬀer you the tools for removing errors of cognition and for creating consistency . . .”
Right around there, I started daydreaming—then perked up when I heard Mark say that this guy Keith had an IQ of 240, which apparently was in Guinness World Records. Really? Was that even possible? I’d never heard of anyone breaking the 200 barrier, not even Einstein. And this Raniere guy obviously wasn’t a devotee of physicist-cosmologist Stephen Hawking, who said a few years earlier that “people who boast about their IQ are losers.”
Mark continued to boast:
“He’s been recognized as one of the world’s top three problem solvers. He has an estimated problem-solving capability of one in four hundred twenty-five million with respect to the general population.”
Whatever that meant. If he was the third best problem solver in the world, I wanted to know who the first and second were! Still, number three was pretty impressive. Mark Vicente was known and respected in the entertainment industry, so I assumed he wasn’t making up this shit. He’d cowritten, directed, and produced the 2004 indie hit What the Bleep Do We Know!?—a spiritual, existential documentary about quantum physics and how consciousness shapes the material world.
After Mark’s pitch, a handful of current ESP devotees got up in front of the room and proselytized about how much better their lives were because of the program. A pretty brunette, who I would later find out was Sarah Edmondson, an accomplished Canadian actress in her late thirties, stood up to give a charismatic close, avowing that “ESP is the key to success and happiness.” With Mark, Sarah was the co-owner of the Vancouver ESP center, and she was hosting this introductory course with him.
Again I heard the term life changing. It was about more than just business, they stressed; it was about learning tools that would improve all of mankind.
What tools, you ask? So did a bunch of us in the room, including me, who couldn’t make heads or tails of what they were saying. Mark was expounding some kind of lofty, noble ideology, but it wasn’t clear how they or we were supposed to achieve it.
Apparently, we’d have to wait a little while longer to find out. None of those details could be divulged in the slightest until after we made an initial down payment on the very special, time-limited $2,400-per-person discount rate that would end imminently.
It was all very top, top secret because their material was “proprietary,” Mark said with a reverential tone, and people were always trying to steal it and copy it.
“You do not want to miss this deal of a lifetime,” one of the coaches urged us.
Oh, pleeeeease, I thought, trying not to let any of them see me roll my eyes.
I turned to India, assuming she would have seen through the snake oil tactics as well.
“This is for me,” she said resolutely. “I want to do this, Mom. And I want you to do it with me.”
Later, I would wonder desperately what attracted her so powerfully. I think it was their talk about creating more joy in the world and improving mankind. Ever since she was born, India was good and kind to her core and drawn to help others. She was the family mediator who rushed to diﬀuse anger and find common ground when a squabble was brewing among siblings and parents. With her light touch and disarming sense of humor, there was an artistry to her diplomacy.
She couldn’t stand violence or to see anyone get hurt, and acted as warrior and protector for those who were. In those instances, her touch could be bolder. When she was nine and at summer camp with her younger stepbrother, Cappy, she saw him being picked on and pushed around by a group of bigger, older bullies. She marched straight up to the bullies, unafraid, and demanded, “Leave my brother alone!” The boys scampered away.
Around that same time, she also showed a wisdom and empathy beyond her years. I took her with me to Italy when I was shooting The Omega Code in 1999, and, as usual, little India had an impact on everyone she met, in the most beautiful way.
We were filming in the Castello Orsini-Odescalchi, a fifteenth-century castle just north of Rome (Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes would marry there a few years later in what would become Scientology’s most extravagant and highly publicized wedding of all time), and the director invited India to be an extra in one of my scenes. They made a big to-do: the costume person took her out to get a new dress, and they did her hair and makeup in the trailer, sitting right next to me. She loved it!
India always had a luminous, ethereal quality about her, but as soon as they put her under the lights, she looked . . . magical.
“Remember, angel face, don’t look into the camera,” I reminded her in a whisper before the director called “Action!”
She looked at me like I’d just said the most asinine thing in the world to her.
“I know that, Mom!”
As the camera rolled, I watched her out of the corner of my eye; she knew exactly where to go and what to do. I was so proud! She was a natural. Later, as Linda the makeup artist powdered her nose in between takes, India looked at her seriously.
“Linda, even though you’re smiling,” she said, “and I heard you tell someone with my rabbit ears that you’re happy, you don’t have to lie about your feelings. Kids always know the truth.”
Linda looked at her, stunned. She had indeed been going through a diﬃcult time all week but was trying not to show it.
“But it’s okay,” India continued. “Don’t worry. You may not be happy now, but you will be—soon.”
Linda nearly fell over backward. Everyone was amazed at how precocious and compassionate India was.
So back to the ESP introductory meeting: I imagine their promise of creating a better, more ethical workplace and happier world appealed to India. Whatever it was, I put aside my skepticism, took out my credit card, and checked and signed some paperwork they’d handed me without much scrutiny.
What appealed to me was spending time and sharing a new experience with my daughter—that, I was always interested in.
WHEN WE ARRIVED at the beach house three months later on that May morning, we still had no idea what to expect. As well as being excited, we were both also slightly disheartened. A week before, India’s bakery business and TV pilot had fallen through. And a screenplay that my husband, Casper, and I had written about my grandfather, Royal Exile, hadn’t interested producers as I hoped it would. The time for both of us to learn new business skills was per- haps more apropos now than ever.
The scene that unfolded inside was just as bizarre as the mad- cap mystics and circus performers on the boardwalk. The loftlike living room was set up like a minimalistic lecture room, with a few couches and rows of folding chairs and not much else. It was as if the ESP troupe had slipped into town the night before and transformed someone’s home into a pop-up self-help venue.
Standing at the front of the room, an army of barefoot ESP coaches greeted us. They wore green, orange, and yellow sashes around their necks, and they grinned from ear to ear. And when I say they grinned, I mean grinned. I’m talking face-splitting, vaguely unnerving, over-the-top smiles—as if they were trying desperately to convince us: we’re the happiest, most successful people on earth. I felt like I was standing before a choir of Tom Cruises.
The attendees included a few celebrities and some high-profile people already attached to the organization. Emiliano Salinas, the son of former Mexican president Carlos Salinas de Gortari, was there—he held a high-ranking position in the group and wore an elite green sash around his neck. Each color signified a level in the group’s hierarchy. “Like a martial arts dojo,” explained one coach.
Beginners started oﬀ with white, and then you got stripes added to the bottom of your sash as you moved up in the color group. The next color was yellow, which you received once you became a coach. Then came orange and, finally, green, which meant you were a senior proctor. I have a vague memory of a blue and purple sash, too, but at some point, their system got very fuzzy to me, so I can’t be sure. Gold was the highest sash color you could wear, but later I would find out that only Nancy Salzman, the organization’s second in command, was deemed worthy of one.
With Salinas was his new girlfriend, Polish-Mexican actress Ludwika (“Mika”) Paleta, who was taking the course for the first time. She sat with her arms crossed and projected that cynical I’m-not- going-to-buy-into-any-of-this-BS attitude.
We spotted actress Rosario Dawson, and India went over and struck up a lively conversation with her. India had always been a carefree spirit who could chat with anyone; she was never overly impressed or intimidated by people she didn’t know. I was more reserved and envied her confidence in that way, and was glad when I saw a good friend of mine in the small group: British actor Callum Blue.
We glommed on to each other like allies and took up permanent residence in the back row while India took a seat near the front. That’s when I noticed for the first time that Callum had a big, beautiful blue tattoo of the Archangel Michael’s sword running up and down his left arm.
“He used to stand at the end of my bed when I was a child—ten feet tall, with a sword of light,” Callum explained.
“Throughout my life, I always felt protected by Michael,” he said.
I was starting to feel left out; these visitations from Michael were a dime a dozen with my family and friends, but he was playing hard to get with me.
MOMENTS LATER, WE were asked to remove our shoes and put away our cell phones—they were oﬃcially banned from the house for the duration of the course.
Then a hush fell over the room: Nancy had arrived.
She was short, bespectacled, and overcaﬀeinated, and went by the ancient Roman title “Prefect.” Of all the smiling going on, Nancy had mastered it the best—or rather, the worst. Her wide, pasted-on grin was so inauthentic to me that it looked like a Halloween mask set oﬀ eerily by her gold sash and bobbed hair.
She stepped to the front of the room, and all the coaches put their hands together and bowed to her.
Creepy, I thought.
Even creepier was our instruction that we, too, were to bow to the Prefect every time she entered or exited the room—and every time we left the room ourselves. At the beginning of each day, coaches instructed everyone to huddle together and repeat in unison their mantra: “We are committed to our success!” This was accompanied by a synchronized hand clap.
And, we were also told that we’d have to bow for the founder and creator of ESP, the genius problem solver Keith Raniere. Only his name wasn’t Keith anymore. We were now instructed to call him “Vanguard.” Apparently, he didn’t need no stinking colored sashes, because he never wore one.
We wouldn’t have to worry too much about bowing to him, though, because we wouldn’t be meeting him. Vanguard, it seemed, was as elusive as the Wizard of Oz. He did all his brilliant thinking back at ESP headquarters in Albany, and no student got to meet him until they had graduated from the first level of classes.
But although he wouldn’t be with us physically over the next five days, he would most certainly be there in spirit. He would be talked about, thanked, and glorified in almost everything we did—God forbid we should forget Vanguard for one second.
“We must always remember to pay tribute to Vanguard,” Nancy said with reverence. “Without him, these great teachings wouldn’t exist.”
Just like a god, I thought.
I couldn’t help myself; I had to see what kind of power trip this guy was on. I whipped out my iPhone, hid my hands behind Callum, Googled “Vanguard,” and snuck a peek.
Up popped a site for a comic book character of the same name: a gigantic, muscle-bound alien superhero with tiny antennae on his head. His job was to guard Planet Earth.
Oh, man, I thought. This guy is living out his childhood fantasy.
I showed Callum, and we both laughed. Back then, it was just funny and nothing to take seriously.
AFTER ALL THE bowing was done, our next step was to recite in unison the mission statement written out in big block letters on a giant poster board at the front of the room. It was to be regurgitated daily until we knew it by heart.
I silently read the twelve points on the board as the others said them out loud. It was a word salad of platitudes and obsequious beyond belief:
Success is an interior state of clear and honest awareness of who I am, my value in the world and my responsibility for the reactions I have to all things.
What did that even mean? And then there was this gem:
The methods and information I learn in ESP are for my personal use only. I will not speak of them; nor will I give to others knowledge of them outside ESP. Part of being accepted into ESP is to keep all the information confidential. If I violate this commitment, I am breaking a promise and breaching my contract, but more, I am deteriorating my internal and integrated honesty.
And the statement ended with us making a vow to bring in more students:
I promise to share and enroll people in ESP and their mission for my own benefit and to make the world a better place to live.
My hand shot up in the air.
“I have a problem with that,” I said to Nancy and her foot soldiers. “I didn’t sign up to recruit people.”
There was an uncomfortable silence in the room.
“And furthermore,” I continued, “the idea that I can’t share this experience with my family is simply unrealistic.”
Apparently, the reserved Catherine had left the building. Nancy cocked her head like a parrot, and the coaches looked both surprised and mildly annoyed at me but kept their smiles intact. I guess no one had ever challenged the mission statement before.
“You already agreed to all of it,” said one of the smiling, yellow- sashed ones. “When you signed the nondisclosure agreement.”
The wha—? And then I remembered: the paperwork I had quickly filled out and signed months earlier at the intro meeting. Wow, that was sneaky. And it didn’t sit well with me at all. I’d been tricked into signing a legal contract, and now they wanted to bind and gag me to secrecy? That was preposterous and fundamentally wrong to me.
Much later, I’d understand exactly why. This kind of extreme exclusiveness was the first wedge a group like this placed between you and your life outside the group. It was the first stage of imprinting upon you that loyalty to ESP overrode anything else in your life.
And that, I would learn, was the beginning of being inducted into a cult.