Reviewers Greg Bruce and Zanna Gillespie watch new Netflix documentary series Escaping Twin Flames.
No one wants to believe they could fall victim to a cult but of course we all could. All you have to do is want something more from your life and you’re a sitting duck. More could be something vague like greater spiritual connection or something specific like finding your soulmate, or twin flame, as Jeff and Shaleia, the leaders of cult group Twin Flame Universe (TFU) and unwitting subjects of Netflix’s new docuseries Escaping Twin Flames, call it.
That sense that it could happen to anyone is what makes this jaw-dropping series so fiercely compelling.
Jeff and Shaleia have built an empire, with tens of thousands of followers, that guarantees its members that by joining they’ll be united with their twin flame, the other half of their being, the yin to their yang. For anyone who believes in soulmates, that’s a pretty compelling guarantee. All you have to do is follow their teachings and “harmonious union” is yours.
It starts out with a simple philosophy, that’s how they get you: You need to heal yourself for your divine union to exist. Sounds reasonable. A generous assessment of Jeff and Shaleia might conclude that, at first, they truly believed that the TFU would actually heal people’s inner trauma and make them open to true love but it quickly became much more sinister than that. Fuelled by the devotion of their members, growing wealth and an insatiable appetite for power, their methods have become more and more extreme and their behaviour more and more despicable.
From the outside, Jeff Ayan is a wholly repellent character - a man who at one stage claims to be Jesus and openly shames, mocks and belittles his followers. Shaleia is less offensive, probably under Jeff’s control herself, though still culpable for countless cruelties and responsible for introducing Jeff to the concept of twin flames, for which we shall never forgive her. There’s an incredible amount of horrendous footage of these two from online sessions, live meet ups and videos, which makes their cries of misinformation on their still active social media platforms rather implausible.
The series is not filmmaker Cecilia Peck’s first deep dive into the world of cults and cult leaders. She previously made Seduced: Inside the NXIVM Cult, which was the lesser viewed of two series about NXIVM that came out at about the same time in 2020. Oddly, she finds herself in the same position with Escaping Twin Flames, which has been released at the same time as Prime Video’s series on TFU called Desperately Seeking Soulmate. I suspect the simultaneous release model actually has a positive impact on both projects because after watching three hours of TFU madness, I’m desperate to see more of this lunacy, if only to warn myself “that could be you”.
There’s something deeply satisfying about watching cult documentaries. In a world in which we make so many bad decisions, it’s reassuring to know how many people are making decisions that are so much worse.
This documentary about Twin Flames Universe is the latest in this genre. Although, just to be clear, the highly litigious founders don’t believe it is a cult, and each episode of the documentary carries a disclaimer in which they are quoted saying exactly that, so I will not be referring to it here as a cult, because the last thing you want is non-cult leaders coming after you for misrepresenting their not-cult.
The undoubted star of the documentary is the spiritual leader of the TFU and serial haver of bad haircuts, Jeff. A man bad in too many ways to count, it’s a testament to the deficiencies of the human brain that Jeff has even a single follower, let alone the tens of thousands he claims.
The headline news about Jeff is spectacularly awful: He talks of throwing his wife on the bed and kissing and touching her against her will; he says he believes he is the second coming of Christ, apparently based on a resemblance he sees in pictures; he films a video of himself sitting in the Porsche his exploitative practices have paid for, talking about how big its sunroof is.
But the extended edit on Jeff is much more dull. Over the documentary’s three hours, he reveals himself to be a world-class bore, the platonic ideal of the person you don’t want to encounter while in the middle seat on a long-haul flight. He’s not just full of confidence about his bad takes on subjects about which he knows nothing, but can expound on them incoherently seemingly forever.
It must have been a difficult balancing act for the filmmakers, needing to insert enough of Jeff for us to understand his apparently infinite love for the sound of his own voice, but not so much that we die of boredom. At times, I suspected they might have overbalanced slightly, but in retrospect, I think they got it right. Yes, I sometimes felt drained of my will to live by overexposure to Jeff’s smug face and unjustified self-belief, but this was the point: It’s easy to think that when evil comes for us we will recognise it by its horns and Hitler moustache, but the truth is that it’s now far more likely to arrive in a smiling self-help-adjacent package in our YouTube feed, buried under hours of bullshit.
Escaping Twin Flames is streaming now on Netflix.