Perhaps you may have already noticed but Netflix’s documentary release schedule has become … aggressive. It seems like every time something like The Devil on Trial premieres, a Get Gotti arrives quickly on its heels to bump it out of the “Top 10” on the streamer’s homepage.
That elevated pace is good news for viewers who crave a consistent content pipeline of non-fiction to consume. It also unfortunately means some quality docs run the risk of falling by the wayside before they have a chance to catch on. We certainly hope that’s not the fate awaiting Escaping Twin Flames – a Netflix docuseries that tackles one of the more interesting subjects that streaming has in some time.
Created by Cecilia Peck and Inbal B. Lessner (the team behind Seduced: Inside the NXIVM Cult), Escaping Twin Flames delves into the modern day high-control group (re: cult) known as “Twin Flames Universe.” Over the span of three episodes, the series follows Twin Flames Universe’s inception as an online self help group to its maturation as an abusive cult of personality built around “twin flames” Jeff and Shaleia Ayan.
“We were flooded with messages from people who left high-control groups after releasing our series about the NXIVM cult, and the stories of the survivors and families impacted by Twin Flames Universe emerged as the most urgent to expose,” the filmmakers told Netflix. “Escaping Twin Flames is the result of a three-year investigation into the sophisticated recruitment and indoctrination techniques employed by the leaders of this online group. We are grateful to those who courageously entrusted us with their firsthand accounts and evidence. We made this series for them and for everyone who has been manipulated or coerced without knowing it.”
Escaping Twin Flames is worth watching. Whether you’ve had a chance to check it out yet or not, we thought we’d use this space to unpack what makes the doc so compelling and what makes Twin Flames Universe so distinct as one of the most successful high-control groups of the remote communication age.
Here are some things we learned from Escaping Twin Flames and other media regarding Twin Flames Universe.
What is the Twin Flames Universe?
Very few cults begin with bad ideas. Usually high-control groups rally their acolytes around a logical or emotionally-resonant message before twisting and corrupting it to serve a cult leader’s interests. Such is the case with Twin Flames Universe. The origin of Twin Flames Universe traces back to the idea of romantic soulmates, which is not a scientifically rigorous concept but certainly a benign, and even charming one for many people.
Though the term’s exact origins are unclear, “twin flames” came to be an alternative, new age-y term for soulmates online. Prominent celebrities like Megan Fox and Machine Gun Kelly referred to one another as twin flames, and poor Ryan Gosling had to file a restraining order against a stalker who claimed to be his. That grim Gosling example aside, there is nothing inherently sinister about twin flames. Romantic Reddit users still operate the Twin Flames subreddit to this day and discuss their experiences looking for love.
Things took a turn for the culty, however, when Jeff Ayan and Megan Plante met in 2012 through a mutual friend (online, of course). Jeff and Megan immediately identified each other as twin flames and got married shortly after meeting, with Megan changing her name to the more ethereal-sounding “Shaleia.” The couple represented a fascinating collision of personalities – Shaleia is unabashedly spiritual and what one might call a modern day hippie why Jeff is cold, calculated, and ambitious.
The two started a blog called “Awakened Universe,” which rebranded as “Twin Flames Universe.” As readers flocked to the couple’s blog to learn the secrets of finding one’s twin flame, Jeff and Shaleia quickly found a way to profit on the endeavor. They started an expensive series of private lessons called “Twin Flame Ascension School” that used the popular “Mirror Exercise,” which instructs users to assume responsibility for their own and others actions to an extreme degree.
Through the Twin Flame Ascension School, Jeff and Shaleia built a modest fiefdom of followers who paid excessive sums for advice on how to secure their twin flame. Said advice was often unhelpful and even dangerous, encouraging stalking behavior from its adherents. Indeed, Escaping Twin Flames recounts the first hand story from former member Elle who was arrested on stalking charges. Throughout the 2010s, Jeff and Shaleia’s Twin Flame empire would grow to include courses called “Mind Alignment Process” sessions, the establishment of a pseudo-religion “Church of Union,” not-so-subtle intimations that Jeff was Christ reborn, and even a meal delivery service for good measure (Divine Dish).
Eventually, the Ayans began to exert even more control over their followers, assigning all unpaired members into their own twin flame arrangements within the Twin Flames Universe group. Since Jeff and Shaleia’s conception of twin flames involves a “divine masculine” and “divine feminine” and most of the group’s members were women, this required many female members to change their gender identity to better fit their new twin flame.
Twin Flames Universe is a Cult for the Zoom Age
At this point, you may have noticed something peculiar about Twin Flames. The above description never mentions the cult followers being in the physical presence of the cult leader. That’s because the vast majority of interactions in Twin Flames Universe occur remotely via Google Hangouts and the downloading of educational videos from Jeff and Shaleia.
While Escaping Twin Flames recounts at least two in-person events that took place in New York and Toronto in the late 2010s, the rest of the cult programming here occurs via the internet. In the definitive magazine feature about Twin Flames Universe from Alice Hines at Vanity Fair, one former TFU member discusses how online access makes the group feel omniscient, saying “Everywhere I went, [Jeff and Shaleia] went with me, because they were on my phone.”
In many ways, Twin Flames Universe got a jumpstart on an era of meaningful Zoom interactions made all the more prominent by the Covid-19 pandemic. The confusion over how a cult can operate remotely is one that its founders use to their advantage.
In the aforementioned Vanity Fair article, Jeff tries to use that fact to argue that his group can’t possibly be a cult, saying “It’s kinda hard to get into a cult on the internet, isn’t it? How are you going to drink the poison if it’s on the internet? Don’t you have to, like, be part of a community, like, that all lives on a farm or something?”
Of course, we now are gaining a better understanding that not every cult ends up in a South American compound with Flavor-Aid. From NXIVM to Love Has Won to even something like the suite of QAnon conspiracies, it’s clear that modern day communications technologies can help high-control groups exert their influence from afar.
Twin Flames Universe Isn’t a “Trans Cult”
In addition to Twin Flames Universe’s internet origins, the other aspect of this story that naturally jumps out to people is TFU’s approach to gender. At first glance, a group that encourages its members to embrace their gender identity might seem progressive. In reality, however, it is very clearly another avenue for Twin Flames Universe to exert control over its charges.
Like all cult leaders worth their salt, Jeff Ayan is an effective improviser. When the tenets of his cult’s ideology conflict with reality, he is able to “yes and” that reality into something more to his liking. As time went on, Twin Flames Universe faced some inherent issues with its twin flames concept. TFU followers who were convinced that their twin flame existed outside of the group represented a lack of control for Jeff and Shaleia as they couldn’t guarantee that the outside twin flame would be amenable to joining the group.
So they instituted that all twin flames would be found within Twin Flames Universe. But that itself raised a major problem. The majority of Twin Flames Universe’s followers were female and Jeff and Shaleia had already established that all pairings have a “divine masculine” and “divine feminine” component. Rather than tweaking the existing rules, Jeff just powered through them and declared that many of the women in their group were really divine masculine and hadn’t realized it yet. This led to awkward scenarios as seen in the doc with members like Angie having to adjust their perception of their own gender on the fly. Ultimately Angie and her “divine feminine” twin flame Victoria end up leaving the group over it.
Alice Hines’ article acknowledges how this policy could easily evolve into a culture war misinformation and propaganda campaign regarding the rights of transgender and gender nonconforming people in the U.S. Hines acknowledges that “Twin Flames Universe feels like bait for the anti-trans lobby” and quotes trans former member Arcelia (who is interviewed in the Netflix documentary) as saying that it’s what might happen “if excessive liberal progressives got drunk and had a baby with conservative Christians.”
It’s to Escaping Twin Flames‘ credit that it recognizes the incendiary potential of this part of the TFU story and invites NYU Media Studies professor Dr. Cassius Adair on to explain what’s really going on here.
“I don’t hear in the testimony of the people in Twin Flames Universe of ‘I want to get closer to who I am.’ I hear them say ‘I want to get closer to who I’m supposed to be.’ We don’t want there to be a “supposed to be’ in gender,” Adair says.
Twin Flames Universe is Still Growing
Like many documentaries, Escaping Twin Flames concludes with pre-credit text that reveals the latest available information on its topic. The text here is particularly lengthy and reads, in part:
“Twin Flames Universe is recruiting new members and growing their organization. There are over 10,000 cults currently operating in the U.S. and the number of internet based cults since the pandemic is rapidly increasing. In 2020, the Farmington Hills Police Department investigated TFU and were ‘unable to determine that any crimes took place in Farmington Hills.’ They forwarded their report to the FBI for review of ‘possible federal crimes.’ In a general statement addressed to the media on its website, TFU denies allegations that it is a cult, that it improperly profits off students, that it encourages stalking, or that it separates students from their families.”
The key bit of information in there is that Jeff and Shaleia are “growing their organization” because indeed they are. A Time article on the cult notes that its closely moderated Facebook group had 14,000 members in 2020 and nearly 40,000 in late 2023. Meanwhile Jeff and Shaleia maintain both personal and professional Instagram accounts.
Interestingly, the comment section of the documentary’s trailer on YouTube features an unusually high number of comments from people who claim to be loved ones of people currently ensnared in the the cult. It’s possible that the Twin Flames Universe is bigger than realized and Escaping Twin Flames covers happened into one of the more prominent modern day cults.
There’s Another Recent Twin Flames Docuseries to Watch
If any of this sounds familiar that might be because there was another prominent Twin Flames three-episode docuseries released just one month ago on Prime Video. Desperately Seeking Soulmate: Escaping Twin Flames Universe is every bit as entertaining as Escaping Twin Flames and may even be a touch more enlightening. The Amazon-produced version of this saga delves a little deeper into Jeff an Shaleia’s past and even features interviews with some of Jeff’s childhood friends to better explain his entrepreneurial mindset.
If you check out Desperately Seeking Soulmate (and we recommend you do) you may notice that it has some subjects in common with its Netflix counterpart including interviews with Arcelia and an expanded look into the story of Briana. It also features a fresh batch of former TFU members, the most notable of which are is prominent twin flame couple Catrina and Anne, who feel like the only real omission from Escaping Twin Flames.
Additionally, Desperately Seeking Soulmate centers on aforementioned Variety Fair writer Alice Hines and therefore has some downright surreal footage of her visit to Jeff and Shaleia’s grand rural Michigan home.
All three episodes of Escaping Twin Flames are available to stream on Netflix now.