I’d never heard of the concept of twin flames, or the internet cult called Twin Flames Universe, until I stumbled on a Wondery podcast after searching “cult true crime” during a long commute. According to two new documentaries about the cult, that’s more or less how many members found the cult in the first place. They had just gone through a breakup and were stuck on their ex, they found themselves attracted to someone so intensely, and they didn’t understand why, or they were just lacking love in their life—and they Googled.
Jeff and Shaleia Ayan (who have since changed their surname to “Divine”) were two twenty-somethings who started documenting their relationship on online videos. She’s a deeply spiritual seeker who lost her mother at a young age; he’s a hippie-meets-entrepreneur who had a continual string of previous online life coaching businesses and blogs and absolutely does not understand what his favorite book Ender’s Game was actually saying. (Jeff renamed himself ‘Ender’ for a while).
Shaleia introduced Jeff to the internet concept of twin flames—that there is a perfect soulmate out there in the world just waiting for you to find them, your ultimate romantic and sexual partner. Jeff took that and ran with it in a fresh online business venture called Twin Flames Universe. Twin Flames Universe guarantees that Jeff and Shaleia can teach people how to find their twin flame for an exorbitant cost because the Ayans had already found their own twin flame, knew how to recognize twin flames for other people, and … had a direct channel to god. Can you see where this is going?
In the two docuseries Escaping Twin Flames and Desperately Seeking Soulmate, on Netflix and Prime, respectively, the twisted road to the Twin Flames Universe cult, as it exists today, is mapped out by prior members/employees, family members, and expert commentators. Both docuseries are well done (if you ignore the truly strange, dated graphics in Desperately Seeking Soulmate), gathering interviewees with some overlap and telling a whole host of stories that parallel and intersect. All those stories add up to: people came to the Ayans seeking love and support, and what they got was a cult.
The concept of twin flames predates Twin Flames Universe and its associated Twin Flame Ascension School, which definitely helped their Google SEO and drew more people curious about the internet trend into their net. Only the Ayans could tell you who your twin flame was, even never having met them or knowing their name, and only they could make the rules about where you could find your twin flame. They also developed the core mental exercise of “mirroring,” where you say what’s bothering you (“I’m so sad because my twin flame seems to hate me.”) and replace all the personal nouns with first-person pronouns (“I’m so sad because I seem to hate me.”). In true NXIVM style, everything that happens to you or that you feel is your fault. Feeling victimized? You chose that. Feeling alone, depressed? Also your choice.
And even better: your twin flame is always meant for you. Whether they have any interest in you or not. Have they blocked you on all social media? Filed a restraining order? None of that matters! Go get ‘em! Don’t give up! Is your twin flame in a relationship of fourteen years and having their second child with their partner? Well, their partner is only having that child to keep your twin flame tethered to them! Because that partner knows they really want to be with you! When your twin flame said “leave me the hell alone,” that was “avoidance” according to Jeff; if your twin flame was gay, he was just denying the truth of who he was because he’s scared of his feelings for you. “Do whatever it takes.” It’s a recipe for stalking. At least one member ended up in jail for a month before being bailed out by her parents, whom Jeff and Shaleia had convinced her were evil.
And the cherry on top: Jeff announced that he was Christ. Yep. That all those images of white Jesus were white because they were actually images of Jeff. Yeppp. Don’t believe Jeff is god? Well, he can heal that “block” to “self-love” via some expensive coaching sessions.
The interviewees in Prime’s documentary say it best: Jeff is just a dick, feigning “tough love” and humor when all he’s doing is berating, insulting, and controlling his “students.” The couple hides behind humor and goofiness repeatedly: I mean, if you giggle while saying, “We’re the divine masculine and the divine feminine” or “I’m banging the Christ” that makes it sound saner, right? (No.)
So much of the cult’s tactics revolve around “therapeutic” life coaching techniques. In an eerie parallel to the messiah-complex, deeply harmful nonsense pedaled by Teal Swan, “coaches” plant ideas and memories during “therapy” sessions, including that their clients were abused as children. The technique is a direct descendant of the 1980s Satanic Panic; Swan actually picked up her manipulative techniques directly from one of the psychologists who was at the heart of that hysteria.
Also like Swan’s cult, Twin Flame Universe mainly exists via Facebook groups and remote coaching sessions, a vast online web pedaling pseudo therapy under the “divine” guidance of a white millennial guru. (Also, like Jeff’s claim to be Christ himself, Swan thinks she’s an ascended being with access to all the knowledge of the universe, in a bonkers mash-up of Heaven’s Gate and Twin Flames. If you haven’t heard of Swan, check out the podcast The Gateway and gird yourself to hear some rancid shit.)
Like many cults, Twin Flames Universe has its own language. Jeff and Shaleia “channel” twin flame couples, for instance, through their divine powers and then declare who should be life partners with whom.
Both documentaries include interviews with mothers of current members desperately trying to reestablish contact with their indoctrinated children. It immediately made me think of the network of parents that formed in the 1970s through 1990s to try to find and connect with their children who had vanished into the Heaven’s Gate cult. It’s an almost identical sense of family and community action, but now via Zoom calls rather than telephone networks.
Prime’s Desperately Seeking Soulmate takes the perspective of journalistic investigation, through the point of view of Alice Hines, an investigative reporter who has delved into strange online phenomena many times before in her writing. Hines broke the story of the cult with her reporting, and she recounts that journey in Desperately Seeking. (It’s somewhat cathartic to watch Jeff go red in the face railing against her in his YouTube videos). Prime’s series digs more deeply into the backstory of Jeff and Shaleia, interviewing family members and friends and tracing the path of how this brand of life coaching with a channel to god came to be.
It’s clear that Jeff knows he’s running a high-control group: he had his followers write an essay about how he is not a cult leader, after ordering them to watch Seduced and The Vow, about Keith Raniere and NXIVM. Ironically, Seduced was Cecilia Peck’s previous project—the same Cecilia Peck who then directed Netflix’s Escaping Twin Flames, in which this story of the essay assignment is told.
One thing that is particularly sticky about this case is that part of its control over members’ lives involves dictating their members’ gender identities and encouraging them to medically transition. Yeah. The Ayans insisted that there is a divine masculine and a divine feminine in every “harmonious twin flame union” and simultaneously decreed that members’ twin flames could only be other members within the cult. Those two things together meant that when Jeff and Shaleia started matchmaking their predominantly female-identifying cult members, they also began telling some of those women that they were actually the “divine masculine,” that is, telling them that their gender identity was male. Coaches literally received a list of twenty couples, their assigned genders (according to Jeff and Shaleia), and then got on Zoom to let those people know who they were and who they were marrying.
Netflix’s docuseries does a very good job tackling this very thorny point. As one of their expert interviewees says, this sort of manipulation is prime fodder for anti-trans bigots to start saying trans people are some kind of coercive, culty group. But trans identity, says the expert, is precisely the opposite of what Twin Flames Universe is doing: no one can dictate to you what your gender identity is. That is purely bound to your own personhood and agency, your own sense of yourself, and choices you make about your own body.
Some women left the cult when they were told that they were really men; others didn’t. There are many ways in which this makes for deeply uncomfortable viewing. In interviews, members’ mothers determinedly use masculine pronouns in an effort at respecting their child’s choice, when it’s clear their children were coerced into an identity. Members going online to announce they’d just undergone top surgery, a life event that is usually something to be celebrated in a gender-affirming journey, becomes something approaching horrifying as we see these videos in the docuseries. It all comes down to the fact that this isn’t the members’ choice. The trans community has gone through hell getting and retaining access to gender-affirming medical care, and while the trans community and allies continue that fight, that care is being abused, and that abuse runs the risk of giving ammunition to reactionary anti-trans bigots.
Twin Flames’ mentality is born from a New Age industry that has taken millennials and Gen Zers by storm. I mean, I drew a tarot card this morning. But here’s the thing: tools like tarot cards are not going to spell out your future like a time machine or a dues ex machina. They’re not going to tell you “This is what’s going to happen to you tomorrow” or “You’ll get the job or you won’t.” (I mean, some people believe they do. And that’s fine. As long as you don’t start a cult about it or start killing people who disagree. You know. As with most spiritual beliefs.) In my mind, tools like tarot cards are a vehicle for self-reflection and introspection. For instance: I drew the Queen of Pentacles card today. How does its message of abundance and groundedness apply to my life? What am I thinking of in relation to this card? How can I build from its message? Not: I am going to win the lottery tomorrow.
But New Age thought nowadays has a deeply individualistic bent to it, a searching of the self that threatens to make one person’s reality the only valid reality in their eyes. Twin Flames Universe preys on that: People who do not support a member’s “journey” are “energy leaks” (like, say, family) and need to be cut away. Jeff convinced one member that she was being abused by her family, who worried about her involvement in the cult, and that she and her biological family didn’t “live in the same world.” There are many self-centered people in the world who are convinced that their perception of reality is objective reality. What makes Twin Flames Universe so uniquely damaging in that regard is that Jeff and Shaleia rely on that idea of inner, personal truth—and then dictate that inner truth to their members, who adopt it as divine doctrine.
Twin Flames Universe is 110% a cult, one of the many online cults that popped up or picked up steam during the pandemic. Its lifecycle follows the same narrative arc that we’ve seen time and time again in such groups: escalating control, domineering central personality, and punishment for dissent, largely by exclusion from the in-group. Nothing is new here. Nothing except its mechanism and the promises it makes: we are god, and we will deliver you a soulmate.
Publicity and, honestly, public ridicule alongside legal action is the only way these things get taken down. But as we saw with NXIVM, there are always members who are in so deep that even the conviction and imprisonment of their leader won’t do the job of deprogramming them from the reality they’ve committed themselves to.
The two nearly simultaneous docuseries do some of the work of making this cult’s activities public. The strange phenomenon of competitive true crime documentaries in the streaming age is something that’s definitely become so common it’s almost expected. It started with the Hulu vs. Netflix Fyre Fest breakdowns (Netflix won, in part by making the obvious ethical choice to interview victims rather than pay the con man at the center of it all to babble in his own defense) and escalated from there. Now there are competing docs about multiple true crime stories—NXIVM, the Murdaugh murders, and the Bling Ring to name just a few—in an apparent race to tell the story first and loudest.
In the case of Twin Flames, the competing-docs format doesn’t bother me for once. In my opinion, the two docuseries combined make one very effective and comprehensive story that could, with a bit more time, have been told as one complete project—rather than scrambling to get access to prior members and tell the most incredible and disturbing stories. But in the instance of this very active and very harmful cult, showing Jeff and Shaleia’s absurdity to the public eye does somewhat justify the rush. And hopefully, spur some legal action. The case has been referred to federal authorities already. So, fingers crossed.