The Twin Flames Universe, a darkly all-consuming YouTube school that claims to help students find their one true love, has gotten the documentary treatment twice in 2023. In October, the three-part Desperately Seeking Soulmate: Escaping Twin Flames Universe told the story of the group and its members. On Nov. 8, Netflix followed suit with Escaping Twin Flames, another three-part docuseries that digs deeper.
The former is largely based on the reporting of Alice Hines, who wrote the Vanity Fair exposé “Inside the Always Online, All-Consuming World of Twin Flames Universe.” The latter includes interviews with investigative journalist Sarah Berman, who first covered the group for Vice.
But Berman isn’t so much the narrator of Escaping Twin Flames—rather, she is one voice among many, including former members of the group, parents of those still within it, and experts on “high-control groups”—who talks in the series about the influence of the Twin Flames Universe and its leaders, Jeff and Shaleia Ayan. Both docuseries feature the stories of former members of the group, and both are careful about not referring to Twin Flames Universe as a “cult,” especially given the litigiousness of the Ayans.
“In a general statement addressed to the media on its website, TFU denies allegations that it is a cult,” reads a statement at the end of each episode of the Netflix docuseries, “that it improperly profits off students, that it encourages stalking, or that it separates students from their families.”
And yet, in speaking about the group’s “Mind Alignment Process” in the docuseries, Dr. Janja Lalich—an expert on cults and coercion and professor emerita of sociology at California State University—says: “Many groups do this kind of introspective exercise, which they say is there to help you, but it’s actually there to tear apart the self. It’s also a way to separate them from their families, which is one of the goals of most cultic organizations, is they want to isolate you with just their little world.”
Here’s what Escaping Twin Flames Universe covers in three episodes.
The mothers who want their children back
The primary tool used by the Twin Flames Universe is the “mirror exercise,” in which members are asked to write down a statement about what’s bothering them, invert the pronouns, then assume the blame themselves and “heal” the issue. The Mind Alignment Process (MAP) is, as one former member put it in the series, “like the mirror exercise on steroids.”
“In this meditative state, things are suggestible,” says Elle, one former member. “She suggested there was sexual trauma that happened when I was a kid. To my best belief, I don’t think I’ve ever actually had anything like that in my childhood. It was like a memory that was planted inside of me. The MAP process started the whole process of not really wanting to be around my family, and feeling like they were out to hurt me.”
Twin Flames Universe often quietly pressures its members to cut ties with their families, claiming that family members can’t see the truth or are holding them back. The documentary features some mothers who haven’t heard from their children in years. Louise, the mother of current Twin Flames Universe member Stephanie, was contacted through Reddit by another mother. Now she, Maxine (mother of current member Isaiah), and Debbie (mother of Ray, who recently left) have formed their own community. Working with Louise’s other daughter, Paula (Stephanie’s twin sister), they aim to collect evidence against Jeff and Shaleia Ayan that proves the group is a cult.
Both Isaiah and Ray transitioned gender after joining the Twin Flames Universe. “Out of the blue, my child said, ‘I want you to start calling me by he and him,’” Maxine says. “I asked how long he had felt like this, and he responded, ‘Immediately, when I became a Twin Flame.’”
The pressure to transition gender
As the series shows, the majority of Twin Flames Universe members were straight, cisgender women, and after a while, not many of them had found their perfect match. In Dec. 2019, Jeff and Shaleia “channeled” 20 new Twin Flame pairings within the group itself.
Twin Flames Universe teaches the existence of a “Divine Masculine” and a “Divine Feminine.” While it may seem outwardly supportive of the LGBTQ+ community, the group also believes that, in a “Harmonious Twin Flame Union,” there must be one Divine Masculine and one Divine Feminine person.
The majority of people who were paired in Dec. 2019 were two women, and half of them were told that they were now actually Divine Masculines. Jeff and Shaleia pressured people to change their names, pronouns, and gender presentations.
“The public statement that you would see in the Twin Flames Universe forum, that Jeff and Shaleia would post, is, ‘We’re not pushing anybody to transition. Whatever that looks like for you is fine,’” former member Victoria says in the show. “But behind closed doors, the messaging was different. It had become a form of conversion therapy.”
Of the former members interviewed in the docuseries, one had begun to transition, then reversed course when she left the group. Another was pressured to transition, then left the group because of it. A former member who left in 2021 said that, before she left, two people had had top surgery.
“It’s not impossible that some of those people who start out in the group as straight cisgender women realize that they happen to be trans,” says Dr. Cassius Adair—a professor at The New School and author of The Transgender Internet—in the series. “But I don’t hear in the testimony of the people in Twin Flames Universe something like, ‘I want to get closer to who I am.’ What I’m hearing them say is, ‘I want to get closer to who I’m supposed to be.’”
“That raises a red flag for me,” he continues. “That doesn’t feel right to me. We don’t want there to be a ‘supposed to be’ about gender. We want gender to be something that you are allowed to discern on your own.”
Where Twin Flames Universe stands now
Though many former members have since left the group, Twin Flames Universe is still running. In April 2019, one member of the group died by suicide. Another former member was encouraged to violate a restraining order from her “Twin Flame” and went to jail.
Jeff began to identify as the second coming of Jesus, and Jeff and Shaleia started the “Church of Union” non-profit umbrella, under which they run multiple for-profit businesses. The couple began to talk about a third “Twin Flame,” their unborn child, Grace, who was born in April 2023, and heralded as something of a messiah.
“I think a lot of it was to distract us from what was happening to us right before our eyes,” former member Keely says in the series. “Jeff was ready to buy a giant, 300-person event hall. And we were to live in a trailer on that property while we renovated it and make a farm. One of the things that was implied when we were supposed to move to Michigan was that we would be having children when we moved there. Jeff and Shaleia said that everyone has the opportunity to have Golden Children, which are children who are already ascended.”
The “Golden Children” would then be twin flames with other “Golden Children.” And couples who could not physically produce a child together would be able to seek sperm donation from another group member—but that member had to be chosen by Jeff. Jeff and Shaleia would decide whether someone was “worthy” of having a child, based primarily on reaching a certain level of income. Jeff and Shaleia also announced that they would be taking 50% of their “Ascension Coaches’” income.
“I hope that people who are watching with horror what Jeff and Shaleia are doing come to realize that you have a lot in common with the trans community, because we as trans people want everyone to have ownership of their own body and be able to present ourselves and find love as who we are,” Adair, the professor, says in the series. “And that’s what Jeff and Shaleia think is a threat to their business model.”
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