What "Escaping Twin Flames" teaches us about the anti-trans nature of a supposedly loving cult

We don't watch cult docuseries to learn anything. But this one illuminates the logic behind anti-trans panic

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published November 11, 2023 5:45AM (EST)

Jeff and Shaleia Ayan in "Desperately Seeking Soulmate: Escaping Twin Flames Universe" (Amazon Studios)
Jeff and Shaleia Ayan in "Desperately Seeking Soulmate: Escaping Twin Flames Universe" (Amazon Studios)

Never have I been more relieved to see an expert enter the frame on a docuseries than when Dr. Cassius Adair turns up Netflix’s “Escaping Twin Flames.”

Adair enters when the docuseries is well into exposing the sinister twist of Twin Flames Universe, a specious “school” promising to guide people to their spiritual soul mate. When members grow disillusioned with Jeff and Shaleia Divine, and their guarantee that their practice will net them everlasting love, the couple switch course and claim that God has guided them to pair members with each other.

Confounding this already problematic directive is that most TFU followers are women and identify as heterosexual. Jeff and Shaleia don’t view that as an obstacle. Footage shows them bullying members to assume new gender identities and pronouns, insisting they are really men in women’s bodies and that humans can only embody “Divine Feminine” or “Divine Masculine” energy.

One young member came out as transgender on Facebook after Jeff and Shaleia ordained them to be a “Divine Masculine,” leading their confused mother to kick them out of their house. This story comes from that parent, not the TFU member. She is one of several mothers whose children cut off contact with them after disappearing into the Twin Flames Universe.

These accounts are followed by video testimonials from other members confessing they were initially resistant to Jeff’s determination that they were a “Divine Masculine” but, as one says after receiving a “healing” training, “I could see how all along it was playing out.”

At this my internal alarm bells clanged furiously enough to make me hit the pause button.

If “Escaping Twin Flames” filmmakers Cecilia Peck and Inbal B. Lessner had let these scenes and others ride, they’d have left a damaging impression about the nature of transness with the audience. They must have know that, because at this point is precisely when they introduce Adair, an Assistant Professor of Media Studies at The New School, to let us know we’re not crazy.

Escaping Twin FlamesDr. Cassius Adair in "Escaping Twin Flames" (Netflix)“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. That doesn't feel right to me,” Adair says. “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.”

Not many true crime stories merit two takes on the same topic, although now and again it happens. (Whether we needed two takes on the doomed Fyre festival, a la Hulu’s “Fyre Fraud” and Netflix’s “Fyre,” is debatable.) But some tales are tragic, bizarre and repellent enough to require a couple of breakdowns to sort through all the layers of moral transgression its perpetrators have committed or, like Jeff and Shaleia, may be continuing to commit.

“Escaping Twin Flames” is the second three-part documentary series about Twin Flames Universe, which speaks to the presumed mass appeal of the subject matter on the part of each project’s distributor – Netflix in this case, and Prime Video for “Desperately Seeking Soulmate: Escaping Twin Flames Universe,” which debuted a few weeks ago.  

Peck and Lessner, who collaborated on “Seduced: Inside the NXIVM Cult,” draw on some of Sarah Berman’s reporting for to build their narrative. Prime Video’s “Desperately Seeking Soulmate: Escaping Twin Flames,” in contrast, retraces the reporting of Vanity Fair’s Alice Hines, who serves as its main protagonist and narrator.

Provided a person is sufficiently intrigued about this subject, the projects can be viewed as complementary. Although there’s plenty of overlap between them, there are more intriguing pathways and corners in this story than can be adequately covered in three hours.

“I don't see Jeff and Shaleia as supporting trans people . . . I see Jeff and Shaleia supporting anti-trans people."

“Escaping Twin Flames” builds towards the gender coercion subplot through most of the two episodes, positioning it as a matter of business necessity for Jeff and Shaleia. Twin Flames Universe is on its face LGBTQIA+ friendly as Arcelia, a former member appearing in both series, points out. She was drawn at first to the group’s inclusiveness until its founders became fixated on her identity as a trans woman.

With their followers losing faith, Jeff and Shaleia needed a way to keep them in the labyrinth; hence, a new mythology legitimizing their supposedly divinely mandated matchmaking. They begin with their first and most famous harmonious Twin Flames pair, a married lesbian couple Jeff begins to harass openly when one refuses to change her gender identity and name at Jeff’s insistence. Arcelia, sickened by this and other displays of the founders wanting people to align with an “over-heteronormative, traditional obscenity,” bowed out.

Adair qualifies his evaluation by saying some TFU members who joined as straight cisgender women may in the process of their time within the group realize they are trans.

Then we see one bereft mother talk about logging on to Facebook to discover her child, who is now called Isaiah, had gotten a double mastectomy. After Isaiah admits that before the surgery he would feel like he was lying or “there’s something that doesn’t feel good,” Adair is unambiguous.

“I don't see Jeff and Shaleia as supporting trans people by saying, ‘Hey, you can take hormones or get surgery.’ I see Jeff and Shaleia supporting anti-trans people by saying, ‘The gender you are is not determined by you; it’s determined by the people who have power over you.’”

We watch shows like this for the shocks and thrills; we do not expressly sit down with them to learn anything. Nevertheless, true crime can be a passive teacher in the same way all entertainment is, after a fashion. It proves our darkest fears while inspiring us to take mental notes to learn from others’ misfortunes.

Nearly every cult docuseries features moving interviews with people who have lost loved ones to whatever madness is being profiled. But the context in which these TFU discussions are presented verges on a soft confirmation of the widely debunked “social contagion” theory positing that young people who come out as transgender are submitting to the will of external influences.

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The TFU tale is somewhat familiar, with lovelorn people taken in by new-age hucksters claiming to have the answers that have been eluding them. Jeff Divine, or Ayan, depending on when you encounter him – Jeff also previously identified himself as Ender Ayanethos, and Shaleia was born Megan Plante – guarantee that if their students follow their teaching they will achieve “harmonious union” with their Twin Flame, a soulmate to whom they’re linked across lifetimes. (Before founding Twin Flames Universe, Jeff also claimed to have the ability to spiritually cure cancer.)

“Desperately Seeking Soulmate” takes a more extensive look at Jeff's and Shaleia’s backgrounds, which is useful for comprehending the fraud behind their predatory tactics.

However, it is less specific in spelling out why TFU’s teachings and practices are anti-trans, which is important to explain to an audience consistently exposed to myths about gender-affirming care fueling anti-trans legislation.

You can’t take in these series without connecting the abuses Jeff and Shaleia inflict on their followers to the twisted reasoning behind anti-trans legislation.

Many of the bills circulating through state legislatures cite a theory of supposed “rapid-onset gender dysphoria,” introduced in 2018 by former Brown University researcher Lisa Littman only to be roundly refuted in the medical community soon after.

More than 60 organizations of health professionals, including the American Psychological Association and the American Psychiatric Association, agree there’s no such thing and called for the term to be scrubbed entirely. Since the Internet is forever Littman’s paper continues to be cited in bad-faith political efforts to, for instance, halt Medicaid funding for transition-related health care for adult patients, as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis tried to do earlier this year.

Jeff also operates like a politician high on the Prosperity Gospel. He brags about hoodwinking people into working for him for free while conspicuously flaunting the luxury sports cars and massive home they were able to purchase with wealth created by luring followers into taking their meaningless classes. Eventually, Jeff invites TFU adherents to view him as Jesus Christ and, for a time, tries to get Twin Flames Universe to be designated as a religious organization to avoid paying taxes.

It could be that aspect of the story that makes the couple’s coercive tactics related to gender particularly odious.

Escaping Twin FlamesArceia in "Escaping Twin Flames" (Netflix)“Desperately Seeking Soulmate” calls on Johns Hopkins University associate professor Jules Gill-Peterson to synthesize what we’re seeing into a commonly understood concept: By dividing sexuality into a binary instead of acknowledging it as a spectrum, and by insisting that even same-sex couples operate within a masculine-feminine dynamic, the psychological coercion that Jeff and Shaleia engage in is a sinister manifestation of conversion therapy. She’s right.

But what "Escaping Twin Flames" calls out is the dangerous falsehood TFU perpetuates via its leaders’ methods. Their coercion shows them pushing emotionally vulnerable people to change their names and pronouns – fueling the lie, for example, that transgender people, youth particularly, are going through a "phase."

TFU members current and former featured in each series appear to be adults, although many certainly look younger – which is to say, the people Jeff and Shaleia are accused of manipulating are, in the eyes of the law, capable of making decisions for themselves.

We are not talking about children, in other words, but you can’t take in “Escaping Twin Flames” or “Desperately Seeking Soulmate” without connecting the abuses Jeff and Shaleia inflict on their followers to the twisted reasoning behind anti-transgender legislation, most of which specifically targets children and parents of transgender youth.

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This is a docuseries, not a hard news investigation. And yet that’s precisely why Adair’s straightforward contextualizing is so vital. Information sorted through entertainment should be met with skepticism, but that term cuts in a variety of ways. Twin Flame Universe has posted a media statement on its website refuting the coercion claims former members make in each series, although footage included in both corroborates their version of events.

“We take seriously recent allegations implying we wield inappropriate control over our community members,” the statement reads. It goes on to say, “The allegations levied against Twin Flames Universe not only distort our true aims, methods, and curriculums but also misrepresent the autonomy of our community members, who are free to engage with our resources as they see fit.”

Adair is even more precise as to what should be troubling us as we watch these series unfold.

“[P]eople might hear about this group and say, ‘Oh, this is proof that trans and this is some kind of cult,’ that transness is something that is coerced,” he says. “And nothing could be further from the truth. This is a group that is not in the mainstream of what trans people do and what trans people believe.”

"Escaping Twin Flames" is currently streaming on Netflix. "Desperately Seeking Soulmate: Escaping Twin Flames Universe" is streaming on Prime Video.

By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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Commentary Cults Netflix Prime Video Soul Mate Transgender Tv Twin Flames Twin Flames Universe