Nov 7, 2023

The Matchmaking 'Cult' That Coerced Women Into Gender Transitioning


The Netflix docuseries “Escaping Twin Flames” explores the controversial online community that targeted lonely people looking for their soulmates.


The Daily Beast

Nick Schager

Entertainment Critic

November 07, 2023 

If a guru forces you to watch HBO’s The Vow in order to prove that he’s not a cult leader, he most definitely is—one of many lessons that can be gleaned from Escaping Twin Flames, a three-part docuseries about the online self-help outfit that promises to provide the lonely with their one true love. Arriving mere weeks after Prime Video’s own non-fiction exposé Desperately Seeking Soulmate: Escaping Twin Flames Universe, Cecilia Peck’s Netflix investigation damningly dissects the ugliness perpetrated by Jeff and Shaleia Divine, two online hucksters following a standard-issue cult playbook—save, that is, for their business’s modern twists, the most galling of which is its practice of coercing women into gender transitioning.

Confirming that there’s no shortage of people looking for mystical mentors who’ll afford answers to life’s problems, as well as exploitative phonies willing to assume those roles, Escaping Twin Flames (Nov. 8) is a brutal takedown of Jeff and Shaleia, who’ve made a mint by guaranteeing to pair individuals with their Twin Flames (i.e. soulmates). By paying for Twin Flames Universe (TFU) classes, coaching sessions, and other instructional materials (most of which revolve around a self-recrimination technique known as “The Mirror Exercise”), members are told that they’ll meet their divinely chosen partner and enter into a Harmonious Union. How will this come about? Initially, Jeff and Shaleia said that acolytes would recognize their True Flames courtesy of an instant, irresistible attraction. Before long, though, they were proclaiming that, because of their own “magical” union, they had the unique power to identify a person’s True Flame—and thus their word was to be unquestionably followed.

This is, of course, pure, unadulterated New Age-y nonsense, and the fact that anyone would buy it speaks to the way in which desperate unhappiness and lack of fulfillment breeds susceptibility to mumbo jumbo. Escaping Twin Flames features interviews with a collection of former members, including Keely, who became the first True Flame success story thanks to her whirlwind romance with, and marriage to, Colby. Keely was so all-in that she convinced her sister Marlee to join the organization and to accept Jeff’s proclamation that some older Utah rando named Joshua (who’d sent her a song via TFU’s Facebook page) was her True Flame. In no time at all, Marlee was moving to Utah to be with Joshua, despite the fact that he was a convicted felon with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. Unsurprisingly, this did not beget a happily ever after.

Also not shocking is the revelation that Jeff and Shaleia preached that members should cut off anyone interfering with their search for a Harmonious Union, including family members. Peck’s docuseries concentrates on a few mothers struggling to reconnect with their children, most notably Louise, whose daughter Stephanie severed all ties with her clan, including her twin sister Paula. As sociology professor Dr. Janja Lalich explains, this is a bedrock cult tactic, as was Jeff’s pronouncement—heard in some of the cringey TFU videos—that he’s the second coming of Jesus Christ. That Jeff is nasty, controlling, and creepy in those online posts is far from stunning, although his habit of overtly articulating his base financial motives (and flaunting the wealth he’s accumulated from member contributions) is eye-opening in its brazenness.

Escaping Twin Flames reveals that Jeff began his charlatan career by claiming he could cure cancer for a price, and he got his brilliant TFU idea after meeting kindred fraud Shaleia (real name: Megan). Jeff and Shaleia eventually sought to transform TFU into an outright religion because, as they admit on camera, that would let them avoid paying employees. They ran into a problem, however, when they discovered that compelling members to aggressively chase after their True Flames resulted in stalker-ish behavior and law enforcement trouble. With True Flame unions failing to materialize in accordance with their guarantee, Jeff and Shaleia pivoted to another strategy: pushing the dogma that humans were classifiable as either “Divine Masculine” or “Divine Feminine.” If their mostly female members couldn’t find a man, it was because they themselves were “Divine Masculine” in nature—and therefore should begin a gender transition.

In a bold move, Jeff and Shaleia paired off their members and told them whether they were men or women, and numerous individuals went along with these commands to the point of undergoing top surgeries. Escaping Twin Flames rightfully posits this as insanity and, moreover, antithetical to trans people’s desire to determine their own identities, and it proved a make-or-break moment for many of those who appear in Escaping Twin Flames. Their heartfelt testimonials are wracked with not just anger and hurt, but shame and guilt for the wrongs they committed on behalf of Jeff and Shaleia. With Dr. Lalich’s commentary, the docuseries astutely notes that cults are horrific precisely because they turn everyone into a perpetrator—something that Keely, as a former de facto spokesperson for TFU, is forced to reckon with after leaving the group in 2021.

Escaping Twin Flames paints Jeff and Shaleia as routine cultists defined by their 21st-century means of dominating (and bilking) adherents through gender-identity manipulations. Simultaneously, it compassionately considers the plights of both ex-members and the moms fighting to extricate their kids from the duo’s pseudo-spiritual clutches. Like other cult-related streaming affairs, what’s missing from Peck’s series is a larger discussion about how and why some people are predisposed to embrace systems that are so obviously counterfeit; one look at Jeff is enough to recognize him as a two-bit con man with no expertise in relationship or mental health counseling, and even less connection to God. There’s no judgment here, only empathy, but greater inquiry into Jeff and Shaleia’s victims—particularly, what made them vulnerable to these promises—would have expanded the show’s purview.

Still, given that Jeff and Shaleia continue to peddle their TFU wares online, Escaping Twin Flames serves its purpose as a withering warning call about a cult that’s yet to cease its corrosive operations.


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