Director Cecilia Peck is no stranger to competing docuseries on the same topic. Her last project, Seduced: Inside the NXIVM Cult, came on the heels of The Vow, HBO's own docuseries about the group and its disgraced leader Keith Raniere. At the time, there was much discussion about which project was better, with the general consensus being that Seduced, though less discussed because of its home on Starz and later release (it premiered the night of The Vow's Season 1 finale), offered a more focused look at the cult's insidious practices and a more reliable narrator in victim India Oxenberg.
Three years later, Peck finds herself in a similar situation with Netflix's Escaping Twin Flames, a three-part docuseries about Twin Flames Universe (TFU), a controversial group that promises to unite members with their divine soulmate. Once again, the documentarian has been beaten to the punch: In early October, Prime Video premiered Marina Zenovich's Desperately Seeking Soulmate: Escaping Twin Flames Universe, another three-parter about the online cult founded by Jeff and Shaleia Ayan.
There's quite a bit of overlap between the projects, both of which employ a linear structure as they explore the group's rapid growth, the allegations that Jeff and Shaleia are manipulating followers into changing their gender identities, and the journeys of former members who explain why they became disillusioned and left the online community. To reinforce these points Desperately Seeking Soulmate and Escaping Twin Flames rely on similar footage of TFU Ascension School classes, or group "therapy" sessions with the founders, and testimony from some of the same ex-members, resulting in a comparable tone of righteous indignation that Jeff and Shaleia have been able to destroy so many lives (and continue to do so without facing any legal consequences).
Dotted throughout both are interviews with journalists who have investigated the group — Vanity Fair's Alice Hines in the case of Prime Video's doc, and Vice's Sarah Berman in Netflix's — and animated, technicolor depictions of Jeff and Shaleia's teachings, including the harmful "Mirror Exercise," intended to illustrate the more mystical elements of their personas.
But while they arrive at the same conclusion, Desperately Seeking Soulmate and Escaping Twin Flames emphasize different aspects of this story along the way. Zenovich's docuseries prioritizes Jeff and Shaleia's upbringings and the origin of TFU, which emerged out of Jeff's interest in business and Shaleia's spirituality; in interviews, family members, including Shaleia's father, and childhood friends speak to their lives before they became lifestyle gurus and hypothesize about what led them down this path.
Peck's take, however, de-centers the group's founders. Though Berman provides a basic overview of Jeff's early attempts to cultivate an online following through "spiritual healing" websites, one of which claimed he has the ability to cure cancer and other illnesses, the sequence is very brief (roughly four minutes in a three-hour docuseries). As a result, Jeff and Shaleia's backgrounds, their appeal to members, and their motivations for launching TFU aren't as clear, leaving viewers with more questions than answers about the alleged cult leaders and their respective roles in the organization.
That said, the reduced focus on Jeff and Shaleia as people allows the Netflix docuseries to explore other aspects of their business that are only mentioned in Desperately Seeking Soulmate, making for a more comprehensive look at the many ways they have infiltrated their members' lives. In Episode 2, "Playing With Fire," a former member named Keely, who was so high-up in the organization that Jeff appointed her CEO (in name only, of course), provides a firsthand account of Jeff and Shaleia's conscious effort to "structure their businesses so that they could pay the least amount of taxes possible."
Video recordings show Jeff bragging about their plan to "turn part of [the] company into a religion," which would give him a legal way to avoid paying people for the hours of free labor they're providing to the group. Shortly after, Jeff and Shaleia founded the Church of Union — at which point they proclaimed Jeff was the second coming of Christ — and incorporated it as a non-profit with for-profit entities housed underneath, including meal service Divine Dish and video game company Divine Gaming Inc.
As Sara, an ex-member and TFU video editor, says, these businesses and the self-blaming Mirror Exercise — the core element of Jeff and Shaleia's teachings — were created with one purpose in mind: to break down followers' spirits, and then profit off their undoing. "Even if we did wake up feeling good and we were in a good mood, something was wrong," she recalls. "That was how they made their money. I mean, if you weren't upset, then you had nothing to work on."
Escaping Twin Flames also carries this story further into the present day, whereas Zenovich's docuseries ends with Hines' December 2020 exposé on Jeff and Shaleia. Some of the most horrifying claims about TFU come from Keely's recollection of the period after Hines met with Jeff and Shaleia in June 2020, including the push to establish a physical presence on a farm in Michigan. According to Keely, who has a flash drive loaded with evidence of this campaign and other financial schemes, a select group of members were told to move to Michigan and begin conceiving "Golden Children," or "children who are already ascended," but it was up to Jeff and Shaleia to decide "who their sperm donor was" or even "whether you are worthy of having a child." Says Shanise, who left the group in 2021, "It felt like they were trying to almost, like, produce their own breed of human."
Interestingly, Keely says it was around this same time that Jeff told members to watch Seduced and The Vow and write essays about "why Jeff is not a cult leader" like Raniere, which is exactly what made her realize she was involved in a similarly high-control group. "We ended up doing almost a 24-hour healing call, where I wasn't able to really move out of my chair until I believed he was not a cult leader," Keely explains in an interview that's intercut with audio of Jeff mocking participants and yelling at them on the call. "During the session, I started thinking even more about what I really wanted in life, how much I was suffering, and why Jeff and Shaleia had so much control over me."
Former members detail similar revelations or awakenings in Desperately Seeking Soulmate, but Zenovich largely stops at their triumph over their manipulative leaders. Peck, on the other hand, encourages Escaping Twin Flames' subjects to reckon with their complicity, denying the audience a tidy or feel-good ending. In the final episode, "Up in Flames," experts speak to the fact that "everybody who is in a cult, in a sense, becomes a perpetrator," and Keely works through her guilt over the harm she caused while in TFU. Her journey culminates in a heartfelt apology to Angie, to whom she "assigned" a new gender at Jeff's request. (In December 2019, Jeff and Shaleia allegedly held a "channeling ceremony" and discovered 20 new Harmonious Twin Flame Unions made up of "Divine Masculine" and "Divine Feminine" energy, but many members did not identify as such and were pressured to transition.)
Keeley's effort to come to terms with what she's done proves to be the show's most emotional moment, both because it's rare for people in these kinds of docuseries to take accountability — just look at Mark Vicente in The Vow — and because it's unlikely Jeff and Shaleia will ever do the same.
But even though the Netflix docuseries leaves viewers with more to consider after three episodes, it wouldn't be fair to say that it offers a better look at Twin Flames Universe than Prime Video's exploration, or vice versa. The two projects are different enough in their framing — one is more focused on Jeff and Shaleia, the other on their followers and the alleged abuse they suffered at their hands — and scope that they're both worthwhile endeavors, particularly considering each ends with a warning about the group's continued growth, despite the serious claims levied by ex-members. At the end of the day, Desperately Seeking Soulmate and Escaping Twin Flames are best considered complementary, not competing, docuseries with the same end goal in mind: to deliver justice for Jeff and Shaleia's victims, in whatever form that takes.
Escaping Twin Flames is streaming on Netflix, while Desperately Seeking Soulmate: Escaping Twin Flames Universe is available on Prime Video. Join the discussion about the shows in our forums.
Claire Spellberg Lustig is the Senior Editor at Primetimer and a scholar of The View. Follow her on Twitter at @c_spellberg.
TOPICS: Escaping Twin Flames, Amazon Prime Video, Netflix, Desperately Seeking Soulmate: Escaping Twin Flames Universe, Seduced: Inside the NXIVM Cult, Cecilia Peck, Jeff Ayan, Marina Zenovich, Shaleia Ayan