This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.
A YouTube spirituality school accused of exploiting its members has sent former students a letter threatening them with imminent lawsuits, police investigations, bankruptcy, jail time, and the publication of “VERY revealing and VERY uncomfortable” information.
Days after VICE published an investigation into the workings of Twin Flames Universe, an online life coaching community that promotes fringe ideas about love, its leaders sent out a letter to ex-members threatening life-ruining consequences for speaking out about family separations, unpaid labor, and a host of other cult-like practices.
Former students say the group’s leaders Shaleia and Jeff Ayan claimed to cure post-traumatic stress disorder, cancer, and other medical conditions with a special “mind alignment” therapy. They told VICE students paid thousands of dollars for access to Twin Flames videos, and in some cases were coached into violating restraining orders, cutting off their parents unless they sent money, and working long hours for free.
A letter signed by Twin Flames Universe founders Jeff and Shaleia, who previously went by the names Ender Ayanethos and Megan Plante, calls these accounts “lies” spread by an anti-Twin Flames “hate group.” (Though filled with legal jargon, the “cease and desist” is not signed by a lawyer.)
The four-page letter accuses the ex students of bullying, slander, and “cyber-violence.” In it, Jeff and Shaleia claim that ex members will end up bankrupt and in jail unless they retract their statements to VICE and delete all negative comments.
“You will write a complete and effective collective retraction,” reads part of the letter, “and apologize for the lies you told about us.” If the ex-members send a retraction within 48 hours, the letter continues, Jeff and Shaleia write that they will “have no need to publish a VERY revealing and VERY uncomfortable (for you) article” about them.
“This will just be the beginning of our response to your hate group’s attacks if you do not stand down,” it reads.
Do you have information about Twin Flames Universe or similar groups? We’d love to hear from you. You can contact Sarah Berman at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The letter goes on to describe an invasive investigation process, including subpoenas, extraditions, private detectives, and financial paralysis. “Bankruptcy means it is nearly impossible for you to rent an apartment, rent a room, and even apply for a real world job,” reads part of the letter. “We will not only engage the legal system to take you to court for civil and criminal activities, (your criminal activities will land you in jail) we will hire private investigators to come after you and investigate you.”
Ex students who provided the letter to VICE called it bullying, intimidation, and blackmail. Though more than a dozen people received it—including some parents and former members who were not interviewed for the story—none of them sent retractions.
Twin Flames Universe threatened to sue VICE over its story, and vehemently denied all cult accusations. An email from Leesie Mappes, Twin Flames’ CEO and “senior executive minister” with the group’s new church, claims VICE was “scammed” into publishing false accounts by a former student with an agenda to destroy Twin Flames for the benefit of a rival spiritual coaching business.
“This is the same way Hitler treated Jews during the Holocost (sic),” reads part of the email. “You sought to control the story and fabricate an insane, hellish lie which would benefit your career and the agenda of a small hate group rather than report on reality.”
VICE spoke to six former students and three families for its story last month, and has since heard from two more ex members and another family who support those accounts of exploitation at the hands of Twin Flames.
Jeff and Shaleia did not respond when asked to comment on the letter and blackmail allegations. When asked about family separation and exploitation last month, Jeff replied, “We never pressure anyone to do anything.”
“At first it kind of shocked me,” Lenae Burchell, a former Twin Flames Universe student who left the group in July 2019, said of the letter. “To be called a bully when all I did was share my story… I’ve never been called a bully in my entire life, ever.”
Burchell joined the Twin Flames Universe community in January 2019. A single mom living in Texas, Burchell said she was initially drawn in by the group’s Facebook forums, which encouraged members to open up about trauma and heartbreak. Burchell sought coaching on her obsession with a married man she suspected might be her “twin flame”—a New Age term for an eternal soul mate. She recalled spending as much as 30 hours a week on Twin Flames projects.
Ex-students of Twin Flames Universe say they practiced spiritual exercises that seemed to encourage fixation on a romantic interest. Participating in the group was conflated with romance, success, and enlightenment, while asking questions and setting boundaries was discouraged as “choosing separation from God,” former students said.
Arcelia Hugues, a former student who left in September 2019, said that the coaching helped her at first, but then grew more demanding of her time. She spent hundreds of dollars a month on courses, and in fall 2018 was chosen for an unpaid job position with Twin Flames. When Jeff and Shaleia learned Hugues is trans, Hugues said they “latched on” and told her she was destined to be an LGBTQ activist and trans ambassador for the group.
“I always thought these people knew more about me than I did, so I gave my power away,” she said. “They believed they were certain of what my life purpose was.”
Hugues said she was encouraged to seek out other spiritual or LGBTQ online communities, and funnel them to the Twin Flames page with hopes of making commission on new sign-ups. Though Twin Flames suggested she could make as much as “six figures” this way, she said she made about $500 over the better part of a year. Hugues started her own spiritual coaching practice which earned her between $300 and $600 a month, did free Tarot readings, and made videos for Twin Flames for no compensation.
Hugues, Burchell and others say they held back questions and concerns about their alleged mistreatment because they believed “choosing separation” from the group would ruin their chance of being with their one true love in this lifetime.
Twin Flames teaches that each twin flame couple has a “divine feminine” and a “divine masculine” person, and that their anatomy should match these “receptive” and “active” roles, according to former students. “They think all divine masculines should be physically male—that’s what God intends,” Hugues said.
Students like Hugues, who identifies as straight, embraced coaching on channeling femme energy. But in live classes and online forums, Hugues said she witnessed a handful of students who identify as gay or bisexual coached into pursuing new gender identities that fit with Twin Flames’ hetero-centered ideas. Students who did not go along with the coaching faced backlash, and in some cases were pushed out of the group, Hugues said.
As a trans woman who believes people are not defined by their genitalia, Hugues now looks back on Twin Flames’ gender conversion coaching as wrong. She said the teachings erase gay and lesbian identities, and reinforce an essentialist view of gender. “Your soul is your soul—your body is completely irrelevant,” she said.
A parent of a current student confirmed to VICE that their family member has been coached to take on a new name and gender pronouns. The parent asked not to be identified for fear of losing contact. Experts who study cults and other high-demand groups say that family separation is a tool used to prevent criticism and questioning.
In an email last month Jeff alleged family separations are only encouraged in cases of abuse, but did not address claims that sending money improved parents’ access. One parent Twin Flames accused of abuse received a letter informing the family they would be cut off in February 2019. The handwritten letter, which has been reviewed by VICE, contains no mention of abuse.
In a Facebook post encouraging one student to cut off her family in April 2018, Shaleia described a parent “implanting lies” in a student’s consciousness and not liking a haircut in one of Shaleia’s dreams as examples of abusive family dynamics. (Twin Flames did not respond to questions about their definition of abuse.)
Since VICE’s investigation was published last month, more ex students have come forward with stories of bullying and manipulation. “I just wanted to leave, I wanted to not have anything to do with them,” Andrea Scott, a Florida-based artist and former student who posted a series of videos about her decision to leave on YouTube in February.
Scott said she left quietly in late 2019, but spoke up about verbal abuse she witnessed after seeing others do the same. She said name calling and other put downs escalated near the end of her time as a Twin Flames student. In one video, she read Facebook posts in a Twin Flames sales group in which Jeff and Shaleia berated students for lagging sales, calling recruiters “rats” and “poor as fuck.”
“Calling people names does not scream spiritual teacher,” Scott told VICE. “That just sounds like you’re having a temper tantrum.”
When asked about “strong language” last month, Jeff said he has always been colorful in his word choice. “I am not afraid to use strong language when necessary to communicate important points to students, especially if they are struggling,” he said in an email.
Though Jeff and Shaleia’s main YouTube page has been quiet since January, students who remain loyal to the group have posted a flurry of “My Success Story” videos, describing the ways Twin Flames Universe changed their lives for the better.
Students in many of the videos describe being jobless, lonely, unhealthy, and depressed before coming across Twin Flames Universe teachings. Through the group’s life purpose classes, one-on-one coaching, and “mind alignment” therapy, the students say they have resolved their traumas and achieved their dreams.
Louise Cole, mother of Twin Flames student Stephanie Cole, said her daughter was one of the people who posted a glowing testimonial on YouTube claiming that spiritual work with Jeff and Shaleia cured her of multiple chronic illnesses.
“They all sound alike, it sounds scripted,” Louise said of the videos.
Stephanie sent a similar story of healing to VICE by email last month. “This community and work taught me how to have happy, healthy relationships,” she wrote. “I now feel the full spectrum of my emotions for the first time in my entire life.”
Louise Cole received the Twin Flames letter demanding a retraction after speaking to VICE about family separation.
“I had no thought in my head whatsoever about retracting anything,” Cole said.
Burchell said there weren’t any more “deep dark things” that Twin Flames Universe could reveal about her, so she never considered retracting, either. “I was expected to contact VICE and tell them I lied, which would be a lie,” she said. “So you’re threatening to sue me if I don’t lie to VICE? I don’t think so.”
Cole said she is still unable to contact her daughter, but is hopeful that their family will be united again one day.
“We want to help in any way we possibly can. We love her, and we’re waiting with open arms—no judgment—but we just can’t contact her.”
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