Cecilia Peck and Inbal Lessner are the producer and director behind the Netflix doc "Escaping Twin Flames."
The pair previously made "Seduced," a documentary about disgraced cult leader Keith Raniere and his group, NXIVM.
Peck and Lessner say there's little difference between Twin Flames Universe leader Jeff Ayan and Raniere.
Director Cecilia Peck and producer Inbal Lessner know cults.
They've been following high-control groups — most notably NXIVM and Twin Flames Universe — for the better part of a decade, and their diligence has resulted in two of the most captivating documentaries of the last few years. In 2020, the director-producing pair released "Seduced: Inside the NXIVM Cult," a four-part series telling the story of NXIVM and its leader Keith Raniere, who was found guilty on charges of sex trafficking, wire-fraud conspiracy, forced-labor conspiracy, and racketeering, which included production and possession of child pornography, and sentenced to 120 years in prison.
This month, Peck and Lessner's latest project, "Escaping Twin Flames," about the "romance attraction" cult of Jeff and Shaleia Ayan, hit Netflix. The Ayans, who now go by Jeff and Shaleia Divine, run Twin Flames Universe, a 43,000-strong Facebook group and online community offering classes and one-on-one sessions aimed at finding your one true love — for a price.
The Ayans say they're simply helping people connect with their true "twin flame" — or soulmate. But former members of TFU allege the group engaged in abusive and cult-like behavior, including coercing members into working for free, pressuring members to change genders, and operating a multi-level marketing scheme.
Through their website, Jeff and Shaleia Ayan deny all allegations made against them, including accusations that they wielded "inappropriate control" over their members.
Despite not participating in the documentary, it appears the Ayans were familiar with Peck and Lessner's work. In one pivotal moment in "Escaping Twin Flames," former TFU member Keely Griffin recounts Jeff Ayan forcing her to watch "Seduced" and having her write an essay on how much he wasn't like cult leader Raniere.
"Every point that we were coming across when we were doing this research was pointing to the fact that he was, in fact, a cult leader and that made him very angry," Griffin says in the doc.
It's Lessner's favorite moment in the series.
"It's incredible to see that our work really has an impact already, that Keeley watched 'Seduced' and that was the beginning of her awakening, and waking up to understand that Jeff was just like Keith in so many ways," Lessner tells Business Insider. "The fact that he assigned her to watch this movie is bonkers, but it's poetic justice perhaps."
Having his followers watch "Seduced," says Peck, "is a sign of his kind of malignant narcissism and his delusions."
It's also proof that Jeff Ayan was at least aware of Keith Raniere and NXIVM, and familiar with his methods of coercive control.
While Raniere was selling personal development programs and Ayan is selling "twin flame" connection, both NXIVM and Twin Flames share "the very typical common elements of high-control groups or cults, which are excessive devotion to a leader where no questioning or criticism is tolerated, and disdain for people who are not members of the group," Peck says. They were "exactly the same down to some of the exercises and teachings that were used in both."
Neither high-control group, Lessner says, has a particularly original approach: "They're an amalgam, a hybrid of other psychological tools and other cult tools that they both learned and found and adopted, co-opted to their respective groups."
Both NXIVM and Twin Flames employed self-critical exercises to break members down and get them questioning their sense of self. In TFU, members are taught the "mirror exercise," a form of self-talk in which people are told to take criticism of others and place it back on themselves.
The aim for both is to break people down and make them believe they need the group to feel whole. The narrative becomes about "what's wrong with me and how many expensive classes and coaching sessions do I need to purchase to fix myself," Peck says.
The groups flourish because of a potent combination of charismatic leader and constant message reinforcement. "What some people may lose when watching the series is these things that Jeff is saying that seem so outrageous — same as with Keith — are not said on their own," Lessner says. "They're not said in a vacuum. These members were encouraged to watch these 90-minute lessons — classes — every day."
"Another word for it really is grooming," Peck says.
Both Peck and Lessner urge viewers to watch "Escaping Twin Flames" with compassion for current and former members of TFU.
"It's easy for the viewer to say, oh, I would never believe this," Lessner says. But "there's an intentional technique there of breaking down your boundaries and making you accept things that are unacceptable."
"Escaping Twin Flames" is out now on Netflix.
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