Photo of Jeff and Shaleia Ayan in downtown Suttons Bay, courtesy of Instagram.
By Jacob Wheeler
The COVID-19 lockdown in the Spring of 2020 attracted many newcomers to Leelanau County. Here they could frolic in our abundant outdoors and our national lakeshore without fear of the disease. Many took advantage of the ability to work remotely. Some craved anonymity.
Perhaps none of those transplants were as mysterious, and now as controversial, as Jeff and Shaleia Ayan, the Suttons Bay residents and relationship coach gurus behind Twin Flames Universe, which a December 2020 Vanity Fair article called “a sort of therapeutic-spiritual reality show.”
Last week the streaming service Netflix launched a scathing, three-part documentary series titled “Escaping Twin Flames,” which casts the Ayans’ online community as a cult whose leaders prey upon members and charge them thousands of dollars while pressing them into toxic relationships and manipulating their emotional and mental health struggles. The series is now the number 1 show on Netflix. Twin Flames has also attracted negative national press from Vice and Time magazine.
According to the narrative presented on Netflix and in Vice, the Ayans withheld money from Twin Flames members who worked for the organization and bilked coaches half their earnings; they pressured members of the online community to cut ties with their own families; they made members write essays on why Jeff wasn’t a cult leader, all while he claimed to have a special connection with God; they encouraged members to use the “mirror exercise” and blame themselves for a partner’s shortcomings; they dissuaded members who suffered from depression from seeking mental health, and one later took her own life; they told women in the community they were obligated to have sex with their “twin flame” partners even if they didn’t want to, and they pressured members to assume different genders in hopes of finding their “twin flame.”
And now they live here in Leelanau County after leaving Farmington Hills in early 2020. Jeff and Shaleia Ayan purchased a five-bedroom, luxury home with a swimming pool south of Suttons Bay on April 7, 2020, for $850,000. (The property is now worth nearly $1.4 million.) Their living room fireplace is reportedly flanked by $11,000 worth of amethyst, with which Shaleia regularly communes, according to Vanity Fair.
Community members who have met them attest the couple prefers to keep to themselves. A scroll through their Instagram accounts (@JeffLovesShaleia, @ShaleiaDivine, and @TwinFlamesUniverse) during their 3.5 years here reveals Jeff’s expensive taste in sports cars and designer clothing. The photos also show M22 apparel-clad ubiquitous scenes around Leelanau County and Traverse City: a meal at The Mill in Glen Arbor, a stroll along Leo Creek near Suttons Bay, a Halloween scene outside the State Theater on Front Street with their daughter who was born in April. In 2021 the Ayans did what many locals do: they gave money to the Leelanau Conservancy, and were listed in the nonprofit’s donor list.
But the Instagram photos suggest something else—loneliness. Nowhere do we see friends or family of the Ayans. Just the two, now three, flames flickering together. The sentiment seems fitting perhaps, since one of the criticisms of Twin Flames Universe is that the couple allegedly pressured members of the online community to cut ties with their own families, including with parents who longed for contact with their daughters who they believe were taken from them.
The Netflix series “Escaping Twin Flames,” which debuted on Nov. 8, features an early scene in Phoenix, Arizona, of Paula Hardy trying to track down her twin, Stephanie, a Twin Flames follower who has cut off contact with her family. The camera shows Paula dialing the Leelanau County sheriff’s department out of concern for her sister. She explains to a dispatcher named Ronda that Stephanie is in what she calls a “high-control group” which she considers a “cult” — including accusations of forced labor and sex trafficking.
“They’re there at their own will, though?” the dispatcher responds.
“I’m not sure if coercive control counts as ‘own will’,” says Hardy. “The leaders are Jeff and Shaleia Ayan,” she adds.
Later in the series, we hear from Dr. Janja Lalich, an expert on cults and coercion and sociology professor at California State University.
“Many groups do this kind of introspective exercise, which they say is there to help you, but it’s actually there to tear apart the self. It’s also a way to separate them from their families, which is one of the goals of most cultic organizations, is they want to isolate you with just their little world.”
Vanity Fair reported that the Ayans met through a mutual friend in 2012, when Jeff was running a vegetarian AirBnB in Hawaii and Shaleia was studying with a spiritual teacher in Sedona, Arizona. Jeff, a Michigan native, previously went by the name Ender Ayanethos. Shaleia was once Megan Plante. Both have fallen out with their Catholic families. Now Jeff claims to be the Second Coming of Christ.
In March of this year, Jeff Ayan, who is believed to be 35, legally changed his name through Leelanau County courts to “Jeff Divine.” He was already using the inflated surname in April 2022 when he left an online five-star review for Shady Lane Market, a gas station and pizza restaurant on M-22 near their home, with the quote, “I am the master of all Christ.”
Twin Flames Universe was incorporated as a domestic profit corporation in Michigan in December 2017 under Ayan’s name. He is listed as the president, treasurer, secretary and director, along with Christine Emerick, the chief operations officer, who issued the following statement to the Glen Arbor Sun after a reporter attempted to contact Ayan through email, telephone, Facebook and Instagram earlier this week:
“We take seriously recent allegations implying we wield inappropriate control over our community members. After a careful review of both media coverage and recent productions, we are saddened that so much effort has gone into taking swipes at an organization and community founded on love and mutual respect. 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. We are committed to confronting these allegations in an open and accountable manner.”
Watch the trailer of the Netflix series, “Escaping Twin Flames.”
Ann DelMariani, a clinical social worker and therapist based in Lake Leelanau, offered the following words about the danger of spirituality cults:
“The Twin Flames Universe is an example of a trend that has become ubiquitous across the country, including right here in northern Michigan. As a licensed mental heath professional, with a responsibility to a very strict code of ethics, I am very concerned about the prevalence of untrained individuals and groups marketing ‘coaching’ to vulnerable people experiencing the emotional, somatic and relational consequences of complex trauma.
“The model is always similar: market to spaces populated with vulnerable and often traumatized individuals seeking help to address relational and emotional distress, make unrealistic guarantees, sprinkle spirituality as justification for extreme guru-style power differential, inaccurately disparage of and differentiate from traditional forms of mental heath treatment, utilize marketing and sales schemes (such as package deals, limited time offers, money back guarantees, client testimonials, pre-recorded virtual courses, tiered levels of access to practitioners, and leveled mastery labels and multi level pyramid scheme style advancement and ‘investment’ opportunities where the wealth and success of those on the highest rung of the hierarchical structure is flaunted as a promise to those who invest and reach the highest level of spiritual awakening and emotional healing.)
“Most of these features are explicitly against professional codes of ethics governing licensed psychotherapists like myself due to their exploitive potential. These folks often use ‘treatments’ that draw loosely from established, legitimate therapeutic models but (sometimes intentionally and sometimes out of ignorance and lack of trauma informed training) they are manipulated in ways that often cause significant harm. The mirroring technique that this group uses is a good example. Spirituality is not incompatible with most forms of psychotherapy (and can be integral to some) but these approaches use spiritual bypassing to manipulate, invalidate and gaslight individuals — which often intensifies the struggles they seek to alleviate.
“I frequently work with folks to heal from the trauma of these experiences. It’s heartbreaking. So much energy, time and money has often been spent by the time they come to me and unraveling the harmful results of these experiences can be a long and difficult road for many people. I’m glad for the exposure the coverage of this group is providing. I feel so much compassion and heartache for the people who have been exploited by these dangerous practices.”