Across the globe, black swans have been used metaphorically to connote various meanings in folklore, often reflecting unique cultural differences. They have been symbolic in representing high levels of personal power, expressing rarity, representing hidden evils, hiding true identities, and engendering surprise. In 2001, Nassim Nicholas Taleb developed The Black Swan Theory. Taleb’s theory can be summarized as an unexpected series of events that in hindsight seem as though they were predictable. Elements found in a black swan event include the following: 1) It is often a surprise to the observer; 2) It has a powerful impact; 3) It is later argued that the event was predictable (or that there were signs revealing what was to come).
Although Taleb’s theory applies mainly to economic events, I found myself identifying this phenomenon in the context of domestic violence. When it comes to people who perpetrate domestic abuse, they may seem, at a distance, to be charming, alluring, generous, and might even appear to take a stand against the victimization of others. Yet, within intimate relationships, victims often know the true character of an abuser. They have insight into the side of an abuser that is defrauding, manipulative, unfiltered, and sometimes physically violent. They see the true ugliness of someone who seems attractive on the outside, yet has darkness within their intentions: a black swan.
This past spring, I stumbled upon a four-part Hulu docuseries directed by Jon Kasbe entitled “The Deep End.” The project was seemingly meant to expose the cult-likeness of a community and their female spiritual influencer, Teal Swan. Swan poses as a “Spiritual Healer” who treats mental health issues of trauma and suicidality. Over the past few years, Swan has become aggressively popular through her YouTube videos and other social media forums. ABC’s Freeform released film content after 3 years of their crew intimately following Teal Swan, her team, and guests at her retreat center located in Costa Rica. Despite having enough content prepared for an entire additional episode, the release was cut short. Rumors linger that Swan’s threats lead to the shortening of production.
I thought the presentation and story-form of “The Deep End” were well-done. The cadence of cinematography gives viewers an understanding of Swan and her community while keeping them curious and engaged. There were intimate shots of interactions between Swan’s community members and sit-down interviews paired with clips from Swan’s live tours, all of which offered different perspectives on the “work” she does. The series also followed a Private Investigator, Molly Monahan, who in her research found Teal Swan did meet criteria to that of a cult. Monahan’s journey from objectivity to conviction of Swan’s cult-like behavior allows viewers to also transition from a curious stance to one of being convinced of the need to pause with concern. Although Teal’s own PR manager hired Ms. Monahan, and the findings were revealed in the final episode of “The Deep End,” Teal has since refused to release the investigation report to the public.
Some critics of Jon Kasbe argue that he intentionally cut and pasted content to paint Teal Swan to be worse than she actually is. In interviews with Kasbe, he details how his team of six editors took the raw footage from filming and used it to begin formulating a story. They objectively learned about the characters they were portraying, and consolidated footage to present a storyline to the public. Editing documentaries for a certain narrative is a natural process of editing – objectivity is nearly impossible. Those six editors working on “The Deep End” had the advantage of taking a fresh look at raw material rather than being in more subjective and emotional roles as the film crew. Those who use the editing process to say Teal is not harmful deflect from the other handfuls of people who have come out reporting against Swan. It minimizes the negative impact her actions have had on individuals and continues to enable platforms in which she continues to cause harm. I do believe the intended story was appropriately revealed in the docuseries, while also taking into consideration how the editing process works.
As I intently watched each episode, I felt aligned with Swan’s message that we humans are wired for connection–that we often suffer from feelings of loneliness and all need emotionally safe spaces to thrive. As I continued to watch, I felt myself transition from curiosity and alignment to certainty of Swan’s harmfulness. Swan approaches her audience by using an intervention with fans that highlights their sense of community, a common technique for support groups that leave members feeling as though they are not alone. Swan uses this core human need to draw people into her community by promising consumers togetherness in the midst of their loneliness. Upon deeper investigation, I found Swan’s messages rooted in trickery as she fluctuated back and forth between sound mental health advice and deeply disturbing messaging that encourages fans to lean into their suicidal ideations. Swan uses a hybrid of evidence-based mental health language along with her own spiritual jargon, which, at first glance can seem competent. However, when followers become involved and learn more about her teachings, it appears that much of her guidance is blatantly unethical and even harmful. Her duality is confusing because she poses as a safe emotional and spiritual helper, while contradictingly, seeks to gain control over others. All of which creates a heightened sense of confusion.
Until seeing this documentary advertised, I had never heard of Teal Swan. So, who is she? A publisher, public speaker, and YouTuber, Swan was born in 1984. She and her younger brother grew up with their parents. As a child, Swan often reported seeing illusions (and other spiritual beings). Home videos shown in the Docuseries reveal Swan as attention-seeking, running up to hit her younger brother when her parents filmed or vying for screen time as she did performances (which are all common with first-borns). Her childhood presentation of extrasensory symptoms and interactions with spiritual beings, paired with social constrictions, appeared to deviate from developmental milestones. When her parents attempted treatment for her abnormal conversations with and of people who were not physically present, services seemed unable to appropriately identify and treat her symptoms. Swan reframes her childhood as though her abnormalities were spiritual gifts that no one could understand, twisting the story of a child who felt misunderstood and isolated into one in which she was “SPECIAL” or unique. This twist seems to be a tactic used to increase credibility among those who believe in a spiritual realm.
Swan’s own testimonies reflect how she had been abused as a child by an older man who her parents entrusted to treat her mental illness. According to self-reports, Swan’s alleged abuser took her away weekly as a child, where she was sexually abused and “tortured” for over a dozen years. In interviews, Teal recalls sneaking out of her home some nights to go and be with this man without her parents’ knowledge. Journalist Jennings Brown completed several interviews for his podcast series, “The Gatekeeper.” In his podcast, Brown delves more deeply into Swan’s childhood, interviewing Swan and other professionals who testify on the history of satanic child abuse and the radical anti-satanism of Christianity during the 80’s. In Jenning’s interviews with Swan, she describes living in a cult where children were mutilated and murdered, having witnessed countless violent acts by members of the community her parents were involved with.
Whether or not the extreme levels of abuse were taking place, it appears evident that Swan’s family had limited resources and possibly little education about mental illness. Living in a primarily Mormon state such as Utah, her family may have experienced social rejection when Swan reported interacting with spiritual beings. There have been childhood experiences of bullying and isolation reported by Teal, which may also have been fueled as Swan obtained indigenous medical treatment when she went to see a Shaman.
In his research, Brown points Swan’s questionable approach to working with her followers back to an unethical therapist who met with Swan in her early twenties: Barbara Snow. Snow was identified as the first Service Provider to use leading and loaded lines of assessment to determine there had been childhood sexual trauma and satanic ritualistic abuse. In an interview, Teal tells Jennings that Snow was the first therapist to help her come to terms with her trauma of sexual abuse. Teal’s sessions with Snow helped her “remember” the details of the abuse that supposedly took place. Snow’s tactics in leading clients to identify trauma where it may not exist is extremely harmful. Any of the information I found on Barbara Snow showed a history of unethical practices with many complaints made against her. In 2008, she was held on probation after fabricating case notes, destroying originals, and diagnosing several of her own family members while making false accusations of cult/sexual abuse. There is no evidence of her license being suspended. Although there has been evidence challenging her ethical conduct, Snow continues to work with and see clients in Utah today.
Much of the public’s criticism of Teal Swan focuses specifically on concerns around suicide. With fans and “clients,” Swan has encouraged and fed into phantasies of suicide. She co-signs a reincarnation belief to minimize the choice to end one’s life by suicide. What I found disturbing was a scene in the docuseries where Swan directly tells her business partner and ex (Blake) that he is so worthless, that he should die. I see this as an indirect passive-aggressive approach to hide her hurt within close attachment bonds or when losing power over people within her community. Ex-fans have reported similar statements from Swan in which she ragefully taunts people to consider if they want to live or die, directly encouraging them while they are in a fragile state, to explore ending their life. Swan lacks safety protocols which has led to mental breaks in “clients” during her retreats. In addition, she claims that psychiatrists and the field of psychology do not help people with suicide ideation, yet conveniently uses these very services to justify and strengthen her arguments for her own treatment. She contradicts herself by challenging evidence-based treatment modalities that might lead people away from her while using the same services to persuade followers toward her agenda, increasing her credibility, or maintaining control.
Swan answers to no one; she maintains no code of ethics, nor does she hold formal training (or Supervision accountability), which I find extremely concerning. She appears defensive when anyone challenges her lack of accountability. She even defaults to feminist messages as a way to deflect the actual concern of her potential “blind spot.” In two different scenes in the docuseries, Swan deflects concerns by claiming the public is only criticizing her because she is a woman with success and power–saying that if she were male, she would not face the same scrutiny. She surrounds herself only with those who agree with her, or whose autonomy is silenced in her presence. This is a tactic abusers use to inflate their ego – they surround themselves with like-minded thinkers who will mirror their own narrative.
Most people frame their critique of Swan through an ethical or cult lens. I will be using a domestic abuse lens in which I will point to different relational interactions observed and reported by survivors to reflect on how she engages in domestic abuse. Under a domestic abuse umbrella, I also see Swan as spiritually abusive. A person engaging in spiritual abuse is one who uses spiritual jargon and emotions to influence, manipulate, and ultimately gain power or control over others. They exploit victims for financial or personal psychological gain. For further information about abuse, you can read about different types and tactics used within relationships. It is important to note that domestic abuse is about exerting power over another in order to maintain or exercise control of them. The following are some of the techniques I saw acted out with Swan throughout “The Deep End.” For further information on identifying abuse and what to do about it, The National Domestic Violence Hotline is a great resource (https://www.thehotline.org/identify-abuse/domestic-abuse-warning-signs/).
- Communication Tactics: Throughout the documentary, I watched Swan using communication tactics that increase leverage such as interrupting, dominating conversations, monologuing, and responding to questions with questions. She uses metaphors that do not relate to the concerns being raised (indirect content to deter the actual thing being addressed by the other person). There was often a lack of vulnerability, as well as an inability to be open to the influence of others. Throughout the entire documentary and in external interviews with Swan, she consistently maintains control of the conversations’ content. She ends conversations when they seem to move outside of what she is wanting to hear or talk about. She has reportedly been known to become verbally violent (and even scary) when things don’t go her way.
- Ethical Misconduct (Causing Harm): Teal Swan is NOT a trained Clinician nor does she use diagnoses the way they are intended to be used (which is to treat symptoms). She speaks with authority on issues in which there is no ethical accountability or authorization to do so. Swan refers to her followers as “clients” which assumes credibility (though she lacks such a thing). She uses other rigid languages such as “I need you to,” “you have to,” and “you must,” as ways to offer direct and limited options for people. This authoritarian language style likely increases others’ sense of trust in her. It may also result in followers sensing a lack of options when they are told how they ought to respond. Swan creates an illusion that she is someone with authority. And let’s be honest, who can argue with someone’s spiritual world? An emotional and spiritual world can be so subjective that it’s difficult to challenge claims when she speaks about someone’s “aura” or “vibrations.”
- Emotionally Explosive: Swan’s high reactivity is evidence of her own emotional immaturity. She becomes visibly dysregulated with her heart rate increasing – interrupting and speaking over others, and presenting with rapid flow of thought. She spends time in meetings with her staff ranting like a child and engaging in tantrums where many of the members seem uncomfortable or as though they are walking on eggshells. In these scenes, members seem to lack the freedom to respond organically. No one seems able to leave or to even hold a different opinion than Swans’.
- Addiction/Drug use: Pulling from traditional medicine, Swan uses frog poison to drug her clients as a way of detoxing them or heightening their trauma experiences. However, drugging victims is another way she increases their dependence on her. Traffickers use this technique often to create dependence, weaken one’s inhibitions, and keep victims powerless.
- Gaslighting: When people address an experience they are having, Teal responds by denying them their reality. She uses wordy metaphors or questions to challenge that reality, often leaving people silenced or rejecting their own truths while returning to a place of trusting her all over again. Her interventions seem to create narratives in which a “client” will start to experience secondary trauma responses because she (or her team) is telling them that they were abused (gaslighting), even though they (the client) seem doubtful that such specific events happened to them. In “The Deep End,” there was one particular young adult female who was engaged in a role-play intervention with other community members. When others played the role of her parent, a member informed the young woman that they felt her father was sexually abusing her sister. The young woman seemed confused and disturbed, yet came to eventually believe that her father was sexually abusive to her family. This technique is essentially planting memories that don’t exist. It creates blurriness between one’s reality and an alternative narrative. Planting seeds in this way is a form of gaslighting. When it comes to imposing sexual trauma on one’s formative years of development with the very people they are closest to, it can have a deeply damaging and convoluting impact.
- Bullying: One of the most obvious techniques Teal uses is triangulating community members against one another. She pits members up against one specific person in a group dynamic. She publicly humiliates and isolates members in a way that engenders shame or highlights ill-intentions (imposing false realities that then are reinforced by other group members). There was a particular scene in the docuseries where a young female confesses to Teal in a group setting that she wants to leave the retreat center. She proclaims that since treatment, she has not made any progress toward happiness or healing. In response to this, Teal invalidates her experiences and then hosts a meeting in which all members sit in a circle while the girl continues to protest against the treatment. She reported increased suicidality and told Teal and her group that she wants to stop talking about all the negativity on repeat “over and over and over and over again.” The young girl says that she believes dwelling on the trauma is making her more depressed and suicidal. In response to these protests, Teal has 3-4 men hold this girl down while they dunk her in a pool which results in her convulsing. She appears fatigued and drained while her lifeless body still twitches when laid down. At the end of the scene, Teal and the girl exchange words: “I love you.” In this scene, Teal threatens the safety of this girl and then rescues her while showing increased kindness and support. This tactic heightens the dependency of the victim. It shows the young girl her worthlessness (or powerlessness) and then rescues her (while acting as a savior). Abusers use this tactic to fuel codependency. It creates a relational attachment through trauma bonding. I was horrified when watching this scene. An objective of mental health treatment is to help clients feel better and better cope with distressing experiences. Swan clearly uses techniques that, rather than moving people toward healing, lock them into states of trauma by re-traumatizing them and then creating a trauma-bonding moment that further attaches her victims to herself.
- Isolation: Another common tactic used to control others is to isolate them from their family and support system. What better way to isolate a victim than to make them believe their loved one is causing them harm? Isolating “clients” from their families, their partners, and other external resources keep them dependent on Swan, making them less likely to leave her. Relational isolation is evident throughout the docuseries and is especially more apparent in scenes where people challenge Swan on their sense of isolation.
- Re-traumatizing: Swan prides herself on being able to access others’ emotional vulnerability. In interviews with Brown, she gloats at her ability to activate others’ trauma. When retreat attendants go into an experiential memory (clinically known as reprocessing traumatic memories), they lack a safe environment, which is necessary to engage in trauma healing. Swan leads fans in experiences that may be creating secondary trauma, having a devastatingly harmful impact on multiple participants.
- Sadistic: What is Sadism? It is when one obtains pleasure out of their ability to manipulate the emotions of others, deriving pleasure out of controlling others’ emotions, especially humiliating or inflicting pain upon them. In interactions in which Swan calls out community members, she appears to smirk when a member reports feeling “afraid of her.” Swan appears to gain pleasure out of her ability to provoke fear, obtain submission from others, and force vulnerability. This also increases the dependability of her victims. On the contrary, she avoids her own vulnerabilities, which keeps her from feeling powerless.
- Direct Verbal Abuse: When Blake (an ex-boyfriend who had been side by side with Teal through marriages, divorce, tours, poverty, and fame) attempted to have a boundary or gain autonomy by leaving Teal’s community, she responded by verbally attacking and degrading him. In one of the final scenes of Freeform’s production, Swan is sitting on the counter where Blake is packing up final items, she escalates and says to him, “remember you are worthless…” She repeated this message several times varying her language, but her message to Blake was the same. This degrading way of speaking to another person is an attempt to cut away self-confidence, making one feel insignificant in order to keep them with their abuser because they believe they don’t deserve anything better. It makes the victim more dependent so that they never leave. Swan is seen using these tactics multiple times in the documentary and has used them with others, which I found in several interviews.
Teal’s ability to move in and out of emotionally sound concepts makes her role as a spiritual healer so very dangerous. Emotional and spiritual abuse of this kind work subtly and are often invisible. We typically hear of spiritual leaders abusing power by sexually exploiting and manipulating others. Swan is unique (like a black swan) in that she is a female with spiritual influence in a field where we have historically seen males dominate. Although there have been no questions about the kind of sexual exploitation we have become aware of through the “Me Too” movement, Swan engages in sexual trauma by creating illusions that followers have been abused by the closest people in their lives. She invites them into a secondary trauma response and then plays the role of their savior when she is actually the one perpetrating the trauma.
Questions I am left with:
Does Swan genuinely care about the well-being of her fans?
What is her resistance to seeking support or accountability from others?
Are there relationships where mutuality, genuine respect, and balances of power exist?
What is Swan’s relationship with her younger brother and her own family of origin?
How does she manage conflict interpersonally? Is there evidence of her having secure attachments in which both parties are allowed to have their own thoughts, feelings, perceptions, choices, perspectives, etc.?
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