'The Deep End': Why Teal Swan's Cult of Personality Is Dangerous to Trauma Survivors
When I first began watching “The Deep End” on Hulu, I had no clue who Teal Swan was or why this documentary had been made. Within five minutes of the first episode beginning, I was yelling at my phone in horror, “That’s not OK.” As the episode unfolded, it felt as though I was witnessing a real-life version of the series “Nine Perfect Strangers” on steroids and I needed to know more. Who exactly was Teal Swan? Where did she come from? And how did she become as infamous as she has? That’s exactly what I have spent the past three weeks discovering.
• What is PTSD?
Who is Teal Swan?
Teal Swan is a spiritual teacher who has amassed millions of followers by producing hypnotic videos on topics ranging from healing from trauma to reincarnation to cryptocurrency. Her message of healing those who are suffering through her Completion Process has made her an almost Christ-like figure to her devotees, who worship her in a way that appears to verge on obsession. Members of the Teal Tribe swear that she has powers, abilities, and knowledge beyond those of anyone else on this planet and they resonate with her honesty and willingness to tackle difficult subjects like suicide and satanic abuse. Individuals spend hours watching her videos, studying her books, and will spend thousands of dollars to attend one of her retreats in Utah or her healing center in Costa Rica.
Her critics, however, are alarmed by her questionable techniques and manipulation of those who are the most vulnerable by using very sophisticated content curation acutely honed in on finding algorithms that attract individuals to her when she knows they can be easily swayed. For example, one of her most watched videos on suicide targets those who might type in a search for “I want to kill myself.” This has led many of her detractors to dub her the “Suicide Catalyst” and to create counter content trying to expose her as a fraud and cult leader.
On the surface, Teal is strikingly beautiful. Piercing aqua eyes, long brunette hair, and a lilting voice that has a trance-inducing quality to it make her an imposing charismatic presence to be sure. Some of her spiritual teachings are twists on teachings from other more mainstream philosophies repackaged in a way that is perhaps more accessible to those who aren’t well versed in various spiritual dogmas. And she is brutally honest about her own traumatic past, which engenders a high level of trust quickly among those seeking solace from their own suffering.
Swan also claims to possess supernatural abilities including ESP, the ability to read minds, the ability to see inside people’s bodies and diagnose them with illness, the ability to see sounds, and a complete understanding of the Akashic Records — a compendium of every word, thought, and action of every being past, present, and future. She presents herself as an almost godlike all-knowing all-seeing being who, she purports, is part human and part extraterrestrial — a member of the panel of Arcturian beings who exist in a sixth dimensional, non-physical plane. She asserts that if there is anyone who is superior to her on this planet, she hasn’t met them and therefore nobody should question her authority. Her mission in her own words… to be more spiritually influential than the pope.
Teal states that she discovered her special abilities as a child and that her behavior not only scared her parents, but isolated her from other children who were restricted from playing with her. She was taken to all kinds of specialists who diagnosed her with every possible psychiatric condition under the sun ranging from schizophrenia to bipolar disorder to borderline personality disorder. She states that no treatment or medication helped her, at which point, in their desperation, her parents entrusted an alternative medicine veterinarian who insisted he could mentor her. According to Teal, this man sexually assaulted her, drugged her, and made her participate in satanic rituals. She had numerous suicide attempts and hospitalizations until she was able to escape and begin her healing process.
Here is where there has been a lot of curiosity and skepticism. Swan’s therapist during this era was Barbara Snow, a central figure in what became known as the Satanic Panic of the late 1980s and early 1990s and who has been accused of utilizing questionable therapeutic techniques leading to what has come to be known as false memory syndrome. The basis of many of Swan’s allegations of abuse fit the exact narrative that many survivors of this era were essentially brainwashed to believe, creating some controversy about the legitimacy of her claims.
What is the Completion Process?
At the center of the world of Teal Swan is her “expertise in human suffering.” The anecdote to this suffering is the Completion Process. Her basic philosophy is that if people can identify their trauma and work with it to process it, they can heal their suffering. In and of itself this sounds like a not entirely problematic idea. However, Teal is not a trained professional, and while she consistently demonizes traditional psychology, she utilizes language and even some techniques that are adopted from traditional psychological modalities. It’s a mishmash that reminds me a bit of the Nexium cult ESP protocol and the Scientology Auditing process. The irony of all of this is that Teal’s ultimate desire is for her Completion Process to be adopted by mainstream psychology and become the gold standard for the treatment of trauma. The whole thing is perplexing.
There are numerous red flags within this process, the first one being “Channeling” those who are both living and dead to determine the source of a person’s pain using other participants who act out narratives involving possible abuse or other trauma that the individual may or may not have any recollection of. It’s very much akin to the ways in which a therapist can make suggestions to a vulnerable client, thereby convincing them of abuse that never occurred, which is manipulative and emotionally abusive and can cause a deleterious ripple effect in terms of that person’s relationships.
A second red flag is the insistence on re-experiencing traumatic experiences to heal them without the containment of a highly trained mental health professional. There is some controversy even within the trauma therapy world as to whether or not this kind of treatment is necessary or if it does more harm than good by re-traumatizing an individual over and over again. But doing so within the context of a retreat setting and with other members of the group is extremely dangerous to both the person experiencing the memory and the individual holding space for them. A history of trauma does not an expert in healing make. Training in how to keep someone safe and grounded in reality is crucial for this kind of work to be done without potentially harming them.
The third red flag is the fixation on her followers recognizing that their own families are the enemy and that estrangement is necessary to heal. This might sound rich coming from someone who has written extensively about her own estrangement from her parents, however, it’s not clear to me that in every instance this is necessary or healthy for those seeking Teal’s guidance. Several of the participants shown appear to be very conflicted about what they are being told about their families of origin versus what they recall to be the truth. Again, there’s likely a percentage of those who did experience abuse and neglect warranting some disconnection, but this is more the rule rather than the exception, which warrants some skepticism.
And finally, the incorporation of ritualistic practices involving toxic substances like frog poison or forcing people underwater over and over again until they feel like they are drowning to get them to submit seems extremely dangerous, potentially deadly if not carefully administered, and even tortuous. Inducing a trauma response in someone under duress seems like an abusive way to get them to submit to manipulation and capitulation.
As an aside… let me state that for something called the Completion Process, the process appears to be remarkably incomplete. The goal seems to be consistent work, not some kind of resolution or closure, and it’s one of the chief complaints of many who have left the tribe. They felt like they were stuck in some kind of trauma loop, feeling their mental health deteriorate rather than feeling like addressing their trauma was helping them in any meaningful way.
Is Teal Swan dangerous?
Here’s the weird part of this documentary series. Teal is very aware of the allegations against her that she is somehow encouraging and perhaps culpable in the suicide of several of her followers and that she is operating a cult. She adamantly denies these allegations and is quite concerned with how this negative PR is affecting her “business.” So as part of the documentary, she hires a private investigator to act as a third-party independent analyst to determine if she is indeed in any way guilty of any of the allegations against her. And I’m not sure she was prepared for the ultimate outcome.
After conducting numerous interviews and poring through extensive documentation, this investigator determines that while Teal’s approach to talking about suicide, which involves encouraging followers to actively envision their death, is dangerous, there isn’t legally a way that a direct line can be drawn between someone following through on their suicidal thoughts and her videos or teachings, however irresponsible they might be. A number of suicide experts acknowledge being horrified by the flippant way she speaks about death without acknowledging the mental state of the person on the other end of the screen. But that isn’t enough to warrant the removal of the content from YouTube. And several followers do state that having somewhere to turn where they didn’t feel alone actually saved their lives.
As to whether or not Teal is operating a cult? The investigator says… maybe. Most of her reasoning behind this has to do with how she treats her inner circle. These are the volunteers who have given up their lives to live with Teal, committing themselves to her mission and doing so without any compensation. The inner circle are expected to swear to a contract of “Non-Negotiables,” many of which the private investigator deems illegal. These include:
“You can’t put your own family first.”
“Teal comes first.”
“If Teal wants you there, she gets you.”
“The priority of the entire community is whatever is in the best interest of Teal.”
“You can’t have personal boundaries that in any way can affect Teal.”
Basically, if you want to have a normal life, don’t join the inner circle. If you say you aren’t in alignment with any of this, you will be kicked out. This is what happens when Teal’s business partner Blake’s wife has a falling-out with Teal. She says that she’s afraid of Teal and doesn’t believe that Teal is doing what’s best for the people seeking out her help. It’s all about protecting Teal’s image.
In the final scene of the last episode, we see Teal dealing with the fallout of losing her right-hand man. Her solution? More rules. She comes to the conclusion that her inner circle cannot have partners unless those partners agree to the non-negotiables and that having children within her inner circle would be incompatible with her work.
The bottom line?
It is my opinion that Teal Swan is a self-aggrandizing, power-hungry, fame-seeking bully hiding behind the veil of an enlightened spiritual teacher. Contrary to her belief, I’m not questioning her because she’s a woman, strong, or pretty. I’m questioning her because witnessing the ways in which she antagonizes and patronizes anyone who dares to question her authority is deeply disturbing to me. She’s mean-spirited and belittling and she has zero capacity for self-reflection. This is a recipe for disaster for those that get sucked into her inner circle.
As for her followers? I see a lot of desperate people who are hurting and seeking out something that will put them out of their pain. You can’t fault them for believing that this woman has the answers they are looking for. Community is a powerful incentive for those who feel isolated in their suffering. The Teal Tribe of followers offers a sense of belonging, even if you are skeptical of the woman who leads it.
It’s a cautionary tale for all of us to be much more discriminating about the content we consume on social media. As we have seen far too often of late, fear and desperation can make someone incredibly vulnerable to exploitation, misinformation, and indoctrination by power-hungry predators who are savvy enough to manipulate the algorithms in place across social media platforms.
Image via YouTube.