Spiritual Guru or Dangerous Cult Leader?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because a spiritual healer should not advocate suicide, right?
By Addison Nugent
The Sheraton Hotel at Charles de Gaulle Airport looks like a set piece from Blade Runner — as if a spaceship docked in the middle of a poorly lit terminal and never left. A fitting setting for the interview I’m here to conduct with Teal Swan, the 33-year-old YouTube sensation whose followers speak as if she is a transcendent gift to humanity — and whose critics paint her as an authoritarian cult leader, the Regina George of gurus.
While my assistant Derek and I charge recording devices, Swan, accompanied by her husband, emerges from the revolving doors. A hush falls over the lobby. Tall, thin, with waist-length auburn hair and high cheekbones framing intense blue-gray eyes, Swan has an otherworldly presence. “She’s so pretty,” Derek whispers to me after she hugs us both.
In 2012, Swan (born Mary Teal Bosworth) started posting YouTube videos claiming that from ages 6 to 19, she was ritualistically abused by a satanic cult. During those 13 years, she alleges, she was raped, tortured, sewn into a corpse and forced to watch the murders of immigrant children. She managed to escape with the help of her friend and business partner Blake Dyer, and, in 2005, she filed a police report but says there was insufficient evidence to prosecute her abusers. After a brief stint modeling, Swan began her spiritual healing practice in 2010. Her work since — including three books and many seminars — focuses on emotional healing and spiritual growth. All revenue from her books, online store and speaking engagements gets funneled through Teal Eye, a for-profit corporation.
Today her followers, aka the “Teal Tribe,” number 23,000 strong on Facebook. In addition, she has 403,000 subscribers on YouTube, 57,500 followers on Instagram and what she calls an “intentional community” in Costa Rica, where she and 20 others live together.
We leave the lobby to record the interview in Swan’s hotel room. There, she excuses herself and, moments later, returns wearing a floor-length royal blue gown. And then, suddenly childlike, she crawls across the king-size bed and dangles her legs over the edge like an excited toddler. Her behavior is charming, or intended to charm, but there’s a note of performance as well. As our conversation begins, she shifts again, her voice soft and tentative as she describes her childhood in Utah. I notice her arms are covered in scars.
I ask about her latest book, The Completion Process: The Practice of Putting Yourself Back Together Again, and something sparks. “I make a very bold claim in saying that every person on earth actually has post-traumatic stress disorder,” she says. “So this process that I designed is designed specifically to take the aspect of you that is stuck in the past, at that trauma, and to reintegrate it into the being.”
I listen, trying to reconcile the conflicting opinions of Swan that surfaced during my research. “I am a better person because of Teal,” Margie Rasmussen, a self-described Teal Triber, told me. “She quite literally held my hand as she took me through my very first completion process session ever. Because of Teal I have integrated my deepest core wound of never feeling safe.” Others are downright vitriolic, labeling her a toxic cult leader. One blogger, LaVaughn of CelestialHealing.com, warns that Swan will sic her followers on anyone who dares to speak out against her. “Much like Scientology,” she says, “it’s politics of personal destruction” directed at any and all critics.
If anyone has an issue with me, turning against me, they stand to lose all these people they’re really close to.
To ask Rick Ross, executive director of the Cult Education Institute, is to learn that Swan has a familiar M.O. “In my opinion, Teal Swan fits the pattern of a [cult leader],” he tells me. “She has apparently become an object of worship, and it seems that her charisma and supernatural claims are the driving force of her school of healing and workshops.”
Criticism, then, is par for the course, but Swan comes in for an extra helping because of her stance on suicide, which she has referred to as “the best option” for some people, saying it’s like hitting the “reset button” on life. I take this to Ross, who calls Swan’s comments about suicide “deeply disturbing” and adds that “this is the difference between receiving counseling from a licensed professional and a self-help guru without meaningful credentials.”
When I invite Swan to respond to claims that she’s advocating suicide, she laughs. “Those things are going to be said by people who have absolutely no idea what it’s like [to be suicidal],” she says. “What you don’t need is somebody to be shaming you because of your family members or telling you that it’s fucking wrong. What you need is somebody who’s like, ‘You know what? I know it.’”
After we finish the interview, Derek and I take the train back to Paris. I’m both pleased by how well it went and surprised at how taken with her I am. But the next day, I’m told that Swan posted about our meeting on her blog. “There are two different styles of interview, one is supportive and the other is antagonistic,” she begins, calling ours antagonistic because I asked about claims made against her. Unlike a supportive interview, she writes, which “is set up to make you look good,” the antagonistic interviewer “is already biased against you and is simply setting up the interview as a trap to make you look bad … [and] to make them feel personally validated.”
Did Swan mean for me to see this? Is it a warning? And then I’m reminded of something else she said during our interview: “For somebody who’s never had a sense of belonging, [Teal Tribe] becomes … their new family. Which works until the minute that someone has a falling out with me. … If anyone has an issue with me, turning against me, they stand to lose all these people they’re really close to.”
Swan posted that our interview had left her feeling “targeted.” Certainly not my intention, but the targeted part? Yeah, I get that.
- Addison Nugent, OZY Author Contact Addison Nugent