“The Deep End” is a new four-part docuseries (streamable on Hulu and Freeform) that follows a spiritual teacher, Teal Swan, as she and her team struggle to repair her reputation after multiple suicides committed by members of the “Teal Tribe” made Swan the subject of intense media scrutiny. Swan appears to have agreed to film the docuseries in an attempt to clear her name — why else would she take part in such a chilling exposé? With that same goal in mind, her team hires a private investigator to prove two things: first, that they are not a cult, and second, that they are not to blame for the suicides. (Spoiler alert: She does not pass either test with flying colors).
The series focuses heavily on “The Completion Process,” which aims to heal deep trauma by reenacting and re-entering one’s most painful memories — or, in some cases, memories that have never even occurred in the first place. “The Deep End” also reveals the interpersonal drama between Swan and members of her “inner circle.” The “inner circle” is a small group that consists only of the people Swan trusts. The most notable member of the circle is Blake Dyer, her closest confidante (and former lover) since they were young adults. Dyer has since split from Swan’s business due to Swan’s toxicity.
Who is Teal Swan? It’s hard to begin to describe her, or her budding spiritual empire: She has an overwhelming digital footprint, and her content pervades every conceivable social media platform. As of now, her YouTube channel has amassed 1.29 million subscribers, and her TikTok account is not far behind, with 769,000 followers and 9.3 million likes. The rapid growth in the popularity of Swan’s teachings is anything but surprising. Swan herself says that people are currently living in an “emotional dark age,” and she isn’t wrong. Between 2009 and 2019, the number of high school students who reported “persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness increased by 40%, to more than 1 in 3 students.” Since the pandemic, the pit of despair has deepened to such an extent that, in 2021, the American Academy of Pediatrics declared a national emergency in child and adolescent mental health.
It feels like everyone is sick, sad, stretched-thin, overworked and searching desperately for the meaning of it all. Everyone wants an answer, or even better, a fix. A cure-all, something easy, fast and cheap. Naturally, snake oil salesmen and woo-woo wellness gurus have risen to meet the demand, hawking their quick fixes and nonsense remedies on every digital street corner. But Swan does not fit neatly into either of these boxes. Her teachings appear genuine in that they do not promise a quick, easy fix. Swan acknowledges that healing deep trauma is an intensely difficult and tumultuous process. During her live shows, she invites audience members onstage with her and seats them across from her, as an equal. Attendees of these live shows are searching for answers as well as a sense of community and family. Here, Swan offers a safe place to voice one’s most terrifying thoughts, like “Why am I still alive?” or “Did my parents ever love me?” The community Swan cultivates is loving, supportive and uplifting — until it’s not.
If Swan’s “Teal Tribe” is not currently considered a cult, it is certainly well on its way to becoming a textbook example. Swan’s work caters to the most emotionally exhausted members of society, people who are on the verge of giving up completely, who want nothing more than to devote themselves to something bigger than themselves, to kneel at the feet of someone who can supply them with the perfect cocktail of community, acceptance and higher purpose. Swan herself acknowledges, “You have nothing else to lose [when you come to Teal].”
It isn’t a mystery as to why her teachings have enraptured so many people; the actual content of her work aside, Swan is a beautiful woman with magnetic charisma and a genuine talent for speaking. She could have found success in any field she chose, and it just happened to be the business of spirituality. Swan’s feminine elegance, paired with the low, steady timbre of her voice, grants an air of androgyny that only serves to make her more compelling. As a child, Swan recalls that she “scared [her] mother to death” due to her supposed extrasensory abilities, which include the ability to see people’s emotions, hear what people are thinking, channel dead relatives, see other-dimensional entities and more. She refers to herself as a literal alien, as in an extraterrestrial being. In a blog post that has since been scrubbed from the internet, Swan claimed that her abuser sewed her into a corpse at the age of 8 and kept her there for 12 hours. Multiple morticians corroborated that this is simply not physically possible; it’s difficult for the human body to accommodate an infant, much less an 8-year-old child.
Although some of her claims of Satanic ritual abuse are resoundingly, inarguably false, this absolutely does not mean that she is lying about all the abuse she endured. Swan is clearly a deeply damaged person who endured some form of abuse in her childhood, and that should not be dismissed. These claims may be a story to help cope with the actual abuse she suffered. Her former therapist, Barbara Snow, was a highly controversial figure at the center of the Satanic panic during the ’80s and ’90s, accused of implanting fictitious memories of childhood sexual abuse in the minds of her clients.
“The Deep End” clearly outlines Swan’s most fatal flaw: her ego. She is so close to being a positive agent of change, and if she reigned in her ego, she could be capable of revolutionizing the mental health field. But she can’t let go of the idea of being the ultimate guru. During the Completion Process, one attendee admits that he feels “resistance” to her teachings because he can’t fully accept that she has all the answers: “I feel resistant to the fact that you are all-knowing … I don’t feel it’s safe to accept everything you say without question.” Rather than engage with this question in a thoughtful, respectful way that reassures him and reestablishes her authority, Swan reacts with intense hostility — eyes flashing, shifting in her seat as if she wants to leap from her chair and accost him.
During one exercise in the Completion Process shown in Episode 3, one follower, Elly, huddles under a blanket and observes as three other attendees “assume the consciousness” of her mother, father, and Elly as a child, and proceed to act out a scene that never actually happened. She watches the “memory” unfold with wide eyes; afterward, the attendees relayed their intuition to Elly. One attendee said that they felt there may have been “inappropriate touches between the [child] and the mom.” Essentially, a complete stranger who has no context for Elly’s personal or family history has “sensed” hidden abuse within Elly’s family. It’s psychologically irresponsible and damaging, ultimately serving no real purpose. What is the point in crafting fictitious traumas based off “vibes” and a false sense of intuition, instead of healing the real traumas that are already present?
The audience is granted another taste of Swan’s questionable teaching methods at the end of Episode 3 when the group undergoes glorified waterboarding, which Swan calls “Water Breath.” “You’re using your body to hack into the subconscious mind, and down there, it’s not gonna be fun,” Swan says matter-of-factly. While a member of Swan’s “inner circle” rhythmically bangs a drum, two attendees cradle another in a pool. Swan’s disembodied voice says to “imagine your breath embracing the emotion.” At Swan’s subtle nod, the two attendees dunk the third under the water and hold her there for an agonizing period of time. The camera tracks the woman as she is briefly granted a reprieve — no more than half a second of oxygen — before she is roughly shoved back underneath the water. No wonder it feels like an intensely spiritual experience. She’s literally being drowned and pulled back from the brink of death, over and over again. At the end of the process, the woman is unconscious and twitching, but alive. They carry her to a lawn chair; later, she tells Swan that she loves her.
Although much of the documentary is shocking and difficult to swallow, it is an oddly delightful sensory and aesthetic experience. Between tense conversations in which Swan verbally attacks and ostracizes members of her own “inner circle,” the camera focuses on gorgeous, peaceful details, capturing small moments of beauty: a gentle breeze dancing through a sleeping dog’s fur or the sun setting on Swan’s property in Nevada. The experience of watching “The Deep End” is both meditative and stressful. It is similar to that of being the third wheel in an argument between two friends who shouldn’t be dating each other; you’re free to disassociate and look out the window, but the beauty of the outdoors can’t fully remove you from the ferocity of the poison they’re spewing back and forth. You want to be anywhere but here, but you also want to know all the juicy details, so you stay put. Highly empathetic? This might be a rough watch, but it’s worth it.
“The Deep End” leaves the audience (and Swan) on a teetering, tremulous note. Where will Swan go next? At the end of Episode 4, a phone call teases the idea of featuring on Joe Rogan’s podcast. My personal fear is that she will pivot to QAnon territory, dragging her hefty follower count along with her. At present, Swan appears to flirt with the concept; there is a very thin degree of separation from the spirituality/wellness community and far-right conspiracy theories, and Swan’s allegations of enduring Satanic ritual abuse correlate with QAnon’s cries of “Save the children!” The (essentially baseless) fears that stoked the flames of the “Satanic panic” in the 80s and 90s are kept alive by QAnon today.
The “about” page on Swan’s website describes her as “the red pill,” a reference that has become far removed from “The Matrix” and is now used as a meme-turned-dog-whistle in alt-right circles. Swan, perhaps unknowingly, dances on the edge of these two groups. “The Deep End” has pulled the curtain back and exposed her as an infallible, controlling, cruel person, and may have ruined her chances at achieving mainstream success. She craves respect and attention, wherever she can find it, and if becoming an idol among the QAnon community means amassing an even bigger following, it isn’t difficult to imagine Swan pivoting her platform to become more Q-friendly.
Swan’s teachings aren’t inherently dangerous, or even that outlandish. The scariest part of “The Deep End” is not the emotional abuse or the waterboarding or even Swan’s allegations of Satanic ritual abuse; it’s the knowledge that any one of us could very easily become a member of the “Teal Tribe” if we found Swan’s videos at the right time. Her sophisticated use of SEO and algorithm manipulation ensures that people find Swan’s channel at their most vulnerable moments. As I researched Swan’s YouTube channel, I was uncomfortably cognizant of the fact that my high school self (moody, anxious, lacking purpose or any sense of spirituality) would have worshiped her. “The Deep End” is worth watching for that reason alone. Hit play for the drama, and stick around for the cautionary tale. It’s 2022, and spirituality has become increasingly commodified in the digital age. Anyone could walk into a Teal Swan-esque trap.