There are moments in The Deep End, the excellent four-part documentary series directed by Jon Kasbe and produced by Bits Sola and The Documentary Group and currently available on Hulu, when Teal Swan, a Park City, Utah-based spiritual guru, displays characteristics that one might admire in a maverick CEO who comprehends the power of disruptive innovation.
In an interview with The Utah Review, Kasbe says, “If you’re familiar with the spiritual community and you’re part of that, she is talked about as a dark horse in that community who is kind of doing her own thing.”
The series is riveting because of its vérité style, which is handled with meticulous discretion and sensitivity, given the gravity of the mental health issues at the center of Swan’s spiritual mission. Kasbe and his production team had three years of access to Swan, her inner circle and the activities of her spiritual enterprise.
The present tense feel of The Deep End is significant. In parallel, Swan had asked Molly Monahan, a private investigator based in the Pacific Northwest, to review two points raised by her critics: if her spiritual practices led to suicide for some followers and if her operations constitute a cult. Over the four episodes, Kasbe deftly weaves the three pillars of the story, as he describes them: “a lot of internal conflict happening within her group;” “a lot of people coming from outside and looking for help and having very mixed results,” and “they hired a private investigator to determine if they are a cult or not.”
Swan (whose given name is Mary Teal Bosworth), 38, is self taught, has no professional mental health training, and claims to have extrasensory powers, which she says were developed during her formative years in Utah and Idaho. In addition to conducting retreats around the world, including Budapest this past weekend, she has more than 1.3 million subscribers on her YouTube channel. Social media platforms have become the promotional bread-and-butter of her mission.
It also is Swan’s mission that has brought a spate of criticism, including a 2019 investigative report by BBC News. In targeting people who are chronically depressed or have suicidal thoughts, Swan’s approach includes beliefs in the healing powers of crystals, reincarnation and synchronization of vibrations. On her website, Swan specifies that her approach is “not recommended for those who simply want to feel good,” but is “for those who want the truth even if the truth hurts. The reality is impartial. It isn’t personal. It simply shows you what is so. It’s the classic matrix blue pill or red pill scenario.”
But, it is Swan’s encouragement of followers confronting directly their own suicidal ideations — including imagining their own death — in trying to find a positive outcome, which has alarmed many professionals and researchers who study suicides and suicide prevention. There have been instances where followers did commit suicide, leading to the investigation of Swan’s spiritual practices. As BBC’s Lebo Diseko reported, after viewing one of Swan’s videos, Ged Flynn, the CEO of the UK suicide prevention nonprofit Papyrus, said, “It is not helpful in any circumstances to encourage anyone who has thoughts of suicide to imagine their being dead and further to glorify that state.”
Before taking on The Deep End documentary project, Kasbe had not heard of Swan but Tom Yellin and Gabrielle Tenenbaum of The Documentary Group sent him various materials and podcast interviews about Swan, her critics and her practices. These included a 2014 unedited interview with Chris Oswalt, an Idaho journalist, where Swan talked about her life, where she described being the victim of ritual sexual abuse as well as discovering her extrasensory powers.
Kasbe says that immediately two things became apparent. “Teal is a fascinating character who had a lot of charisma and felt very complicated. Those are the types of characters I am always looking for,” he explains. He also was struck by the “dichotomy in the reactions to her.” There are millions of followers, according to him, who “are saying things like she saved my life and she is speaking truth in ways no one else is,” and then “on the other hand, you had a group of critics who are saying she is incredibly dangerous and she has no formal training.”
Kasbe clarified there were no preliminary judgments entering the process. “We came in really open; to really try and understand and see if there was an opportunity to add something to the conversation.” He met Swan prior to the start of filming, so that both could determine whether or not they wanted to do the project together. “And during that process I laid out to her what the filmmaking process is,” he recalls. “I let her know that there is going to be many hours of filming and looped her in with what the editing process is like,” adding that he would get multiple perspectives, not just her own but also what the critics were saying.
Kasbe says that, at the beginning Swan accepted this, as well as Blake Dyer, her operations manager, who also becomes a subject with a story that gradually snowballs into some of the series’ most tense moments. “In fact, she connected us with critics and connected us with the private investigator [Monahan] they were hiring to determine if they were a cult or not and if she is responsible for the suicides.”
Kasbe bypasses traditional documentary conventions by spending extended time with his subjects to capture emotionally impactful intimacy for rendering complex yet clarifying portraits of them. He explains that he is “very transparent as a safety precaution. I always like to show people my past works so they can get a sense of what it will turn out to be.”
One of Kasbe’s documentaries is When Lambs Become Lions, a 2018 documentary, filmed in Kenya, centering on an ivory dealer and his cousin who is a wildlife ranger. “For its first half, the movie toggles between the lives of a cocky poacher, dubbed ‘X,’ and a morally grounded yet financially desperate ranger, Asan,” critic Matt Fagerholm wrote in his review. “Since Kasbe took the time to live with his subjects—sans cameras for the first couple months—he earned their trust so completely that they didn’t hesitate in performing illegal activities on camera. What’s striking are the number of similarities these men share, including a general dislike of violence. Asan opens up about the trauma he’s endured after witnessing the murder of elephants, whose trumpeting cries echo the screams of humans.” Kasbe’s most recent documentary which premiered at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, is Sophia, which chronicles the work of David Hanson, who strives to create the world’s most life-like artificial intelligence in a robot (Sophia). Sophia is slated for theatrical release this fall and then will be screened on Showtime.
Kasbe said that Swan and Dyer were sold on working with him when they viewed his previous films. “They saw the way in which we were telling these stories were emotion based and there was an element of poetry and it wasn’t just a traditional documentary in the sense that it is just a talking head interview driven piece.”
Kasbe recalls that Swan made it clear that she would not impede the work of his production crew. “One of the first things she told me was, ‘you know, Jon, you really seem concerned about the amount of filming you’ll be doing. I just wanna let you know that I will never ask you to turn your camera off when you’re around me because I feel safer when there is a camera pointed at me because I have been through so much abuse in my past that if I know there is a camera pointed at me there is going to be proof of everything that happens.’”
This is notable, given that since the series premiered, Swan has released videos on her YouTube channel, where she is clearly dissatisfied with her depiction. But, as Kasbe notes and the episodes make evident, “she is unapologetic about her ambition and method and she really presents that she has nothing to hide. I don’t think she sees what she’s doing or who she is as problematic.”
Likewise, Swan encouraged Monahan, the private investigator, to cooperate with Kasbe’s production team. Monahan, in her late sixties, is widely known for her exhaustive research skills, which includes working with the Illinois Innocence Project. Swan had hired her after Monahan worked months on an investigation, requested by another spiritual teacher Aaravindha Himadra, who had been accused of arranging the drowning of a former follower years earlier. Monahan’s research indicated that, like the earlier investigation by law enforcement authorities, no crime had been committed.
There are scenes in The Deep End emphasizing Monahan’s prudence and punctilious temperament. She appears in three of the four episodes. “We were there when they hired Molly. She was very clear with them in the same way we were clear with them in the very beginning,” Kasbe recalls. “Molly said she is going to dig around and ‘I’m going to find facts and data and I am going to show you what I see. This is an unbiased third-party outside investigation.’”
For example, Monahan asks Swan and her manager (Dyer) about a document, which appears to be an extraordinarily restrictive form of a non-disclosure agreement demanding total obedience and loyalty from inner circle members. There is a moment when Dyer is speaking to Monahan, assuring her that Swan is always asking inner circle members if this arrangement is true and right for them. “We saw that happen a lot,” Kasbe says. In the final episode, Monahan concludes her investigation and releases her findings. Unquestionably, Monahan’s solid research temperament puts Swan on the defensive, a position in which she rarely finds herself.
Many charismatic and successful organizational leaders — CEOs, political leaders, university presidents, nonprofit advocates, religious leaders, artistic directors, major celebrities, accomplished professionals and experts — rely on an inner circle where members fully believe in the vision at the center of their activity. With Swan, as Kasbe explains, “it didn’t feel like an accident that the people in her inner circle were those who had given up a lot to be there and had poured everything into it. It’s their main life purpose.”
The distinction in The Deep End is that viewers are literally placed in the same room when all of this is unfolding. “The thing that left us a little bit concerned from what we heard from people going through it personally is that you can raise concerns but then Teal sits with you and she talks through it until there is alignment,” Kasbe says. He adds that he considers Swan, “incredibly emotionally intelligent and one of the smartest people I met.”
Like with many other organizations and company hierarchies, there often is a group-think mentality. “Based on what we heard from people around there, very little could be done and said to make you feel like you’re in the way of that mission,” he adds. Some of the series’ most fascinating and revealing scenes precisely amplify this point. Kasbe says that he doesn’t believe that anyone in her inner circle could match her in emotional intelligence.
That includes Dyer, her closest confidant who had known her for some 18 years, and who announces his decision to leave after he asks Juliana, whom Dyer met during a European tour, to marry him. Juliana’s presence also sets the stage for several dramatic moments. When Dyer decides to leave, it is a moment where regardless of what viewers might think about Swan, one can empathize with the sting of the break involving someone who had been with her for half her life. “Near the end, she’s talking about Blake leaving and she is really angry that he’s leaving,” Kasbe explains. “We had long conversations with the editing team about how important it was to have that moment where she talks about how painful it is for her that he is leaving.” When asked if Dyer had any reaction to the series’ episodes, Kasbe says, “Blake has not made a statement publicly about it and I think that’s really telling he hasn’t. I wish I could get into the reasons why but as I feel for his privacy, I shouldn’t.”
The breadth and depth of first-hand perspective in many scenes might surprise viewers, if they are wondering why Swan would have continued to allow the filming to continue, especially during some of the series’ most emotionally consequential events. From the outset, Kasbe says he made it clear that anytime Swan wanted to stop filming, it was her prerogative. “And that was exercised a lot of times,” he explains, “and I think that is really necessary when you are making this type of documentary when you’re filming something sensitive and you’re filming people going through an emotional process.”
The requests happened quite frequently during the first year and a half but then they stopped. “They got so comfortable and used to us being around and filming things that there came a point when we were filming everything,” he recalls. Thus, there are many moments when Swan is direct, blunt and even aggressive with individuals and she would respond by explaining her behavior and why she felt justified for her tone.
Kasbe had a team of six editors for the series. “Editors are often the smartest ones in the room,” he explains. “They’re really brilliant and what I love about the editing process with my team is that often time these editors come in and they haven’t lived through the blood, sweat and tears that the production team went through and saving all the images and being present for all the moments. So they have a very fresh perspective and they start by watching all of the material. We’re talking about thousands of hours of film footage — a very intense, laborious process. Once they watched it all, we had conversations around each character and we slowly started plotting out arcs for each of them, based on the material and what we’re seeing in it.”
Kasbe’s guiding compass was his gut when it came to ensuring that the editing would be representative of the story he and his production crew experienced while filming. “It’s a beautiful thing when editors are coming in who weren’t there; who haven’t gone through those experiences; who don’t necessarily have that same guiding compass; who are then watching that material and coming back to me and saying, ‘Hey I felt like this scene was about this and that this character wants that’ and it being aligned. There were times we disagreed, and obviously we get in arguments, especially when it’s a complicated story like Teal’s that has landmines all over it.”
Indeed, given how Kasbe thoroughly and clearly explained the documentary process, watching Swan’s reactions to the series is surprising on one hand but not so much on another. “I don’t think we can be too surprised. Her response to this series aligns closely with the way she treated other people who either disagree with what she is doing or people who have been a part of it and then left,” he says. “There is a pattern here of creating false narratives to discredit people who have alternative perspectives to Teal.”
Kasbe encourages viewers to watch the reaction videos. “They’re very telling. Countless people reached out to me saying, ‘we watched The Deep End and it was amazing and it left me feeling so conflicted and there were times when I really disliked Teal and there were other times when I empathize with her and then I saw her reaction videos and now I have no doubt about what this is.’”
Meanwhile, Swan has asked her supporters join in demanding the production team release all of the footage. Her tone in making that request strikes as out of character for her, given the poise and control she displays in the series that evidences the emotional intelligence Kasbe already has described. Any additional footage made public likely would be far more damning than what already has been presented in the series. “There was a lot of material we did not put in because it was so triggering and so disturbing that we didn’t feel like it was right to put in the show,” he says.
And, as Kasbe explains, such a request sets a “dangerous precedent anytime a subject of a documentary doesn’t like the way they look on camera and doesn’t like the things they did on camera to demand that all the raw footage is released.”
Kasbe astutely prepared for such concerns, by raising the relevant questions with the editors. “Teal is someone you can’t edit Teal to be Teal because she is who she is and she is not ashamed of herself and she is not embarrassed of it,” he adds. “This reaction actually has been really surprising because she is usually quick to own her personality; to own her boldness and to own what separates her from other spiritual teachers.”
In another response to the growing body of criticisms and concerns about Swan’s spiritual health approach and coinciding with the release of The Deep End, Mormon Stories Podcast conducted a three-and-a-half-hour interview with Diana Hansen Ribera, who was friends with Swan during their preteen and adolescent years. Ribera offers details indicating that Swan’s claims about being a victim of satanic ritual abuse and child sex trafficking are false, as well as how the would-be spiritual teacher finessed her skills of manipulation and coercion.
In Utah, where positive and negative stories of pioneers, mavericks, lone wolves, dark horses, masters of disruptive innovation and visionary entrepreneurs are plenty, Swan seems to settle right into that canon. It appears, though, that more people in Cache Valley and in communities along the Utah-Idaho border know of and have heard of Swan than perhaps in Salt Lake City. In a blog she published seven years ago, Swan wrote about Salt Lake City’s spiritual culture. She opened her blog by criticizing The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, calling the Salt Lake City temple “a colossal emblem of pious tyranny.”
She segued into explaining why she considers “denial” as the prevailing negative vibration in Salt Lake City, among both conservatives and liberals. She then pivoted to the following:
The dominant positive vibration of Salt Lake City is: Interest. Interest being attention, concern and curiosity being particularly engaged in something. Salt Lake City is not an idle city.
It is full of people, both conservative and liberal, who have special interest in spades. Those interests compel movement and perpetual ‘doing’ and ‘seeking’. It is VERY hard to find someone in Salt Lake City that does not have a serious interest in something specific. It is very easy to become an expert in a field with interest. And Utah boasts many experts in various fields because of it. Interest, which resides in the people here like a subtle force, makes the city feel involved. But that vibration of ‘involved’ is a compilation of so many people’s various interests that one cannot tell what Salt Lake City is involved in exactly.
Curiously, she closed the blog with a quote by the late LDS Church President Gordon Hinckley about forgiveness, in which he said, “Somehow forgiveness, with love and tolerance, accomplishes miracles that can happen in no other way.” Swan said these words should be embraced and practiced by everyone in Salt Lake City.
Kasbe says The Deep End was not made as much for Swan’s followers or detractors as much as it was for general audiences who likely never heard of a woman who hopes to eventually lead the world’s largest spiritual movement. “When someone else is determining what is right or wrong for you, you’re putting yourself at risk and that’s something we experienced ourselves and that’s something we saw a lot of people in the inner circle go through,” Kasbe says. “This is a story of one community and one leader and their following. That risk isn’t just in communities like this.” It can happen at work, in families and within religious institutions, he adds.
“As storytellers, our hope is that people are able to watch this show and identify some of those dynamics and see that risk,” he explains. “Oftentimes, it can be easier to understand those dynamics when they’re unfolding with people who aren’t yourself and then see that play out in other people’s lives. I know I’ve experienced that for myself through therapy. I’ve done that thought exercise many times and I found that helpful.”
Kasbe, speaking in general about the experiences he found with his creative team as well as friends and family, says “it’s becoming more and more common to hear about people looking outside the traditional avenues of mental health to get support and to get help that they feel like will work for them and be specific to them beyond traditional therapy. The internet is one of the first things we go to, looking for help and Teal has done a really good job of optimizing the internet and using it quite successfully to draw people in.”
Kasbe adds that once people recognize that there is not a one-size-fits-all for healing, they will learn more about making sure they have more than one option to consider. “There are a lot of people who went through Teal’s world and got out of it in the past and watched the show and found it very validating to be able to see it play out,” he says. “Even though it’s other people in it, they’ve been through it. It is reminding people to trust your gut, keep questioning your surroundings, stay skeptical and hold onto your agency.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: Be Scofield, a journalist who has investigated cults, has published a piece explaining why the documentary “does the viewers a real disservice by not revealing the true story behind Monahan’s role” [the private investigator], as featured in the film. To read more: https://gurumag.com/truth-and-lies-in-jon-kasbes-teal-swan-documentary/