Friday, May 6, 2022

Bad Vegan reviewed by Carolynn Kingyens

In addition to this week's featured poem, "Duper's Delight", Carolynn Kingyens offers the following guest post reviewing the crime-related Netflix docuseries Bad Vegan. —Gerald So

Audio of Carolynn's review:

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Bad Vegan is a riveting, binge-worthy docuseries on Netflix. The docuseries begins with a flirtatious tweet from Alec Baldwin. In the tweet, he praises New York raw vegan restaurant Pure Food & Wine, and openly admires the beauty of its founder, Sarma Melngailis. Sarma is stunningly beautiful, and bears a striking resemblance to Katherine Heigl, the actress best known for her roles in Grey’s Anatomy and Knocked Up. But in a strange twist of fate, Baldwin’s tweet would put her on the path to meeting “Shane Fox” aka Anthony Strangis, an ex-con, who would ultimately ruin her life.

Baldwin and Shane/Anthony have their own tweet exchanges with the latter having 50,000 Twitter followers of his own. His social media savviness makes an impression on Sarma, and as a result, she lets her guard down. Soon she is playing Words with Friends with Shane/Anthony, a game Alec Baldwin notoriously enjoyed as well. Who could forget the time he was kicked off a flight for playing the popular online game right before his flight took off.

In Bad Vegan, you will see firsthand how love-bombing, mirroring, brainwashing, gaslighting and Stockholm Syndrome works, a step-by-step case study via text messages, taped phone conversations, videos, and personal testimony from family, friends and loyal employees. And how and why some people, like Sarma Melngailis, may be more susceptible to these cunning ploys than others.

Perhaps, Bad Vegan should’ve been called Bad Vibes as Shane/Anthony gives so many people in her orbit bad vibes. Everyone has a bad feeling about this guy that could only be described as dread; everyone, that is, except Sarma, who, at first, seems smitten.

Sarma, for the record, ain’t no dummy. At one time, she had the world of New York fine cuisine, and Alec Baldwin, in her hands — no small feat, before the mysterious Shane/Anthony entered her life to only drive her world into apocalyptic-like chaos. She is a graduate of The Wharton School, one of the most selective and prestigious business schools in the world. She has a good head for business, and a passion for raw vegan cuisine.

Sarma also has a big heart. She loves her adorable, tan-colored pit bull named Leon, her constant companion. She also develops an authentic friendship with a homeless man named Anthony, who has kind, Sinatra-blue-colored eyes. Sarma looks out for Anthony, and, in return, Anthony looks out for Sarma and Leon.

There are also hints that Sarma may be suffering from imposter syndrome. According to Harvard Business Review, “imposter syndrome is loosely defined as doubting your abilities and feeling like a fraud. It disproportionately affects high-achieving people, who find it difficult to accept their accomplishments. Many question whether they’re deserving of accolades.”

Is imposter syndrome mixed with Sarma’s empathetic and sensitive nature like a neon flashing light for psychological and emotional predators like Shane Fox/Anthony Strangis?

One thing I did make note of throughout the docuseries is Sarma’s answer to this one particular question: “Why not tell someone?” Her answer is always “How do I tell someone?” You see, Sarma Melngailis was living in two simultaneous realities — one being her restaurant and business life, what she called “reality-reality,” and the other being Shane/Anthony’s crazy reality, which was getting more exploitive by the day.

They say the eyes are the windows to the soul. In the Bad Vegan docuseries’ photographs of Shane Fox/Anthony Strangis, I immediately noticed a darkness, a steely coldness behind his eyes. The only other time I would see this darkness in still photographs was when I was watching a documentary on Andrea Yates, the psychotic mother who’d drowned all five of her beautiful children in 2001. The freeze frame had occurred right after the crime, while she was still being interviewed by police. The camera then began to pan in on Yates’ wild, fixed gaze, and that was the moment when I felt a shiver go down my spine. I have the same chilly reaction when the camera pans in on Fox/Strangis’ eyes as well.

Sarma’s eyes, in contrast, have a look of being dazed and confused. This is what narcissistic abuse does to its victims, especially in a case this extreme. And her case is as extreme as it gets.

Some narcissistic abuse victims totally shut down, like Sarma, while others go off the rails with emotive outbursts because their life has become a reactionary, never-ending carnival game of “Whac-A-Mole.” This abuse is up-close and intimate. Most outsiders, including the justice system in Sarma’s case, won’t suspect it. More education and awareness needs to happen so individuals and their support systems can spot the red flags before the loss is too great. In Sarma’s case, the personal loss was over $6 million, a ruined career, and a jail stint, not including the social tsunami it created in her life, the effects, to which, she’s still reeling from today.

Bad Vegan has more psychological twists and turns than a Coney Island roller coaster. Who would’ve thought that an order of Domino’s Pizza and chicken wings would lead to the duo’s ultimate undoing. You can’t make this shit up.

Disclaimer: I am being honest about my reaction to many photographs in the documentary, particularly Fox/Stangis’ mug shot, which is in the public domain as is the documentary itself. He stole $1.7 million to fund a gambling habit while psychologically and emotionally destroying someone in the process, which is also well-documented. Victims of this kind of abuse are rarely, if ever, recognized let alone supported and validated.

CAROLYNN KINGYENS is the author of Before the Big Bang Makes a Sound and the newly released Coupling, available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble (Brooklyn), McNally Jackson, and Book Culture. In addition to poetry, Kingyens writes essays, book and film reviews, flash fiction and short stories. Her short story “Bye-Bye, Miss American Pie” was one of fifteen stories selected by Across the Margin, a Brooklyn arts and culture webzine, for their Best of Fiction 2021 list.

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