Where’s the line between spiritual awakening and a psychotic episode?
Both are triggered by many of the same physical conditions. Both inspire similar emotional responses. The primary distinction is that the first brings benefits, and the second causes harm.
But even worrying psychoses may bring meaning to a religious person, even when outsiders may think unconventional beliefs have crossed a line. The conflict is as old as Joan of Arc, but is a known phenomenon in Buddhist meditation and even yoga.
Now, Netflix examines the question in “Sins of Our Mother,” a docuseries that is both a chilling addition to the true-crime genre and a detailed case study on what happens when psychosis takes on a righteous glow.
Lori Vallow, the documentary’s primary subject, is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who believes she has a spiritual relationship with God that involves regular correspondence with angels. Her pursuit of these beliefs allegedly led to the death of two adults and two of her children.
Vallow’s son recalls in “Sins of Our Mother” how his mother allowed her devotion to the church to take over their home, photos of the temple covering the walls. She came to co-host a podcast called “Feel the Fire,” in which she asserted she was receiving regular contact from Moroni, the prophet turned angel who believers say gave church founder Joseph Smith gold plates from which he translated the faith’s foundational text, the Book of Mormon.
Vallow said she often didn’t sleep because she was awakened so frequently by visions.
Her then-husband, Charles Vallow, converted to Mormonism when they married, but as Vallow’s spiritual experiences intensified, Charles began to disappoint her.
“Lori really wanted a spiritual dynamo in a partner,” her former friend April Raymond says in the documentary.
Vallow met her fifth and current husband, Chad Daybell, in 2018 at an apocalyptic conference called “Preparing a People.” The two believed their spirits were entwined. He was the “spiritual dynamo” for whom Vallow was looking.
Vallow and Daybell developed a spiritual ranking system: “D” and “L” denoted the difference between a “dark” and “light” spirit, and a numerical system from 1 to 6 indicated the level of each quality.
They also believed in “zombies” who were physically alive but spiritually dead and that their imperative mission was to eradicate all zombies from the earth. These beliefs, authorities say, played a large role in the deaths of those close to her.
“A lot of these beliefs (Vallow and Daybell) had are classic psychotic beliefs,” said Ari Brouwer, a doctoral student at the University of Wisconsin who studies the overlap of spirituality, psychosis and psychedelics. “Like the idea that someone you know is an imposter and some other spirit or person is in their body.”
The year after they met, Vallow’s ex-husband Charles, who, Vallow asserted, had been possessed by an evil spirit, was shot and killed by her brother. Not long afterward, Daybell’s wife, Tammy, was attacked in her driveway and two weeks later died in her sleep.
Vallow had ranked her daughter Tylee a “4.1D” — but her adopted son J.J. a “4.2L.” After they had been officially missing for months, police found both the children’s bodies burned and buried in shallow graves outside Vallow and Daybell’s home.
It’s difficult to look back on Vallow’s fervent religiosity and accept that it was harmless. An intervention against hanging posters or even having visions of an angel might have felt like overreaction. But Brouwer said that’s probably what was required. “One of the things that struck me was some people not recognizing these signs of risk of psychosis,” said Brouwer. “It was just a shame because it should have been caught much sooner.”
The other unfortunate turn was Vallow’s encounter with Daybell.
“If instead of meeting Chad,” said Brouwer, “she met a more laid-back spiritual adviser that was like, ‘let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Make sure you get sleep. Let’s be humble. Everyone’s equal under God’s eyes. You’re special, but you’re not more special than other people.’ I don’t see her development the way it is as inevitable.”
Vallow and Daybell are currently in prison awaiting a trial scheduled for January that could be delayed after Daybell recently filed a motion to separate his trial from his wife’s. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty for Vallow.
Beyond a letter from its governing First Presidency advising Latter-day Saint leaders to avoid involvement in legal proceedings, the church has offered no official comment on Vallow and Daybell’s case, nor the new series. Julie Rowe, an author who shared Daybell’s belief system and collaborated with him on some books, was excommunicated from the Utah-based church in 2019.
The docuseries is not intent on blaming Lori and Chad’s religion, or people who hold apocalyptic spiritual beliefs, though it doesn’t hold back on the ideas that motivated them either. And certainly, there’s plenty in “Sins of Our Mother” to keep viewers’ attention without going into the history of spiritual visionaries or ascribing her behavior to any faith.
Nor does Brouwer think that unconventional beliefs necessarily make anyone dangerous.
“An important factor in Lori’s case was what I sometimes call a spiritual addiction, where someone really gets wrapped up in those experiences and how important it makes them feel,” Brouwer said. “I mean, all the people who listened to that podcast and went to those conferences at least vaguely agreed on this way of perceiving the world. That doesn’t qualify as insanity.”