In May of this year, film-makers Marina Zenovich and Nile Cappello had nearly wrapped on a documentary series about Remnant Fellowship, an insular, eerily cheery church in Brentwood, Tennessee, which preached weight loss as a spiritual assignment. For over three years Cappello and her team had researched Remnant, which had faced accusations of being a cult that promoted child abuse, and its charismatic leader, Gwen Shamblin Lara, a stick-thin woman with an inflated blonde beehive who gained fame for a theological diet program to pray one’s way to thinness.
Cappello, an investigative journalist and executive producer, and Zenovich, a director who has made films on such figures as Roman Polanski, Robin Williams and Lance Armstrong, had spoken to numerous ex-members of Remnant Fellowship, explored allegations of harassment and emotional abuse, outlined the trail of toxicity behind the Weigh Down Workshop’s teachings of fat as a manifestation of sin, and accepted that Shamblin, 66, would probably never agree to an interview. “They don’t want to go on record,” Zenovich told the Guardian. “They want to continue doing what they’re doing, which is controlling people. So we tried – we sent letters to a lot of leaders – but no one responded.”
Earlier this month, in response to allegations made in the film, Remnant issued a formal statement, presented at the end of the series, in which the church “categorically denies the absurd defamatory statements and accusations made in this documentary” and assures “children are happy and healthy, being raised with the most love, care, support and protection imaginable”.
Then, on 29 May, Shamblin and her husband, former Tarzan actor Joe Lara, as well as five other leaders within Remnant Fellowship, died in a plane crash outside of Smyrna, Tennessee. The crash now opens The Way Down, a multi-part series on HBO Max, with the first three episodes – on Shamblin’s rise to popularity among evangelical churches, her increasingly controversial teachings and allegations of child abuse — premiering this week. Two more episodes on the crash, its investigation and the transition of power to Shamblin’s two children, will land in spring 2022.
For years, Shamblin projected a glowing, bubbly, lavish facade: a self-made Christian businesswoman devoted to helping others, particularly women, finally achieve their weight loss goals by getting closer to God, with a plantation-style mansion outside Nashville. Her Weigh Down Workshop, which she started in 1986, preached essentially a theological version of intuitive eating: only eat when your stomach is growling, pray through cravings. Her explicit linkage of diet culture with holiness – “how to stop bowing down to the refrigerator and how to bow back down to him,” as she said in an early interview – made her a popular figure among churches; by the early 2000s, Shamblin, who trained as a dietician, had sold millions of books and appeared on Larry King Live, The Tyra Banks Show and in a New Yorker profile (Slim For Him, 2001).
The infusion of 90s and early 2000s diet culture – books and daytime TV specials and restrictive plans and “eat what you want but lose weight!” slogans – with spirituality, from someone who claims to be talking directly to God, was “a hugely powerful message” to those who grew up Christian, Cappello told the Guardian. But over the course of 20 years, Remnant became about much more than losing weight. As The Way Down illustrates over three increasingly ominous episodes, Shamblin exerted more and more power over members’ finances, marriages, custody arrangements, parenting, social media postures and eventually, contact with the outside world at all. Testimonies from ex-members and those threatened with the loss of family members to the insular group, which believes it is the only path to heaven, demonstrate how Remnant was actually “about power and controlling people’s lives, controlling their weight, controlling their marriages, controlling their finances”, said Zenovich.
“People talk a lot about her makeup and her hair, and of course there’s a funny aspect to it, but that is a mask, that is a facade in itself,” Cappello told the Guardian. “It is a perfect representation of her doctrine and the way that she approaches the world, and the way that she has her members portray an image of perfection and happiness and joy to the outside world when they’re suffering internally.”
In 1999, Shamblin broke with the Church of Christ, the conservative branch of evangelicalism in which she grew up (and which forbade female leaders) and launched Remnant Fellowship, based around her diet teachings, which saw weight loss as a pure reflection of spiritual commitment and intent, gain as failure and sin.
Cappello described a months-long process of getting to know ex-members and those affected by the church and its toxic teachings. Some, she said, suspected she might be a Remnant member undercover, or a private eye hired to collect dirt on people for custody cases. “That fear is real,” said Cappello, especially given the church’s litigiousness (numerous former members in the series recall threats from Remnant that the church would take away their children if they left the group). “That’s not paranoia – that’s totally justified.”
Subjects include Natasha Pavlovich, an ex-girlfriend of Lara’s fighting against Remnant’s robust legal team for custody of her 10-year-old daughter. Glen and Cary Wingerd, whose teenage daughter Delaney joined Remnant after being recruited by a high school boyfriend, describe a trail of shady deception: burner phones, dropped conversations, increasing isolation from their child.
The first-person testimonies by ex-members soften what can seem, at first glance, an unfathomable leap. “It becomes very easy for the viewer to distance themselves by saying, ‘I would never do that, I would never fall for that, I would never join a church like that,’” said Cappello. But the Weigh Down Workshops promised something many women were desperately craving: a framework for weight loss that felt meaningful, infused with the righteousness and familiarity of religion; a community and common purpose beyond the home. A message of control delivered by another woman, thin and perpetually bubbly; an extreme and euphoric manifestation of the diet mantra “nothing tastes as good as skinny feels”. Remnant Fellowship offered support, the security of rules and black-and-white thinking – plus free babysitters and in-house homeschool, legal services.
Ultimately, it was the same seduction of society writ large: worth anointed through the pursuit of thinness and deference to men, although delivered by a woman harnessing such desire for her own power. “The shame that you have just being a woman in this day and age, compounded with the religious aspect, is really incredibly powerful,” said Cappello.
Beyond numerous accounts of disordered eating and mental health struggles by former members, the third episode details a horrific case of child abuse that initially brought the church under scrutiny. In 2003, two Atlanta-based members of Remnant Fellowship, Joseph and Sonya Smith, were sentenced to life in prison plus 30 years for beating their eight-year-old son, Josef, to death as punishment. Investigators found the boy was repeatedly abused; a former babysitter featured in the series alleges that she was ordered to beat the boy at church and heard, along with several others, the abuse within the building. Other former members recall Shamblin instructing on how to beat their children with glue sticks and other instruments, as obedience was of the utmost importance to God and, by extension, Remnant leadership. Channel 5 in Nashville obtained a recording in which Shamblin praised Sonya Smith for locking up Josef with nothing by a Bible for three days.
Shamblin denied ever condoning abuse; local authorities investigated whether Shamblin and Remnant’s teaching contributed to Josef’s death, and reached no conclusion. The church defended the Smiths as wrongly accused and continued to support them. “The way the church has spun it is not reflected in reality, it’s not based on facts,” said Cappello.
The word “cult” is fraught, contested, and has driven fascination with series such as LuLaRich, the Amazon series on the multi-level marketing company LuLaRoe, peddled as a sort of prosperity gospel by two members of the Church of Latter-Day Saints (formerly known as Mormons); or HBO’s The Vow, about the Nxivm cult that also wielded a sincere impulse for self-improvement to dark, destructive ends. The Way Down’s subtitle is “God, Greed, and the cult of Gwen Shamblin” because “after working on this for a year-plus, it’s very clear to me that this is a cult”, said Zenovich.
“It’s not up to me to make that determination,” said Cappello of the term cult. “I look at the criteria that’s used to determine what is a cult. And if you look at that criteria” – isolation from the outside world, cutting off contact with family members, belief in their singular path to heaven, characterizing ex-members as heretics, the control and abuse – “Gwen and Remnant Fellowship fit every one”.
The Way Down makes the case for the group’s extremity, yet the show goes on: a day after the plane’s crash, Elizabeth Shamblin Hannah, whose husband was onboard, promised to uphold Remnant’s mission and “continue the dream that Gwen Shamblin Lara had of helping people find a relationship with God”. The final moments of the series find her, clad in a long black dress, on her mother’s stage. Wraith-like, hands in the air, she leads her followers “into the Promised land, together” – or, at least, further scrutiny in later episodes.