He understood her—like no one else did.
That’s what former New York City restaurateur Sarma Melngailis said about the man Netflix watchers know as the “Bad Vegan.” The smart, beautiful business woman claimed her ex-husband conned her and controlled her—landing her in Rikers Island after pleading guilty to theft and fraud charges. Pure Food and Wine, her eatery popular with A-List celebs, went under after Melngailis and her ex siphoned off business money.
Why did she do it? Her sweet-talking partner Anthony Strangis (a.k.a. Shane Fox) promised her, and her beloved dog Leon, a chance to be immortal. Sounds crazy right?
The Netflix four-part series Bad Vegan: Fame. Fraud. Fugitives. is a hit with viewers. In this age of obsession over alleged con men like The Tinder Swindler—and women like Anna Delvey of Inventing Anna—many ask how in the world people fall for these scams? Armchair critics even poke fun at victims.
But, in the case of Melngailis, the tactics allegedly used by her “Bad Vegan” husband are no joke—and more states across the country are recognizing “coercive control” under domestic violence law. It’s a form of abuse that does not have to be physical—and often includes psychological, financial and sexual manipulation. I’ve lived through emotional abuse so know firsthand how the boiling water goes up insidiously, degree by degree. You don’t even realize it’s happening.
At the start of the series, we meet Sarma, the savvy restaurant owner with a genuine passion for raw food—and employees who respect and adore her. But after falling for Strangis, he convinces her to prove her loyalty through “cosmic tests” and wire him $1.7 million between 2012 and 2014. As she falls deeper into this man’s web, she withdraws from family and friends and does things they find out of character. Melngailis ultimately runs off with him, turning her back on workers who need their paychecks.
I felt like he understood that I was trying to grow this business and this brand that I believed in with all my heart. It was hard to push that away.Sarma Melngailis
“I think the question has to be regardless of Sarma’s character, was she being coercively controlled?” asked Dr. Christine Cocchiola, a coercive control advocate, educator and survivor. “Was there a person in her life manipulating her, attempting to gaslight her, perhaps attempting to get her to make decisions she wouldn’t normally make—and was that a result of the stripping of autonomy in the relationship? That’s coercive control.”
Five states—Connecticut, California, Colorado, Hawaii and Washington—now have coercive control laws on the books, following the United Kingdom’s lead. In my state of Connecticut under Jennifers’ Law, named for two women who lost their lives to domestic violence, such psychological abuse can be a factor when courts consider restraining orders, divorce proceedings or post-divorce matters.
But some of these manipulation tactics aren’t really that rare. They’re just a page straight from the narcissist playbook. Take “future faking.” Strangis honed in on the things most important to Sarma, like her dog, and promised a future where she would never lose Leon. Plus, he mirrored exactly what she wanted in a partner. “I felt like he understood that I was trying to grow this business and this brand that I believed in with all my heart,” she said. “So, it was hard to push that away.”
He found her Achilles heel—and that’s what let him get away with a hoax so crazy those without her vulnerability scoff at it.
If you think you’re immune to these tricksters—and can sit back laughing at those who fall for them—think again. Everyone is a potential target—not just the down and out, desperate and uneducated. “Sarma Melngailis may be brilliant, but this abuse does not discriminate,” said Cocchiola, who works with countless victims just like the ex-restaurateur. “It can happen to anyone.” As an empowerment and divorce coach, I help clients just like Sarma too.
Regardless of Sarma’s character, was she being coercively controlled? Was there a person in her life manipulating her, attempting to gaslight her, perhaps attempting to get her to make decisions she wouldn’t normally make—and was that a result of the stripping of autonomy in the relationship?Dr. Christine Cocchiola
As Russian-American writer Maria Konnikova explains in her best-selling book The Confidence Game: Why We Fall for It … Every Time, we seem to believe if it seems too good to be true, it is—unless it’s happening to us.
“Despite our deep certainty in our own immunity—or, rather, because of it—we all fall for it,” she wrote. “That’s the genius of the great confidence artists: they are, truly, artists—able to affect even the most discerning connoisseurs with their persuasive charm.”
Are You Being Manipulated?
So how do you make sure it doesn’t happen to you? Here are some red flags that you’re dealing with a manipulator: They are secretive, just like Strangis was—always hiding computer activity, are obsessed with flashing money and material things, gaslight you, isolate you from family, control your time and resources, move super-fast in relationships and always say you are “soulmates.”
Strangis claimed that higher powers had brought the couple together. “Anthony always said emphatically that he loved me and turned it almost into some mythical thing like he’s lived all these lifetimes and had been looking for me for lifetimes and I’m the one,” Melngailis said in the series. “I’m the most special one in the world. Are you who I think you are? I think you’re the one.”
Who doesn’t want to be special? Who doesn’t want to find “the one”? After all, women are gaslighted by all sorts of romantic movies and fairy tales to believe these things really do happen.
What’s the lesson in all this, whether it’s a lover, business partner or friend? Know your own kryptonite and set off a five-alarm bell every time someone tries to appeal to it. Also, narcissists operate by denying reality – so keep yourself grounded in the facts and speak up.
“We’re not taught how to trust ourselves, to say no or say my feelings are paramount,” Trevor Crow, a marriage and family therapist who helps women recognize manipulators and cultivate healthy relationships, told me. “A real partner is incredibly supportive and loving, never puts us down and is our best cheerleader. Great relationships are based on trust so we have to notice when a negative cycle kicks in.”
Finally, always trust your own intuition and intelligence. As I tell my clients, and myself: Follow your heart, but take your brain with you.
If you believe you are being coercively controlled, please call The National Domestic Violence Hotline for help. It’s open every day around the clock at 1-800-799-7233.