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The Psychology Behind Bad Vegan: What’s Going on With Sarma Melngailis?

photo of Sarma

Verywell / Ellen Lindner / Courtesy of Netflix

Mind in the Media is an ongoing series discussing mental health and psychological topics in popular movies and television.

Spoiler alert! This article contains major spoilers for the docuseries Bad Vegan, available on Netflix.

It's often said that truth is stranger than fiction, and that's certainly true of Netflix's docuseries Bad Vegan: Fame, Fraud, Fugitives. The show details the perplexing case of Sarma Melngailis, the former owner of a celebrity-endorsed raw vegan restaurant in New York City, who illegally took money out of her business to give to her then-husband, conman Anthony Strangis.

On the surface, the facts are cut and dry: Melngailis transferred over $1.6 million to Strangis, failed to pay her restaurant's workers, went on the run with Strangis, and eventually pled guilty to a series of financial crimes and spent four months in jail.

However, the details of the case are far from straightforward and include an elaborate manipulation by Strangis, a gambling addict who had a history of conning people out of money. Strangis not only hinted he was a secret operative for the American government, but he also created an increasingly bizarre narrative in which he, Melngailis, and her beloved dog, Leon, could achieve immortality and get everything they'd ever need to be happy if Melngailis passed the tests of a supernatural cabal – by doing everything Strangis said.

Bad Vegan, in which Melngailis is largely responsible for telling her own story, lets viewers come to their own conclusions about just how much she was complicit in the crimes she claims Strangis manipulated her into committing.

This brings up a series of questions about the psychology behind what we see onscreen, including how someone is groomed for this kind of manipulation, whether adults who are coerced into criminal activities are innocent victims or somehow culpable, what you can do to keep yourself safe from conmen, and how to heal if you've been the victim of this kind of manipulation.

Strangis and the Grooming Process

The first episode of Bad Vegan introduces Melngailis as an educated, accomplished woman. She majored in business at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, worked at Bear Stearns, graduated from the French Culinary Institute, and then opened vegan restaurant Pure Food and Wine with her then-boyfriend, chef Matthew Kenney.

Yet, while she was initially successful and happy when her relationship with Kenney went south, the restaurant's investor lent her well over $1 million to buy the business and expel Kenney.

These events seem to have left Melngailis feeling vulnerable and alone, something Rosalia Rivera, Consent Educator and Child Sexual Abuse Prevention Specialist at CONSENTParenting,  says made her susceptible to Strangis' manipulations.

In fact, Rivera points out that the pattern of Strangis' behavior perfectly fits that of grooming. While grooming is something we often associate with child sex offenders, it can happen to adults too, although the person who is doing the grooming may be after something other than sex, such as money, as seen in Melngailis' case. According to Rivera, there are steps a manipulator takes when psychologically grooming a victim.

Forming the relationship

People are often most in danger of being coerced or manipulated when they're in a psychologically vulnerable state, which was certainly the case with Melngailis, who was heartbroken over the demise of her romance with Kenney and seemed to feel overwhelmed by the responsibility of running her restaurant on her own for the first time.

Con-artists like Strangis are likely to pick up on that kind of vulnerability and recognize that it will make someone open to manipulation, which leads them to slowly start to form a relationship with the potential victim.

In Bad Vegan, Melngailis met Strangis through the actor Alec Baldwin who was a regular customer at her restaurant. It was a personal connection that made Melngailis believe she could safely lower her guard with Strangis. A personal connection through mutual acquaintances is often exploited by predators because it makes their target more psychologically comfortable with getting close to them.

Solidifying the relationship

After the conman forms a relationship with their target, the next step in the grooming process is solidifying the connection with the potential victim by giving them the things they crave, such as gifts and attention.

In Bad Vegan this can be seen in the early days of Melngailis and Strangis' relationship. While it's not clear how many gifts Strangis actually gave Melngailis, he impressed her by acting like he was important and wealthy.

He took her to Tiffany's to go ring shopping and they went house hunting for high-priced homes that he claimed he would buy for the two of them. Meanwhile, he lavished attention on her, filling a void in her life that had been there since she broke up with her previous boyfriend.

All this gave her the impression that he could take care of her, at least financially, and Melngailis' belief that he could help her with her restaurant's debts seems to be what led them to hastily get married.

Isolation

Once a con artist has solidified their relationship with their target they introduce the other major facet of grooming, which is isolation. This involves cutting the target off from the people they love and care about by forcing them to keep a secret that others wouldn't understand.

Bad Vegan suggests that Strangis did this by introducing a fantastical narrative in which Melngailis was being tested to enter a higher plane of existence where the couple would enjoy a fairytale-like happily ever after and Melngailis' dog would live forever.

Because she seemed to take the scenario Strangis concocted seriously, Melngailis understood that it wasn't something she could share with others, which created a secret that isolated her from her social circle.

Coercion and Entrapment

The final step in grooming is for the predator to use their bond with the victim to convince them to do things that are against their morals and values. Once the victim commits their first questionable act, they can be coerced to do even more extreme things. Moreover, if they ever question what they're asked to do, the manipulator will use their emotional connection with the victim to make them feel ashamed or guilty.

In Bad Vegan, Strangis used the fantastical test Melngailis was supposedly being subjected to as a way to convince her that she had to lend him money in increasingly extreme amounts. And when she expressed doubts, he would shame her for not following through and having faith in him or claim he would be in danger of bodily harm if she didn't do what he said.

The pattern of grooming is also seen in people who become involved in cults. And just like a cult, once a victim has started keeping secrets and engaging in behavior that may be outside the scope of normal, the con artist can keep them locked in the final entrapment stage indefinitely, as it seems Strangis did with Melngailis.

Are Victims of Coercion Blameless?

While Bad Vegan makes it clear that Strangis was a serial conman with a pattern of coercing people into giving him money, what's less clear—and what makes the series so fascinating—is whether Melngailis was an innocent victim or bears part of the blame for the couple's illegal activities. In fact, this is a question relevant to any adult who does morally dubious things at the behest of someone else.

Dr. Deena Manion, Clinical Officer at Westwind Recovery, notes that in many cases a conman will come into someone's life when they are especially psychologically vulnerable, and despite red flags and the warning of others, the victim will continue to believe the conman's lies because they want to believe the person they've chosen to put their trust in is deserving. Moreover, because the victim wants to believe the conman is a good person, they often rationalize what the conman tells them even if it seems to make little sense to anyone else, including those that are closest to the victim.

Manion observes that there are cases where someone has fallen so madly in love with a conman that they essentially aren't in their right mind and therefore are not entirely responsible for their actions. However, Rivera observes that once an adult does something illegal, even if it's because they've been manipulated into it by a conman, they bear at least some responsibility.

Is Melngailis Culpable?

Manion and Rivera disagree about how deeply Strangis' manipulation of Melngailis goes. While both acknowledge that it's impossible to know for sure because neither have spoken to her directly, Bad Vegan doesn't present Strangis' side of the story, and the narrative has been edited and packaged for viewers' entertainment, both assert that Melngailis' willingness to casually speak with Strangis over the phone following what happened is odd at best.

Most victims of this kind of manipulation would either be more upset and angry if they spoke to their manipulator again or wouldn't want to speak with him at all.

For Manion, Melngailis's willingness to speak with Strangis is a red flag that suggests she was more complicit in their crimes than she admits in the series. Moreover, the show indicates that Melngailis wasn't really in love with Strangis and eventually even became repulsed by him. To Manion this suggests that even though Strangis initially had power over Melngailis, she ultimately became a willing participant in his scam instead of a victim of his manipulation.

On the other hand, Rivera believes Melngailis' confusing behavior is a result of Strangis' grooming. She says victims of manipulation often exhibit contradictory behavior that makes it difficult to discern if they were somehow complicit in a conman's schemes. But she explains that this is the result of a deeply ingrained loyalty created when the victim was being groomed that can be very difficult to overcome.

Both Rivera and Manion also question if Melngailis was repeating patterns from her past in her relationship with Strangis. Manion wonders if Melngailis was trying to replicate the dynamics of her romance with the former co-owner of her restaurant with Strangis in the hopes she would once again have a business partner. Meanwhile, Rivera wonders if Melngailis had been a victim of abuse before she met Strangis as she seems to exhibit a low sense of self-worth that is often seen with abuse victims, a trait that often opens an individual up to being abused again.

How to Avoid Becoming a Conman's Victim

While Bad Vegan's Melngailis remains a question mark, there is no doubt that con artists like Strangis exist and you might even encounter one of them at some point. To ensure you don't become a victim, Rivera says it's important for people to understand the signs of grooming. In particular, if you're being isolated from your friends and loved ones by someone, you should get away from them as fast as possible. Keep in mind, that in a healthy relationship, your friend or partner will want you to have other fulfilling relationships.

Rivera also observes that if you have a gut feeling that something isn't right in a new relationship you should trust that feeling. If you've been a victim of abuse in the past, you may be less capable of noticing your gut is telling you that something's off, so it's important to educate yourself on red flags in order to notice if you're being groomed to be coerced or abused.

How to Heal If You've Been Psychologically Manipulated

While a victim is unlikely to completely understand what's happening while they're being conned, once they recognize what's happened, it's extremely traumatic. As a result, pushing it aside and trying not to think about it, as Melngailis claims she's done in Bad Vegan, won't lead to healing. In order to learn how to trust people again and heal from the trauma of what happened, the best option is to work with a therapist or mental health professional. Rivera mentions that in cases where victims were especially isolated, group therapy can be useful because it can help victims feel safe in a group setting again. The process of healing is ongoing, but with help, victims can learn to thrive following the experience of being conned.

By Cynthia Vinney
Cynthia Vinney, PhD is an expert in media psychology and a published scholar whose work has been published in peer-reviewed psychology journals.