“Stolen Youth: Inside the Cult at Sarah Lawrence” – Hard to retrieve [TELEVISION REVIEW]
Under the category of “truth is stranger than fiction,” “Stolen Youth,” the story of the cult of ex-con Larry Ray, defies even that category.
A group of eight Sarah Lawrence students bonded their freshman year in 2009. They had all worked very hard to get into this prestigious New York college. Several were on full scholarships but all had something to prove; that they deserved to be there. After a successful first year, this group found a unique living arrangement for their sophomore year in a house/dorm on campus and were excited by the seemingly endless possibilities to grow closer during late night conversations.
Soon after the start of the new school year in 2010, one of the group, Talia, revealed the tale of her father’s unfair and unfortunate life leading to poverty, prison and divorce. They had been well to do until a biased FBI investigation had unraveled their family life, taking away everything they had. The investigation stated that anything her father had obtained was the result of fraud. But, she said, it was actually because he exposed governmental corruption. He had been betrayed by one of his best friends, former New York City police commissioner Bernard Kerik. Her father had been unjustly sent to prison and would soon be getting out without a place to stay. What Tallia failed to mention was that he had also served time for child custody issues. She asked her roommates if he could temporarily stay with them in their house. And so the spider attached himself to his victims and began to spin his web.
Larry Ray, a bald, paunchy middle aged man with an authoritative manner of speaking, began immediately to assess this group of kids, still not out of their teens. Not handsome by any stretch of the imagination, he exuded confidence and what seemed to be empathy. He extolled their quest for success and quoting often from his bible, “Quest for Potential,” said he could help them realize their potential and find clarity. Larry regaled them with stories of his fantastic adventures with the CIA, the military, and local government. Not unlike New York Representative George Santos, these were fabricated tales of fantasy.
Soon late night sessions with Larry led to their admissions of insecurity, desires for success, and hopes for the future. Larry may not have had a college degree but he did have a PhD in sociopathy. In no time at all, he had them in the palm of his hand, isolating them from anyone not in their group, and making them believe in things that their own eyes should have told them weren’t true. These, of course, are the techniques of false prophets and cult gurus throughout the ages. Larry was a master.
Soon he was leading them, individually, down the path of false memory, convincing one girl of the abuse she had suffered at the hands of her mother, convincing another girl that she was schizophrenic, another that she was guilty of poisoning the group with mercury, and one of the boys that his parents were colluding with Kerik to harm him. He began to guide the group’s sexual activities and experiences, convincing one young man that his girl friend was the source of all the toxicity in his life. She, not a member of the group, was leery of Larry and his influence over several of her friends. Her voice was lost in the wilderness.
Larry’s motives are perplexing. He was not holding them physically captive but eventually his psychological control of them was complete. Isabella, a friend of Talia, became his erstwhile wife. Family ties were ruptured. It was impossible for them to distinguish truth from lies. Whatever Larry said was the truth; everything else was lies. Santos Rosario, on a full scholarship, succumbed quickly, believing that his parents were evil and wanted to poison him. The most malleable, Santos was brainwashed into believing he was damaging Larry’s personal possessions for which there was a high price to pay. This price was extracted from Santos’ parents, still desperate to have a relationship with their son. He forced one adherent into prostitution, a major source of his income, by convincing her that she needed to pay him back for poisoning him.
Eventually they left the group home and found their way to an apartment in Manhattan. One or two followers left, including his daughter Talia, as others, the siblings of Santos, arrived. One sister, Yalitza, was an overachiever at Columbia, and his other sister Felicia, a Harvard graduate, was finishing her residency in Psychiatry at UCLA. Sparks flew when Felicia met Larry and a long distance romance ensued. But Larry soon convinced Felicia that her coworkers and the supervisors in her residency program were conspiring against her. She abandoned her work and flew cross country to Larry who became her lover, much to the chagrin of Isabella. Larry was soon coercing Felicia into turning tricks.
The question that runs throughout this engrossing three episode docu-series is what was he trying to gain? How could he benefit by controlling these young people with no visible means? None came from money; none had influence in the outside world. Bringing them under his control was child’s play. What more was there to attain? Sexually he played his two “wives” against each other. The others would work to support him in a lifestyle that grew and grew while theirs continued to shrink. Part of his technique to gain total psychological and physical control was to starve them, maintaining a lock on the refrigerator and keeping them on the brink of physical breakdown.
The raw recounting of these details seems otherworldly. It’s impossible to believe that intelligent young people on the cusp of great things would become the slaves of a rough, rather unprepossessing older man who cajoled them into betraying family and engaging in criminal activity, a modern day Fagin. That Felicia, a Harvard educated M.D., could succumb is mind boggling. Even though she, like many of her fellow disciples, attempted suicide, she, along with Isabella, remained one of the last holdouts defending him.
A glaring light was eventually focused on Larry thanks to an article written in New York Magazine. The magazine article describes the kind of torture inflicted on this group of mentally captive young people that is even more graphic than that portrayed in the film. But it’s the little things that cause an unraveling of a well-spun yarn. The first glimmer of a story began with a tip in 2018 to a relatively recent graduate of Sarah Lawrence, Ezra Marcus, on staff at the magazine. A website circulating among alums, created by Larry Ray, alleged that Larry Ray had been poisoned for a number of years by various Sarah Lawrence students. In naming some of the students, Marcus had a starting point that dovetailed into the rumor that had circulated for years that Ray had been living in one of the dorms. He knew there was a story and had names to follow up. His cover story, written with James D. Walsh in 2019 was a blockbuster and led to further investigation by the FBI.
This excellent documentary directed by Zach Heinzerling benefits greatly from interviews with many of the victims, including one young man who had the presence of mind to leave early. As incredulous as the events may seem, the victims are sober and articulate in what happened to them. Not everyone was comfortable relaying the information but their presence is felt strongly. Remarkably, Larry Ray, a narcissistic sociopath, dug his own grave, never believing that he would be uncovered. He was convinced that none of this group would have the fortitude to testify against him. During most of his tenure as leader of these manipulated students, he recorded his activities, his conversations with them, his threats, his mind games. He was, in essence, his own undoing.
But my summary of this story cannot possibly unmask this villain. We most often think of a cult as associated with a religion, like Jim Jones’ Peoples Temple or Marshall Applewhite’s Heaven’s Gate. Less often is it thought to be a group obsessed with a particular person, and this was certainly the case with Larry Ray. Choosing vulnerable rather anonymous young adults who quickly fell under his sway kept him under the radar for almost ten years. He groomed, he manipulated, he thuggishly cowed but somewhere along the line he got caught. The fact that he did not live an extravagant lifestyle covered up the vast sums he was able to secure from these brainwashed students through extortion, money laundering and human trafficking. Gazing at his face, listening to his non-sonorous voice with more than a hint of Jersey, hearing his threats, you are still left with the uncomfortable thoughts of “why him?” “Why them?” Why, period, the end? You’ll just have to watch. This is not a joke with a punchline; it is a horror story.
Finally arrested in 2020, he was convicted last year of extortion, sex trafficking, racketeering conspiracy and other charges. Appearing in federal court on Friday, January 13, 2023, he was sentenced to 60 years in prison. Isabella Pollok, the last holdout for Larry, was convicted of helping to launder the money obtained from Claudia’s prostitution earnings. Her sentencing hearing will take place in February, ironically around the date of the limited series premiere.
Streaming February 9 on Hulu.