When the story broke in 2019 that a coercive sex cult had been uncovered on the campus of Sarah Lawrence College, you could practically hear the documentary cameras getting set up. There's a fascination with cults on TV — look no further than HBO's The Vow for proof — and, in particular, with how free-thinking, rational people can fall under the sway of a charismatic figure who convinces them to act in ways that both harm them and isolate them from their loved ones. The Sarah Lawrence cult had a grotesque but compelling character at its center in Larry Ray, who moved into his daughter Talia's campus housing and within a couple of years wreaked emotional, physical, and sexual damage on a small group of Talia's friends and classmates.
Certainly a documentary about the Sarah Lawrence cult could have become a portrait of Ray himself, the way that The Vow's first season centers Keith Ranerie and the countless Jeffrey Dahmer and Ted Bundy TV projects focus on those criminal monsters. But over the course of its three episodes, Hulu’s Stolen Youth: Inside the Cult at Sarah Lawrence presents Ray through the words and recollections of his victims and, in its final hour, lingers on the devastation that Ray's maniacal acts of brainwashing and abuse inflicted on one family in particular.
To be clear, Ray's story could easily fill up a TV show twice as long as Stolen Youth. He was a fabulist of the first order, telling half-truths and outright lies about his career in the Marines, working for the CIA, and the time he single-handedly averted a military action in Kosovo. Most pertinently, and with at least some basis in truth, was Ray's connection to Bernard Kerik, the disgraced former NYPD commissioner at whose wedding Ray was best man. The relationship soured after Ray was indicted as part of a securities-fraud scheme and Kerik wouldn't bail him out. A few years later, Ray was the prime whistle-blower behind the fraud charges that would bring Kerik down and send him to prison. There is meat on the bone of this gnarly, nasty saga that Stolen Youth only touches on, in order to focus on the more harrowing story of the college kids who were his victims.
It's after Ray gets out of prison (where he was serving time for a probation violation stemming from the nasty fallout of his divorce) that he intersects with the undergrads at Sarah Lawrence, a small but prestigious liberal arts school just north of New York City. Ray moved in with his daughter, Talia, and her housemates in 2010. His live-in status was benign at first, even helpful (He cooked! He cleaned!). You can see where the denizens of a northeast liberal arts enclave might find the living arrangement to be appealingly quasi-bohemian, guided by this ex-con, ex-Marine father figure with ideas about life. And oh, the ideas. Ray's modus operandi followed a pattern familiar to anyone who's watched a cult documentary before. He was boastful about his ability to heal wayward psyches, give young people purpose, and make these kids feel important and in control in a world where they felt neither. He had a jargon-y philosophy for improvement — Quest for Potential — and an iron-clad ethos that stressed “absolute truth,” which he applied in the most self-serving way possible.
Ray did not participate in the documentary, nor did Talia; one of his victims, a girl named Claudia, also opted out. However, many people sat down for the cameras, including one-time cult members Santos Rosario, Daniel Barban Levin (who later wrote a book on the experience), and Isabella Pollok, along with classmates and friends who witnessed the beginnings of the abuse. With this group, producers Liz Garbus, Jon Bardin, and Dan Cogan (Harry & Meghan) and director Zach Heinzerling paint a clearer portrait of the damage that occurred.
The docuseries benefits from quite a bit of first-person video footage from within the cult. It's almost unfathomable that such footage exists considering how incriminating it is. What began as pseudo-therapeutic coaching progressed to verbal and eventually physical abuse, much of it right there on cell phone video. The filmmakers ease us into things, letting the footage get increasingly sinister. At the start, we see Ray gaslight Santos and Claudia into accepting responsibility for thousands of dollars of damage to his personal belongings, and we watch the kids work themselves into a panicked frenzy trying to admit everything Ray's convinced them they've done. At first, this feels almost indistinguishable from an excessively committed acting exercise. One gets the sense that the college environment was a darkly perfect breeding ground for Ray's methods of control, with the students' eagerness to accept new experiences and the heightened sense of drama that college-aged people can possess.
Ray used the claims of property damage to extort hundreds of thousands of dollars from the students' families, who were helpless to pry their kids from his influence. At the root of most of this psychological terror was the paranoid insistence that Ray was being hunted down and targeted by Kerik and his powerful friends in law enforcement and the mob. As Ray's hold over the cult members tightened, he brainwashed them into believing that their own parents were part of a wide-reaching, decades-long conspiracy by Kerik and his cronies to destroy him. Eventually, he even convinced several of the students that they themselves had attempted to poison him and Talia with mercury as unwitting parts of the conspiracy. The psychological terror turned to threats of violence. In one the the series's most horrifying scenes, we see video of Ray threatening to bash Dan with a hammer and pulling on his tongue with a pair of vise pliers.
In the third and most powerful episode, we see certain members of the cult escape its clutches, but not all. Ray's methods of sexual coercion had him cohabitating with two students -– Isabella Pollok and Felicia Rosario, Santos’ sister — both of whom he'd managed to separate from their families and support networks. Early on, Ray had Isabella phone her mother back home in Texas and tell her she'd been abused as a child and that Isabella no longer felt safe at home. This was a common tactic of his, implanting notions of past abuse and neglect in order to separate the kids from their families. It was so effective that both Felicia and Isabella stayed loyal to Ray far longer than the others, and the third episode follows Felicia’s deprogramming almost in real time.
Ray's primary impulses were surely narcissism, sadism, paranoia, and control, but the almost casual way he heaped carnage upon the Rosario family in particular is what will have viewers' blood boiling. Santos and Felicia’s sister Yalitza was also drawn into the cult, and we see all three of them struggle to emerge from its influence. Felicia finds the pieces of her family particularly hard to put back together again. The filmmakers at times strain to stage a resolution with the three siblings and their mother, but after watching three hours of what they went through, the audience wants that so much that we're willing to bear that strain.
There's some catharsis in the real-life postscript: On January 20, Ray was sentenced to 60 years in prison for his crimes. But ultimately, Stolen Youth arrives at a more complicated truth, that the kind of damage he inflicted on these young people won't be easily undone.
Stolen Youth: Inside the Cult at Sarah Lawrence premieres on Thursday, February 9. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.
Joe Reid is the senior writer at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.
TOPICS: Stolen Youth: Inside the Cult at Sarah Lawrence, Hulu, Liz Garbus, Zach Heinzerling