‘Stolen Youth’: Heartbreaking Hulu doc details how Sarah Lawrence students fell under the spell of a cruel manipulator

Video clips show bright young people surrendering themselves to Larry Ray’s brainwashing techniques and psychological and physical abuse.

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Geoffrey Berman, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, announces an indictment against Lawrence Ray in 2020 in New York City.

Stephanie Keith/Getty Images

When the news broke about the horrific crimes committed by the father of a Sarah Lawrence College student against a number of her roommates (among other victims), the headlines often invoked the term “sex cult,” and that wasn’t inaccurate. Indeed, Lawrence “Larry” Ray had used sex as an element, a tool of destruction, in his years-long campaign to manipulate and abuse innocent people.

Still, there’s something about “sex cult” that conjures up images of a flower-power commune from a bygone era where willing participants followed a philosophy of free love and open relationships. The term feels simplistic, reductive. Kudos, then, to Hulu and director Zach Heinzerling for titling their three-part documentary series “Stolen Youth: Inside the Cult at Sarah Lawrence,” and eschewing sensationalism not only in terms of the title, but more important from the work itself.

This is an admittedly tough watch, heartbreakingly so at time, because we are bearing witness to a cruel sociopath systematically and brutally tearing down his victims to the point where they don’t believe their own memories, where they’re convinced their families have turned against them, and they’ll do anything for the approval of the monster who has broken them in half. It’s also a journalistically sound effort, and thanks in large part to the victims who bravely agreed to extensive interviews, it could be of great help to others who find themselves or loved ones in similar situations.

‘Stolen Youth: Inside the Cult at Sarah Lawrence’

Untitled

A three-episode docuseries available Thursday on Hulu.

The first episode of “Stolen Youth” takes us back more than a dozen years to Sarah Lawrence College, where a group of self-described outcasts and nerds became fast friends at a school with the slogan, “You are different. So are we.” As one former student puts it, “Everyone’s expressing themselves, and dressing how they want, reciting Shakespeare, climbing trees … 18-year-olds starting their new way in the world, building their new identity.”

In the fall of 2010, for sophomore year, a core group of eight friends moved into an apartment at Slonim Woods Building 8. Soon thereafter, then 50-year-old Larry Ray, who had recently been released from prison after pleading guilty to securities fraud, crashed with his daughter Talia at the dorm apartment, started sleeping on the sofa and effectively moved in.

In short order, Ray started cooking meals for the students, regaling them with stories of his alleged heroics with the military and his connections with the likes of former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, holding counseling sessions, getting involved in their personal lives. “He was helping all of us,” says Santos Rosario, who lived in the apartment and was dating Talia at the time.

Some of the students came to realize there was something deeply disturbing and creepy and just flat-out wrong about Ray’s presence in the apartment, while others became trapped in his web of manipulation, deceit and abuse. The following summer, Ray moved into a small apartment in New York City that became an ad hoc headquarters for his operation, with Santos and a number of other students, including Isabella Pollok and Claudia Drury, spending most of their time bunking there.

We hear a chilling recording of a conversation between Drury and a former roommate who had expressed concern about her, in which Claudia says, “I’m fine, you should not be worried about me. … I just want to be crystal clear on one point. … Larry Ray is the only reason I’m alive.” There’s also a steady stream of video clips and audio recordings of Ray exerting his will and control over his victims, including Pollok, who became sexually and romantically involved with Ray, and Santos’ sisters, Yalitza (“We can’t leave, because then we’ll be lost,” she recalls) and Felicia, a graduate of Harvard and then Columbia Medical School who was doing her residency in psychiatry in Los Angeles, but gave up everything once she met Ray and immediately fell under his spell.

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Yalitza Rosario discusses being brainwashed by Larry Ray on “Stolen Youth.”

HULU

It’s often astonishing and heartbreaking to see and hear these bright, beautiful, wonderful young people surrendering themselves to Ray’s brainwashing techniques and psychological and physical abuse. (Many of the audio and video recordings were made by Ray.) He forces Claudia Drury into becoming a sex worker who pays him hundreds of thousands of dollars; he convinces Santos into believing Santos has caused hundreds of thousands in damage to Ray’s property. He breaks Felicia to core, to the point where she believes only Ray can protect her from people who are going to find her and do serious harm to her. His victims come to believe they’ve been subjected to mercury poisoning as part of a wide-ranging conspiracy. Some totally cut off contact with their parents.

This is all daunting and terrifying — but in the third episode, Ray’s crimes finally catch up with him. It’s devastating to see Isabella continuing to stand by Ray, steadfastly maintaining the charges against him are all complete nonsense, but Claudia Drury manages to break free of Ray’s grips and is reunited with her friends and family, and slowly but surely, Felicia finds her way back to independence. At one point she stops herself from recounting a pivotal moment from her childhood and says that her memories weren’t “coming naturally. I was hearing Larry’s narrative, like Larry telling the story. And he told it so many times, I learned it. … My time with Larry, I don’t have a chronology. … I remember random things. One of my goals now is figuring out for myself what actually happened, what’s actually true.”

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