Stolen Youth: Inside the Cult at Sarah Lawrence Is a Harrowing Watch
Hulu's Stolen Youth: Inside the Cult at Sarah Lawrence is a breathtaking exploration of cultish influence and abuse.
This article contains spoilers for Stolen Youth: Inside the Cult at Sarah Lawrence.
When news first broke in 2020 that a man named Larry Ray had been arrested for operating a sex cult at Sarah Lawrence College, the casual news observer could be forgiven for finding the ensuing headlines slightly humorous at first.
The existence of a hippie sex cult would be in keeping with some prevailing stereotypes attached to the prestigious college in Yonkers, New York. Originally a women’s institution of higher learning, Sarah Lawrence became coeducational in 1968 and has since developed a reputation for its wealthy, creative, socially liberal, and generally “out there” student body.
Of all the colleges in the United States, of course the libertines at Sarah Lawrence would be the ones to “yes and” themselves into a sex cult. But as more bits of information began to trickle out it began to become clear that there was a vast gap between what “Sarah Lawrence sex cult” meant in the popular imagination and what it meant in it grim reality. As evidenced by the excellent journalistic work in sources like The Cut (which is responsible for the brilliant article that inspired Netflix’s The Watcher), the real story of cerebral con artist Larry Ray and the young people he victimized is truly dark and traumatic stuff.
That story now gets the full true crime documentary treatment in Hulu’s three-episode series Stolen Youth: Inside the Cult at Sarah Lawrence. Directed by Zachary Heinzerling (McCartney 3,2,1) Stolen Youth is the best true crime docuseries that the streaming world has produced in a long time. More than mere documentary, it’s an insightful sociological exploration of how the human brain can be manipulated into a false reality. It has as much in common with HBO’s conspiracy docuseries Q: Into the Storm as it does with its true crime peers.
Like NXIVM docuseries The Vow before it, Stolen Youth is blessed with an abundance of upsetting, yet enlightening footage (why are cult leaders always filming shit?) into a group of people’s descent into cult-like thinking under influence of a charismatic leader. Unlike The Vow, however, Stolen Youth knows exactly what to do with it – cutting it all down into roughly three hours of only the essential bits. Those essential bits include the arrival of several young people to college, the imposition of their friend’s weird father into their life, and his subsequent hijacking of their young minds.
Stolen Youth tells the story of how cultish indoctrination begins and ends far better than we can articulate here (so please just watch it) but the long and short of it is that one day a group of friends living at Slonim Woods 9 on Sarah Lawrence’s campus get some unusual news from their friend Talia Ray. She says that her father is getting out of prison (for crimes he didn’t commit naturally) and he’ll need a place to crash. Since college life tends to be a perpetual state of surreality anyway, none of her roommates object to a 50-year-old man crashing on their couch for awhile.
Larry arrives at Slonim Woods 9 with a hulking physical frame, a sharp Brooklyn accent, and many wild stories about his decorated career as a government agent. It doesn’t take long before Larry establishes himself as an imposing presence in the house: cooking dinners, leading philosophical seminars, and eventually establishing a grueling routine of chores and physical self-improvement. With his charges impressionable brains well in hand, Larry then gets to work isolating them from their family and friends by implanting false memories of neglect and abuse, all the while preying on typical youthful insecurities.
Stolen Youth‘s best skill is its careful ability to present the perverted logic in Ray’s escalating tactics. Like the old adage of a frog in a boiling pot, the Sarah Lawrence College students acclimate to the weirdness around them gradually. It starts with the reasonable (welcoming a roommate’s 50-year-old father to live at your home) to the less reasonable but still understandable (he makes your meals) to the less reasonable but still understandable (he expresses an interest in your mental health) to the less reasonable but still understandable (he institutes a chore schedule). And then before you know it, you’re fully under this man’s thrall and part of his years-long war against former New York City Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik.
That’s the other interesting thing about Stolen Youth: how it approaches the monster at its center. Like other docuseries of its ilk, Stolen Youth wisely decides to save its most attention and empathy for the victims at play, while not wasting too much time trying to psychoanalyze the man who hurt them. And to be clear, there is a lot to unpack when it comes to Larry Ray. A narcissistic nesting doll of paranoid delusions, Ray has all manner of strange idiosyncrasies, fears, and grudges (like his aforementioned beef with Kerik). It’s never quite clear just how much effort Ray puts into manipulating and corrupting his charges or if their indoctrinations are merely the byproduct of his twisted psyche. By presenting Larry simply as he is alongside his victim’s recollections of him, Stolen Youth soon resembles an intensely scientific study about the effects of charismatic coercion on the human brain. It’s like seeing Milgram’s Stanford Prison Experiment for the first time (except it’s presumably not bullshit this time).
More than being a mere case study, however, Stolen Youth truly captures the human devastation left behind by cult indoctrination. The series third and final episode, “Larryland,” presents the full stories of the two women who Ray had the tightest hold on: Felicia Rosario and Isabella Pollok. Of the two, only Felicia had found her way out of Ray’s influence during the time of filming (Isabella remains a Larry supporter and in Sept. 2022 pled guilty to money laundering as part of Ray’s larger case). As such, the documentarians get a privileged look into her programming and deprogramming.
Felicia was brought into “Larryland” by her brother Santos, who was living with Larry in a 93rd Street Manhattan apartment. When Felicia, a Harvard graduate with a medical degree from Columbia, embarked to Los Angeles to begin her residency at a hospital, Ray called her every day to keep her up in the late hours of the night with discussions about philosophy and her own personal history. Ultimately, Felicia came to be brainwashed by the cult leader remotely and began to believe her family had poisoned her and were sending agents of the state to finish off the job. She returned to the East Coast to live with Ray and his remaining acolytes.
To its credit, Stolen Youth begins every episode with the content warning: “The following program contains themes of suicidal ideation, abuse, sexual violence, coercive control, and drug use.” Still, you wish they somehow found a way to articulate that it also concluded “the complete degradation of the human psyche into a primitive, animalistic sate” as well because that’s what Felicia experiences upon returning to New York.
The footage presents from this time in the Ray saga is almost unbearably disturbing. Severely underweight and traumatized from the stress she’s endured (and the loss of her medical degree), Felicia takes to having child-like screaming fits. As Ray violently restrains her, she screams alternatively “I love you, Larry!” and “Larry, get off of me!” Later on, Felicia finds herself unable to even be away from Ray, wandering into his personal space and muttering “I don’t want to back up, I want to be next to you. Because it makes me feel better, Larry.”
As a healthier Felicia tells the documentarians after she’s escaped “He took away my career, my friends, my family. He took every piece of me away. All that was left of me was him.” It’s one thing to confront the tremendously upsetting implications of the words “All that was left of me was him” and really turn them over in your mind. It’s another thing entirely to see them play out so exactly in practice. The footage depicts a thoroughly broken human being who really is nothing but a zombie for Larry Ray. Ray’s ability to take out the reality he didn’t need from a person’s brain and replace with the reality he preferred is profoundly chilling.
Even later on as Felicia recovers, bits of her “Larryland” conditioning remain present.
“Do you remember meeting Bernard Kerik?” an off-camera voice asks Felicia, who, to be clear: obviously has never met disgraced New York City Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik.
“When I was little, yeah,” she responds.
“Is there any way that’s not true?”
“That’s unlikely … you see where I am now. What’s real?”
Thankfully the last episode of Stolen Youth eventually documents Felicia’s full recovery and her reunion with her parents and two siblings. It also reveals that on Jan. 20, 2023, Ray was found guilty on all 15 counts facing him and has been sentenced to 60 years in federal prison without the possibility of parole.
Stolen Youth doesn’t delve into the upsetting details of Felicia’s experience for exploitative entertainment purposes. It does so so that viewers can better understand its subjects’ plight. In that way it universalizes what at first seems to be an intensely provincial story about impressionable kids in an open, permitting collegiate environment. Most true crime documentaries make their viewers confront and accept the fact that a stranger can take their life. Stolen Youth has the much harder task of making us understand a stranger can take our mind. And it does exactly that.
All three episodes of Stolen Youth: Inside the Cult at Sarah Lawrence are available to stream on Hulu now.