• Fri. Mar 3rd, 2023

A Rare Exploration of the Deprogramming Process in “Stolen Youth: Inside the Cult at Sarah Lawrence”

ByGurinderbir Singh

Mar 2, 2023

In the second hour of the three-part Hulu docuseries “Stolen Youth: Inside the Cult at Sarah Lawrence,” several students who had their lives and their potential wrung out by Larry Ray, a manipulative ex-convict, recall the moment that they decided to walk away. One victim, Dan Levin, who had been beaten and threatened with castration by Ray multiple times, left after a rare night alone led him to the roof of his building to contemplate suicide. Yalitza Rosario, who’d fallen into Ray’s orbit along with her two siblings Felicia and Santos, was eventually worn down by the intense guilt and shame she felt after Ray had browbeaten her into falsely believing that she had poisoned him. Another co-ed, Claudia Drury, did not participate in the docuseries, but, according to a friend, she finally snapped awake when she read the 2019 New York magazine story laying out Ray’s misdeeds. By that point, Drury had helped fund his life style by earning—and forking over—millions of dollars through sex work.

Given the hyper-topicality of the current TV-documentary landscape, Ray’s “cult”—a clickbaiting term that feels more illustrative of the group’s abuse dynamics than its organizational structure—was destined for the docuseries treatment. For about a decade, Ray tyrannized a half-dozen undergraduates whom he had recruited from his daughter Talia’s dorm. (He also lived in the dorm, for a brief period, after his release from prison, in 2010, for a custody violation.) Though he was eager to impart life advice to his daughter’s friends, he appeared to harbor little interest in establishing an official organization. Perhaps his thrall was all the more powerful for its intimate informality. After Talia’s sophomore year, Ray moved into a one-bedroom apartment in a Manhattan high-rise with five students from Sarah Lawrence, including Talia and her then boyfriend, Santos, and a sixth, who would later join from Columbia University. In those close quarters, he deployed an arsenal of extreme control tactics: isolation, financial extortion, food and sleep deprivation, sexual humiliation, physical and emotional abuse, and reality distortion.

The director of “Stolen Youth,” Zachary Heinzerling, lucked out early in the production process when Ray, in an effort to clear his name, handed over audio clips that seemingly implicated him further. (Heinzerling also obtained video and audio files from Felicia Rosario, as well as evidence presented in court.) The more violent footage from the apartment is difficult to watch: Ray pinching Levin’s tongue with a pair of heavy pliers and threatening to split it, for instance, or Santos’s attempts to quiet an anguished Felicia by slapping his own face whenever she made a noise. But “Stolen Youth,” which extends far beyond the events in the magazine feature that first exposed Ray, is a remarkable work, advancing the prestige true-crime genre’s slow but steady reorientation toward centering survivors.

The series’ most notable chapter is its third, a dual portrait of Ray’s two girlfriends, who initially remained loyal to him following his arrest in 2020. (In January, 2023, he was sentenced to sixty years, after being convicted of sex trafficking, forced labor, racketeering, and a dozen other charges.) The younger of the women, Isabella Pollok—Talia’s onetime best friend—is presented as a true believer. Pollok, who says that she felt like an outsider even in her own family growing up, struggles to make connections on campus until she meets Ray. After his arrest, she wavers little if at all. Charged on multiple counts as his accomplice, she proves so unhelpful to her own defense that her attorney quits her case. Ray’s other girlfriend, Felicia, responds to his sudden absence in diametric fashion, making for a staggeringly insightful and deeply poignant journey. A graduate of Columbia medical school and a psychiatry resident when first introduced to Ray, Felicia begins the episode giggling about her “honey bunny” and convinced that she has been poisoned by her parents and her siblings. Felicia’s hard-won deprogramming of herself offers a seldom-seen glimpse of such complicated healing.

From an outside perspective, the most perplexing aspect of Ray’s effects on his victims is his ability to distort their memories or implant new ones. It’s to Heinzerling’s credit that he—along with an admirably candid Felicia—helps us understand how Ray does so. Ray accuses the students of having committed transgressions against him, such as breaking his possessions in the group’s cramped New York apartment, and they trust him enough to conclude that they have forgotten their own actions. His hatred and paranoia become theirs. Ray nurses an obsession with Bernard Kerik, Rudy Giuliani’s scandal-plagued police commissioner and a former friend, on whom he blames one of his prior convictions; Felicia comes to fear that Kerik has conspired with her parents—impoverished immigrants from the Dominican Republic who were unlikely to have met a high-ranking city official—to kill her. Looking at a childhood photo of herself in a white dress that her parents had purchased for her on a Christmas trip to Venezuela, Felicia recalls how badly she wanted her dad, who wasn’t always around, to see her in the dress. Then the doubts start creeping in. “This is Larry brain,” she says, her words halting, the duelling narratives in her mind competing for dominance. Ray had told her that her father’s absence is the origin of her troubles with men. She’s forced to give up. “This whole drama about me showing my dad the dress may have happened or may not have happened,” she says. Similarly, she comes to question the lies Ray had pushed about her having been raped by her father’s associates—an incident that led her to leave her medical residency in Los Angeles and move to New York to be with Ray. Did the sexual assault happen? “I don’t know what’s true,” she says.

Most cult documentaries recruit members who have long left their respective groups. (One quasi-counterexample is the second season of the HBO docuseries “The Vow,” in which the NXIVM leader Keith Raniere’s deputy Nancy Salzman grapples almost diaristically on camera with how her association with Raniere warped her moral compass and imploded her family.) But Heinzerling films Felicia for at least a year, chronicling her efforts to rediscover her sense of self. She reflects on the reasons that she may have been more vulnerable to Ray’s manipulations, such as her status as the eldest child of a chaotic household—finally, she could be the person being taken care of for once. Felicia’s medical training helps make her an ideal documentary subject; she’s able to parse out her symptoms and skillfully articulates the confusion in her head, like how a false memory feels different from a real one. (“It wasn’t coming naturally,” she explains.) She’s methodical, too, in spelling out how one pieces together a reliable set of memories after years of indoctrination. She shows the camera a stack of files, each labelled with a year, in which she has written the facts of her past that she knows to be true.

These scenes are clinical yet personal, and the process of deprogramming is so rarely explored onscreen that I wouldn’t have minded if the docuseries’ raw directness had been occasionally interrupted by testimony from cult-psychology experts. But other details perhaps provide enough context, such as the clips of Ray shoving and pinning down Felicia or dragging Pollok out of the house by the hair, footage that illustrates how psychological coercion was enforced through physical violence. I also would’ve avidly watched another chapter exploring an idea only suggested here: how the shame that Ray instilled in his victims, in conjunction with their intricate legal situations, impeded the Rosario siblings’ recuperation and their reunion. Their experiences demonstrate the shocking malleability—and the equally surprising resilience—of the human brain. (During production, Pollok stopped returning Heinzerling’s calls after Ray’s trial began, but her lawyers argued in court that she had been “brainwashed.” In late February, 2023, she was sentenced to four years in prison, after pleading guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit money laundering.)

Heinzerling is content to leave Ray a cipher; it’s not clear whether the would-be guru actually believes, say, that Kerik is truly after him, or whether he possesses the self-awareness to realize the years that he’s taken from his victims. (The tragedy of the latter is conveyed through the time-lapse contrast between photos of the students on campus or in the shared apartment and the filmed interviews conducted with the victims, who are now in their thirties or beyond.) To journalists, Heinzerling has explained that he left on the cutting-room floor his interviews with Ray, who didn’t engage with the director’s questions but pushed his own narratives of persecution. I’d wager that we’re not missing much. Fiction has vastly overestimated the interestingness of villains. Ray’s modi operandi, though monstrous, are textbook; his desires, practically banal.

Still, I can’t help feeling a lingering discomfort about “Stolen Youth” and its rather harrowing depictions of Ray’s violence. The crowded true-crime space tends to be an imitative one—a quality that can work in victims’ favor, as with this docuseries, which builds on the empathy-building of its predecessors. Heinzerling’s access to his subjects is uncommon, but I do worry that less scrupulous directors and producers who obtain similar footage might use it for more lurid effects. Victims deserve more from true crime. ♦

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