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A New Documentary Grapples With the Sarah Lawrence Cult

Photo: Hulu/YouTube

In April, Larry Ray, 62, was convicted of sex trafficking, extortion, conspiracy, and other charges — crimes connected to his decade-long stint controlling and manipulating a small group of young people. The story — which first broke in an explosive New York Magazine article that triggered an investigation into Ray’s activities in April 2019 — is the subject of an upcoming three-part Hulu docuseries, Stolen Youth: Inside the Cult at Sarah Lawrence, from Academy Award–nominated director Zachary Heinzerling that will premiere on February 9. “I was in a freaking cult,” Santos Rosario, a survivor coming to grips with his experience, says in the trailer below. With unprecedented access to the Sarah Lawrence College students recruited by Ray, and the family members whose lives irrevocably changed, the documentary traces how exactly a roommate’s authoritative dad could go from sleeping on the dorm-room couch and lecturing about disciplining the mind to ensnaring and abusing multiple bright young adults, taking their lives off track.

“Daniel Levin, who was one of the survivors of Larry Ray and one of the main sources for the article, approached me about making a documentary,” Heinzerling said in an interview with Vulture. “He said, ‘I wanna make something that the survivors will be able to watch and see themselves in.’” Levin first approached Heinzerling at the end of 2019, and the two shared the goal of telling the story from the point of view of the survivors.

One of Ray’s tactics was to manipulate the truth and alter the memories of the students, isolating them from their families and making them believe they owed him astronomical sums of money or were being poisoned in an elaborate conspiracy too complicated to dive into here. Throughout the course of filming, Heinzerling saw the process of one survivor deciphering “which memories were Larry’s and which were her own and really build her identity back.” “You don’t often get to see someone heal from this kind of abuse [onscreen],” Heinzerling said. “It showed a level of strength and courage in someone to rid themselves of that shame and embarrassment that they might have felt in the aftermath of this and begin a process of healing.”

Combing through audiotapes and footage taken inside the cult alongside firsthand accounts, one of Heinzerling’s objectives was to show just how anyone could fall for an authoritarian leader who claimed to have a monopoly on the truth. “I went to a small liberal-arts college,” the director began. “I had a similar group of artistic-minded friends. And so I felt like, This could be me.

“You have a group of progressive-minded, quote, unquote ‘liberal’ students who are in an environment where they’re being told to find themselves,” he said. “And in comes this kind of heteronormative, masculine, conservative person who makes very clear black-and-white decisions about these students’ lives and eases all these anxieties. I think it’s interesting to see that also in the context of a small liberal-arts college, where you don’t really associate a Trump type of personality being attractive, but yet he was to these really bright young students.”

Heinzerling wants the doc to “show the real process enacted by Larry over the course of many years” and “allow people to see themselves in that experience.” “In this case, it’s a psychological prison,” he explained. “When you see videos of these students admitting to these bizarre crimes, it’s hard to know what to make of it. I think the goal is to understand how it happened and to sympathize with the survivors and understand their story in a deeper way — and hopefully learn something about yourself and society.”

A New Docuseries Grapples With the Sarah Lawrence Cult