Stolen Youth: Inside the Cult at Sarah Lawrence TV Review
Stolen Youth: Inside the Cult at Sarah Lawrence TV Review Metabox
In January of 2023, Larry Ray, the focus of Stolen Youth: Inside the Cult of Sarah Lawrence (2023) was sentenced to 60 years in prison for masterminding the cult that thrived at Sarah Lawrence College for over a decade and ruined the lives of eight students. But don’t let that definitive punishment keep you from watching this in-depth look at manipulation and brainwashing. It’s important viewing for anyone unaware of how simple it is to fall prey to a cult in the 21st Century.
The three-part docuseries takes a look at how a convict wormed his way into the campus lives of her friends. In 2010, Larry Ray, father of student Talia Ray, is released from prison, and due to her glowing recommendation moves into student housing. At its peak, the on-campus house was occupied by ten students, each turning to Larry who’d become a father figure to them and receiving wisdom they didn’t know they needed. Over time, through subtle sexual and physical mistreatment, they became dependent upon Larry for everything from relationship advice to leaving their families.
Told through extensive audio and video recordings inexplicably made by Larry himself, as well as firsthand accounts of the six of the eight survivors, Stolen Youth is well-crafted as a cautionary tale to remind everyone that smarts and intelligence can’t keep everyone safe.
“Episode 1 – The Arbiter of Truth” brings the eight friends, now sophomores, together welcoming ex-con Larry Ray. It isn’t long before Larry is keeping house and telling entertaining stories of his time before and during prison. His storied (and often made up) life is sprinkled with nuggets of life hacks and enlightenment. He develops relationships that edge from fatherly to inappropriate to abusive.
“Episode 2 – Truth Wins” Inseparable now, the students move with Larry to New York taking part in money schemes and relationship knots that become untenable. Without money or what they believe to be support from friends and family back home, Larry becomes their entire existence, as his acts of “love” and “forgiveness” become more violent.
“Episode 3 – Larryland”: When New York is no longer safe, the cult moves to New Jersey, where the deep psychological damage is begun. Mock trials designed to break minds and hard manual labor to busy the body, the young adults make desperate decisions to stay with the monster they know or leave to deal with a now-alien society. Larry’s life eventually catches up with him as he falls into old habits, and his broken cult is left to make sense of their shattered lives.
You may ask yourself how smart kids could fall prey to a charismatic sociopath, and there are no easy answers. College is hard. It’s the first time away from home and largely unsupervised for a lot of independent thinkers. Between classes and social groupings, it can be a lonely place rife with unmet expectations. Mix in a creative-minded crowd looking for acceptance wherever they can find it and left to ferment becomes a toxic hunting ground for charlatans and professional confidence men. The larger question is how a grown man was allowed to live in student housing for so long, an allegation that Sarah Lawrence denies.
Director Zach Heinzerling treats his subject matter and its survivors with care and respect, allowing them room to speak to their experiences without sensational glare. This is a difficult watch as the situation for all involved becomes more and more debilitating. Most heartbreaking of all is in the third episode, when two of Larry’s staunch defenders, still waiting for him to rise above the conspiracies, learn that he’s not coming to save them and the law has decided they are as culpable as he is.
Unlike many true crime documentaries, Stolen Youth doesn’t need bloody crime scene photos to illustrate horrific acts. Larry Ray could be compared to Jim Jones or Immanuel David, but that would be far too charitable. Stolen Youth deftly portrays Larry Ray as the low-rent conman he is, preying on vulnerable students for adoration and their parents’ money. These documentaries and docuseries are important reminders to safeguard emerging adults, no matter how clever, as they make those tentative steps into a harsher reality.
All three episodes of Stolen Youth: Inside the Cult of Sarah Lawrence (2023) are on Hulu beginning February 9, 2023. Content warnings include audio of psychological torture, video of false confessions where the confessor is clearly under the influence of something, images of deplorable living conditions, and desperate family members who just want their children home safe.