Feb 17, 2023

'Stolen Youth' goes inside Larry Ray's cult-like control over Sarah Lawrence students

Brian Lowry
February 9, 2023

Larry Ray, the figure at the center of the Hulu docuseries "Stolen Youth: Inside the Cult at Sarah Lawrence."

(CNN) Joining a genre of docuseries best described as "The Weirder the better," "Stolen Youth: Inside the Cult at Sarah Lawrence" details how a group of college students allowed their lives to taken over by a friend's father, who coached, bullied and ultimately controlled them. Luckily for the producers, Larry Ray recorded many of those sessions, resulting in a three-part show that's at times uncomfortably raw, and thus (for those who can stomach it) extremely watchable.

The Hulu series has a good deal in common with "The Vow," HBO's deep (and sequel-ized) dive into the NXIVM cult, although the manipulation here unfolds on a smaller and more intimate scale, with eight college sophomores being led down a decade-long path into increasingly bizarre scenarios.

To hear those who endured the experience tell it, Ray presented himself as a man of the world with serious connections, providing them with advice and guidance that they perceived as helpful, without asking enough questions about why this self-described business titan would have moved in with them.

"He made it seem normal that he was there," Raven Juarez, who was immediately skeptical, recalls.

Yet Ray's background was more complicated than that -- including a conviction in a fraud scheme and subsequent bankruptcy -- and his influence became increasingly confrontational and abusive, orchestrating "therapy sessions" in which he berated, threatened and physically harmed them. In the process, he elicited false confessions to transgressions that they had committed against him and testimony about conspiracies against Ray by others.

An image from "Stolen Youth: Inside the Cult at Sarah Lawrence," about Larry Ray's control over a group of college students.

The clips and even audio from those exchanges prove disturbing, and even listening to their recollections it's difficult to understand why the students didn't either leave (which some did) or seek to oust him. Director Zach Heinzerling also interviews their parents, who were understandably confused about mistreatment Ray convinced these young adults that they had suffered and the requests for money they began fielding from their kids.

The manner in which Ray broke down the resistance of these college students brings to mind the controversial experiments that Stanley Milgram conducted in the 1960s and '70s, and the way participants were prodded to engage in shocking behavior as they were instructed to do so by authority figures.

Like "The Vow," "Stolen Youth" also involves how some of those who weathered their descent into Ray's world escaped from it, tempered by the fact that true believers remain.

Although both stories eventually wind up in the courts and witness the dispensation of a measure of justice, they provide a sobering reminder of how vulnerable people can be to someone professing to have all the answers. "Stolen Youth" is thought-provoking on that level, and as unpleasant as it often is to watch, unlike many true-crime docuseries, it shouldn't leave anyone feeling as if it's stolen their time.

"Stolen Youth: Inside the Cult at Sarah Lawrence" premieres February 9 on Hulu.

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