Mar 20, 2023

Did the so-called Sarah Lawrence 'sex cult' members have a choice?


A new Hulu documentary raises important questions about coercion — and culpability.

March 14, 2023

By Janja Lalich, professor emerita of sociology at the California State University, Chico

On Feb. 22, a federal judge in New York issued what is likely to be the final decision in the case of the so-called Sarah Lawrence cult. The sickening details of this case have garnered much attention over the past few years, spawning a viral long-form investigation in New York magazine and a subsequent documentary on Hulu that premiered last month. The reporting and eventual criminal proceedings were shocking and a little prurient (the Hulu doc referred to a “sex cult”). But they also raise important questions about coercion and culpability.

The reporting and the eventual criminal trials were shocking and a little prurient.

Earlier this year, Larry Ray, the man who manipulated, abused and controlled a group of young men and women for close to 10 years, was sentenced to 60 years in prison for crimes including extortion and sex trafficking. In February, a young woman named Isabella Pollok was accused of being Ray’s “lieutenant” by prosecutors who said she aided and abetted his physically and sexually abusive behavior toward her friends. (Pollock ultimately pleaded guilty to a money laundering conspiracy charge and was sentenced to 4 1/2 years in prison.)

According to both of her defense lawyers and reporters, Pollok was a vulnerable college freshman when she met Ray, and within a year was drawn into a sexual relationship with him, a man decades her senior. Despite expressing remorse, shame and regret, the judge declared that Pollok had choices. But did she?

In the past few years, an onslaught of documentaries — some better than others — and a slew of podcasts have come out about cults and cult leaders. These have been accompanied by (a few) trials, resulting in accountability for at least some of these exploitative criminals.

Who are these people, who some might say are monsters among us? Yes, each cult is different and should be evaluated as such. Yet after 35 years of research and observation, including listening to and learning from survivors’ experiences, I’ve learned how to recognize classic patterns of social-psychological influence and coercive control. It seems not to matter whether the overriding and binding ideology is religious, political, wellness, world-saving, self-improvement, therapeutic or martial arts. In my book “Take Back Your Life: Recovering From Cults and Abusive Relationships,” with tongue in cheek, I noted these cult leaders think of themselves as unique when they all act as if they attended the same “Messiah School.”

Conversely, if the common denominator among cult members is idealism, narcissism seems to define most cult leaders. Self-serving and destructive, these types of malevolent personalities can cause great harm. Indeed, it is their modus operandi.

And yet, we wonder: How do these malignant forces get good people, smart people, to become co-conspirators in their vile behavior? It might seem unfathomable. But in my opinion, it’s quite simple. They begin by setting up a self-sealing system — that is, one with an end-justifies-the-means philosophy. Once you accept this system, anything goes. Here, the leader becomes a god-like, all-knowing authoritarian who offers you “the answer” but in turn demands unwavering loyalty. Through a plethora of influence and control tactics, members are indoctrinated to believe and to follow orders without question.

How do these malignant forces get good people, smart people, to be co-conspirators in their vile behavior? It might seem unfathomable.

The moral code that cult members enter with is altered to accept the immorality of the leader. And that comes with a big price — I call it “bounded choice.” The true believer now has no option but to obey, because not to obey means death, literal or figurative. To disobey means risking the loss of your sense of self, your identity, perhaps your family or children, your community and your chance at “salvation,” whatever that has been defined to mean. A “brainwashed” follower is left with an illusion of choice. But it’s not a real choice at all.

That mindset, that enveloping closed or bounded reality, is something that law enforcement, judges and the legal system are not set up to understand. (Nor is it easily understood by anyone who has not experienced it.)

Which brings us back to Isabella Pollok, whose actions and choices — or lack thereof — factor very heavily in the Hulu documentary. Pollok also seems to share a lot of similarities with Clare Bronfman, who was sentenced to 81 months in prison for providing financial support to the NXIVM sex cult, and who was also the subject of much intrigue (and documentary filmmaking). “I believed and supported someone who controlled me in ways I cannot understand. I will live with the guilt forever,” Pollok tearfully told the courtroom in February. “I badly hurt my friends, and I am ashamed and deeply regret it. I am truly sorry.”

It is awful that these women could carry out heinous and abusive acts toward fellow members of their “family.” And don’t get me wrong, what prosecutors said they did was awful. Nevertheless, they were also victims of a disturbed, dare I say sociopathic, master manipulator who used well-known tactics of coercive influence and control like fear, shame, humiliation, peer pressure, threats, sexual abuse and sleep or food deprivation.

Pollok, Bronfman and so many others who have endured such experiences lost their own critical thinking skills and their own sense of judgment. They became closed-minded pawns of evil masters. This is not to excuse their behavior, but it is a warning for America’s legions of true crime fans. These documentaries and podcasts may spark a plethora of emotions — horror, pity and even a misplaced (and frankly dangerously arrogant) superiority. Given what we know about the insidious power of cult leaders, what these stories really should inspire is compassion.

Janja Lalich

Janja Lalich, Ph.D., is a professor emerita of sociology at the California State University, Chico. She is also the founder and president of the Lalich Center on Cults and Coercion.

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