Director of doc on Sarah Lawrence cult says warning signs are ‘very hard to detect’: ‘You don’t join a cult’

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When Larry Ray was convicted of having physically, even sexually, and psychologically abusing his daughter’s college roommates, the story was almost too much to believe: He had moved into her dorm and brainwashed her roommates to the point they cut off communication with their families, paid him thousands of dollars and even attempted suicide.

Everyone wondered: How could this happen? Who would fall for such a thing?

The new Hulu docuseries Stolen Youth: Inside the Cult at Sarah Lawrence shows us. We watch as Ray became whatever the people around him needed: a mentor, a father figure, a boyfriend.

Director Zach Heinzerling, whose 2013 documentary Cutie and the Boxer was nominated for an Oscar, says he was drawn to the story precisely because he found it so relatable. He’s about the same age as the victims, and he attended a small, liberal arts college.

“I feel like the real purpose of making this documentary was to say, you know, to the general public that this could be you too, that you don’t join a cult,” he tells Yahoo Entertainment. “A cult is a series of controlling relationships led by an abusive manipulator.”

Just last month, Ray was sentenced to 60 years in prison for inflicting what the U.S. attorney described as “brutal and lifelong harm on innocent victims.”

It all began in 2010, with a group of friends living together, and Ray, the father of one of the women, began crashing on the couch. He was soon regaling the students with stories of having worked in the military and the CIA, where he said he had befriended former New York Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik and others with powerful titles. Ray had the photos to prove it. Soon he was doing the dishes and cooking dinner. Next he became a sort of counselor, and began running a pseudo mental bootcamp out of their residence, that he said would help the young adults. Before long, Ray was controlling the lives of these students who were at such a vulnerable place in their lives and just figuring out who they were; he told one woman she had undiagnosed schizophrenia, and a man that he was gay. He called the mother of a female student and said that the daughter had been molested when she was younger, so she would no longer be speaking with the mother. The students did physical labor for Ray, and they weren’t allowed to eat without his permission. He also convinced some of the students that they owed him large sums of money — they had destroyed some of his property, he told them — and had them ask their parents for it or raise it by prostituting themselves. He convinced them they were working with powerful forces to kill him by poisoning. More than one of them attempted suicide. The madness only ended when Ray was exposed.

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1 comment

  1. Cult leader Larry Ray was a predatory manipulator. He systematically broke his victims down by exploiting their vulnerabilities to gain undue influence and control over their lives.

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