The movie Stolen Youth: Inside the Cult at Sarah Lawrence has spoilers.
The casual observer might be forgiven for finding the subsequent headlines somewhat humorous at first.
The existence of a hippie sex cult would contravene certain prevailing beliefs about the prestigious college in Yonkers, New York. In 1968, Sarah Lawrence became coeducational and has since developed a reputation for its wealthy, creative, socially progressive, and generally "out there" student body.
Of all the colleges in the United States, the libertines at Sarah Lawrence would be the ones to "yes and" themselves into a sex cult. But as more information was released, it became clear that there was a huge disconnect between what "Sarah Lawrence sex cult" meant in popular imagination and what it signified in its depressing reality. As evidenced by the excellent journalism in sources like The Cut (which is responsible for the brilliant piece that inspired Netflix's The Watcher), Larry
Hulu's three-episode series Stolen Youth: Inside the Cult at Sarah Lawrence is the finest true crime docuseries that the streaming world has produced in a long time. It's an insightful sociological investigation of how the human brain can be manipulated into a false reality. It shares as much in common with HBO's conspiracy docuseries Q: Into the Storm as with its true crime counterparts.
Stolen Youth is blessed with an abundance of disturbing, yet enlightening footage (why are cult leaders always filming shit?) into a group of people's descent into cult-like thinking under the influence of a charismatic leader. Those essential bits include the arrival of several young people to college, the imposition of their friend's weird father into their lives, and their subsequent enslavement of their young minds.
Talia Ray, a friend of Sarah Lawrence's campus, tells them that her father is coming out of prison (for crimes he didn't commit naturally) and he'll need a place to crash. No of her roommates objected to a 50-year-old man crashing on their couch for some time.
Larry arrives at Slonim Woods 9 with a imposing physique, a sharp Brooklyn accent, and a long list of bizarre experiences in the house. After preparing dinners, leading philosophical lectures, Larry begins a long-distance physical routine of tasks and physical self-improvement, alienating his charged people from their families and friends, all the while preying on typical youthful fears.
The best skill of Stolen Youth is its ability to convey the perverted logic in Ray's escalating maneuvers. It starts with the reasonable (welcoming a roommate's 50-year-old father to live at your house) to the less reasonable but still understandable (he takes care of you mentally) and finally to the less reasonable but still understandable (he establishes a chore schedule).
The other interesting feature of Stolen Youth is its approach to the monster at its core. Like other docuseries of its genre, the show chooses to pay attention to the victims at play while not spending too much time trying to psychoanalyze the guy who punished him. (Though his aforementioned beef with Kerik is unsettling), and later becomes a much more detailed study of the human brain's effects.
Stolen Youth is more than a case study; it also chronicles the human suffering suffered by cult indoctrination. Only Felicia had managed to escape Ray's influence during filming (Isabella remains a Larry supporter and in September 2022 admitted to money laundering as part of Ray's larger case).
Santos, a Harvard degree, lived with Felicia in a 93rd Street Manhattan house. Ray visited her every day to keep her up in the late hours of the night with discussions about philosophy and her own personal history. Ultimately, Felicia became convinced that her family had poisoned her and were sending agents of the state to finish off the job.
Stolen Youth provides the following message as a guideline for every episode: "The following program contains themes of suicidal ideation, abuse, sexual assault, coercive control, and drug use." You wish they could have enlisted the help of a facilitator to describe "the complete degradation of the human psyche into a primitive, animalistic state" as Felicia experiences upon returning to New York.
Felicia, who is severely underweight and traumatized from the stress she's endured (and the loss of her medical degree), screams alternatively "Larry, get off of me!" and "I love you, Larry!" Later, she finds herself unable to even leave Ray, wandering into his personal space and muttering "I want to be next to you. Because it makes me feel better."
After she leaves the country, Felicia tells the documentary crew: "He took away my career, my friends, and my family." It's one thing to hear the words so clearly presented in videos, but it's another to notice how they play out in real life. Ray's ability to remove the reality he didn't need from a person's brain is profoundly depressing.
Although Felicia recovers, bits of her "Larryland" conditioning remain.
“Do you remember seeing Bernard Kerik?” a non-camera voice asks Felicia, who, to be clear: has never met disgraced New York City police commissioner Bernard Kerik.
“Oh, when I was a kid, yes,” she responds.
“Is there a way that’s not true?”
"That's undoubtedly unlikely... you can see where I'm going. What's the truth?"
Felicia's complete recovery and her reunion with her parents and two siblings are documented in the last episode of Stolen Youth. Ray was found guilty on all 15 charges against him on January 20, 2023, and has been sentenced to 60 years in federal prison without parole.
In that way, Stolen Youth transcends what initially appears to be an intensely provincial narrative about impressionable kids in an open, permissive college setting. Most true crime documentary films require viewers to confront and accept the fact that a stranger can take their lives. And it does exactly that.
All three episodes of Stolen Youth: Inside the Cult at Sarah Lawrence are now available to stream on Hulu.