If anything filmmaker Zach Heinzerling hopes that as people watch his new docuseries “Stolen Youth: Inside the Cult at Sarah Lawrence,” they try to keep in mind that it’s easy, from the outside, to say “this could never be me.” Indeed, the filmmaker wishes viewers appreciate the power that a malevolent narcissist such as Larry Ray can have on young people who are trying to find their identity at such an impressionable age.
“If you have someone who’s really weaponizing the good that you have in your heart and the desire that you have for truth in the world and using that against you, there’s a level of trust that we have with people who are trying to help us that’s innate,” Heinzerling said recently over Zoom. “You’re surrounded by other people that are your friends who are also speaking highly of this person, [so I hope] audiences see how this happened and empathize with these individuals.
“And, of course, understand Larry to be the devil that he is.”
It all began in 2010, when Ray moved into an apartment his daughter was sharing with several of her friends at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, New York. At first it seemed perhaps “cool” to have an adult in the house who could purchase alcohol and open doors to the grownup world, but as Ray’s own video surveillance tools showed, he became a controlling dictator who physically, psychologically and sexually abused the students in the home. He convinced several that they had been poisoned by their own parents—leading several to cut themselves off from their families. Ray’s manipulations also saw his acolytes giving them all of their money for supposed remedies that were nothing more than scams.
“He has a real psychological sickness that led him to this need to put others down, shame others, embarrass others, control others to make himself feel better,” Heinzerling said. “That becomes a perversion that spiraled into exhibited ways that are completely absurd when you think about them: convincing people they had poisoned him with substances such as arsenic and metals you find in atomic bombs—at the behest of a conspiracy led by [Rudy] Guiliani, [George] Bush and [Former New York City Police Commissioner] Bernard Kerik.”
Heinzerling was able to convince several of the students who lived in the house with Ray to speak on camera, including Daniel Levin, Isabella Pollack, and siblings Felicia, Santos and Yalitza Rosario, who cut ties with their parents for years due to Ray’s influence. These are all intelligent people: Felicia Rosario, for instance, has a PhD in psychiatry and was participating in her residency in California when Ray convinced her she was being surveilled—a pretext to get her to return to him back east. Meanwhile, Pollack is currently facing indictment for several counts in connection with Ray’s activities; her status as unfortunate victim or co-conspirator remains up for debate.
“I had a personal connection, being someone who had gone to a liberal arts school and had been 18, 19 and sort of lost and anxious and seeking answers,” Heinzerling said of bonding with his subjects, adding that gaining the trust of one victim inevitably led to others being willing to speak on camera.
Heinzerling said he sought outside counsel with a professional who specialized in speaking with individuals caught up in cult environments. This enabled him to further burrow into the students’ psychological depths, even the ones who continued to defend Ray and believe in his poisoning malarkey.
“A lot of the listening that I was doing [was] pretty open and [I asked] nonjudgmental questions,” the filmmaker said. “They were redefining themselves in that experience and learning to tell their own story in a way that felt comfortable for them—and find aspects or memories that they had suppressed in the process of the interview.
“You’re both doing the act of journalism to investigate, capture a story and translate it to a wider audience, but also you are in essence a kind of mirror to their own experience—and that can be cathartic and helpful for someone who is in a place of being really unsure and insecure about their identity because it’s been completely blown away by a manipulative, psychopathic abuser.”
Heinzerling believes the public remains fascinated by stories about cults given that they typically rely on charismatic leaders who provide “answers” to frightened people scared by a chaotic world that operates without neat-and-tidy explanations. In this way, cults are sometimes no different from religions or philosophies—but, if the power is concentrated in the hands of one individual with malicious intent, the results can be disastrous.
“I think what we see in Larry [is] he was a traumatic narcissist who really gained pleasure out of other people’s distress,” Heinzerling said. “With some of these other cults, the goal of the leader is a little bit clearer. Usually it’s money or sex, and to some extent Larry was after those things as well, but I feel the most gruesome details of this story are not in the interest of money.
“What it boils down to is Larry answered a lot of questions that any 18-, 19-year-old is seeking to find themselves. And he presented himself as a friend, an ally…and that kind of emotion can be extremely powerful. And the younger you are when it happens, the harder it is to have [had] those life experiences and perspectives to get yourself out of them.”
The filmmaker hopes audiences will not only feel empathy for the victims, but again attempt to tamp down on self-preserving notions that it’s only “other people” who fall into cults and become victims of sociopaths such as Ray.
“There’s a lot more to understand about how coercive control works and what the line between victim and perpetrator is,” Heinzerling said. “Hopefully this series creates more discussion and gets people thinking about it.”
“Stolen Youth: Inside the Cult at Sarah Lawrence” premieres on Hulu this Thursday.