A cult at college

LA.StolenYouth.jpg

A cult at college

It’s Parents Weekend, hide the booze! Better yet, keep an eye on your roommates. You never know whose father is going to rope you into a sex cult.

Such is the lesson of Larry Ray, the depraved figure at the heart of Hulu’s new docuseries, Stolen Youth: Inside the Cult at Sarah Lawrence. A pied piper with a devil’s flute, Larry is David Koresh with a dash of QAnon and a dram of “finding yourself” liberal-arts-campus psychobabble. That college students fell under his sway says much about the weaknesses of our postsecondary educational system.

Stolen Youth’s initial action takes place at Sarah Lawrence College in the fall of 2010. There, sophomore Talia Ray assembles a gang of fellow students and takes up residence in an edge-of-campus townhouse. To watch the easy intimacy of Talia’s clique is both to recall one’s own college days and to understand at once the “co-living” trend much prized by millennials and Gen Zers. Things are grand. When Talia’s father moves in as a combination housekeeper and spiritual adviser, well, the more, the merrier.

In classic manipulative fashion, new arrival Larry begins immediately to home in on his young roommates’ emotional frailties. Santos, Talia’s weak-willed boyfriend, is a spiritual seeker with a near-pathological desire for certitude. (“Oh, look, there are answers,” he tells himself after one of Larry’s pep talks.) Something comparable could be said of the other six residents, whom director Zachary Heinzerling differentiates marvelously throughout. Reflecting on Larry’s abilities as a motivator, housemate Dan tells the camera that the older man “could take away the things that were in the way.” Nineteen-year-old Isabella must have felt similarly. Within weeks of his arrival, Larry has begun spending nights in her bedroom.

The director of the acclaimed documentaries Cutie and the Boxer and McCartney 3,2,1, Heinzerling knows well enough that his narrative arc requires showing the group at its happiest. Thus we see Talia and her friends laughing whole nights away while drifting through vast clouds of marijuana smoke. Thus, too, are Larry’s self-improvement sermons accompanied by shots of lovingly prepared meals. Captured in these early, crucial scenes is a sense of creeping entanglement as the group grows increasingly reliant on Larry’s attention and care. Among Heinzerling’s best ideas is a pencil-drawn animation of the townhouse’s floor plan, complete with each occupant’s name. As the teenagers fall one by one under their Svengali’s spell, their names vanish from the blueprint and reappear inside a circle labeled “Larry.”

As for the show’s other narrative strategies, they happily predate the current vogue for documentary “reenactments.” Told largely via retrospective interviews, Stolen Youth also uses contemporaneous photographs, participant-filmed videos, and audio recordings made by Larry. The latter form a particularly valuable trove, composing as they do a sordid transcript of the older man’s Jekyll and Hyde routine. One minute, Larry is encouraging Dan and Isabella to believe in themselves and embrace the future. The next, he is spinning a frankly preposterous tale of his own imprisonment and abuse at the hands of former New York City Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik. With audio like that, who needs an army of ham-fisted reenactors?

If the Larry of 2010 is a (mostly) harmless crank, the figure that supplants him is a far darker character indeed. Following his housemates’ sophomore year, Larry sets the group up in a New York City apartment, where he quickly begins to reveal his true colors. Soon enough, a behavioral pattern that was once merely eccentric gives way to forced prostitution, extortion, physical violence, and a set of highly inappropriate sleeping arrangements. Though it would be unsporting of me to reveal exactly how this devolution comes about, it is also the case that Heinzerling himself doesn’t seem entirely sure. One is tempted to reach for a metaphor about frogs in gradually warming water. Yes, Larry’s charges are emotionally fragile, but it isn’t at all clear why they put up with their leader’s ever more abhorrent actions.

This psychological blind spot is at the heart of Stolen Youth’s failings. Often fascinating in its portrayal of unearned devotion, the docuseries is strangely mum on the question of why Larry’s young roommates are so pliable. Are the denizens of our postmodern universities so starved for (seeming) truth that they are willing to endure anything to get it? We don’t know, and the show’s participants are little help. “It’s like I almost don’t recognize us,” a present-day Santos tells Heinzerling’s camera. Such confusion is understandable, of course, but it doesn’t exactly lend itself to the pursuit of clarity.

Faced with so massive an unfilled-in blank, the viewer is left simply to marvel at Larry’s appalling shenanigans. Having turned Santos into the desiccated husk of a man, he enlists the teenager’s sisters in the cult and sets about ruining their lives. Encountering even minuscule defiance, he contrives baroque fantasies of persecution — for example, that the group’s members are poisoning him and one another. Among the series’s most poignant documents are the false-confession videos that Larry extorts from his followers in the wake of their alleged misbehavior. Yet even here, one struggles to understand why otherwise sane undergraduates are willing to “admit” to such nonsense.

Puzzlingly, and to the series’s further detriment, Stolen Youth has little to say about Larry’s eventual arrest and trial, a process that culminated in an April 2022 verdict. Also notable by her absence is Talia Ray, whose participation Heinzerling presumably sought and was unable to secure. Talia’s refusal to face the cameras is no one’s fault, of course, but it is nevertheless a vacancy that is keenly felt. Imagine the stories that damaged young woman would have had to tell.

Might a Stolen Youth with better access and focus have been a true masterpiece? Perhaps so. There is, however, a void at the heart of every cult story. What is it about such organizations that so appeals to the broken in spirit? Answer that question, and I’ll be sure to tune in.

Graham Hillard is the author of Wolf Intervals (Poiema Poetry Series) and a Washington Examiner magazine contributing writer.

© 2023 Washington Examiner

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