© 2024 WSHU
NPR News & Classical Music
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

How did a group of Sarah Lawrence roommates end up in a cult? 'Stolen Youth' charts terrifying path

A photo of Larry Ray from "Stolen Youth: Inside the Cult at Sarah Lawrence." (Courtesy of Hulu)
A photo of Larry Ray from "Stolen Youth: Inside the Cult at Sarah Lawrence." (Courtesy of Hulu)

Larry Ray, or Lawrence Grecco as authorities identified him, received a 60-year prison sentence last month for brainwashing, abusing, sex trafficking and forcing a group of students from Sarah Lawrence College into manual labor.

The new Hulu docuseries “Stolen Youth: Inside the Cult at Sarah Lawrence” tells the story of how Ray started a cult when he began staying on his daughter’s couch in an on-campus apartment after being released from prison.

“[Ray] was a master manipulator, someone who could mix truth with lies in an effort to create an image of himself that was impressive, certainly to a college student,” director Zach Heinzerling says. “Him offering worldly advice, being a father figure, [he was] a highly trained narcissist who had a delusional sickness and need for self-aggrandizement.”

Watch on YouTube.

Felicia Rosario’s two siblings were in the cult. She had a full ride at Harvard University and started her psychiatry residency in Los Angeles when Ray convinced her to move in with them at the cramped New York apartment he shared with all the students. He said the elusive bad guys who conspired to send him to prison were now trying to kill her. But there were no bad guys.

Ray forced the students to record cell phone videos of his manipulation. He kept the students up all night, accused them of breaking his things and convinced them he was a victim of their behavior. In the docuseries, Rosario’s brother Santos describes Ray interrogating him late into the night until he made up a story that satisfied Ray. Rosario’s parents, immigrants from the Dominican Republic, would eventually sell their home to give their children the money that Ray demanded of them.

When Rosario first visited her siblings, she was already in contact with Ray. She called him her “husband” and shared a bed with him and another student. The series shows Ray watching as Rosario and her brother scream and slap themselves.

Rosario initially said she fell in love with Ray when she met him — but now she says “it was con at first sight.” Ray asked her siblings questions about her and used their answers to get in her head, she says. And Ray told Rosario lies: According to him, her sister and parents were trying to kill her.

“I’m still trying to understand what he did and how he did it, because the depth and breadth of the lies is unimaginable,” Rosario says. “I ended up regressing. I became very childlike for a lot of the years. My mind just had to escape and I had to protect myself.”

One by one, members started to leave the cult. Ray was arrested after some students back at the school contacted New York Magazine. But the physical, emotional and psychological abuse of the remaining members — Rosario and Isabella Pollok— escalated after the article came out.

“That was really the first glimpse at maybe being able to leave because he made me believe that no one would believe me,” Rosario says. “I would try to say something and then he would talk over me, and then the person would just ignore what I said. And so I felt completely trapped. There was no way out for me.”

The parents of Santos, Yalitza and Felicia Rosario, displayed pictures of their children, adorned by candles, for all the years that the three were involved with cult-leader Larry Ray. Courtesy of Hulu)

Ray twisted Rosario’s memories of her own life and childhood to use them against her, she says, such as one instance of showing her dad a dress. Now more than a decade after she met Ray, it’s still difficult for her to talk about.

“It was a struggle for so long. It was years. He started that story in 2011 that had become part of my self-narrative. So it was very difficult to get to that point,” she says. “But it was incredibly freeing and it was very empowering to have that realization to really start to distinguish myself from what Larry had been saying about me.”

After watching Ray manipulate and control anyone he met, Rosario knows her family is not alone in this experience.

“If [Ray] decided that you were useful to him, he was going to win you over and get you to do what he wanted,” she says. “So it could absolutely happen to anyone.”

‘Love is stronger than mind control’

During one scene in the documentary, viewers can see a copy of cult deprogrammer Steven Hassan’s book “Combatting Cult Mind Control” in Rosario’s apartment. It took her six months to open the cover after her therapist recommended the book, she says, but she found it powerful and helpful.

Hassan, who has met Rosario and some of the other former cult members, says their experience is similar to what happened to him during the 1970s in Rev. Sun Myung Moon’s controversial Unification Church. After his girlfriend dumped him, then 19-year-old Hassan was sucked into the cult after three women flirted with him. For more than two years, he was brainwashed using deception.

“Mind control is real. It’s happening worldwide. People are adopting QAnon and all kinds of weird, cultish beliefs,” Hassan says. “The good news is the human spirit wants to be free and we want to be with people we can trust.”

Methods like hypnosis, sleep deprivation and drugs — Ray gave the students Adderall, which made them paranoid— are often used to influence people, Hassan says. People need seven to nine hours of sleep a night, but Hassan remembers sleeping only three to four in the Moonies cult.

Hassan describes Ray’s interrogations of the students as psychological warfare. He says Ray used brainwashing techniques from the Chinese Communist Party.

“The idea is to keep repeating so that you don’t remember what is true, keep confessing until we get a version that we like,” Hassan says. “The way the mind works is if you keep repeating it over and over again, it replaces the memory so people doubt their own reality.”

The documentary provides insight into techniques that sex and labor traffickers use to entrap people, Hassan says. He uses respect and asks questions to teach people how to understand mind control in cults.

Parents watching the documentary may think their kids would never join a cult. But the Moonies, for example, convinced Hassan he had an abusive childhood until his sister questioned his narrative. The same thing happened to numerous members of Ray’s cult.

Hassan is calling for a public health approach to educating people on mind control. He developed a course to train mental health professionals to identify and help people in cults. Loved ones can help by asking people under mind control to remember good times and for help understanding how they adopted their beliefs, he says.

“Love is stronger than mind control and contact with the loved one under control is vital,” he says, “but not when you’re trying to convince them that they’re brainwashed.”

In 2019, Hassan published a book called “The Cult of Trump,” which examines the tactics former President Donald Trump uses on his supporters. People who believe in conspiracies like QAnon or that Trump won the 2020 election are brainwashed, he says. Hassan believes warm and respectful questioning is key to helping people unpack these beliefs.

As a former cult member himself, Hassan feels victims’ pain when he hears stories like Rosario’s.

“So many people are walking around today that were raised in authoritarian cults or recruited into a cult or in a manipulative relationship with a narcissist,” he says. “They’re walking wounded and they don’t need to walk around wounded. They can understand and get the therapy they need.”

Read Sarah Lawrence College’s statement on Larry Ray here.

Karyn Miller-Medzon produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Jill RyanAllison Hagan adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.