The new docuseries ‘Stolen Youth’ traces the Sarah Lawrence scandal, revealing the fragility of human memory—and our collective vulnerability in the face of manipulation
“We’re different. So are you.”
This the long-running unofficial slogan of Sarah Lawrence, a private liberal arts college nestled in the sleepy town of Bronxville, some 15 miles north of New York City. Known for a non-traditional pedagogy that emphasizes freedom of thought, Sarah Lawrence is a school unlike any other—which is part of the reason I chose it, alongside 1,500-some other students who made its tree-lined campus their home. Geared toward artists, creatives, and intellectual outsiders, the school merges academic rigor with liberal ideals to create a unique culture: one that’s perhaps best summed up by the existence of a “pillow room” in our library, where we were encouraged to nap while working overnight—but which was also used to host school-sanctioned “porn marathons” as part of a week-long celebration of sex positivity.
Sarah Lawrence had something else most other schools do not: a coercive cult started by one student’s ex-convict father, who came to stay in her dorm “temporarily” and never left. That man was Lawrence Ray, and last month, he was sentenced to 60 years in prison for a litany of crimes, including sex trafficking, extortion, and conspiracy. Investigations into Ray’s transgressions started in 2019, after a viral article published by The Cut detailed the story of how five promising college students fell under his spell—two of whom were in his custody at the time of publication.
More recently, Stolen Youth—a new docuseries on the scandal—expanded on its details, both in the victims’ own words, and through damning video evidence of their abuse. Directed by Zach Heinzerling, the series is told in three parts, each one darker than the last—from the cult’s seemingly innocuous beginnings (when Ray moved into his daughter’s dorm and started cooking steak dinners for her friends) to its violent conclusion. (A few years later, he’s torturing and extorting them to the tune of millions of dollars.)
It’s a hard documentary to watch, following the group not only as they relay how this harrowing situation came to be, but also as they try to come to terms with its aftermath. For me, it hits close to home—literally—because I once lived in that same college dorm, in a unit mere feet from where the abuse occurred. Coming face-to-face with these stories in a place as familiar as Sarah Lawrence, it’s hard to imagine how this could have been going on under the administration’s nose, behind closed doors identical to my own.
Sarah Lawrence is often described as a “bubble”—a free-thinking haven, sheltered from the outside world—not just by its verdant greenery, but the overall attitude of tolerance and inclusivity that the school prides itself on. It’s intended to be a safe space for students, many of whom are queer, neurodivergent, or struggle with mental health issues (something Ray specifically exploited during his time there, claiming to help students through the host of problems they were experiencing in their personal lives, from questioning their sexuality to suicidal ideation). When it was revealed that a predator had been living in his daughter’s dorm on campus—and coercing her housemates into sex acts—many people asked, How could this happen at a place like Sarah Lawrence?
“Not trusting one’s own perception is a key factor in the formation of cults. It’s also something I learned to do throughout my liberal arts education, having been encouraged to question my own assumptions and interrogate cultural norms in the service of intellectual growth.”
The details of the situation, and the depth of the abuse these students suffered, are shocking—but on a logistical level, it wasn’t all that surprising. The school has turned a blind eye to scandals in the past, from teachers bedding their students to a political science professor who was found to be squatting in the home of a well-regarded academic—a dramatic saga that resulted in a strongly-worded condemnation from Judith Butler, but little action from the school administration, which claimed it could not “take any action in this case,” because it had nothing to do with the college.
Their campus security isn’t much better. As a Sarah Lawrence freshman, I personally witnessed the school’s lax policy around visitors, because my roommate’s girlfriend moved into our cramped three-person dorm room, and—like Ray—simply never left. Luckily for us, she was neither coercive nor manipulative; usually, she was just pretty stoned, a common occurrence on a campus that was only declared smoke-free after being deemed a “fire hazard” by neighboring residents. It’s the same reason one student in the documentary, Raven, recalls second-guessing her assessment of the situation with Ray: “We were always high, so I’d be like, Is this weird, or am I being weird?”
Not trusting one’s own perception is a key factor in the formation of cults. It’s also something I learned to do throughout my liberal arts education, having been encouraged to question my own assumptions and interrogate cultural norms in the service of intellectual growth. Coupled with the social pressures of college, it’s easy to see how Sarah Lawrence students could dismiss their worries about the situation, fearing that they were simply not as “open-minded” as their peers.
In the early days, his daughter’s roommates described Ray as a “goofy dad figure,” stepping in to help them with the day-to-day tasks that might seem daunting in your late-teens—keeping their space clean, cooking dinner, helping them navigate interpersonal quandaries at a time when everyone wants to fit in. Living without parents for the first time, college students are often looking for emotional guidance—something Ray provided, giving advice from a position of authority that was only further emphasized by glamorous stories about his mostly-fabricated history as an international CIA operative and decorated government agent. He began counseling a few of the roommates, helping them with emotional issues using “techniques to discipline the mind,” which he claims to have learned in the military. (Though according to official records, he only served for 19 days.) When anyone challenged him on the subject of his past, he would show them photos of him alongside important and powerful people, with whom his connections were often exaggerated.
Experts on the subject are quick to assert that what happened to these students “could happen to anyone”—even (or perhaps especially) vulnerable young people at a prestigious university that prides itself on progressive points of view. According to cult deprogrammer Steve Hassan, it’s actually pretty simple to exert “mind control” over individuals who see you as an authority figure, no matter how intelligent or educated they are. “We think we’re rational beings, but we’re not. We’re emotional beings. We believe we know things, but we’ve been taught things by a network of people we trust, be it teachers or books or media,” he writes, explaining how, when an untrustworthy person enters this matrix, one’s worldview can very quickly be turned upside down.
“Experts on the subject are quick to assert that what happened to these students ‘could happen to anyone’—even (or perhaps especially) vulnerable young people at a prestigious university that prides itself on progressive points of view.”
It’s a subject confronted in the first episode of the series, Arbiter of Truth—a phrase I first learned at Sarah Lawrence, where it was used by teachers to reference how authorities in science and medicine weaponize the idea of “natural truths” to dismiss the social, political, and environmental factors underpinning a phenomenon. In the documentary, the students use the concept to explain how Larry intercepted and overrode the perceptions of those around him, warping them to fit his narrative.
This was made possible, in part, by the malleability of human memory—something Ray exploits throughout the documentary, often planting false memories in the minds of his victims and pressuring them to confess to crimes they never committed. Ray extorted millions of dollars from the five students over the nearly 10 years they were in contact, often accusing them of damaging his property and eliciting false confessions under conditions like sleep deprivation and psychological duress—which he would then use to blackmail them into paying him back. One victim, Claudia, was even forced to work as an escort, funneling $2.5 million dollars back to Ray as penance for the crimes she never actually committed.
Memory itself is inherently fallible; its contents can be affected both by a person’s psychological state at the time of the event and at the moment of recall, alongside a myriad of other complex and often interlinking factors. In fact, I discovered a flaw in my own memory today, when I logged on to my old Sarah Lawrence email to confirm my prior housing assignment in Slonim Woods 8—only to discover that I had actually lived in Slonim 5. If at any point in the last five years you had asked me where I lived sophomore year, I would have answered you confidently, and I would have been wrong.
“The essential nature of memory, which ought by rights to be a scientific debate, has so galvanized the culture that laws have actually been revoked and repealed over it,” writes Richard Noll on the subject. Take, for instance, the Illinois law that barred people over 30 from filing lawsuits based on remembered abuse—which was repealed in 1992, then reinstated, then repealed again in 2019. It’s also what spawned the “Satanic Panic” of the 1980s, a nationwide scandal in which thousands of people seemed to recall previously suppressed (or recently implanted) memories of occult rituals, including infanticide, incest, and murder.
The capacity for memory to be warped and distorted is a lightning rod for debates legal, social, and political—so it’s easy to see how a malicious person like Ray could exploit this human design flaw for his benefit. In Lost Youth, little of this is left to the imagination, in part because Ray was prone to recording his victims’ “confessions”—which, to any sane person, look a lot more like manipulative interrogations. Revealing previously unseen aspects of a chilling story, the documentary provides a harrowing look into the realities of narcissistic abuse and manipulation, and the vulnerabilities we all share—whether we know it or not.