Hulu’s ‘Stolen Youth’ Gives Closure to the Horrifying Sarah Lawrence Sex Cult Saga
The new docuseries chooses to follow the recovery of the victims over the descent of the madman, which elevates it over others in the true crime genre.EntertainmentTV
I’ll admit, when I learned that Hulu was releasing the docuseries Stolen Youth: Inside The Cult at Sarah Lawrence, I was hesitant to get excited about it. What new revelations could a three-part true crime docuseries provide us that hasn’t been hashed out in the revelatory 2019 The Cut investigation, the countless pieces that article spawned, and a court ruling of 60 years in prison for cult leader and conman Larry Ray? I was sure this series would add to the eroding facade of the true crime genre, revealing once again that these retellings are just shock and horror fodder divvied up in episodic format for our mindless consumption. But while true crime is awfully formulaic at this point,I found Stolen Youth to possess a genuine twist: an ending that provided a path forward for the victims of Ray’s grotesque and manipulative crimes.
Within the first five minutes of the first episode, MGMT’s “Time to Pretend” drops the viewer right into 2009, as aerial and archival footage of Sarah Lawrence College plays on screen. As someone only a year older than Ray’s victims and who also attended a small liberal arts college, I was brought back to those early and unencumbered days of college that genuinely made one feel “young, wild, and free.” The three hours that follow underscore the aptness of the title. Not only did Larry commit unthinkable abuses against his victims—many of whom participated in the series—but the heinousness of stealing the optimistic and eager young adult years of these bright students was especially cruel.
The first episode explains how the charismatic Larry infiltrated his daughter Talia Ray’s friend group at Sarah Lawrence. What started off as crashing on the couch for a few nights turned into an ever-present, father-like figure in the campus housing, cooking the friend group steaks, keeping the kitchen clean, and offering advice to struggling adolescents. Raven Juarez, one of the students who never fell victim and remained wary to Ray’s manipulation, lays out the progression clearly: “Everyone at the beginning thought he was weird. And then, one by one, he would get them alone, have these conversations, and suddenly they’re like, Oh, he’s not so bad to Actually, he’s pretty great. Actually, he’s saving my life. Actually, he’s the best thing that ever happened to me. Actually, I’ll never not listen to him. Actually, fuck you, I’ll never listen to you if you talk bad about him. And it happened steeply. And it shocked me,” she explains.
Eventually Larry convinces his daughter Talia, her friends Isabella, Daniel, and Claudia, and her boyfriend Santos to move into his New York City apartment. After some time, Santos’ two sisters Yalitzia and Felicia move in as well. There, his behaviors turn aggressive and vicious: He erodes any sense of self these students have and convinces them they’ve conspired against him by trying to poison and murder him.
In what eventually contributed to his own downfall, Larry video and audio recorded hours of footage of his victims confessing to their conspiratorial and not-real crimes. Director Zach Heinzerling got access to the disturbing footage through Larry trying to prove his own innocence and footage that was made public after Larry’s 2022 trial.
The third episode, Larryland, is what distinguishes Stolen Youth from other true crime deep dives. It follows Isabella and Felicia, the last two hold outs of the sex cult, supporting Larry even after The Cut article publishes and he is arrested. In the earlier episodes, we’d seen Felicia’s brutal descent into madness at Ray’s hands: After a brief bicoastal courtship, Larry convinced Felicia, who was living in Los Angeles and doing a residency in forensic psychiatry at the time, that people were out to kill her for her association with him. “Little by little, he took over my mind,” Felicia says. “I don’t even know how he did it. He made me feel like there truly were people after me, people coming to hurt me, and that people had hurt me in my past.” She then moved to New York City and for the next 10 years was emotionally, sexually, and physically tortured by Ray. Incoherent and often unable to stand up straight or look anyone in the eyes, Felicia resembles a husk of a human.
There was certainly a point I squirmed at the camera’s focus on her. “I do consider him my husband. He is my honey bunny. That’s what we call each other. I’m his honey-bunny lady and he’s my honey-bunny man,” Felicia tells the crew when they ask if her and Larry are married. “Leave this sick woman alone!” I wanted to scream. But the final episode patiently follows her steady attempt, with the help of therapy and her legal team, at rebuilding her identity outside of Larry’s psychologically abusive grip. Over the course of that hour, we see her not only move into her own place, but reconnect with her worried-sick parents and estranged siblings, who are also reconciling with the damage Larry has done to them. It isn’t a perfectly neat conclusion with a nice bow tied around it, and I’m hesitant to simply call it a “happy ending”—but it is certainly happier than the genre’s tendency to conclude on a cliffhanger or ominous warning.
In an interview with Variety, director Heinzerling explains his decision not to include his interviews with Larry. “I feel like he’s in such a delusional state of denial that the denial is his reality,” Heinzerling says. “I don’t know that anything he says gives us any insight into how this happened, or who he is as a person, because it’s all lies.”
Ultimately, this choice to exclude Larry and instead focus on Felicia’s resurrection lends the series a lot more credibility, because anyone familiar with true crime narratives knows why Larry did what he did. He’s an abusive sycophant who corralled vulnerable people into his influence. What is much more captivating and often much less explored is the victims’ tenacity, their ability to break the psychological chains in which they’ve found themselves. You can turn off this series genuinely feeling like these people have gained part of their life back from that evil man, and that alone makes it worth watching.