Why Docuseries ‘Stolen Youth’ Aimed to Shift Responsibility Away From the Victims: ‘We Were Trying to Fight the Idea’

TheWrap magazine: Directed by Zachary Heinzerling, the Hulu project explores how Larry Ray snared Sarah Lawrence students into a sex trafficking cult

"Stolen Youth" (Hulu)

This story about the docuseries “Stolen Youth” originally ran in the Race Begins issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.

In 2019, a tight close-up of a middle-aged man’s chubby face dominated the cover of New York magazine. His eyes stared gently — though with absolute power — right at us. The article inside described the shocking story of Larry Ray, who moved into his daughter’s dorm building at Sarah Lawrence College and proceeded to systematically brainwash several students into a forced-labor and sex-trafficking cult.

The whole saga is told in “Stolen Youth,” a three-episode Hulu series that examines the sordid details of the Ray case. He was convicted on 15 criminal counts in 2022. But the show also offers an empathetic platform for his victims, some still in the throes of Ray’s mind control. Oscar-nominated director Zachary Heinzerling (“Cutie and the Boxer”) talked about his approach to this complex, tangled web.

“Stolen Youth” (Hulu)

There are many crimes at the center of this story, but it doesn’t feel like a true-crime series. Was that a genre that you were resisting?
When you think about the details of that New York magazine article, there’s the sheer shocking and bizarre factor of it. It doesn’t seem real. But I’m not someone who’s used to doing true crime, and this didn’t necessarily feel like that for me. I like projects where I can discover the story through the process of making it and where the subjects can gain perspective on their lives. This had those elements. 

You avoid showing experts talking about the phenomenon of cults and how victims can be drawn in. Was that deliberate?
That was incredibly top of mind. The goal was to have these people in Larry’s world, who I found to be eloquent, intelligent people, explain the situation themselves. And I felt that they were really good at describing the elements of control that they faced, using their own voices. It humanized their experience. 

In the third episode, you interview a woman named Isabella, who’s free from Larry but still under his spell. It seems like a delicate situation for you as a filmmaker.
It’s interesting. I got feedback from other director friends during the process of making this and, especially in regards to Isabella, they’ve asked me, “Why didn’t you push harder at her?” I thought carefully about this and I was in touch with cult experts and cult interventionists the whole time — but for me, the way I’ve done every project has been about meeting people where they are. So with Isabella, if all I did was challenge her, I felt it could have had a reverse effect, where she would feel the need to strengthen her conviction. I didn’t want to act like I knew so much more than her or was some kind of authority figure. So I was listening in a nonjudgmental way.

We were constantly trying to fight the idea that the victims were responsible. Cult survivors get asked, “How could you let this happen?” It’s insensitive and naive to think that people “join a cult.” At the time, it appears positive and helpful. We are naturally trusting as humans and don’t immediately think that the person offering to help us is an insidious psychopath.

What’s really crazy is how much incriminating audio and video content you include of Larry. It seemed like he recorded everything. Were there thousands of hours of stuff? 
Hundreds of hours, for sure. And there was audio and video that was much worse, which we did not include, if you can even imagine. The archival recording is essential because it’s so real. Larry was all about “the truth,” and there is no easier way of stamping the truth to his egregious acts than having documented evidence. The irony is that those same recordings were used to put him away in prison for 60 years. 

That’s an old story, too, of criminals recording themselves in the act.
Yeah, I think it’s common with delusional narcissists. Larry’s version of what’s on all that audio and video is completely different from the facts. The reality he lives in is one where he’s at the center as a victim. 

Read more from The Race Begins issue here.