'Stolen Youth' Director on Importance of 'Not Judging' Larry Ray's Victims

When speaking with the men and women who were manipulated and abused by convicted criminal, and "cult" leader, Larry Ray, director Zachary Heinzerling knew he had to "meet them where they were" in that moment, he told Newsweek.

Heinzerling has directed a new three-part documentary for Hulu, titled Stolen Youth: Inside the Cult at Sarah Lawrence, where he examines Ray's crimes and his 10-year emotional, physical and sexual abuse of the students who were living with his daughter, Talia, from 2010.

The docu-series finds the students at different points in their lives, whether they had escaped from their abuser like Daniel Barban Levin and Santos and Yalitza Rosario, or were still with Ray at the time, like Felicia Rosario and Isabella Pollok.

On January 20, 2023, Ray, 63, was sentenced to 60 years in prison for racketeering conspiracy, violent crime in aid of racketeering, extortion, sex trafficking, forced labor, tax evasion and money laundering offenses.

'Stolen Youth' Director on Importance of 'Not Judging' Larry Ray's Victims

Larry Ray and Zachary Heinzerling
In this composite image is Larry Ray in a still from "Stolen Youth: Inside the Cult at Sarah Lawrence" and director Zachary Heinzerling pictured in 2015. Heinzerling spoke to Newsweek about making the three-part documentary and working with Ray's victims to tell their story. Andrew Toth/Hulu/Getty Images

Heinzerling spoke to Felicia Rosario and Pollok twice, first together when they were still with Ray when he was arrested and then separately. He met Rosario once more after she had cut ties with the pair, and he also met Pollok while she was being investigated as Ray's co-defendant.

Pollok pleaded guilty to conspiring to launder money in September 2022, and she is due to be sentenced on February 22.

Heinzerling felt it was important to conduct interviews without judgment in order for his subjects to feel comfortable with telling their story.

"My reaction was just how do we help these individuals? I think, as a journalist sometimes you're in a privileged situation of being able to speak with individuals who otherwise normally wouldn't be in a position to speak to you," the director told Newsweek.

"Helping them was a big part of it, we introduced them to a nonprofit called Sanctuary for Families, which is a gender-based violence nonprofit that supports victims of sex trafficking, domestic violence and abuse, and Sanctuary was able to set them up with counselors and legal assistance, give them some assistance in a pretty surreal time.

"Larry had, for all intents and purposes, been the only person really that mattered in their lives [and he] was now gone, and their lives were turned upside down.

"I think the process of listening to them and meeting them where they were was something that was made important to me by Rachel Bernstein, who's the cult therapist that we were consulting with, and just not judging them.

"I knew, obviously, the professionals at Sanctuary would be providing assistance but then, as far as my relationship, it was really, again, about listening to them where they were, not judging them, and I think in the situation where you're with somebody who's been manipulated for 10 years, if your instinct is to try to change their mind they're obviously going to go in a different direction.

"So that wasn't my my goal, it wasn't to try to change their mind or to get them to see the light. My goal was to basically listen to whatever story they wanted to tell."

Heinzerling first became aware of Larry Ray when The Cut, of New York Magazine, published a report about him in April 2019, which included interviews with his victims including Daniel Barban Levin. Authorities began investigating after publication of the article.

It was through meeting Levin that he was able to start working on the documentary as Levin "wanted to make something that the survivors would be comfortable with" rather than let their story be told through a fictionalized lens as a Hollywood film.

Felicia Rosario
Daniel Barban Levin
Isabella Pollok
Felicia Rosario, Daniel Barban Levin and Isabella Pollok in "Stolen Youth: Inside the Cult at Sarah Lawrence."

The director met Felicia Rosario and Pollok shortly after Levin, and when Ray's trial began he started speaking with Rosario's siblings, Santos and Yalitza. Fellow victim Claudia Drury chose not to participate in the documentary.

"Daniel [Barban Levin] started a chain reaction that allowed others to feel confident about telling their story and they really wanted to be the ones to tell their story," the director went on. "They didn't want their story to be told for them, and I think that's kind of the central theme, or one of the central themes of this documentary: being able to tell your own story.

"Because Larry had told the story for them, he had co-opted their identities and told them a story that served him, part of making this documentary was them feeling like they could take that back."

The documentary follows the students over several years, with Rosario going on a healing journey that saw her leave Ray, come to understand what he had done to her, and reconnect with her family whom he had ostracized her from.

Reflecting on this, Heinzerling added: "After about two years, more like a year and a half, is when Felicia decided for herself that she was ready to meet her family. And that year-and-a-half journey was kind of a remarkable one of her finding her previous self and reuniting with aspects of her life that she had forgotten and put away, and had been completely maligned, and manipulated, and deteriorated by Larry's consistent psychological torture.

"Isabella [Pollok] had a different path. There's a lot I could [say about] the differences in those two individuals and why, but hopefully the film does a good job at explaining that it's complicated.

"Every one of the people in the film had a very different experience with Larry, a very different attachment to Larry, a different background that they were coming from. I think when you think about cults you think of everyone as equal under the leader and I think this is a cult-like situation but it doesn't have the kind of pyramid-scheme aspect where there's a dogma and there's a leader.

"I think each one of these individuals have their own relationship with Larry and the reason that it's cult-like is the fact that there's a group and that group dynamic is strengthening your conviction in that relationship with Larry, but each of those relationships was very different.

"Whether [he was] a father figure, or a friend, mentor, or was more of a lover, they all were based on different things and I think that's where the untangling of that web happens and that relationship, how deep you go in, can also be a little bit of a clue of how long it's going to take to get out."

The director added that he felt "timing" was also a key factor in getting the documentary made, because he felt those who had survived Ray's abuse were ready to share their story.

"I think they were all in points in their lives where they wanted to speak about this but had never really had someone, other than in the situation of the trial like a lawyer [...] who had the time to kind of listen to them," Heinzerling said. "And I think I just became a good listener.

"In the process of me listening they strengthened their own conviction in their stories, I think there's this thing that happens with filmmaking sometimes where the camera becomes a mirror to the individual who's speaking and I think, in this case, from what the survivors told me, they felt comfortable, and they felt strengthened by the telling of their story.

"It gave them confidence that what they were saying was true, because their truth had been questioned and they had so much doubt as far as who they were, or whether any of this would be believable."

Stolen Youth: Inside the Cult at Sarah Lawrence is out now on Hulu.