Why Do We Fail People in Cults? Lessons from the Larry Ray trial.

New York Magazine Intelligencer/April 16, 2022

By Ezra Marcus and James D. Walsh

For nearly three weeks in March, Phil Elberg would take the train from New Jersey to the federal courthouse in lower Manhattan to watch the trial of Larry Ray. Elberg, a retired attorney, wasn’t representing anyone in the case, and while high-profile trials sometimes attract true-crime rubberneckers, Elberg was hardly one of them. For decades, Elberg had represented victims of coercive control, including two people involved in the infamous NXIVM cult long before its leader was indicted. He also worked with former patients of KIDS of North Jersey, a program for troubled teens that abused and brainwashed adolescents in its care.

Like most unusual specialties, his has a backstory. When Elberg was in his early 20s, his younger sister introduced him to someone she described as her boyfriend. The man, Elberg says, turned out to be a cult leader, a description he does not use lightly. Elberg’s sister spent the next 40 years under his control until she died in 2009.

“There are people out there who meeting them is like winning the negative lottery,” Elberg said. “My sister’s experience made me realize that it could happen to anyone.”

When asked why he felt compelled to make the trek to watch Ray’s victims recount the harrowing details of their own experience with control, coercion, and abuse, Elberg said Ray was a maximalist case study that fascinated him. Then he paused.

“I’ve spent too much of my life thinking about what I did or didn’t do, the signs I didn’t pick up on when my sister was trying to leave,” he said. “When I thought about Claudia Drury’s parents, Santos Rosario’s parents, and the things they did or didn’t do, I thought to myself, Every family has a story. It’s a mistake to ever make this about the family and not give the devil his due. And Larry Ray is the devil.”

Ray’s trial ended last week with the jury speedily declaring him guilty on 15 charges including sex trafficking, extortion, and forced labor. Much of the trial was made up of witness testimony about coercion, intimidation, violence, and control. Ray was the subject of a New York story in 2019 that sparked an FBI investigation; he will be sentenced in September and faces life in prison.

While reporting on Ray, we have tried to keep some version of Elberg’s “negative lottery” metaphor in mind. What are the odds that a Sarah Lawrence College student’s dad could move into a dorm and proceed to manipulate a group of students into years of servitude and misery? Yet understanding how improbable that scenario is hasn’t helped us answer the question everyone asks: How the hell did it happen?

People who ask that question come at it from one of two angles. They either want to know exactly what it was about Ray’s personality, his charm and cunning nature, that roped his victims in, or they want our take on the foundational failures (parental, legal, or institutional) that allowed Ray to prey on his victims. Why was he so strong, in essence, or in what way were the victims weak?

The first question is less of a mystery. Ray was a large and captivating character. He swept in and offered unfettered attention, encouragement, and concrete advice when other adults (parents, professors, actual therapists) might offer abstract guidance. All of it was packaged with the trappings of a “cool” dad, someone who ordered extravagant takeout dinners, provided a crash pad in Manhattan, and “talked at an impossible clip about topics ranging from tomato sauce to the military,” as Daniel Barban Levin, one of Ray’s victims, wrote in his memoir, Slonim Woods 9. Not all of Ray’s daughter’s roommates bought into his shtick, but those who did quickly found themselves stuck.

The other, more vexing question speaks to the guardrails in Ray’s victims’ lives. Their families tried, in different ways, to pry their children from Ray’s grip. They often found that, as if wading into quicksand, their efforts made things worse. Ray convinced his adherents that he had something close to mind-reading abilities then used that belief to implant notions in them of childhood abuse, which were often coupled with accusations that their parents were part of a shadowy conspiracy. Any effort parents made to extract their kids was proof of both parental overreach and Ray’s fantastic conspiracy. Isabella Pollok, whom the government has charged as Ray’s co-conspirator, accused her family of failing to protect her from a sexual predator and cut off contact. Drury also cut ties with her parents, testifying in housing court that her mother had been in cahoots with Ray’s enemy, Bernie Kerik. The Rosario siblings began telling people their parents were drug dealers.

“I can’t reach you. What changed? I don’t understand,” wrote Levin’s father in an email to him during his senior year of college. “This only seems to happen when you are at Larry’s, but I can’t figure it out. Are you in a trance? Drugs?”

The Rosario parents, who had three children fall under Ray’s spell, told us they went to the NYPD three times to report Ray but were told there was nothing the police could do because their children were adults.

“Institutions, including the NYPD, need to be aware that abusers are manipulative and clever,” said Chitra Raghavan, an expert in coercive control and victim psychology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “People take you seriously when you tell them a story that resonates with them, and often when parents or students tell the story, they’re halting — they don’t have the language to explain how afraid they are or how intense the abuse is.”

Of course, why should parents, victims, or family members have the language to describe such an astronomically unlikely dynamic? Often, by the time they realize what’s happening, it’s already too late.

The Larry Ray story is often referred to as the Sarah Lawrence cult story, and yet we never hear from that institution.

After we published our story in 2019, Sarah Lawrence’s president, Cristle Collins Judd, wrote in a statement that the school “found no evidence to support the claim that this parent lived on the campus during the 2010–11 academic year.”

When Ray was indicted nine months later, Judd released another statement. “The question, How could the College not know this?, has been asked by many, including myself,” she wrote. “What we do know is that no reports about this parent’s presence on campus during that semester, formal or informal, were lodged by students sharing that small living space, by their student neighbors, or by anyone else.”

The idea that a man like Ray could live on a college campus for months without triggering some schoolwide alarm seems preposterous until one considers the social environment of liberal-arts campus life, the housing setup, and the atmosphere within this particular dorm.

The dorm in question, Slonim Woods 9, is a freestanding house without a live-in resident adviser. Although overnight guests at Sarah Lawrence were required to sign in with the campus front desk, there was no mechanism to keep track of who was actually coming and going. Ray would only have needed someone to unlock the front door for him. All eight residents knew each other, and Ray’s daughter, Talia, had told many of them over the previous year about her heroic father. It just didn’t seem all that weird to some of Talia’s roommates that Ray needed somewhere to crash after getting out of prison. And as Levin told us, the dorm’s residents were “talking about getting a big bag of sand and dumping it out on the kitchen floor to make a tiny beach — it’s not like we were trying to have a normal household.”

While there may not have been reports filed about Ray during the window of time Judd referenced, evidence introduced at trial shows that some faculty members were made aware of Ray while his victims were enrolled at the school.

Drury testified that not long after meeting her roommate’s father, she told a professor, Nancy Baker, that she felt uncomfortable with Ray sleeping in Pollok’s room. In 2011, Drury sent an email to Allen Green, then Sarah Lawrence’s dean of student life, along with several other teachers, administrators, and students, in which she seemed to recant that statement. Titled “The Truth,” the email outlined a bizarre tale: Drury claimed she had expressed “fears and concerns about Larry Ray being a bad, dangerous, manipulative, and sexually deviant man” to teachers and administrators only because Ray’s ex-wife had ordered her to do so. Drury later testified that she had written the letter with direct input from Ray.

Drury praised Ray further in a 2012 email to Green, in which she asked to be reinstated after taking time off because of a hospitalization for mental-health issues. “Sarah Lawrence is the place this journey began for me, when I met Larry for the first time two years ago,” she wrote. “His friendship changed my life.” She went on to describe how Ray inserted himself into her psychiatric care, meeting with her doctors and talking to her parents on her behalf in order “to break them out of their denial.” She was readmitted to Sarah Lawrence.

In several 2011 emails we’ve seen, Pollok describes to Baker and another professor, Kim Ferguson, how important her relationship with Ray was. Green was cc’d on one of the emails.

“I have only a very vague memory of this,” Baker wrote in a 2018 email in response to an inquiry that outlined Ray’s dealings with her former students. “I knew something not good was happening either to one of my students or to a roommate, but I had no idea it was this bad or that the father in question had been in prison on a felony charge.” Baker did not respond to a recent request for comment. Ferguson declined to comment when reached in 2019. Michael Davis, another professor cc’d on Drury’s 2011 email, also declined to comment.

Green, who retired in 2019, has never responded to a request for comment.

Aside from Judd’s statements, the school has said little about the case. The Sarah Lawrence Emanon, the campus newspaper, has not published an article about Ray or the trial.

Just because the school has been mum about Ray doesn’t mean the community isn’t interested. A rotating crew of current Sarah Lawrence students watched nearly every minute of Ray’s trial from the gallery over the past month. The students were about the age of Ray’s victims when he met them.

Elberg and those students are just a few examples of the larger group of people invested in Ray’s case. Over the years, we’ve heard from other victims of Ray’s and of other abusers. Shortly after Ray’s guilty verdict, we received a text from the mother of a former student at a prestigious college who fell under the sway of a classmate’s parent under eerily similar circumstances. She hasn’t seen her child in years, and Ray’s guilty verdict offered her a sliver of hope.

“One of the reasons these things go on the way they go on is because in order to stop them, you have to be all in. You can’t stop them by nicking them in the arm. You need to devote your life to taking them down,” said Elberg.

It’s easy to see how the burden of ending coercive-control relationships falls on the victims themselves. The abusers are simply too adept at exploiting institutional blind spots and toeing the law’s fuzzy boundaries, careful not to raise the hackles of law enforcement. In Ray’s case, it wasn’t until the victims began telling their stories — to the press, to law enforcement, and to the jury — that they brought their abuser to justice.

Few stories could be harder to tell than Drury’s. During her two and a half days of testimony, spread out across 12 days because of delays caused by Ray’s two apparent medical emergencies, Drury brought the full measure of Ray’s horrific abuse into focus. According to Drury’s attorney, Brooke Cucinella, Drury insisted she stay until she told her whole story — the details of her own abuse and what she witnessed Ray do to others.

“Claudia is among the smartest women I have met — she is still healing, but her strength is inspiring, and she will heal from this. I cannot wait to see what choices she makes for herself going forward. I feel lucky to know her,” Cucinella said.

Soon after the verdict, Cucinella and Assistant U.S. Attorney Danielle Sassoon called Drury to tell her Ray had been convicted on all 15 counts. Sassoon surprised Drury by having the Rosario siblings — Santos, Yalitza, and Felicia, who were all in the courtroom to hear the verdict — on speakerphone. Drury had not spoken to any of the Rosarios in years, since even before her 2019 escape from Ray.

“Hearing their voices, their relief, that they were together and happy — that was more meaningful to me than Larry finally being held accountable to what he did to each of us,” Drury said through Cucinella.

In the days following the verdict, Drury still struggled to find some inner peace. But according to Cucinella, she also recognized the role she played in holding Ray accountable and felt a sense of relief that her story had resonated with the jury. She had helped them understand that Ray was culpable for everything she and her friends had been through.

Drury has begun to think about her future, about life beyond Ray and the unwanted media attention that recounted the sordid details of her abuse. For the first time since she was in college, Drury is free to think about what she wants out of life. She’s considering a career in law or academia while rebuilding her relationships with friends and loved ones. Whatever her future holds, Drury is certain about one thing: It won’t be defined by Larry Ray.

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