The skills of a cult leader

When we think of cult leaders, we tend to think of those with large followings. But that same kind of phenomenon can occur with smaller numbers, even within households, because the kinds of skills used by a cult leader to control others can be seen in abusive relationships where the abused person seems unable to escape from the clutches of the abusers, even though on the surface they seem to have the ability to walk away. The abuser seems to know exactly what buttons to push with each captive, which combination of threats and affection work to keep them from leaving.

I was struck by the case of Larry Ray who has just been sentenced to 60 years in prison for trafficking. It starts with his daughter Talia asking her seven dorm roommates at Sarah Lawrence College if her father, who had just been released from prison, could stay in their dorm for a short while and they agreed.

The father who sexually and psychologically manipulated a group of college students for years after moving into his daughter’s college dorm room in New York was sentenced to 60 years in prison Friday, according to the US Department of Justice.

Authorities have said that as early as 2010, Ray subjected college students and other victims to sexual and psychological manipulation and physical abuse using tactics including “sleep deprivation, psychological and sexual humiliation, verbal abuse, threats of physical violence, physical violence, threats of criminal legal action, alienating the victims from their families, and exploiting the victims’ mental health vulnerabilities.”

“Larry Ray is a monster,” US Attorney Damian Williams said in the Friday news release. “For years, he inflicted brutal and lifelong harm on innocent victims. Students who had their lives ahead of them. He groomed them and abused them into submission for his own gain.”

Ray, who lived in his daughter’s room at Sarah Lawrence College, forced one woman to engage in commercial sex acts – defined by the government as any sex act on account of which anything of value is given to or received by any person – to pay damages that she didn’t owe, prosecutors said.

Ray collected sexually explicit photos of the victim, which he used to coerce her into continued commercial sex acts, authorities said.

He also used violence, according to the government’s news release. Prosecutors said Ray once tied the victim to a chair and nearly suffocated her by placing a plastic bag over her head.

“The victims made payments to Ray by draining their parents’ savings, opening credit lines, soliciting contributions from acquaintances, selling real estate ownership, and at Ray’s direction, performing unpaid labor for Ray and earning money through prostitution,” officials said in the news release. Williams said they paid him millions of dollars.

It boggles the mind that university authorities would allow a parent to live indefinitely in a college dorm room and it does not speak well of the college for doing so.

It is an extraordinary story of how someone can develop such a powerful hold over people.

Within days of his release, Larry Ray moved onto Sarah Lawrence’s campus. He planted himself in the common area, cooking steak dinners and ordering expensive delivery for Talia and her seven housemates. While they ate, he told them stories in a nasal Brooklyn accent about his long and decorated history as a government agent, his former work as an international CIA operative, how he recovered Stinger missiles off the black market and engineered a cease-fire in Kosovo. He loved to preach the values of the Marine Corps and dropped references to his relationships with high-ranking American military officers.

Over time he developed such power over these and other students that they distanced themselves from their parents and ruined their lives, even though they had such promising futures. His first victim was one of the roommates named Isabella.

Isabella had come to Sarah Lawrence on a full academic scholarship from an all-girls Catholic high school in San Antonio. After her breakup, she seemed to take comfort in Larry’s company. “I’m 19, I was having a lot of difficulty making sense of things, I wasn’t in a good place,” Isabella says. “He started to help me kind of process and make sense of a lot of things I just couldn’t make sense of.” Talia’s boyfriend at the time remembers seeing Larry and Isabella reclining on Talia’s bed. Larry was stroking Isabella’s hair, soothing her. “He’s like, ‘Nobody’s going to hurt my baby girl,’ ” the ex-boyfriend says. Larry said he was going to start sleeping in Isabella’s room, an arrangement that made the boyfriend uncomfortable. “You’re acting like I’m going to be sleeping with her,” Larry responded, “but I’m going to be sleeping on the floor. She needs someone to help her.”

“Isabella was pretty fragile,” says Juli Anna. “In fact, a lot of people in that building were pretty fragile.”

That December, the night before Isabella was to return home for winter break, Larry called her family. According to Isabella’s aunt, Larry told her mother that Isabella had been sexually abused as a child by a family friend and that if Isabella were to go home for break, she might commit suicide. Isabella’s mother was taken aback. She had been very close to her daughter and had never heard her say anything about an assault. “You let this happen to her,” Larry told Isabella’s mom, according to her aunt.

The article goes on to describe all the ways in which he manipulated the other students and coerced money from them and their families. It is hard to digest the full scale of manipulations described in the article and the tragic consequences.

What I am also curious about is how some people like Ray arrive at the complicated set of skills that enable them to unerringly identify the specific vulnerabilities of those people who are susceptible to their psychologically manipulations to control them. They seem to know exactly when their victim is on the verge of walking out and when to turn on the charm and tenderness or make stronger threats to keep them compliant. They seem to be able to do all these things smoothly and yet it seems unlikely that they had many opportunities to practice them in the process of perfecting them.

This is probably one of the main distinguishing features of sociopaths, that they seem to have acquired early in life the desire to manipulate others, the skills to do so, and the ability to not care what happens to their victims.


  1. moarscienceplz says

    “What I am also curious about is how some people like Ray arrive at the complicated set of skills that enable them to unerringly identify the specific vulnerabilities of those people who are susceptible …”
    There are so many people who are dying to tell their relationship problems in excruciating detail to anyone who will listen. Any intelligent person who wanted to learn how to exploit human vulnerabilities can get a master course just by listening and making occasional sympathetic noises.

  2. lanir says

    I think they probably get to screw it up a lot more easily and with fewer consequences than you might think. People like that aren’t after just anyone. They’re looking for someone who has been damaged by others already. Someone who’s more vulnerable. If they screw it up by targeting the wrong kind of person or pushing the wrong way to take advantage of someone’s damage, they probably don’t come off as sociopaths, they just seem like assholes. Or even if they do manage to impress their would-be victim with their true nature, the type of people they target are going to have a harder time standing up to them. Or have people who are close to them, trust them, and will believe them if they try to report their abuser.

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