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Could Anyone Be Brainwashed Into Joining A Cult? What Experts Say

“When you look at people who have been in a cult, you certainly can’t separate them out in terms of their intelligence level or their sophistication,” Dr. Joni Johnston, a forensic psychologist and author of “Serial Killers: 101 Questions True Crime Fans Ask,” told Oxygen.com.

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Executive Producers Of Peacock’s ‘Sex, Lies And The College Cult’ On Sarah Lawrence Cult Leader Larry Ray
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In the fall of 2010, Lawrence “Larry” Ray, a convicted felon, moved into his daughter Talia’s dorm room at Sarah Lawrence College in Westchester County. Ray, now 62, then managed to turn several students’ lives inside out and upside down, as seen in “Sex, Lies and the College Cult,” a true-crime Peacock documentary streaming now.

Ray gained psychological, emotional, and financial control of a small group of students, according to the 2019 New York Magazine article that triggered an FBI probe leading to Ray’s 2022 conviction on multiple charges.

How could bright young people fall so completely — and disastrously — under Larry Ray’s influence? Can anyone be brainwashed into joining a cult? 

According to an expert who spoke generally about the topic, indeed almost anybody could.

RELATED: Lawrence Ray, Man Who Moved Into Daughter's Sarah Lawrence Dorm, Convicted Of Exploiting Her College Friends

“When you look at people who have been in a cult, you certainly can’t separate them out in terms of their intelligence level or their sophistication,” Dr. Joni Johnston, a forensic psychologist and author of “Serial Killers: 101 Questions True Crime Fans Ask,” told Oxygen.com.

“What you find a lot of times is that these people are smart, they’re seekers, they’re open-minded, and they have convictions,” Johnston added. “Often they’re looking for a bigger purpose in life.” 

Another key factor is “situational vulnerability,” according to Johnston, whose work has involved interviewing cult members.

“It’s what provides the opening for this influence to come into their lives,” she said. “Maybe they’ve moved or gone through a breakup. Something may have caused a shift in their lives and protective forces are gone. They’re in a new or unfamiliar place in their lives.”

Lawrence Ray Ap

The fact that Ray’s victims were young adults doesn’t surprise Dr. N.G. Berrill, Ph.D., Director, NY Center for Neuropsychology and Forensic Behavioral Science.

“College students typically are in the early stages of forming their independent life and making decisions about who they want to be,” he told Oxygen.com. “They are in a unique place developmentally and situationally to fall under the spell of a cult.”

And while college is an exciting time for young people, there are pressures. “It’s an opportunity,” he said, “to demonstrate that you’re capable of becoming an adult and living autonomously. But there is a lot of anxiety.”

College kids aren’t the only ones at risk. There are some traits that might predispose people to falling prey to a cult leader’s sway.

“I do think there are certain personality characteristics that might lend themselves to being more vulnerable than other personality qualities or characteristics,” said Berrill.

Men and women who are highly dependent could be predisposed, along with “people who have a very strong need for approval or acceptance from someone who they may perceive as charismatic or having some type of implicit power. It could be political; it could be religious.”

To learn more about Larry Ray and his crimes, watch "Sex, Lies and the College Cult,” streaming now on Peacock.

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