Editor's Note: Peggy Drexler is a research psychologist and the author of "Our Fathers, Ourselves: Daughters, Fathers, and the Changing American Family" and "Raising Boys Without Men." She is at work on a book about how women are conditioned to compete with one another. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers. View more opinion on CNN.
(CNN) - What to make of the story of the man arrested and accused of exploiting and abusing his daughter's friends and former roommates at Sarah Lawrence College? It's shocking, certainly — and in more ways than one.
Thanks to a federal investigation launched, incredibly, only after the publication of a story on the website of New York magazine, Lawrence Ray was indicted Tuesday on several counts of extortion, sex trafficking, money laundering and more. Ray pleaded not guilty to charges during his arraignment Wednesday in a federal court in Manhattan.
Officials allege the 60-year-old Ray began grooming his victims after moving into his daughter's campus housing at Sarah Lawrence College in 2010 — not long after being released from prison on charges related to a child custody dispute.
Later, in 2011, some of the young people moved into his Manhattan apartment with him, the indictment alleges, and in 2013 some went with him to North Carolina, where among other things he compelled them to do physical labor on his family's property.
For starters, how, exactly, was an ex-convict (and grown man) allowed to install himself in undergraduate campus housing, from which he would allegedly manipulate young women and men, without anyone else noticing? How was he able to eventually (allegedly) extort nearly $1 million from five of these college students, much of it drained from their parents' savings, without anyone raising the alarm? Or to compel at least one of the young women into prostitution without being found out? How was he able to do these things for nearly 10 years without anyone noticing?
Are we living in a world that conditioned to mind its own business, that conditioned to disengage? Have we lost our grip on what is normal social interaction? We can't know exactly how this could have happened, but something went horribly wrong.
Many people must have overlooked what were surely some strange and worrisome circumstances. At the same time, the conditions for psychological exploitation were fairly ripe — something Ray, described by his former friend and former New York Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik as a "psychotic con man" — likely knew, or figured out soon enough, if the allegations are true.
Late adolescents, defined as people between the ages of 18 and 20, are extremely vulnerable as they learn to — and yearn to — separate from their parents and assert independence. They are consumed by, and confused by, self-discovery. They often do not yet know who they are. Figuring that out is, after all, part of the point of college.
They are, in many ways, nearly perfect victims for a twisted mind.
Because in many ways they're still kids, but adults tend to treat them the way they treat themselves: as adults. But just because people this age have mature bodies doesn't mean they're entirely prepared for adulthood. They experience internal conflict: They may desire to be free but also desire the comforts of home.
They may no longer think they should rely on adult oversight and advice, but they do still want, and need, adult guidance (just not from their parents, usually). They begin to want to abandon "teen" activities and hang out with adults instead, often viewing themselves as "fully grown" even as they know very little about the real world.
Here is where a predator comes in.
Ray's alleged victims were not long out of their childhood homes — college sophomores — when he entered their world and positioned himself as a father figure willing to counsel and guide them as they made their way into adulthood. He worked to further separate them from their parents and the rest of the outside world during a summer some spent living in his Upper East Side apartment.
According to the indictment, he verbally and physically abused them, targeting them one at a time, trying to instill guilt, self-doubt and paranoia in them, and taking explicit photos.
The more they moved away from their parents — which both sides may have seen as a fairly natural part of the growth process — the easier it would have been for him to make them become dependent on him.
The circumstances and development of many of today's younger generation make such a scenario even more likely. We are living in an age when kids are arguably less mature than they've ever been. Psychologist Jean Twenge's studies into what she calls the "i-generation" show today's 18-year-olds exhibiting similar milestone behaviors to 15-year-olds of the late 1970s, largely because of a delayed socialization, she says, tied to smartphone use.
Such kids may be more susceptible than previous generations to influence and coercion. Their logical brains may know right from wrong, a good feeling from a bad one, but their emotional brains may question their instincts.
If the situation alleged and detailed in the indictment is an indication, Ray was a mastermind and obviously very compelling: When he was arrested at his New Jersey home Tuesday, his daughter and at least one of her former roommates were present, according to US Attorney Geoffrey Berman.
In a letter to the college community, Sarah Lawrence College President Cristle Collins Judd said the indictment raised "troubling questions," but added that "it is important to reiterate that the crimes for which this man has been indicted did not occur at Sarah Lawrence, even though he appears to have met certain of his victims while they were students here."
Collins Judd noted that college officials at the time did not know that Ray had moved in and no reports about his presence were lodged by anyone on campus.
"Perhaps because the apartment in question was a small townhouse with its own entrance, students in other housing would not necessarily have been aware of the presence (and have told us they were not) of this student's father," she wrote.
If parents of late adolescents are to take away anything from this incident, it might be an understanding that while parent-child separation is natural, late adolescents are in many ways still children. Colleges could benefit from this perspective, too. Certainly, the many adults at Sarah Lawrence overlooked something major in letting this go on — it is hard to imagine that no one noticed at all. Perhaps people thought the dad in the dorm was quirky and interesting. Without a doubt, however, they should have questioned it more.
For the rest of us, a plea to remember our accountability — not only for people of this age, who are very much still works in progress, but also those around us in general. Minding our own business is one thing. Disengaging entirely from humanity, and from right and wrong, is quite another. Certainly, we can do better.