On January 20th, 2023, Larry Ray 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. Daniel Barban Levin escaped the cult and used writing to process his mind control experience. He also wanted to do something to help his friends, who were still psychologically imprisoned. His memoir, Slonim Woods 9, published in 2021, was a revealing and poetic description of his time in a mind control cult. Former members sometimes utilize writing as a device to release painful experiences through journaling, poetry, and novels. I loved listening to this book.
Levin holds an MFA from the University of California, Irvine. He is the recipient of several writing fellowships, with his work appearing in publications including Provincetown Arts, Bat City Review, and The Sarah Lawrence Review.
Levin talks with us about his goal for his memoir of “walking people through the experience of being compelled by a powerful personality by making that experience relatable and legible.” He hopes people who have difficulty imagining themselves in that position will be able to understand how a master manipulator operates. He talks about indoctrination into a cult as not a simple flip of a switch but rather someone attempting to survive in the way that we are all trying to do.
Living with the Enemy
Levin attended Sarah Lawrence College, and in 2009 during his sophomore year, he lived in a Slonim Woods 9, a house-style dorm with several friends. One of his dorm mates described her father, who had been framed and unjustly sent to jail, needed a place to stay for a few days. She claimed her father was an ex-Marine and had worked for intelligence agencies, among other amazing things.
The students agreed to let him stay for a bit. He bought food for everyone and later got access to a Manhattan apartment where Levin and his friends ended up living. When Ray arrived, “he sort of took over the whole environment, the social group.” Levin describes Ray as a narcissist and megalomaniac who slowly started to suck in his friends by offering his help, support, and version of alleged “therapy.” He incrementally started to confuse and disorient everyone, making them do rigorous exercises in combination with sleep deprivation. He initially did love bombing, a common practice used by cults.
Opening Up and Being Pulled In
Daniel and I talked about the inherent power imbalance–Ray was middle-aged compared to Levin and his friends, who were 18 and 19 years old. Ray acted like a father figure, making it easier to prey on Levin and his friends. Ray was the best man of disgraced convicted N.Y. police commissioner Bernie Kerik and claimed relationships with high-ranking individuals such as Gorbachev and George H.W. Bush. Kerik was pardoned by Trump. He conned everyone to believe he was a great counselor who could help the students with their childhood trauma or identity issues. There was trust created because of Ray’s certainty and claims of penetrating knowledge about human nature. Eventually, Ray demanded total obedience and punished the students if they hesitated or didn’t do what he told them they had to do.
Levin had a long conversation with Ray one day, where Levin talked about his mother being sick all of his life and the insecurities Levin had about his body, sex and sexuality, and relationships. After leaving the meeting, Ray and Levin walked to a waiting limousine that all of Levin’s friends were in. He later realized they were waiting the entire time he talked to Ray, which was between six and nine hours. This is something Levin himself would later experience, waiting in cars for hours for Larry.
Reality According to Ray
Ray used almost every element in the BITE Model of Authoritarian control and operated like a pimp and trafficker. He used confusion techniques, sleep deprivation, lying, gaslighting, and much more. For example, he would use shame and guilt constantly- accusing Levin and others of doing things to harm him. This co-opted their reality testing mechanisms that all healthy people need to understand what is really happening in their world. Hammering someone over and over with the idea that, in reality, isn’t true can cause them to believe it is, a mind control technique people like Ray are experts at employing.
Ray perpetrated sexual and psychological manipulation and physical abuse on his victims. According to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York press release, he “extracted false confessions from the victims to causing purported damages to Ray and his family and associates and then extorted payment for those purported damages through several means.”
Paying What You Don’t Owe
The press release discusses how Ray forced one female victim into commercial sex acts as a way to pay damages she didn’t actually owe. He ended up collecting millions in proceeds from the forced prostitution of this woman.
Because Levin was living in Ray’s apartment and Ray was buying the food, cooking the meals, and providing for him, Levin was made to feel he owed Ray as well. At one point, he was sleeping “maybe four hours a night,” which contributes to the ease with which Ray could exert control and is also a common mind control technique.
With this kind of continuous exhaustion, people just want the relief of being able to sleep and will start to admit to things they didn’t do because their minds are so muddled with exhaustion. They start thinking the cult leader is all-knowing, so maybe they did what they’re being accused of. It’s a vicious cycle.
Later, Levin spent time in England, which gave him literal space from Ray, but he still felt that pull to his abuser. He didn’t trust his own feelings about what was going on, which was a part of the program he’d been indoctrinated into. His friends seemed to be learning and growing through this, so Levin felt something was wrong with him. He felt intense relief being thousands of miles away in England while also feeling deep dread and panic.
Levin talks about returning to the Manhattan apartment and Ray increasing the intensity of the abuse, which Levin later saw as Ray testing the boundaries of what he could get away with. He discusses the hierarchy within the cult where someone always needed to be on the bottom, and it would rotate, which created a power dynamic in which everyone was desperate not to be on the bottom rung.
We discussed how we could know if we were being brainwashed and the Tedx talk I did. The first step is getting away from the environment, turning off your phone, and stopping doing the practice. Sleep, eat, listen to music, do things that connect you to your reality, and then learn about mind control paradigms. Net study models of mind control. Then deliberately seek out critics and former believers. Then honestly, reflect on your own direct experiences with this new information. Go back in your memory to the beginning of your exposure and ask yourself, “If I knew then what I know now, what would I do or say differently?” If the answer is that you would never have allowed the opening contact, then you know it is time to leave.
When Levin began writing his book, his friends were not yet out of the cult, so he hoped they would read it and see the truth. He talks about not being able to ask one another whether something seemed off or weird while they were in the cult, but he surmises that maybe they were wondering those things privately, and his saying it in the book might help crack something open. Additionally, he participated in a New York Magazine article linked below, which helped break the story and begin an FBI investigation.
Crossing the Gulf Publicly
Levin discusses the difference it made to him to be more public about his experience, how helpful this was to his mental health, and his feeling of being present. While he spoke about it in therapy to his parents and his girlfriend, being able to share it publicly helped him embrace it more fully. There was a gulf between him and others while he lived with the secret, but crossing that gulf, while scary, was life-changing.
The conversation with Levin and how he got in, got out, and recovered from mind control can be life-changing for everyone who reads his book and watches the HULU docuseries, STOLEN YOUTH: INSIDE THE CULT AT SARAH LAWRENCE. We must remember that people involved in cults are not stupid. They are vulnerable and being human means being vulnerable at various points in our lives. It’s worthwhile to understand that this could happen to any of us and to learn about the techniques used to pull us in so we can avoid it and help others do the same.
WBUR Here & Now part one: How did a group of Sarah Lawrence roommates end up in a cult? ‘Stolen Youth’ charts terrifying path
WBUR Here & Now part two: How easy is it to get trapped in a cult?
Hulu’s Impact x Nightline episode 16: “Under his Spell: Sarah Lawrence Dad Turned Predator” with Steven Hassan and survivors Daniel Barban Levin and Felicia Rosario
Impact x Nightline Podcast: “Under His Spell: Sarah Lawrence Dad Turned Predator” (podcast version of above)
Feb. 14, 2023 legal statement by former member Claudia in response to 4 year sentence of Isabella Pollack