One of my most anticipated this year was Slonim Woods 9, a memoir by Daniel Barban Levin, a former Sarah Lawrence student who was in a notorious cult run out of their college dorm by the father of one of his roommates. That’s a lot to take in right there, but my god does it get worse.
I first heard about this bizarre story on a Last Podcast on the Left Side Stories episode, and it also appeared on the excellent Zealot podcast (RIP!). It sounded so bizarrely unlikely: first, what college students want their roommate’s dad living with them, and second, how did he manage the manipulations he did when again: college students? Did I mention it was a sex cult? Sadly, it was. It’s so, so bad.
Larry Ray had just been released from prison and his daughter, Talia Ray convinced her Sarah Lawrence roommates to let him stay at their on-campus apartment for awhile. Levin didn’t interact much with Larry during this time, but over the summer, Larry rented an apartment in Manhattan and some of the group moved there. Levin needed a place to stay while working in the city and short on funds, so he started staying there too.
This is when his manipulations began. What Levin does so excellently is show how a cult leader actually does what he does: by listening to people who are experiencing stress, anxiety, or upheaval in personal relationships, and then an almost cold-reading technique of pinpointing sensitive emotional areas and determining exactly how he can exploit that to gain control.
Larry also used a cruel tactic of convincing those under his sway that they’d broken expensive belongings of his, or ruined his daughter’s pricey clothing, or that they owed him for the money he’d spent on takeout food. He’d get them spun into a panic and then his forgiveness seemed so benevolent, like he really was helping them, or else that they owed him. It’s stomach-turning.
Even more stomach-turning is the sex aspect of this. Levin is a calm, measured writer, which stuck me as truly remarkable considering the harrowing events he’s writing about and having to relive as he does so. There’s sometimes a dreamlike quality to his descriptions of scenes, and it’s clear so much of this is traumatic memory.
More than anything I was impressed by him, with his ability to put into words so well how this power dynamic and these manipulations worked, and to describe his experiences and feelings clearly and in a way that shows how an intelligent, fairly well-grounded person was drawn under the spell of a master manipulator. Levin’s bravery in telling his story is immense.
It goes without saying that this is a tough read, but again, his bravery is stunning and I think provides a valuable perspective. It’s easy to dismiss these kind of groups when reading sensationalist news stories and think it could never happen to you or someone you care about. But it doesn’t really work like that, and he shows exactly why and how.
As I read more online about Larry Ray after finishing the book, I realized how much more there was to the story, with Ray controlling this group for years and years. He was also a con man, who apparently forced several of the young women under his control into sex work. It was also always a mystery how he had so much money, especially freshly out of prison: Levin describes a limo driver on call, pricey restaurant meals for a big group, and of course the Upper East Side apartment in a doorman building. This story just gets more astonishing at every turn. Levin’s memoir (fairly) only encompasses what he saw and experienced during his years involved, but I would’ve liked to have learned a bit more about that wider perspective. This is a heartbreaking but important story. published September 7, 2021 by Crown
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Language scholar Amanda Montell theorizes that language is one of the most significant factors in “manufacturing” ideology, the sense of togetherness and belonging, and the “us/them” dynamic that cults and cultlike organizations rely on.
In Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism, she explores actual cults, like Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple, Heaven’s Gate, Scientology, the Moonies, and the modern groups who — terrifyingly — employ cultlike principles in their organization and structures. These frequently include fitness movements like Bikram Yoga and SoulCycle, and most multilevel marketing organizations.
I loved reading Cultish, it was never not entertaining and informative on a range of topics, some quite surprising, but I think it strayed significantly from its original purpose. Although she does touch on the “uncanny lexicons” promised, it reads much more like general psychological studies of these cults and groups than it does a focus on linguistics.
In general that was ok, because even as someone who works in a branch of linguistics, I find it a fairly baffling and often dense subject. But Montell is a gifted writer who breaks topics down so clearly and understandably that I would’ve liked more detail around the specifics of how language is used.
Still, it’s incredibly good for what it is. Even flipping through it again looking for the quotes I’d marked, I was thinking I could read the entire thing again. As I mentioned it also delves into some unexpected areas, like emphasizing the similarities she found between cult leaders and abusive partners, a comparison she describes, as it became more evident to her, as “humbling.”
Her working through the various psychological theories around why cults hold appeal is useful in understanding the particular manipulations going on, and I think that applies on a broader level as well: “The behavioral economic theory of loss aversion says that human beings generally feel losses (of time, money, pride, etc.) much more acutely than gains; so psychologically, we’re willing to do a lot of work to avoid looking defeats in the eye.“
Even ideas that seem pretty self evident, like confirmation bias, are very well presented and explored here.
Common human irrationalities like hypochondria, prejudice, and paranoia are all forms of confirmation bias, where every little thing that happens can be interpreted as an illness, a reason to deride a whole demographic of people, or proof that something is out to get you. This phenomenon also explains why, to a willing listener, even the vaguest astrological horoscopes, psychic readings, and indistinctly “relatable” social media posts seem to resonate uniquely.
I think it’s crucial that we be reminded of that.
Montell also reminds how important it is to tell our own stories and create our own language for our experiences, challenges, and even our pain, in order to avoid falling under the spell of someone who promises they can give us the language to tell that story without our having to do the work ourselves. What an incredibly valuable and powerful message. “Not a guide, not a prophet, not a guru telling you just what to say. But a candle in the dimly lit library of existence. The only dictionary you need is already open.”
published June 15, 2021 by Harper Wave. I won a copy from the publisher in a Goodreads giveaway.
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