Book describes inside Slonim Woods 9, where Sarah Lawrence dad Larry Ray's sex cult began
"I was in a cult."
It took Daniel Barban Levin a long time to use that word to describe what he says he endured for more than two years at the hands of Larry Ray, the man whose headline-grabbing federal case involves Sarah Lawrence College, extortion, forced labor, money-laundering and sex-trafficking.
Levin’s new book, “Slonim Woods 9” (Crown/Random House, Sept. 7), rewinds events to 2010 and takes readers inside the Sarah Lawrence dorm-townhouse of that name, from the perspective of someone who says he now wakes up every day trying to survive the psychological, physical and sexual abuse he suffered more than a decade ago.
It wasn't religious, and no one drank Kool-Aid, he says, but it was a cult.
Slonim Woods 9 is where Larry Ray moved as soon as he got out of jail in 2010, an on-campus townhouse where the father of a Sarah Lawrence sophomore somehow managed to live, unchallenged, with his daughter, Talia, and her roommates for most of a school year.
Ray arrived with an entourage for his reunion with Talia: a former detective, a former Marine (who would also crash at Slonim Woods 9 for a time) and a ponytailed man in a suit, each of whom insisted on shaking hands with each of the sophomores present.
Levin follows the story to the Upper East Side apartment where, federal prosecutors say, Ray’s criminal enterprise took shape, where Ray held a knife to Levin's throat, and humiliated him psychologically and sexually.
After Levin left the group, the action shifted again, to North Carolina, where things spiraled even further out of control, prosecutors say.
In February 2020 — nearly a decade after he walked into Slonim Woods 9 — Ray was handcuffed at his Piscataway, New Jersey, home where he was living with one of his victims. By then, prosecutors said, he had extorted nearly $1 million from his victims and their families and had forced one victim into prostitution, pocketed the proceeds of her trysts, and kept graphic photos of her to keep her working for him.
Levin said he wept as he watched the announcement of the charges against Ray, realizing the abuse hadn't stopped when he left years earlier.
If convicted, Ray, now 61, faces more than 100 years behind bars. He's being held at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in Manhattan, his bail denied, and is due before U.S. Magistrate Judge Lewis Liman on Sept. 13.
Levin's book — the first account of what happened from someone who lived through it — suggests the seeds of the criminal enterprise outlined in Ray's indictment lie along a wooded path near the center of the Sarah Lawrence College campus, in Slonim Woods 9.
It's where Levin says Ray — a self-described "master manipulator" who doesn't see what's bad about brainwashing — began to groom his victims, vulnerable college students who fell prey to head games, sleep deprivation and depravity, always couched as Ray helping them to improve themselves.
The ground under them was never firm after they met Larry Ray, Levin says; he wonders if it ever will be.
"There are days when I have to go through the mental steps, climb the mental ladder out of that psychological well by which I escaped in the first place," Levin, now 30, said in an interview with USA TODAY Network New York. "There are mornings when I have to do it all over again. And sometimes it's every morning for a number of days, and it's complicated."
'We were struck by lightning'
When Larry Ray was charged on Feb. 11, 2020, the first question many people asked — including Sarah Lawrence President Cristle Collins Judd, in a college-wide letter — was: How could the college not know a father was living on campus for nearly a year?
What Levin does in "Slonim Woods 9" is rewind to what the participants knew at the time, to show the factors Ray was able to exploit, geographical and interpersonal ones, to gain that foothold.
"I don't think any of this would have happened if this very specific and unique man hadn't happened to show up on this campus at that time," said Levin, 30, who now lives in Los Angeles. "We were struck by lightning."
Slonim Woods 9 is a two-story townhouse, one of 11 “cooperative living units” where students have their own bedrooms — four upstairs, four downstairs — and share a living room and kitchen.
"If you ask any Sarah Lawrence student about the logistics of how this was possible, I don't think anyone at Sarah Lawrence would be surprised that that happened," Levin said. Tracking anyone's comings and goings was not a priority then for the security staff, who Levin pointed out were busy ridding the campus of forbidden pets. (He had relocated Talia's illegal campus cat to his parents' home in Hunterdon County, New Jersey; it quickly went missing, never to be found.)
"There's a real sense of freedom on campus, which I think has a lot of positives," Levin said. "And there can be a big negative consequence, like this one."
'Honeyboy' and 'honeygirl'
The other factor that Ray exploited was the groundwork Talia laid, repeating for any roommate who would listen the litany of woe she and her father had faced.
Levin says the narrative went like this.
Her mother, Teresa, was abusive and had won custody of Talia and her younger sister, Ava. Ray was jailed for custody violations in what they insisted was a conspiracy cooked up by Teresa and Bernard Kerik, the former NYPD commissioner.
Ray was best man at Kerik’s wedding, but there was a falling out: Ray’s testimony landed Kerik behind bars for corruption. Talia, loyal to her father, had declared her independence from Teresa, and spent time in a homeless shelter in Bridgewater, New Jersey, rather than live under Teresa's roof.
With that as prelude, Talia announced that her father — the "honeyboy" to her "honeygirl" — was getting out of jail and needed a place to stay.
"She was our friend and a roommate," Levin said. "We would be the villains if we, our sort of bougie private school, Sarah Lawrence selves, said: 'No, no, no. You've gone through this horrible trauma. You lived in homeless shelters just to stand by your dad. You paid your way and got yourself into the school and now he's finally out. But you figure something else out.'"
As soon as Ray arrived, Levin said he realized, "Talia had been Larry lite."
Levin writes that Ray immediately made himself useful, cooking dinner for them, ordering takeout, cleaning up after them. He slept on an air mattress in Talia’s first-floor bedroom.
Ray listened. He began to counsel Isabella Pollok, Talia's best friend and, now, a co-defendant in the case. She had problems that he could help her talk through.
So did their roommate Santos. And another roommate, Claudia.
Before long, Larry begins to sleep in Isabella's bedroom at Slonim Woods.
Students called it “Sarah Lawrencing” someone, the cliquish way of barely acknowledging others as they pass, as less than a blip, an afterthought, if any thought at all.
It’s a commentary on the haughty culture at the school, where advisers are called “dons,” there are no majors and tuition is among the highest in the country ($79,779 in 2020-21).
Famous Sarah Lawrence alumni include former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, journalist Barbara Walters, Yoko Ono, and "Star Wars" director J.J. Abrams.
The campus is technically in Yonkers, but the college uses the tonier Bronxville mailing address. If you ask students, Sarah Lawrence is in "Bronkers" or "Yonksville."
At first, what Larry Ray gave the Slonim 9 roommates was the opposite of Sarah Lawrencing. He listened intently, intensely, got personal, asked deep and probing questions, like, “What do you think is wrong with you?”
If they listened to Ray, and took his way of thinking to heart, he promised they would gain clarity, something in short supply for people ages 18 to 22 at a key turning point in their lives.
Sarah Lawrence — where the unofficial slogan is "We're different. So are you" — revels in a unique pedagogical pedigree, one that suggests there are no clear answers and that there's a process of exploring and becoming. That's a scary place to be, for someone seeking certainty, Levin said.
"(Ray) came in and said: 'I can tell you how to live. Just hang out with me and you'll know quite quickly. You'll be an excellent person.' He was like, 'I can make this all very simple for you.'"
Levin was drawn to that certainty, craving the one-on-one attention he got from Ray during a marathon conversation at a Manhattan Starbucks.
“All I wanted was to be like him," Levin said. "To never be unhappy or unsure about anything, ever again.”
93rd and Third
At the end of sophomore year, the roommates vacated Slonim Woods 9 and Ray invited them to stay with him at his Upper East Side apartment, which actually belonged to that ponytailed friend, Lee Chen, whom Ray had met in prison.
Apartment 15E in the Waterford Building, at 300 E. 93rd St., would become Levin's home for that summer, the following winter break (when he was back from studying abroad in England), the next summer, fall and winter break. He commuted to Bronxville for classes.
Levin writes that Ray would produce wads of cash from the backpack that was always within his reach. There were envelopes bulging with cash for them to count. For a time, there was a driver always idling in a limo.
The apartment was the center of Levin's life, a one-bedroom apartment where he slept on the couch and Talia and Isabella and Ray shared the single bed in the single bedroom.
“At first (it) struck me as odd. But it seemed to be a norm everyone had accepted, so I did, too,” Levin writes.
Another norm in the apartment was the most trivial things becoming daily chaos — crisis after manufactured crisis, saboteurs in their midst, beset by conspirators. When each crisis was resolved, Ray would marvel at all the trouble they had caused.
There was the saga of the scratched frying pan, the bent handle on the oven door, the uncooked dinner, the Thanksgiving turkey, the unpurchased Herbes de Provence and duck fat, Talia’s creased cashmere sweaters, Talia’s missing law-school application.
“Why would you do this to Talia?” Levin recalls a wounded Ray asking.
Levin writes that Ray positioned himself as all-knowing.
A partial list of things Ray knows: how to give a massage; how to strangle a person to death; how a man showers and shaves with a safety razor; how a Marine who is holding back the unit will be shot in the back and killed; how the chemistry of birth control works; all about masturbation; all about personal hygiene; the pH levels in Manhattan’s water supply; how to eat a Ding Dong (dunked in ice cold milk); the proper way to make scrambled eggs.
Ray made it clear he had powerful friends. There he was in photos with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, with President George H.W. Bush. There was a letter somewhere, they were told, thanking Larry for singlehandedly ending the war in Kosovo.
Even an ocean away, the pull of Ray was strong. Studying abroad, Levin began to hear voices, an irrepressible inner monologue.
“I need to be there, to be better,” the voice said. “This feeling I’m calling ‘nervous’ is evidence of exactly that, that I need him to help me.”
Ray had Levin believing his powers were strong. He said Levin’s acne outbreak was a direct result of the repressed puberty triggered by his teachings. When his sickly mother was doing better than he expected, Levin wondered if, “from a distance, Larry had somehow helped her.”
In Levin's retelling, sex permeates the apartment.
Ray repeatedly suggested Levin have sex in public. He watched as Isabella scrolled a porn website, watched Levin and Isabella have sex, then took part. He goaded Levin into a humiliating and disturbing episode of self-harm, in front of the group. Another time, he tightened a makeshift garrote around Levin's penis.
Tension fills the pages of "Slonim Woods 9."
'Mini boot camp for the mind'
When Levin called home and talked to his father, explaining how Ray is taking care of them, and helping him “to figure out things” in “a mini boot camp for the mind,” there was a pause on the other end of the line.
“It sounds kind of like a cult, Dan,” his father said. “Sometimes, when you talk this way, it sounds like you’re brainwashed or something.”
Later, Levin writes, Ray would have a thought about that.
“People are so negative about the word ‘brainwashing,’” he said. “I don’t see what’s wrong with it. That is what I’m doing. I’m washing your brains. You should tell your dad that,” he said.
All these years later, Levin has learned to frame what happened to him, to look at it, not as something that defines him, but as something that happened to him.
"I was assaulted, and I didn't deserve to be hurt or touched that way or coerced into doing things I didn't want to do," he said. "So I can kind of set everything else aside and say that was wrong. That's what the justice system is here for."
He has told his story, has found the language, and he has a right to his story, he said.
"These are kind of the rocks that I am holding onto in the whitewater of this experience," he said.
Reach Peter D. Kramer, a 33-year staffer, at email@example.com or on Twitter at @PeterKramer.