Slonim Woods 9 by Daniel Barban Levin

Daniel Barban Levin’s Slonim Woods 9: A Memoir (Penguin Random House, 2021) tells the story about his experience in the so-called “Sarah Lawrence Cult.” Levin’s experience in this cult began when he was attending Sarah Lawrence College his housemate’s father—Larry Ray, who had just gotten out of prison—moved in with Levin and the rest of his housemates. Ray proved to be popular among Levin and his friends, insisting that he could help them with their problems. Eventually, the group became so close that they all moved into a small apartment in Manhattan. It was in that apartment where the abuse, violence, blackmail, and ritualized torture began. 

Levin’s memoir is a vivid and poetic look at a brutal period in his life. Levin does an excellent job of taking the reader along on his slow tumble into the cult that Ray methodically created, carefully exhibiting what confounds many about cults: how they are created, and why people put up with the abuse. Levin explains that Ray preyed on their youth and inexperience, coming into their lives at a time of flux and seemingly offering all the answers they craved: 

“Of course it is desirable to listen to someone who shows up and tells you they have the answers to what’s really going on in the world, as well as how to live so that you never feel bad or confused ever again. If that person does exist, and if they are who they say they are, then everything must operate according to some kind of perceivable order, which would be an enormous relief” (267). 

That Ray seemed to have all the answers and seemed to care for them is part of what made the abuse tolerable, Levin’s memoir suggests. What makes this memoir so valuable is its tracking of how cults are formed and why people stick with them, even as things get progressively worse. Levin’s text forces you as a reader to go along with him as he is slowly engulfed by Ray’s influence. In the beginning, Ray gave Levin everything he needed—financial assistance, a stable home in New York City, as well as emotional support. Levin’s memoir highlights, however, how imperceptible the negative changes in Ray’s behaviour were when they started to happen, as well as the ways in which the necessary justification of Ray’s behaviour was done amongst the members of the cult and within Levin’s internal world. Part of that justification was blocking out the sexual and physical abuse that Levin and the rest of the cult members eventually began to endure at the hands of Ray. One poignant passage explains the way this mental blocking was done: 

“One way of dealing with the memory you can’t bear is that you begin to build the box. The box is the same shape and has the same dimensions as the real room you’re in when the memory is made. the boxes walls overlay exactly upon the walls that are really there, made of wood and sheet metal and drywall, filled with plaster and rats and gypsum dust, the voices that I go up from downstairs, and the firebreaks to stop the whole place from burning all at once. The main differences that in the real world there our doors to get in and out. In your hood there is only more wall, so whatever happened is sealed up inside. Then the box and everything in it becomes very small, and you tuck it away on a shelf inside of you. You can put it to your ear like a seashell and hear something happening inside but it sounds very far away—a whisper of an echo of something that happened to someone who isn’t you, but is a lot like you” (114). 

Heartbreaking passages like this one really resonated with me as a reader. Cults have always been a mystery to me, but reading about Levin’s experience really contextualized how easy it is to fall into a situation like this one, and what the subsequent trauma does to those who have endured a personality like Ray’s, even years later. Levin’s abuser has now been indicted on federal charges, but the experience lives on in this important memoir–as a record, and as a warning. 

Please add Slonim Woods 9 to your Goodreads shelf, visit Daniel Barban Levin’s website, and follow him on Twitter

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About the Writer: 

Jesyka Traynor is an academic living in Kingston, Ontario, Canada. When she’s not writing or researching her dissertation, she’s consuming all the true crime and non-fiction she can find time for. Jesyka holds two degrees in English literature and is currently pursuing a doctorate in contemporary Californian literature. Her work on women in twenty-first century true crime is forthcoming from Crime Fiction Studies. 

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