Protected from Ourselves: Daniel Barban Levin Interviewed by Frances Badalamenti

A memoir about disentangling from a cult.

Slonim Woods2

When I was asked to interview Daniel Barban Levin about his recent memoir, Slonim Woods 9 (Crown), I was on board right away. It was about a cult, a subject that I find highly intriguing. I’ve read books about cults, watched all the cult documentaries, thought a lot about what draws people into cults, what pathologies make up a cult leader. And even more intriguing is that this particular cult narrative involved a small group of students attending Sarah Lawrence College.

As someone who went to a commuter-style state school for undergrad, I was immediately hooked by the idea that something like this could happen at such an idyllic, East Coast private liberal arts college. Although that was not my world, I had it in my mind that a place like Sarah Lawrence is all about fall sweaters, decent cafeteria meals, and smart students. I would never imagine that a cult led by one of the students’ father could happen at such a place. I wondered: How could a parent get away with living on an elite college campus with his daughter and her roommates? And how could that parent end up at the helm of a small but psychologically damaging cult?    

Those years of a person’s life are often vulnerable and exploratory. And this is what Levin and I spoke about during our interview. What I gleaned from his insightful and often heart wrenching book, and our conversation, is that this is the trap that their perpetrator set for Levin and his friends: the extreme rawness of young adulthood. I am certain this book will be a tremendous help to others who have gone through something similar.

—Frances Badalamenti

Frances BadalamentiI’d like to unpack the use of the term “cult” in your narrative. In our culture and in the media, we often think of larger groups of people like Jonestown, the Rajneesh movement or the Branch Davidians. You told me that by revisiting your experiences through this book, you wanted people to see that those who got pulled into cults were not stupid or seen as vulnerable. What was it that makes what happened to you and your former roommates a cult?

Daniel Barban LevinIn the book I talk about the moment when I allowed myself to really look at the essence of what defines a cult without being distracted by the term’s cultural connotations. When I held that up against what I had experienced, I found that they matched. We’ve convinced ourselves that cults are so distant from our experience as to border on the fictional. Our obsession with othering the human beings at the center of these abusive experiences, our obsession even with the abuse itself over the victims of that abuse, made it impossible for me to understand myself as someone who had been in a cult. I was normal. My friends were normal. We lived in an apartment with my friend’s dad because he was generous enough to put us up. There was no religion, no multi-level marketing scheme, no Kool-Aid. In fact, we were often told (when we were experiencing what I would later recognize as serious physical abuse—torture, even) that we were going through something not unlike boot camp in the marines. It can’t be a cult, I thought. It’s the marines.

What is a cult? It’s a set of very familiar dynamics that are so fundamental to every aspect of our interpersonal lives that we rarely notice them except when they’ve become toxic, except when they’re being leveraged for total control. It could be a group focused on a living leader who is not accountable to any higher authority—a political party. It could be a group that seems interested in bringing in new members—a club; a group focused on making money—a corporation, a group that discourages questioning, doubt, and dissent—a government. It claims an elite, exalted status for itself and its leadership, which can be used to justify behavior that might otherwise be considered unethical—a religion. It induces members to polarize themselves against others outside the group—a nationality. Members live and/or socialize with only the group—a culture or class. It uses guilt to control members—a family. Members cut ties with family and friends because the group takes their place; they devote all of their time to the group—a relationship. 

Any one of those—a political party, a club, a company, a country, a religion, a nationality, a culture, a class, a family, a relationship—can become “cult.” Because cult, like so many words, doesn’t describe a concrete thing. You can’t touch a cult.  

FBYou spoke with me about how when you were a young college student, you felt that you had things you needed to talk about, but couldn’t talk to your parents about. There is a scene in your book that takes place in a Manhattan Starbucks when you first opened up to Larry about some really personal things. It’s quite an unforgettable scene. What was it about him that allowed you to open up so much?

DBLWhen I met Larry in that Starbucks, I was in an especially vulnerable place. I was halfway through college and beginning to seriously wonder what my life was going to look like. I wanted to make my first forays into “real life” by moving into the city for the summer, but it was impossible to get an apartment. I was in my first serious relationship, and I didn’t understand why it was beginning to feel bad. I had been anxiously, privately questioning my sexuality for a long time. I had been feeling uncomfortable in my body and in my brain: why couldn’t anything fix the profound sense of being fundamentally alone that seemed to follow me everywhere? I was genuinely unsure who I was or who I was going to be—all lines of inquiry, I think, you are supposed to be pursuing at that age. 

When Larry and I sat down for coffee, I understood vaguely that I was wrestling with all these questions, but I didn’t think they were the kind you went to a therapist for. In my family, therapy was something you might do for a few weeks because someone had died, if at all. You got the problem fixed, or you didn’t. You moved on. I didn’t have anyone to ask these amorphous questions to who I felt wouldn’t judge me. Larry made himself that person.

FBYou told me that writing this book saved both your life and your brain. You also shared with me that there was a point during this time with Larry that you had struggled with suicidal ideation and how Larry really used suicidal ideation as a hook with you and your friends. There is a pivotal scene in your book where you really touch on this exceptionally difficult time. Can you tell me how you got to the other side of it?

DBLEarly on, Larry got me to admit that I had considered suicide, and this was meant to be a major revelation. In fact, I learned, everyone in the group was allegedly “suicidal” and this was incredibly unusual, according to him. We had been brought together, as if by divine means, so that Larry could protect us from ourselves. Larry claimed that our drive to suicide was an uncontrollable impulse that lay dormant in us, and without his help, we might randomly give in to it. It was beyond our control, therefore ceding that control to him was a matter of life and death.

But what does it mean to be suicidal? In the scene you mention, I’m on the roof of the building we lived in (forty-five floors up). I didn’t go up there with the intention of jumping off. I just wanted to see the view. I climbed all the way onto the water tower and lay on a roof that sloped toward the empty air, the street below. If I really wanted to die, it would have been incredibly easy in that moment. It almost didn’t matter if I wanted to or not—what mattered was that I didn’t do it. Larry had been acting as if he was having to constantly keep a short leash on all of us, lest we jump in front of a bus or something. Here I was, one step from a 450-foot drop, the roof literally pitching me forward, and I wasn’t doing it. I didn’t even really want to do it. That was a story someone else had been telling about me that wasn’t true. So, the house of cards began to crumble. If I wasn’t constantly at risk of spontaneous suicide, not only did that mean Larry was wrong, it also meant that I could choose a different life for myself.

Writing this book didn’t save my life, not exactly. But when I was hiding from what had happened to me, it was as if I was living someone else’s life, someone else’s story—someone who hadn’t gone through any of this. I was always one step to the side of myself. I am someone who struggles with suicidal ideation; whether that predates Larry or is a result of the trauma, I’m not sure. All I know is that it’s not an impulse inside of me that’s out of my control. I woke up this morning and wished I hadn’t. Then I heard the whir of a hummingbird outside my window, I begrudgingly loved it for being there, and I decided it was alright to be alive for another hour. And another hour after that. I choose life. Not only that, I choose my life—the one in which I was abused by my friend’s dad for years, the one where I survived, the one where I feel a whole complex whorl of sadness, fear, anger, and happiness every day. I embrace who I am and what happened to me by telling it, however painful that may be. 

White man in a suite looking at camera.

Photo of Daniel Barban Levin by Alex Justice.

FBI feel like male sexuality, the pressures of male masculinity, and questioning your own sexuality are such important aspects of your book and certainly things that Larry, as a coercive perpetrator and abuser, really honed in on in very toxic ways. Can you expand on this?

DBLBy the time I met Larry, I had already had a number of experiences that had made me intensely confused about what kind of man I was, or what it even meant to be a man. Larry was essentially exploiting narratives that are already rampant everywhere. He was the manifestation of a society that pathologizes men who are sensitive, vulnerable, emotional, and interested in intimacy. (I’m borrowing language from my friend Selina Fillinger here, who’s a playwright and better at articulating this than I am.) Just recently, before the Delta variant was running rampant, I went out dancing with friends. I was surrounded by people, so there wasn’t much room to move, but I was having fun dancing. Then, a woman in my group, who I’d only met once before, grabbed my penis through my pants on the dance floor.

My body was frozen; my throat felt like it was closing. There were so many people around, and yet they couldn’t see or didn’t care to. She kept doing it. I was desperate to find any way out, an excuse to leave, but I pushed that down. I waited for the song to end; I said I wanted to get another drink. Why? Because the thought in my brain was, I am supposed to be enjoying this. Even now, it is difficult for me to get outside of the story that men are not supposed to care what happens to their bodies.

When I met Larry, I didn’t understand why I was incapable of being sexual without being intimate “like a man,” I thought. I was the problem—not a society that encourages men to behave this way and everyone else to believe it’s all they’re capable of.

FBWe touched on the fact that writing this book was a lot about taking control back and how the book was a process of reclaiming. What would you say you lost control over and needed to reclaim?  

DBLEveryone’s life is a story they tell themselves: who you are, what you want, what has happened to you. I encountered a man who was better than me at telling that story, who was such a compelling storyteller that I began to believe his version of my identity, my desires, and my memories more than my own. My version was, to be fair, not very robust at the time. Writing this book wasn’t just about setting the record straight or telling my story as I experienced it—it was about claiming that my account matters. That what I experienced and how I felt about it—my perspective—is valid, and my perspective is valid.

FBTo close, I would like to say that I am truly sorry for what you endured, and I know that your story will resonate with many people who have been through something similar but might not even have words for. These are the strange silver linings in life; we grow and learn from our struggles. If you had the chance to revise your narrative, would you? And if so, what would you change?

DBLWhat would I change? I would make it that this man hadn’t shown up to our college campus. I would make it that he hadn’t gone through whatever made him who he was when I met him. I would make it so that no one was hurt and didn’t have to live with those wounds the rest of their lives however they can. I would make the world one where it was easier to be open about who you are: a more compassionate world. A world with less shame.

It’s easy to say, “Well, they should have known.” I hope the book refutes that possibility. 

Slownim Woods 9 is available for purchase here.

Frances Badalamenti is the author of the novels I Don’t Blame You and Salad Days, which is forthcoming in October. Some of her shorter work can be found at The Believer Magazine, Longreads, Vol.1 Brooklyn, Entropy, and elsewhere. She lives in Portland, Oregon, with her husband and son.

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