‘At Sarah Lawrence I unwittingly joined a dangerous sex cult’

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'At Sarah Lawrence I unwittingly joined a dangerous sex cult'

When Daniel Levin was just 19 and a sophomore at Sarah Lawrence College, Larry Ray asked him to meet at Starbucks. 

Ray was 30 years older and the father of a fellow student — but he was more than just that. He was a constant presence on campus and in the lives of Levin and his friends. 

In the summer of 2011, when Levin sat down for a chat with him, he had no idea why Ray was so interested in him, a confused and lost college kid, he recounts in his new memoir, “Slonim Woods 9” (Crown/Random House), out now. 

During the six-hour-long conversation, Ray told Levin he was a master manipulator who once worked for the Defense Intelligence Agency and had apparently helped negotiate the end of the Kosovo War in 1999. 

“It’s why I was so valuable to the US government,” Ray told him. 

Then he probed Levin about his childhood and about his sexuality. 

“I can tell you you’re not gay,” Ray said. “You’re not a sociopath.” 

He also asked about the size of his penis. 

“Tell me what you’re working with, Danny,” he asked, “and I’ll tell you whether it’s small.” 

Levin, a New Jersey native, was shocked but also flattered that someone like Ray — a man who described himself as “professionally trained to evaluate people, to walk around the inside of their minds” — seemed so interested in helping him make sense of his life. 

He never realized that the man who seemed so trusting and fatherly was actually luring him and his friends into a cycle of psychological and sexual abuse. 

Idyllic Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville (right) was the setting for shocking underground depravity.
Idyllic Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville (right) was the setting for shocking underground depravity.
Alex Justice; Getty Images

At the time, Levin was simply convinced that “there was something extraordinary” about his new mentor. 

Even before Levin went to college, he felt like an outsider. Part of the reason he enrolled at Bronxville’s Sarah Lawrence — whose unofficial slogan is “We’re different. So are you” — was because it valued poetry over football. Levin never felt like he belonged at his high school, “but here,” he wrote of Sarah Lawrence, “maybe I would matter.” 

By the end of his freshman year, he found a group of friends who shared his interests — playing Super Smash Bros., writing poetry, throwing dance parties and “dancing on the coffee table” — and they moved into Slonim Woods 9, one of the campus’ eleven “cooperative living units.” Friends like Gabe, Max, Santos, Talia and Isabella became like a second family to Levin. 

And then, in September of 2010, their housemate Talia announced that her father, Larry Ray, was being released from prison after, she claimed, he’d been framed for corruption and custody violations. Although her mother wanted to ensure that Talia and her younger sister never saw their dad after the divorce, Talia fought back. She said she refused to stay with her mother in Bridgewater, NJ, and instead lived briefly in a homeless shelter before enrolling at Sarah Lawrence. Now, her father — whom Talia called the “honeyboy” to her “honeygirl” — “needed a place to stay.” 

Levin befriended Talia Ray at Sarah Lawrence and soon fell under the spell of her father, who spun wild tales of international intrigue — and got them to explore group sex.
Levin befriended Talia Ray at Sarah Lawrence and soon fell under the spell of her father, who spun wild tales of international intrigue — and got them to explore group sex.
Facebook

Ray moved into Slonim Woods 9, sleeping on an air mattress in Talia’s bedroom and becoming a constant presence in the common room, cooking steak dinners for the housemates and telling stories about his history as an international CIA operative. He told wild tales about being a liaison for Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, rubbing elbows with President George H. W. Bush, and tracking Stinger missiles on the black market for the FBI. 

He also offered his attention. One by one, Ray met with the students in private, usually in his daughter’s bedroom, listening to the stories of their emotional turmoil. 

During the summer of 2011, Ray moved into a one-bedroom condo on the Upper East Side, in the Waterford building on 93rd Street, and invited six of Talia’s friends to join him, rent-free. 

There were four women and three men including Levin but not Ray, who occupied the only bedroom. (Levin slept on a couch in the living room, using it only when it was free.) They could commute to college, experience the excitement of Manhattan, and have access to his seemingly endless wisdom and counsel. 

The Waterford Building in the Upper East Side, where Ray invited six of Talia's friends to join him, rent-free, in 2001.
The Waterford Building in the Upper East Side, where Ray invited six of Talia’s friends to join him, rent-free, in 2011.
J.C.Rice for NY Post

“All I wanted was to be like him,” Levin writes. “To never be unhappy or unsure about anything, ever again.” 

Levin’s father was the first to point out the troubling nature of his relationship with this older adult. During a phone call with his parents, Levin said Ray was “helping me figure out things. How to manage my mind so that I can have clarity. It’s kind of Marine-like, the stuff he’s teaching us, like we’re going through a mini boot camp for the mind.” 

“It sounds kind of like a cult, Dan,” Levin’s dad told his son. “It sounds like you’re brainwashed or something.” 

Later, back at the East Side apartment, Levin shared the details of his conversation with Ray, who was incredulous. 

“People are so negative about the word ‘brainwashing,’ ” he sniffed. “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.” 

In the apartment, Ray forced his charges to listen to his favorite music, like Neil Young and The Who, telling them the songs had “magic powers.” He advised Isabella that her birth control pills were making her depressed and complained that the underage girls living with him weren’t washing their genitals properly. 

“You wouldn’t believe how many women hate, hate their vaginas,” Ray told Levin, before launching into a lecture about the best lubricants for masturbation and the importance of having sex in public. 

People are so negative about the word ‘brainwashing.’ I don’t see what’s wrong with it. That is what I’m doing. I’m washing your brains.

Larry Ray, alleged Sarah Lawrence cult leader

“It’ll be good for you,” he told Levin. “It can be with anyone.” 

But Ray would explode at the smallest perceived betrayal, like the time one of his kitchen pans had a mysterious scratch. 

“You scraped it on purpose, as hard as you could?” Ray screamed at Levin. “What were you thinking about? Mommy and Daddy?” 

The threats became more ominous. 

“I see you, Danny,” Ray told him one time. “I know when you say something against me, when you doubt me, when you fear me. I see it. I see your fear.” 

Within just a year of moving in, Levin already wanted to leave, but he worried that Ray wasn’t bluffing and really did have powerful friends. 

Once, when he was chauffeuring Ray around Manhattan and their path was blocked by a parade route, the older man called over a police officer and whispered something — and suddenly they were waved through. 

Talia invited her father, Ray (right), to come stay with her after he was released from prison.
Talia invited her father, Ray (right), to come stay with her after he was released from prison.

“Even if Larry wasn’t a special government operative, at the very least he had some kind of connections,” Levin writes. “Which meant that if I just left, or acted against him, I would never be safe.” 

If Levin wasn’t the only one having doubts, he never saw evidence of it. His fellow students either totally revered Ray or were too terrified to say otherwise. 

Ray’s demands became more sinister. He called Levin into his bedroom to instruct him on how to seduce Isabella, one of the women in the apartment who was also under Ray’s spell. 

As she lay naked on her bed and Gregorian chants played on the stereo, Ray showed Levin how to tease her with his fingertips. 

“Sex, like everything in life, should be deliberate,” he instructed. 

This evolved into more frightening encounters — group sex involving not just Ray but a friend from prison who owned the Upper East Side apartment where they were living — and increasingly weird confrontations in which Ray reprimanded Levin for damaging his property, from bent oven doors to not folding his daughter’s cashmere sweaters correctly. Santos, another male in the condo, also endured abuse, forced to write confessions about the ways he’d wronged Ray, but Levin seemed to get the worst of it. 

Larry Ray is now facing a possible 100-year sentence behind bars.
Ray is now facing a possible 100-year sentence behind bars.
Robert Kalfus

During an especially horrific Thanksgiving in 2012, Ray punished Levin for forgetting to pick up duck fat and seasoning during his grocery run by forcing him to dress in women’s clothing and penetrating himself with one of Isabella’s dildos. 

“Let’s settle this once and for all,” Ray screamed at the terrified 20 year old. “If you like it, we’ll know you’re gay.” 

The final straw came months later, when Ray accused Levin of sabotaging his daughter’s application to Stanford Law School. 

Creating a makeshift garrote out of cellophane and aluminum foil, Ray claimed the torture device was something he’d improvised during “the course of my intelligence career . . . so you know how serious this is.” 

He instructed Levin to remove his pants and attached the garrote around his scrotum like a noose. He slowly tightened it, the garrote digging into Levin’s skin, as Ray demanded, “Why did you sabotage Talia’s law school apps?” 

Levin eventually confessed, not because he’d done anything wrong but to get Ray to stop. 

After almost two years, Levin returned to the Sarah Lawrence campus for the final semester of his senior year in 2013. But he still lived in fear. He wasn’t sure who was still loyal to Ray, or who among his old friends might be inspired to track him down on Ray’s behalf and bring him back. 

“I was constantly terrified I would see them from a distance,” Levin writes. “Or that I would open a door and there they would be, on the other side.” 

Just months after graduating, he was in his Bronx apartment and happened upon a Web site with a checklist of all the characteristics of a cult. “It felt like the screen was vibrating,” he writes. “On it, I saw the past two years of my life reflected back at me.” 

Slonim Woods 9

Although Levin never reported Ray to police, he (along with several others who lived with Ray) did speak to reporters at New York Magazine, and the 2019 article sparked a federal investigation. In February 2020, almost a decade after Levin escaped the Slonim Woods cult, Ray was arrested in New Jersey, charged with sexual exploitation, prostitution, forced labor and money laundering. If convicted — the now 61-year old man is being held at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in Manhattan, his bail denied — he faces a possible 100-year sentence behind bars. 

The full story behind Ray has yet to come out — was he everything he claimed to be? Photos with Gorbachev and Bush appeared to be genuine, but how much of Ray’s backstory was just self-created mythology remains to be discovered. 

Now 30 years old, Levin went on to get an MFA in poetry from the University of California, Irvine. After many years of working for New York’s Department of Education, he now lives in Los Angeles and is focused on his poetry. 

“I wish none of this had ever happened,” he writes. But “it’s up to you to decide how to live with it. More than anything, that’s what I hope you do: live.”

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