Dr. Robin Stern: Welcome to The Gaslight Effect Podcast. I'm Robin Stern, co-founder and associate director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, and author of the bestselling book, The Gaslight Effect. I'm an educator and a psychoanalyst, but first and foremost, I'm a wife, a mother, a sister, aunt, and healer. And just like many of you, I was a victim of gaslighting. Please join me for each episode as I interview fascinating guests and explore the concept of gaslighting. You'll learn what it truly means to be gaslighted, how it feels, how to recognize it, and how to understand it, and ultimately how to get out of it.
Dr. Robin Stern: Before we begin, I want you to know that talking about gaslighting can bring up challenging and painful emotions. Give yourself permission to feel them. Some of you may wanna go more deeply with your emotions. While some of you may hold them more lightly, no matter what you're feeling, know that your emotions are a guide to your inner life. Your emotions are sacred and uniquely you respect and embrace them for they have information to give you. If you want to listen to other episodes of The Gaslight Effect podcast, you can find them at robinstern.com or wherever you listen to podcasts. Thank you for being here with me.
Dr. Robin Stern: Welcome everyone to the Gaslight Effect podcast. Today, I'm really honored to have Daniel Levin with me. Daniel is the author of a book that is a memoir of his experience in Sloan, him nine, uh, at Sarah Lawrence, where he was as, as you'll hear today, um, a member of the horrible cult that, uh, was organized by Larry Ray. And, um, I think can't express how grateful I am that you have said yes to being here, and what a gift it is to anyone who's listening, because whether people experience gaslighting or the more comprehensive, um, kinda coercive control that gaslight gaslighting can lead to, but sometimes you can get there without the gaslighting stage too, just by jumping into it. Uh, you are helping people to think about boundaries and helping people to think about the kinds of behavior that is unacceptable, unacceptable in relationships. And it's just such a gift, um, that you're giving. And thank you for your, you're wanting to speak out.
Daniel Levin: Yeah. Okay, great. So, hi. Thank you so much for having me. Um, yeah, and I can agree, agree more. It feels to me like it's really important to have these conversations where, uh, we can find some of the common principles, which are true in both, you know, what we would call a cult, coercive control situations and gaslighting domestic violence situations. I think a lot, it's been really useful for me both in my healing recovery journey and then in having discourse around this experience afterwards to start to, uh, expand and complicate, uh, the definitions that we use when we talk about cults. Right? Um, and I think that the more people we can kind of bring into these conversations around this type of manipulation, um, the more that we can kind of understand the people who enact this kind of manipulation on vulnerable people, um, and create a world where it's less likely to occur.
Dr. Robin Stern: Beautifully said. Thank you. Yes. Um, and I, I do, I, I know that you have been talking about this experience for a while, and guess I'm thinking, um, for today, what's it you most want people to know about, not just the whole experience, but about the beginning? I mean, starting at the beginning, uh, if somebody's listening and they're worried that they're, um, in a relationship that maybe there is just a little bit of boundary blurring, or they're a little bit uncomfortable speaking from your own experience, what do you, what was it like at the beginning and what do you want people to know? I guess I gave you two questions in one, so
Daniel Levin: Sure. No, yeah, that's great. I, I, so the thing that I would say, um, uh, what was taken away from me and my friends very quickly at the beginning was the ability to do any sort of lateral conversation with one another, any kind of reality testing among peers, right? So we had this authority figure, who's my friend's dad, and he quickly became the sort of node that everything had to run through. So, you know, you always had to get his approval for anything. So this power dynamic, just quickly establish, and I think this could be from
Dr. Robin Stern: Dave, can I interrupt you to ask? Sure. How did he establish that power dynamic? Like how did that happen?
Daniel Levin: Totally. Um, so that, that becomes a little bit, uh, more nuanced and, and sort of harder to tease out. Um, I think that he played on very familiar kind of bother child roles, right? So he came into this environment where had a bunch of people who are 18, 19 years old away from home for the first time, um, you know, a, a vulnerable, but really productive time where we're sort of at this juncture individuating and forming ourselves. Um, and, uh, uh, but, you know, the chaos and anxiety of trying to figure out who you are with no structure, uh, is intimidating. And he showed up and filled this familiar role of being kind of a parent in this parentless environment. He, you know, cooked meals and cleaned up and made life feel more ordered. He gave advice and, and, you know, guidance and created structure in ways that were really appealing.
Daniel Levin: Um, and, you know, he created a dynamic where you had basically peer pressure happening. So, you know, I had my friends really looking up to this guy, you know, he had helped them and I trusted them. And so he sort of leveraged their credibility. And, um, uh, it's sort of, it's difficult to explain exactly why it felt this way, but I very quickly found myself in an environment where it was really clear that I, you know, I could even say as an example, I had an experience early on where I said something to a friend of mine about how I thought Larry had done something not good. E essentially, early on, there had been kind of a, a sexual encounter that I had with one of my friends that I, I didn't really want, and I thought that he had kind of engineered this, and I can, I can get more into that.
Daniel Levin: But I said to another friend, you know, I think that Larry kind of set up this situation with me and Isabella, and then the next day he knew about that because she had gone directly to him and told him this, right? So if immediately, you know, I had hard evidence that you could not talk to anyone else about him, about anything that was going on without it getting back to him, right? So there was no kind safety there. Um, and the other thing I just, I wanna add, you know, to your original question that I've been thinking about a lot is I think we, from the beginning, you know, I felt so convinced that I was a regular, normal person, and that therefore my life must be regular and normal, whatever that means, you know? And so, and I've been thinking about this as I talk to people a lot, is that we have this idea of, you know, who we are and what our life is, and we, we take in these experiences and try to figure out how they fit our model of our, our normal life. So I was experiencing these things, which in retrospect were extreme, but I had to figure out how to sort of mold them in my brain to be like, well, this just must be a, a normal thing that's happening because it's happening to me, and I'm a normal person. I'm not someone who would be abused or would be in a cult, or would be manipulated. You know, it doesn't, that doesn't make any sense. And now I can conceive of myself that way, but at the time, it was
Dr. Robin Stern: So, so just to clarify, and, and I'm gonna apologize right now for all the times, I'm gonna step on your words today because that's fine. If I jump in, I apologize. Um, but, uh, I don't wanna lose my thought as you are weaving this story, and, and there's just so much, um, that I think is important. Did you, you were talking about feeling that you were thinking you were a normal person, and I wonder if you just, then what happens is you expand the definition of what's normal because you're a normal person, you're experiencing it, and maybe you just haven't experienced it before, but this is something that, that you can grow, you can grow your, uh, diagram of normal, and just put that in the circle as well.
Daniel Levin: I think that my response to this has been to decide that there just is no normal, um, right. So it's not useful to compare your experiences against your idea of a norm, right? It's more useful to evaluate each experience according to principles of how you think you, you know, a person deserves to be treated. So it really only made sense to me afterwards when I just looked at what happened was happening, and said, you know, would I treat another person this way? Right? Is it ever okay to cause someone pain in this way? Mm-hmm.
Dr. Robin Stern: Yeah. So I love that, and I, I really respect, um, both that you struggled at that time to incorporate it into a circle of normal, because that's what made sense to you at that time. And then in retrospect, going back and saying, none of that matters. What matters is how I felt. Mm-hmm.
Dr. Robin Stern: Thank you for that. Did you have those kinds of moments come up for you often at the beginning? So I think that people are, um, people need to know and struggle with, like the kind of beginning we are talking about were, well, how did you know that he was the only person you could talk to? And then you are sharing that, well, because he knows everything anyway. So obviously there's no other dyad that's private, there's no other privacy or interaction. So what other kinds of things happened? Um, and also, at any point if I'm touching on something you don't wanna talk about, just let me know and we'll shift. Sure,
Daniel Levin: Totally. Yeah. So at the time, you know, I was young and I didn't have, you know, a very formed sense of self, and I was very accustomed to every day feeling uncomfortable, right? Feeling stressed out, feeling angst, feeling, uh, social anxiety and what, you know, I would later come to understand this depression, all of these things. Um, but as I, I just was in this cloud of kind of dismay, um, and I couldn't quite figure out my way through that or why I was feeling anything I felt, or why some days it was better and some days it was worse. So this was kind of the, the context of my state of mind. And I knew that my friends around me, you know, you know, also in their late teens were feeling similar things, and they talked to this guy and at least superficially seemed to suddenly be in better moods all the time.
Daniel Levin: You know, everything seemed to be better. And when I finally kind of relented, uh, under their pressure and sat down for a coffee with him, a conversation, which at first, you know, seemed innocuous and was going to be about, you know, me figuring out what I was gonna do for the summer and where I was gonna live, and, and yes, also, you know, I was in a relationship that was ending. And, and so it was, I was having difficulty ending it and wasn't going well, and he was maybe gonna give me some kind of fatherly advice. It swiftly became a much deeper and longer conversation about my relationship with my parents, my relationship with my body and sexuality, and, you know, my anxieties around romantic relationships and, and all of these things, my sense of like self-responsibility and self-worth. So, um, he very quickly created this feeling that, that we had some kind of like, special connection.
Daniel Levin: It was clear that he could make me feel kind of open, uh, in a way that I hadn't really felt I was able to be vulnerable with him. You know, I just really hadn't had experience with therapy up until that point. And he was just like wielding in a malicious way, a lot of the tools of therapy on, on someone who needed it. Um, and then there were elements of love bombing. You know, he told me how special I was that I was particularly intelligent, that, you know, I, even among my friends, all these things that I, I wanted to hear if I was honest with myself. Um, you know, so in, in the kind of mess of my own late adolescent mind, I had this encounter with this guy that did feel good and clear, you know? And it seemed like this was a positive thing
Dr. Robin Stern: And different. And so
Daniel Levin: That, and different, yes, dramatically different than any kind of interaction I'd had up until that point. So this made sense as, you know, so maybe something to follow forward as, as a kind of guideline for how to maybe feel better or how to have more sort of purpose, how to be an adult, which was all I was trying to figure out. And he kind of laid that path out.
Dr. Robin Stern: Daniel, was he living with you at that time, um, or had you, uh, were you getting to know him before he actually moved in? Because I remember reading in your memoir, um, that you were having conversations with people before he moved in mm-hmm.
Daniel Levin: Sure. Yeah. I can just, uh, the timeline really quickly is that, um, you know, so in my sophomore year of college, uh, one of my roommates, Talia, we lived in a kind of townhouse type of environment on Sarah Lawrence's campus. She said that her dad was getting out of prison. There's this whole story where she, you know, her whole life was defending her dad, who had been this whistleblower. He had been wrongly, you know, imprisoned all of these things. It was unjust. He was this hero. Um, he was her whole life, and he was finally getting outta prison. They were gonna finally be reunited. Um, and would it be okay if he kind of crashed on our couch while he got his feedback under him? Um, and, and none of us really, uh, were going to be the one who stepped up and said they were uncomfortable with that, especially when she seemed completely harmless and like she wanted her relationship with her dad back, and there was no reason to think there was anything wrong with him.
Daniel Levin: Um, so he, you know, was very good at walking a line where it would've been difficult to say he lived there, but he also did, you know, he might be there three or four days a week. He, you know, he'd be broken up. So it was always kind of like he's sleeping over. He is not like he doesn't have a room, you know, he doesn't like set up permanently, so you never really could pin him down. Um, but he was, you know, he was essentially living in that dorm. I don't know where he was the rest of the time. And then when I had this conversation, uh, the coffee with him that I described a moment ago, that was at the very end of that school year going into the summer, at which point he moved into an apartment in, uh, on the upper East side of Manhattan. Uh, and by the end of that conversation, he talked me into moving into that apartment with a couple of my friends who were staying there.
Dr. Robin Stern: And was there anything early on that, um, you looking back now, think, I wish I had listened to that voice?
Daniel Levin: I mean,
Dr. Robin Stern: Right? Maybe you separate yourself a little bit from having those big feelings because yeah, you have to save her life. You can't just be sitting there having your feelings
Daniel Levin: To Exactly. Right. Exactly. Yeah. I think in general, I, uh, up until, you know, well, after recovering from this experience of abuse and integrating, I really lived, uh, as if in a submarine, you know? Um, but uh, yeah, so I would've loved to live an adolescence where I really trusted my gut feelings and really felt my feelings, uh, about things. And I think that if I had just, you know, known deep down, like, I feel this kind of uhoh feeling about this guy, and he creeps me out and it feels bad. And so I don't need a logical intellectual reason to step away, but I just trust my feeling. I would never have gotten into the situation. And there were, you know, other people who came into contact with him, who had more of that relationship with themselves for whatever reason, who, you know, Raven, who was the person I was dating at the time, and she's in the documentary, um, you know, she was just a person who was more, and always has been more in touch with her emotions, you know? And so, uh, just didn't like how it felt and, and steered clear, you know?
Dr. Robin Stern: Well, I think what you're saying is, um, or I know what you're saying is so important because some pe times people will, um, say, well, uh, so you mean you have good contact with your feelings and then you meet this person and they destroy that contact with your feelings, and then you have to go rebuild it. And sometimes it's just not that way. Sometimes you are having contact with feelings for the first time that are alive and that, that, um, are so compelling that you don't notice when bad things begin to happen.
Daniel Levin: Yeah, totally.
Dr. Robin Stern: So how did it keep going on and on? Because as it was going on and on, um, things got worse for your group?
Daniel Levin: Sure, yeah. I mean, it is unbelievable looking back that he was able to sustain this, this, these sort of interconnected dynamics, but this, this situation for as long as he did, um, it seemed like the only way that he could make it work was to keep his victims, me and my friends. Uh, so constantly off balance that there was never any, you know, we never had solid ground underneath us to look at the situation to maybe get in touch with our actual feelings, right? So it was as if he was finding excuses that would explain why we were never sleeping, you know, why there was always the threat of violence, right? Um, so essentially the situation he set up was we, uh, were uh, sort of joining him to do something really good and important in the world, and also partially to help him sort of get justice for his family because they had this whole history of being betrayed and all these things that had happened. Um, and we were sort of on this program where he was going to help us become our fullest and best selves, right? Just because he was so special and great and evolved and, you know, had clarity, whatever that meant. And he was gonna help us, you know, grow.
Dr. Robin Stern: Did he lay out what that program was early on? Or was it like the military where, um, where if you did certain things, like things had to move by certain rules and he had the house organized in a certain way and you had to get up at a certain time and all those kinds of things, and somehow then you, through those challenges of, or through those boundaries that he set and through the challenges that he put you through, you would what come to your fuller self is that
Daniel Levin: It was more like the military, but, but like kubrick's, you know, full metal jacket, military, like just, you know, the military, but a fever dream, right? So yes, we were kind of regimented. We were getting up at the same time every day, very early. He would play the same playlist of like a hundred songs in the same order that were kind of these classic rock songs. Um, very, uh, yeah. Um, uh, there was this for, for the men only for whatever reason, kind of an exercise regimen or, so we can get into a whole conversation about the, the enforcing of gender roles in this situation. Um, but yeah, so, so it was pretty explicitly kind of bootcamp. Like he really revered the Marines. It was supposed to be this whole thing. Now they were sort of the height of like human excellence that we were aspiring to. Um, but the, what began to happen was that he was claiming that we would sabotage the routine, you know, or the program or whatever, that individuals would do things that were somehow interfering with each other's progress with his work or whatever it was because we were resisting his help. Some part of us didn't want to grow or be better or
Dr. Robin Stern: Whatever. So that was the gas to telling you what your reality was. Yeah.
Daniel Levin: Yes. And so this would manifest as, you know, he would show you something that he said you had broken it and you would not remember having broken it, but you could believe maybe by accident didn't break, right? You didn't do anything. But, you know, I didn't scratch this pan, but I could believe since he's saying it so authoritatively, maybe I cleaned it in a way that was not right and maybe I could have scratched it, but then he would push that conversation further and further. And even if though you didn't initially remember having touched this object, he would get you to the point where you would say, I intentionally damaged this thing because I wanted to sabotage you. You know? And, and this would partially be because you just wanted the conversation to be over. These interrogations would go on for hours and hours. It would partially be because be because you'd seen your friends make similar admissions and it seemed like it was treated as this kind of breakthrough. And so that seemed like something to kind of aspire to.
Dr. Robin Stern: So are you saying that rather than actually being convinced that there was some ulterior motive, you would almost look for an ulterior motive so that you could end the conversation or have that elevated sense of self that you would get when you broke through the barrier or something that you would seek to do that? That it would be, um, almost as if, well playing the as if game with yourself, if I did it, why my must I have done it?
Daniel Levin: Yeah. I think you want to be good and different situations determine what good means, right? Like different sort of this, so this is like this microculture run by this one leader, right? Who has D decided for everyone that to be good is to conform to the program, to admit to things to make these confessions and such. And so the way I would describe my state of mind at the time was I felt confused and unsure, and I didn't really think that I had done these things. I didn't really remember them, but I knew that in order to do a good job, I should remember it the way he said. And so I assumed the reason that I didn't remember was, not that it didn't happen, but that something was wrong with me because that's how he had sort of explained things. So, you know, I wanted to get over whatever failings I had that was making me not kind of get with the program. So I would just say whatever I needed to say, you know, to, to go along. And
Dr. Robin Stern: When did that no longer work for you?
Daniel Levin: It's a great question. Yeah. So it's, I think that over time the violence and the abuse started to get more and more extreme. And
Dr. Robin Stern: Can you tell us about that? And did it start and, and did you as a group protest and like, how did that happen?
Daniel Levin: Yeah, so I, the abuse started, I mean, very early on, but uh, just as with him sort of playing that line of where he couldn't quite say if he lived in the dorm or didn't live in the dorm, I, and I, I'm sure you see this often. He was very good at walking this line where you couldn't quite say if him putting hands on someone in a certain way was like wrong or not. So it'd be kind of unclear what the nature of his relationship was with people, because there's no established schema for like, friend's dad and what they're supposed to do or not do. So if he pokes someone hard, you know, you kind of were like, is that I'm not gonna go and like call the cops cuz he poked someone. I'm not sure that's bad or not, you know, but it's just, it's this boiled frog thing.
Daniel Levin: So then, you know, he did the thing to me once that was what you would call, you know, on the playground when I was a kid, like an Indian burn where he is like, you rub, you know, someone's arm and it hurts. These things that are just where he'd like squeeze my knee really like so hard that it was quite painful. But again, it's like none of these feel so clear in my mind. Like, he hasn't slapped anyone, he hasn't punched anyone, he hasn't pushed anyone to the ground, you know? So I don't have a clear framework to understand this as abuse. And then, so
Dr. Robin Stern: Just to, sorry, just to be clear. So now mm-hmm.
Daniel Levin: Oh, yeah. It's completely unacceptable. Yeah. No one should be putting their hands on anyone else in any way like this, you know, it's like there's no, yeah, completely un unallowable.
Dr. Robin Stern: What was the occasion for the, like Indian burn or squeezing your knee? Like when did those things happen?
Daniel Levin: Yeah, so he would justify these things early on as, you know, we're having these little conversations where he's pushing you to admit something, right? Um, and all of this under the auspices of him kind of, he's drawing things out of your mind and this is for your own good and, you know, so he needs to help you push past this part of yourself that's resisting or whatever it is. And he's gonna, you know, help you like remember or find the truth and, and that sort of thing. Um, and it's maybe happening fast enough that people don't really see, or you don't even feel confident at, like really happened, your yourself. Or you don't want to be the one person to stand up and say something, or, you know, if he's squeezing my knee, it's like under the table and you don't really, because you've learned what happens if you call him out directly.
Daniel Levin: You don't wanna be the person who says like, he did this thing to me, and that's wrong because then someone else who also feels threatened is gonna go to him. So, um, and that only grew and grew where then it became completely within the, the group acceptable for him to have, you know, me in front of everyone. This would not just happen to me, but to others, you know, we're, we're doing an interrogation. He's, he's interrogating someone for hours, and that's escalating to the point of like real full physical torture in front of people. Um, so it, it is, it's incredible what you'll accept over time as it's sort of incrementally ratcheted up.
Dr. Robin Stern: Yeah. It is the frog thing. Yeah. But I, I wanna ask you, first of all, how you doing? Is this feel okay to you?
Daniel Levin: Yeah, yeah. I'm doing all right. Thank you.
Dr. Robin Stern: Um, so you said something before that I wanted to follow up on something about, you know, that he, it was all for your own good. And so I wonder if the buy-in to the promise of a better life was in and of itself compelling, you know, aside from his presence and, and the drama, I mean the car charisma, whatever, the, and the, the very, um, uh, exquisite tuning into each one of you that he did, there was a promise there. Can you, can you talk about that?
Daniel Levin: Yeah, abso that's exactly right. I mean, I at the time wasn't paying attention to, you know, him being charismatic. All these things didn't, you know, maybe I was aware of them, but it didn't really consciously matter to me. What mattered to me was this idea that I could finally be happy. You know, I just had gone through a childhood where I used to, uh, every time there was like, I blew out birthday candles or wished on a star or whatever it was, I just was wishing to just be happy, you know, because I didn't feel happy. Um, and in an ideal world, I would've had a conversation with a therapist. I maybe would've had a family where we felt open and talked about feelings, but I didn't. Um, and this guy came along who seemed like a really legitimate, uh, avenue to finally feeling some relief, um, and turned out to really just be kind of a trap. Um, but yeah, that was the whole thing for me was the, the promise of feeling better.
Dr. Robin Stern: Yeah. So if you, when is your birthday,
Daniel Levin: Uh, June 28th?
Dr. Robin Stern: So when you blow out your candles on June 28th, what do you think one of your wishes might be?
Dr. Robin Stern: That's a beautiful wish. Well, I wish that for you and I, it's a great pivot to like the heal the process of healing that I wanted to ask you about. So I had interrupted you when you were starting to talk about, um, like when did you begin to know it wasn't okay, and then how did you move into identifying how do you, I know you just left, right? So at point, and, but how did you then see healing and, and what does healing look like?
Daniel Levin: Mm-hmm.
Dr. Robin Stern: Did you, do you remember having like night after night, um, going to sleep thinking, I gotta get outta here, or was it more like, oh, I just have to get outta here. Like in a moment where you realize this is not okay, how did it happen for you?
Daniel Levin: So the feeling was like a kind of total paralysis where the amount of conflicting thoughts that I was having were so overwhelming that I couldn't really figure out how to make any kind of move, because I was just trying to figure out, is this guy good or bad? Have I been right or wrong about this this whole time? If I am, if I have been wrong and I go through the implications of what that means, that's completely overwhelming. And if I'm right, then like, how do I make sense of that? And, you know, so all of this and, and I was trying to look at everything he had done and said and inconsistencies and trying to figure it all out. And, you know, I just, and, and then trying to figure out my own feelings, you know, I did feel bad. I felt bad all the time. Was that because of me or was it somehow because of him, you know, all of this? And it was this trap, uh, this kind of intellectual maze that I think he very intentionally kept me sort of wandering in that confused. Yeah. Yeah. And so I don't think I, I went to bed every night thinking, you know, I feel really bad, and is that because of me or because of something else?
Dr. Robin Stern: When you say bad, can you, could you be more specific as some somebody who works in the world of emotions? Yeah. What bad means? What, like, um, angry, betrayed, sad, lonely, um, alienated, scared, um,
Daniel Levin: Mm-hmm.
Dr. Robin Stern: So you felt like the shame w that you couldn't be good enough or be anything for him, like that you've lost your esteem within that group, or you've lost, um, shame that you, uh, disappointed him or shame? I mean, I, I don't know, I wasn't there, but I'm just asking you to build that out. I mean, it must have been awful. It just must have been
Daniel Levin: Yeah, no, I, that feels right. I mean, so he had kind of replaced, I, I think I had wanted to feel happy and feel good for myself before meeting him. And then he kind of took that role inside of me, where now making him happy, making him approve of me was equated with feeling good, or the idea that I might one day feel whole, right? Um, so it felt like I could never figure out how to make him happy, how to make things okay, how to, you know, win his approval. And since I couldn't do that, it felt like I could never finally get to this place that was promised where I would, you know, feel good every day,
Dr. Robin Stern: Really heartbreaking what all of you had to go through.
Daniel Levin: Yeah.
Dr. Robin Stern: I think, um, in the retelling of it, do you, um, is it healing for you? Is it okay for you, because I know, I know you're committed to telling your story, and I know you want people to, to understand about, um, gaslighting, coercive control, brainwashing, and you're giving this gift constantly, continuously.
Daniel Levin: Is it healing for you? Yeah. Well, I'll say this. So, you know, there was that moment where finally I decided to turn away from the situation because it, you know, I trusted that maybe I could stop feeling so much shame and fear, you know, if I wasn't in this circumstance, maybe I could trust myself enough to just live my life. But then there's a whole period of time where, you know, I thought of what happened as like a pretty bad experience with my friend's dad, you know, and I didn't really understand it as much beyond that. And then, you know, I, I saw some criteria that described what cults were, and that helped me, you know, I could call this a cult, and I understood that. And I had a, an, uh, conversation with my girlfriend afterward and told her offhandedly something about the same kind of physical violence I was talking about with the, the poking in the way that this was something about him, like hitting me and seeing her respond to that as totally not okay.
Daniel Levin: Made me realize like, oh, that was not okay. You know? And that felt revelatory to me. And then it wasn't until honestly like the Me Too movement many years later when I started to think, you know, these sexual experiences that I had in that context, which I did not want, you know, is it, it's maybe possible for a male bodied person to be on the receiving end of non-consensual sex, right? That I could have been assaulted and sexually abused. And so I only started to conceive of it that way. And then even when I started telling this story and opening up about it to me, I still was like, yes, this was abuse and it was, uh, bad, you know, unusual situation, but it wasn't that extreme, you know? It was like they didn't really understand it as so that people would react the way they did.
Daniel Levin: So for me, what feels important, uh, about talking about this is that, you know, it was such a journey for me to conceive of my own experience for what it was and to have perspective on it. And I just wonder how many people there are out there who have had people treat them in ways that are not okay, but it's hard for them to step out of their experience and see it that way. And I think that if I had heard stories of things that were even somewhat similar, maybe not even during, while it was happening, but even in that process of many years afterwards, you know, anything like that I think would've helped me along, you know, and getting to recovery faster, so faster. Um, that's why I want to do it, you know, for helping people feel seen and, and less alone. And yeah, I think it does help me with the, the sort of process of integration to tell the story.
Dr. Robin Stern: I mean, you're, you're very right about, um, the, the fact that people, certainly for yourself, you're right about that, obviously, cuz you know, you, but, um, that there are, to respond to your question, I guess, uh, or you're wondering, there are many people I've seen through the years who come in and just don't really know whether they've been abused or whether, in fact, thinking about someone who came to me years ago who didn't know whether she was abusing her husband or he was abusing her and he was hitting her, but he was hitting her because he claimed that she was bad in some way. And I think just untangling, um, that gaslighting or warped or abusive manipulative view of what's actually happened to help people to, as you said, connect with your own feelings that sometimes it doesn't matter who's right or wrong, if somebody else wants to call it abuse, let them call it abuse if it's a, but if you are feeling abused, it's not okay.
Daniel Levin: Yeah.
Dr. Robin Stern: And just helping people to, to hear that their experiences are valid and that they can reclaim their reality. For me, the Me Too movement was all about that women reclaiming their reality, you know? So they could say, oh my God, that was a big deal, you know, oh my God, you know, he had his hand on my knee that whole meeting. And maybe that wasn't okay when up until that point, like, you, it was being downplayed in some way or just not considered in a different way. So I certainly, I know we're going to run out of time in a few minutes, um, but I definitely, um, want to, to ask, do you have a gaslight hangover in relationships? Like, do you feel that the, um, having trusted somebody and buying into the promise makes it harder, or maybe not currently in your life, but did it during a period make it harder to trust, make it harder to believe in? So can you talk a little bit about that, please?
Daniel Levin: Yeah, there was a period of time when if, if I encountered anyone, and I sensed that their relationship to what was true was in any way tenuous it, I, I had to completely, you know, get away from them as quickly as possible, you know, and, and this exists in all different forms, and some of them are not, you know, malicious or certainly not as malicious as what I experienced. But, you know, even like, I remember in grad school, I was in the car with, uh, a, a peer who was driving and something happened, you know, or, uh, she made a wrong turn or did something wrong. There was some kind of incident with someone else who was driving. And she then, uh, you know, a minute later described it completely differently than what had happened. And this is like a small innocuous thing, but I was like, we are never, I'm not gonna be close to this person because I just, the idea of someone experiencing reality in, in their own separate way and then trying to kind of project that outward and force it onto other people was so scary to me.
Daniel Levin: Um, I had a boss after I left that who was very much a pathological liar, and that was horrifying. Um, so it took, it took me a while, but that also was a matter of just learning about boundaries, you know, and, and learning that I could identify, you know, who do I trust and, you know, to what degree and how can that vary? And it doesn't have to be like a blanket, you know, I don't trust everybody or I completely trust everybody and, you know, so who do I let, uh, into my life and who do I get closer with? And, and, you know, that's been in, in a lot of ways a really beautiful process for me.
Dr. Robin Stern: Yeah. Being able to tune in when you're getting to know someone and saying, do I like this? Do I wanna do it again? You know, does Yeah. Are they treating me? Do I feel safe? Yeah.
Daniel Levin: Yeah.
Dr. Robin Stern: Um, I wanna ask for you to, to, um, perhaps if you can, will or will give some advice to someone who might be afraid of getting out.
Daniel Levin: Mm.
Dr. Robin Stern: Because certainly fear has to play a part.
Daniel Levin: Yeah. In
Dr. Robin Stern: Leaving or when you leave. Can you say that for yourself? What part fear played, and then maybe advice for someone who's scared?
Daniel Levin: Yeah. So I think anything is, is such a difficult balance, right? Between you, you have all these different parts of yourself that are trying to protect you and different ways, you know, and figuring out which voice to listen to and how to trust yourself is what makes this so difficult. I will say that I spent so much time trying to figure out the best way to leave, the safest way to leave and to, you know, things like he had all my stuff, you know, he could, he would take my things and keep them in the room, you know? And so I was trying to figure out is there a way that I can get my things and, and then also leave and have him not pursue me in all of this. And in the meantime, you know, I was staying in this situation where I was being abused every day.
Daniel Levin: I was being labor trafficked, I was being kept up all night, you know, all these things. So I think the balance to me is, you know, I would want people to trust the part of themselves that's trying to figure out the, the safest way to get out. You know? But I would also say that if you see any opportunity to leave, you know, there's a lot of different ways to put hurdles up, uh, in front of yourself and to get confused and to convince yourself it's not the right time. But I would say if you're in a situation where you feel like you can't leave, then you probably should leave. Right? Like the, and, and in my experience, things are a lot better outside of that situation. And there's no reason that if you're in a situation where you can't leave for like a month or take like a step away, then something's wrong, you know? So it's just like, take a break.
Dr. Robin Stern: I think that's wonderful guidance and advice. And sometimes that's all it takes. Is that just getting away Yeah. To realize this feels pretty good. Like absent the abuse, absent the crazy making, and maybe I need to do more of this.
Daniel Levin: Yeah. I mean, if anyone finds themself in a situation, I just, I have to say it cuz this feels so concrete to me. Like, if you are controlled enough that you don't feel like you can walk out the front door and just like, feel the sun and be outside and like take a walk and do your own thing, truly, then I, I would really consider what it might feel like to be in a situation where you have your own door and key and lock and you can go outside whenever you want cuz it's awesome. I highly recommend.
Dr. Robin Stern: Well, I love that image. Um, and, and I love that it's awesome on the other side for you. Yeah. And so I just, so much respect and admiration for you, Daniel, and gratitude for you coming on to my podcast and, um, sharing so deeply and, um, and trusting me for this conversation. That means a lot. And, um, how are you, how was, how was this for you?
Daniel Levin: Oh, this is good. Yeah. I really appreciate, I mean, you checking in throughout and everything is so nice. I definitely, the experience of doing a lot of media around when the documentary came out and all of that is, you know, it's, it's so strange. Um, it's such an odd thing and, and I think having been in situations I where it felt like I couldn't step back and name, you know, what's going on, it's, it feels it can be dysregulating and disorienting to be in like a weird situation and not just kind of, you know, address like, this might feel difficult or, or, or upsetting or whatever. So yeah, this felt really nice to just kind of, uh, have a conversation and, and feel human and talk about it. It's good.
Dr. Robin Stern: Daniel, just before we leave, um, together today, uh, please let people know how they can find out more information about what happened to you and your friends at Sarah Lawrence and where they can find your book.
Daniel Levin: Yeah, so, um, I wrote a memoir called Sloan Woods Nine, uh, that's the name of the dorm where we first met Larry. Um, and you can get that anywhere. Um, and that's just me sort of telling the story from my perspective of, you know, how it felt to get pulled into this and then live inside of it and then get out. Um, and then I executive produced the documentary Stolen Youth that came out on Hulu in February. And that was an opportunity for everyone who was involved to, to really be a part of telling their story. And you get to really see, uh, what happened and, and how it began and how it ended.
Dr. Robin Stern: Thank you, Daniel. I recommend watching the documentary. I think it's really important to see it and, um, know that while you're watching it, you are going to have big feelings. And, um, so if you need to watch it with somebody who supports you in your life or just keep you company, then make that choice. Um, and Daniel's book is wonderful and, uh, it's a personal story that will really draw you in. I recommend them both. Well, you're amazingly brave and, um, and really a pleasure to, to talk to. And I wish you joy and freedom in your life, and I hope this won't be our last conversation. And I'd love to keep in touch and, and, um, hear how you are. And I'm really happy to spend, um, intellectual time like unpacking and talking about the nuances because of course, it's what I'm interested into and helping people to be free and to live the lives they want so their dreams can come true. And, and thank you Daniel Levin. And thank you for everyone, um, to everyone who's been listening. Um, please join us on the next episode of the Gaslight Effect podcast.
Daniel Levin: Great. Thank you so much. I appreciate that.
Dr. Robin Stern: Thanks for joining me for today's episode. I hope you found it helpful and meaningful. If you want to listen to other episodes of the Gaslight Effect podcast, you can find firstname.lastname@example.org or wherever you listen to podcasts. And please leave a rating and a review. I also invite you to follow me on Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, and Twitter. This podcast is produced by Mel Yellen, Ryan Changcoco, Mike Lens, and me. The podcast is supported by Gabby Kaoagas and Solar Karangi, all of my work and my upcoming book is supported by Suzen Pettit, Marcus Estevez and Omaginarium, also by Sally McCarton and Jackie Daniels. I'm so grateful to have many people supporting me and especially grateful for all of you, my listeners.