'Nobody joins a cult -- they join a group of friends': Inside the 'Sarah Lawrence cult'

What do you think of when you see the word "cult"? A bunch of Manson girls wending their way toward Cielo drive? A Peoples Temple flock forced into suicide in Jonestown? What you probably don't think of is a bunch of kids from a prestigious liberal arts college being manipulated by the dad of a fellow student.

When writers Ezra Marcus and James D. Walsh published "The Stolen Kids of Sarah Lawrence" in New York magazine in 2019, an immediate flurry of attention followed. The story — of a charismatic, just-released-from-prison parent who reportedly manipulated, blackmailed, abused and ultimately divided a group of friends — seemed like a tabloid-ready tale. But it was not sensational. It was instead an object lesson in the life cycle of an harmful relationship, and how vulnerable anyone can become.The story led to a development deal from Amazon, and an indictment for sex trafficking and extortion for the man at the center of it, Larry Ray.

And now, one of the former members of the group, Daniel Barban Levin, has written his account of what went on during those tumultuous, painful years of his young adulthood. It's an intense tale of coercion, humiliation, gaslighting and physical torment. It's also one of hard-won survival, and creating a life after the unimaginable. Salon spoke to Barban Levin recently via Zoom about writing his way to a new narrative, when he knew he had to walk away, why nobody sets out to join a cult — and what really happened at Slonim Woods 9, the name of a dormitory on Sarah Lawrence's campus from which Barban Levin took his memoir title.

As always, our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

It takes a lot of courage to make yourself vulnerable again, to relive that experience writing about it.

The process of writing the book did a few things for me. I had gone through an experience that seems explicitly designed around telling a new story for me about who I was and what my memories even were.

The man who abused me was such a talented storyteller that he could convince you that something that wasn't real was real. Writing was not only about telling my story as I remember it and believe it. I spent a year writing this, and every day of writing it I had to make the claim that my account matters and is valid. I'm staking my flag in my own credibility, and I'm saying I trust myself. Then also even further, it's kind of an attempt to trust other people, just to give people my story and hope that they will believe me.

You talk about this man who was such a skillful manipulator and storyteller and disruptor of reality. When you think about him now, how would you answer the question "who is Larry Ray?"

That's a really hard question to answer. I will say that for a lot of the time that I was in his presence, that I was actively being tortured even, in those moments, I was asking myself that question. There were a lot of answers, and it was unclear to me where those answers were coming from and what was real and what wasn't. He was a father, he was supposedly a Marine, he was supposedly an intelligence officer. He had shown me photos of himself with George H. W. Bush and Gorbachev and they looked like pals, so there were all those things.

The process of trying to answer that question, to arrive at a clear definitive answer to who is this man, or even what are his intentions, was for me kind of a trap. If you spend your energy trying to figure out who your abuser is or if they're a good person, you're not leaving. The thing on the other side of the scale that outweighs everything is, he was the person who was hurting me and I didn't deserve that.

What this book illuminates so clearly to people who have not been in what we would characterize as cults, or in abusive relationships, is they don't start out abusive. You don't get into them because you think, "I would like to be tormented and abused." How did it start for you, where you became drawn in with this person?

Nobody joins a cult. They join a group of friends or they join a self-help group or whatever it is. But nobody says, "Oh, this is a cult and I can't wait to get involved."

In my experience, this is my friend's dad who just showed up at our dorm. We were on the meal plan, eating the not very good college food, and he showed up and was buying us fancy takeout. He said, "Come have some pasta," and that's hard to say no to and is innocuous. Then between there and me being in his apartment in Manhattan living there with all my friends and him torturing me is many, many steps. It's a slow burn, bringing out the frog in boiling water kind of thing. I tried to lay out in the book all of those steps, and how you get from A to Z . You don't encounter someone who's obviously an abuser and then stick around.

One of the first things that happens is building intimacy and building trust.

In some ways I think I was vulnerable to that kind of insidious intimacy because of my age. When you're 18, 19, 20, you're doing what you're supposed to be doing, which is questioning. You're looking back on where you grew up, how you grew up, what it means to be a person or be an adult, to make an impact in the world. You're questioning those roots and you're trying to grow your own branches. That's a really tender and potentially really productive place to be. But in this very specific instance, if someone wants to, they can slip in and leverage that vulnerability.

It's very common in abusive relationships in cults like this, or in any kind of a cultic relationship, for someone to do what's called love bombing, where they show up and then they make you feel fantastic, they make you feel relieved. All of your things that you were worried about, your questions — in my case about my masculinity, about my body, about my sexuality, about how to be a good person. This person was saying, "You don't have to ask those questions anymore or feel that you're shouting them into a void, because I will answer them." I also happened to grow up in a place where therapy wasn't really a thing that we would do, so I didn't feel that I had some nonjudgmental third party to go to, to ask these questions. He made himself that person.

That's how you get to this escalation of slowly changing your reality.

One of the things I came away with was an understanding of how tenuous our attachment to our reality is. We currently live in a world, in a country, where people believe very different versions of reality than we might believe. It feels it's conceivable that someone could think that clear historical events occurred completely differently than we think they did. This was an experience with a man who was able to make me question what had actually happened an hour ago, a year ago, ten years ago. Part of that was just that slow burn of manipulation and the pressure, the abuse. There was also peer pressure, and me seeing my social group believe these things made me want to believe them.

It reminds me of the dynamics in abusive families, where there is no one to check your reality against. You were going along with things and that part of your brain that was saying, "This is weird," wasn't speaking out.

It makes me wish that everyone had a version of that checklist that I just happened upon later on and to hold it up against not just if you're in an abusive group, but even in the abusive relationship or what you suspect might be. I had been able to say to myself, "Well, the fact that it feels impossible to question or dissent or talk about what's happening here, and that in itself is a real problem."

What I was thinking in my head was, "Okay, my friends are going along with this, they even seem to be supporting it as they're actively sitting around watching me be abused. Maybe it's supposed to be something that's good. At the same time, I also know that I've been in that position and I'm pretending I feel okay with what's happening. So are they doing that?" But it was impossible for us to check in because there was this constant fear that the other person wouldn't. The consequences were too high if they didn't agree with you and they would go straight to your abuser and say, "This person has turned against you."

You had situations where people, including you, were singled out, humiliated, attacked, confronted. I want to ask you about that, because there are so many choices that you had to make as a narrator. You, taking control of the story as an author, had to decide, "How do I tell this story?"

I decided early on in the process of writing this that shame is a tool that men like this use to keep people that they've hurt quiet. If I embraced who I was, who I am — which is someone who experienced this abuse, who survived and who is here now to stand by my account — if I took that shame and turned it inside out and made it my power, then I could live. But continuing to hide and to let the shame that was really him, that was his voice, dictate how I live my life and what story I told about myself, then I would never really get to fully live my own life.

It's about owning the story rather than rewriting it or reinterpreting it.

It's an act of trying to believe that if I tell people what happened to me, they won't look at me with disgust or hold me at arm's length. The people who love me now will still love me after they read the book. I am not alone, and in fact, after telling my story, maybe will be even less alone.

It has now been two years since this story first published. It had an immediate impact when it was published. It became a criminal investigation, a case that is still going on. What was the reaction directly to you after this came out?

When I was first contacted by the New York Magazine reporters, I had been hiding for many years, truly in fear that someone from this group would show up and try and bring me back or something. That fear, I managed to bottle up over time. At first, I was afraid every time I walked around the corner, and that got less severe.

I got contacted by these reporters, and I had told myself that surely the group — maybe it had fallen apart or it had changed. I was still afraid that Larry was around. They told me not only did it still exist, but that the story they were reporting at first was that my friend had apparently poisoned some people in our college. I think most people, if they got that call, would be shocked and wouldn't know how to react. But I knew exactly what they were talking about and that it wasn't true because I'd heard the exact accusation told many, many times when it was within that group.

It became my responsibility suddenly to protect my friends from the abuse leaking out beyond the confines of the room where it had always happened into the world and affecting her life. So I told the story to them and was candid about it. It felt like suddenly I was exposing myself. I was speaking out against the man who I had believed for a long time if I even said something negative about him in private, he would somehow know and show up and hurt me. It felt to me like if people don't believe me, then I've just fully put my head on the chopping block, but okay, I've protected my friend. If they do believe me, then in fact, I may be a little bit more safe.

When the indictment happened, it did feel at least partially an immense relief that something had come from this, that I had been believed not just by people but by maybe the justice system. It made me feel a little safer.

The narrative so often in stories of crime or abuse or cults is to look at the leader, to look at the perpetrator. You don't do that. You don't try to explain him or understand him or delve into the why of him. I'm sure that that was a choice.

I found for a long time that I could not engage with the type of content that I've seen out there, in which people depict cults and true crime things and thrillers that try to deal with this. My experience has been that our obsession with cult leaders, with the horrible, monstrous outliers of humanity, and our obsession with the abuse that the victims have suffered over the victims themselves, made it impossible for me in the process of coming out of this to see myself inside the word "cult." There are all these cultural connotations around what a cult is that that makes it very other. When we imagine a cult victim, we don't imagine a person really, or certainly not a person we know. I was so afraid to admit what had happened to me because it felt like I would become a freak, for lack of a better word.

I wanted to, as best as I could, normalize the experience and to expose how one gets pulled into this, how it's a result of not particularly unfamiliar social dynamics. I didn't want to put the abuser up on a pedestal and then say, "Oh, look at this," because people seem to do that with these people, like, "Look at how incredible and strange they are, In fact, he's just a sick human being who's very ill, you know?

It's been nine years. What is your life like now?

I was always a writer, and so the time in between, I was still writing. I lived in New York for a while. I got offered a job in New Hampshire taking care of Robert Frost's house and I did that for a while. Then I got into grad school and jumped at the opportunity to move as far away from the East Coast as possible. It has given me a breathing room to just have space. I went to grad school for writing out here in Southern California, and now I live in L.A. I'm very lucky to have a great group of friends out here and to have a pretty full life. A lot of the past couple of years has been living inside of the retelling of this story, which is its own kind of re-traumatization to weather and survive.

Are you following the case and the key people involved in it, or have you distanced yourself from that narrative?

It's hard to get away from, because there are all kinds of people in my life — well-meaning people — who will let me know when something's happening. I feel aware of the major things that have gone on. I'm certainly conscious of every time the trial is pushed back. A lot of space in my brain is taken up with just anticipating that trial and what it means.

This is not obviously a self-help guide, this is not a how-to. But I'm sure when you talk to people, they ask you, "What are some of the red flags that I should maybe pay attention to?"

There is a set of things if we're really just looking for red flags. We're talking about really familiar dynamics, but just taken to their most toxic extremes. What a cult is, it's many different things. It can be a group that's focused on a leader who's alive and that leader isn't accountable to a higher authority, but that can be what a political party is also, in its worst form. It could be just a group that's focused on bringing in new members, which sounds like a club, but if you push that too far, it's a cult. It could be a group that discourages dissent, but that could be the worst form of a government. Or it could claim an exalted status for itself and its leadership, which sounds like a religion, but again, taken to the extreme.

All of these things, they exist in other facets of our social lives, but it's just when they're turned so far that they wipe out every other aspect of just being a regular human being that they become this toxic thing.

It brings me to the question of, how did I answer that question for myself at the time? How did I feel that what was going on was wrong enough that I had a clear enough answer that I could step away?

I got into this because I didn't feel like I had any outlets where I could be really open and vulnerable about what felt to me like the messy questions that I had never gotten to talk about with anyone. If I could change the world, it would be to make a world where people feel like it's possible to be more open and that the people that they're open with will be compassionate and that shame will not come into the picture.

The way that I left was to finally arrive at trusting my body enough, that it was telling me I couldn't endure this anymore and it hurt. I had been ignoring myself for a very long time because I thought that this man knew me better than I did. Finally, the answer was just, I am right about me.

I would say to people, the best you can do is to just trust yourself. If it feels bad, step away and just try that out. If you feel like it's going to be a disaster for you to leave, then that's a pretty clear red flag that it's not a good situation. You should be able to leave. That's the best answer I can give to that, I think.

Shaving, nail clipping and beyond — What are the limits of public hygiene?

"You nasty, filthy, sloppy, disgusting, filthy f**king animal. You f**king pig, you should be ashamed of yourself." That was the response from actor and podcaster Michael Rapaport — and plenty of other similarly repulsed viewers — earlier this month when a video appeared to show former New York City mayor and self professed "normal" drinker Rudy Giuliani openly shaving his face in the dining area of the Delta One lounge at Kennedy Airport. Not that any sane person should take their grooming cues from a man who has been known to ooze dark fluid, but out here in the civilization we're attempting to maintain, personal grooming is generally expected to be confined to private spaces. What constitutes private activity, who has the privilege of said privacy and why these taboos exist at all, however, are incredibly subjective.

This article first appeared in Salon.

In 2018, a New Jersey Transit rider went viral after a fellow passenger filmed him giving his face a full Barbasol smeared shave during a commute. The clip was undeniably hypnotic, with the man casually flicking his foam onto the floor of the train. But after over 2.4 million views on Twitter and commenters calling him a "slob," the passenger came forward to reveal he had been traveling from a homeless shelter to see his brother, and wanted to look "presentable" for his family. "My life is all screwed up," he told the Associated Press. "That's the reason I was shaving on the train."

There is not a single personal activity that I haven't seen someone conducting in a public space. Yet despite years of eyewitness experience, I doubt I could tell the difference between a presidential cybersecurity adviser and a down-on-his-luck person just coming out of a homeless shelter. So while I'm firmly against recording and publicly shaming everyone who isn't Rudy Giuliani for their idiosyncratic personal upkeep rituals, I also would like to make a case for those of us who can to abide by some common sense etiquette. Basically, if it can leave behind debris from your body or creates an intrusive scent (like nail polish), try to do it somewhere else.

The least disputed versions of this rule of thumb include tooth flossing, hair plucking, earwax cleaning, pimple popping, shaving, spitting, nose picking and the classic — nail clipping. As artist Jason Shelowitz pleaded in his 2010 guerrilla New York City subway poster campaign, "Under no circumstance is the subway the right place for this. The sound is incredibly annoying and the little nail bits go flying all over the place. Keep it at home please. It's crazy that this even needs to be mentioned."

While the health risks are not comparable to those from sneezing or coughing, it's just logical to limit all potential exposure to infection. This means that things that might make you bleed — clipping, cutting — are best done in clean, controlled environments. British Columbia's HealthLink guide advises, "Blood and body fluids, such as saliva, semen and vaginal fluid, can contain viruses that can be passed on to other people." And though "The risk is low… body fluids, such as sweat, tears, vomit or urine may contain and pass on these viruses." (This is also another argument for wiping down your sweaty gym equipment, I beg of you.)

Want a daily wrap-up of all the news and commentary Salon has to offer? Subscribe to our morning newsletter, Crash Course.

Let's say I have a fresh cut on my elbow, and then I sit down at a restaurant table where the previous patron just nicked his face shaving. In an "ER or Not?" Interview for University of Utah Health, Dr. Troy Madsen noted that "Anything where the skin is not completely intact, if it's blood from a person where you don't know they could potentially have HIV or hepatitis, err on the side of caution."

Of course, the odds of getting hepatitis from the guy attending to his five o'clock shadow next to you at JFK are infinitesimal. But reasonable cleanliness and courtesy dictate that if you wouldn't sneeze on a stranger, maybe don't shave around them either. The lines get a little blurrier around less intimate — and more clearly gendered — acts of maintenance. Hair brushing and combing, with their obvious and inevitable leftovers of hair and dandruff, seem like no-brainers. A 2015 MTA campaign depicted subway riding figures attending to their nails and hair and advised, "Clipping? Primping? Everybody wants to look their best, but it's a subway car, not a restroom." Yet clipping is a far more clearcut action than "primping." I don't want anybody to go full DryBar on my commute, but I also know that no one with hair past their shoulders can avoid getting either in or out of a ponytail over the course of a day. I mean, my wrists exist to hold my Goody bands.

And what about makeup application, a seemingly victimless crime? In 2018, English journalist Nina Myskow sparked a fierce backlash for calling women "selfish" for doing their makeup on their commutes, demanding they "Get up earlier." Yet as Aditi Shrikant responded in Vox, "Expecting a person to groom before commuting is assuming they have time to do so, but time to yourself is a privilege." Courtesy is a dynamic process. We can endeavor to take care of our personal business before leaving the house for the sake of everybody who didn't sign up to be part of that process, and we can grant some space and kindness for others who don't have the same advantages. Which does not let the Guilianis of the world off the hook.

Offering the hottest possible take on all of this, The Independent's senior commissioning editor Rupert Hawksley this week cheekily defended Guiliani's bizarre shaving performance, observing, "Airports are hard enough without people judging your weird behavior. Things happen at airports that don't happen anywhere else. Normal rules do not apply…. Christ, if Rudy Giuliani wants to have a quick shave over his lobster bisque, let the poor man get on with it." I too have done things while traveling that can only be interpreted as a cry for help, but I'd like to think I was in those instances only hurting myself with that airport sushi.

We are living through a moment of unprecedented, reckless selfishness. We are confronted daily with evidence of our fellow humans disregarding the most basic of boundaries, refusing to consider the comfort and safety of others for the greater good. Why be thoughtful? Why be decent? The world is your spittoon and hygiene is unpatriotic! That's why the sight of a prominent, privileged man treating an airport dining area like it's his private bathroom feels uniquely insulting right now. It's stubble as symbolism, a declaration of a certain class of individuals of their utter indifference to whatever mess they create and leave behind, for the rest of us to clean up.

Take it from a lab rat — you don't have to fear 'unapproved' vaccines

It's been a recurring argument of late — one seen in chilling newspaper stories and all over your extended family's Facebook posts — that the vaccines are too new, too untested; that we don't know the long term effects of these shots that have been authorized for emergency use. You can even now buy t-shirts, perhaps to wear to your next insurrection, that read "I'm not a lab rat" and feature a vaccine vial with a line through it. But may I suggest that an escalating pandemic that has already killed over 600,000 of your fellow Americans is not the best moment to develop such a unique position on bodily autonomy? Instead, take some advice from a real life lab rat: please don't be afraid of being a COVID vaccine lab rat.

This article first appeared in Salon.

Back in April, a CNN poll estimated that 26% of adults said they would not get the COVID vaccine. You'll never believe what happened next! The reasons for vaccine hesitancy are not singular or even entirely partisan. We are facing an onslaught of causes from misinformation to youthful hubris; as FiveThirtyEight reported last month, "the younger the age group, the less likely it is to be vaccinated relative to its share of the population." The are also entirely legitimate historical and contemporary reasons to be skeptical of our healthcare industry. It's not like the track record is so great here.

The US has committed atrocious acts in the name of scientific progress — the notorious Tuskegee syphilis experiments, the early combined contraceptive pill trials in Puerto Rico, the list goes on. Again and again, the most vulnerable have been treated with callous, intentional and often fatal disregard. And while those shameful acts are part of our past, we are living in a present day moment of reckoning over the opioid epidemic havoc wreaked from corporate pharmaceutical fraud.

And yet, you can be cautious and hold authority figures accountable and also minimize your chances of imminent death at the time. Those are all good goals. Urgent crises call for unprecedented measures. The rewards — not dying gasping for breath, unable to even hold a loved one's hand — outweigh the current risks. In extraordinary circumstances, being a so-called lab rat can be a pretty sweet deal.

I've been one for nearly a decade already. In 2011, I was diagnosed with metastatic melanoma and became one of the first ten people in in the world on a combination immunotherapy clinical trial. Of the 52 of us in the initial group, "adverse events of any grade, regardless of whether they were attributed to the therapy, were observed in 98% of patients," while "treatment-related adverse events were observed in 93% of patients." More than half of the patients experienced grade 3 or 4 (severe) treatment related adverse events. My own side effects included dizziness, rash, fatigue and not dying of cancer. Twelve weeks after I began the trial, I had no evidence of disease. Ten years on, analysis of over one hundred similar immunotherapy trials shows an estimated fatality rate "ranging from 0.36% to 1.23%." I'd take those odds.

Over the years, both of my daughters have also participated in trials, one for a mental health study and one for a device for a heart condition. Meanwhile, I have gone back to school to try to crack the code of making clinical trials more accessible and patient-centered. What I can tell you from my own experience and work is that the system is messy as hell and that we have to be able to trust and respect each other if we're going to survive. We cannot get to anything even resembling a new normal while those who have no compelling medical or accessibility excuse continue to, as Amanda Marcotte puts it, "selfishly refuse the shot." And it hurts my heart that there are people with life-threatening conditions right now pleading for access to unapproved treatments, while the willfully ignorant are fighting for their right to prolong a pandemic.

My friend Stacey, a yoga instructor in Manhattan, participated in one of the Astra Zeneca trials late last year. "I have a friend who's a nurse and works in drug trials at New York Presbyterian," she recalled recently. "He came to me in November and said, 'We're starting up again for the trial. I figured, if that means I get the vaccine early, that's good. That being said," she adds, "my teenage son wanted to do it and I wouldn't let him. I would've felt terrible if he'd had an adverse reaction."

My friend wound up getting the placebo, and was subsequently unblinded so she could go ahead and get fully vaccinated. Which she — and her son — did. "That's what all these trials are for," she says. "For about a year, people have been doing these trials. The people getting the vaccine now are not the first. Millions of people have gotten it. Some do have adverse reactions. But it's still a protection against something that could kill you, or affect the people around you."

Writing in Vogue last year, Molly Jong-Fast, who participated in the Pfizer trial, expressed a similar sentiment. "As someone who has struggled with health anxiety, being a medical-trial participant wasn't an obvious life choice. But I felt I had to," she said. "I am not a particularly brave person, but in a country with uncontrolled virus spread, I'd much rather take my chances with the vaccine than with the virus." That's a choice, she notes, that reduces the risks for others as well.

Nothing in life is guaranteed. I have to shake my head in amazement when I see commenters disingenuously protesting that we just don't know how these vaccines will affect us in ten or twenty years. There are people dying today. I took a chance on a clinical trial when I likely had a few months to live. Whatever long term effects that experience bought and whatever lifetime of monitoring I signed up for, it gave me these past ten years to raise my children. I went and got the Pfizer vaccine in March, spent a day feeling like hell and accepting that small price to pay for getting more days with my family. This is not abstract; this is the simple calculation that a majority of us can make. If something in my health goes sideways in ten or twenty years because I got vaccinated in 2021, I will consider myself extremely fortunate.

Last month, a neighbor and her entire family got breakthrough cases of the virus. It was a real dumpster fire. Her sister still refuses to get vaccinated. My friend told me a few days ago that she'd tried to explain to her sister that yes, they got vaccinated and they got sick, but nobody had to go the ICU. Nobody died. Your best option isn't always a perfect one. But the choice between making it better and making it worse, for everybody, is very clear. And right now, I'd much prefer to be a lab rat than a name on a headstone. Wouldn't you?

Can neurology tell us how to deprogram our radicalized loved ones?

Yelling at them doesn't work. Appealing to their empathy doesn't work. Rebutting their disinformation and conspiracy theories not only doesn't work, it actually just makes them dig in their heels more deeply. So rather than continuing to bang our heads against the wall, or simply throwing up our hands in despairing futility of talking to our radicalized relatives and neighbors, is there anything that does work to change anybody else's mind? Can we even, for that matter, change our own?

This article originally appeared at Salon.

It's not your imagination — we are living through an astonishingly polarized moment in history. A Pew Research report last fall painted a bleak portrait of "the increasingly stark disagreement between Democrats and Republicans on the economy, racial justice, climate change, law enforcement, international engagement and a long list of other issues." I've been spending my summer so far doing coursework in conflict resolution, and it's taught me the value of empathic listening — and the simple truth that you can't negotiate with anybody who won't sit at the table.

To understand how we can become less contentious (or if we even can), we have to recognize how we got to this place. No huge surprise here — as Robert Kozinets wrote for Salon back in 2017, social media has played an oversized role in rewiring our unruly, addiction-prone brains. "One of the most effective ways to achieve mass appeal," he observed, "turned out to be by turning to the extreme."

Who cares if it's even true? As "The Hype Machine" author Sinan Aral explains of his research, "Novelty attracts human attention because it is surprising and emotionally arousing.... False news was indeed more novel than the truth, and people were more likely to share novel information." The more extreme, the more arousing the information is, the brighter it lights up our brains.

That rush that social media provides also, unfortunately, creates what Facebook cofounder Sean Parker ruefully has called "a social-validation feedback loop ... exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology." We gravitate to the heady cocktail of reward and anxiety that our notifications provide, in that endless, agitating loop. But it's not just social media that's a problem: it's media media, as the multitudes of us who have "lost" family members to Fox News know.

Our minds are more vulnerable and our thoughts more untrustworthy when we're scared. And while the far right takes the gold medal for anxiety-stoking — there's scientific evidence that conservatives have a "greater gray matter volume in the amygdala"— we on the progressive side of the aisle are no strangers to fearmongering either, as my 3 AM doomscrolling can confirm. The trap here is that none of our brains are not super reliable about distinguishing perceived threats from actual and immediate ones, especially at 3 AM.

Dr. James Giordano, Professor of Neurology and Biochemistry at Georgetown University Medical Center, explains that we all have our own individual "peak performance" stress range.

"As stress levels get higher, we begin to fatigue not only biologically, but psychologically and socially, and we perceive the stress and perhaps the stressor as threatening," Giordano says. "The more vulnerable we feel, often, the more volatile we become. That volatility can be a prompt to aggressiveness and violence."

And it doesn't necessarily matter if the stressor is legitimate. "Perceived stress," he says, "is very important. A perceived threat can instill a sense of dread in an individual or group of individuals, and be very influential in guiding their thoughts, emotions and behaviors. Hence," he continues, "the effectiveness of propaganda in advancing ideas whereby a defined other, often also portrayed as 'inhuman,' is intrinsically threatening."

Dehumanization is a highly effective empathy killer. And while I'm not engaging in false equivalences by any stretch here, I can certainly cop to my own fears of the faceless enemies of my ideologies, and how far stuck they are in my own brain.

So before I can even hope to change anyone else's mind, I have to try to understand my own. Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, neuroanatomist and author of "Whole Brain Living: The Anatomy of Choice and the Four Characters That Drive Our Life," says, "Inside of our brain we have four distinctive characters. The better we get to know those four different characters, our two emotional and our two thinking, we can identify when we're being which, and then we can recognize that in other people."

She continues: "When we dig our heels into something that we are emphatic and passionate about, we are using our limbic system, our emotional system. The left hemisphere emotion is looking for our differences and it is bucking against our differences. This is our fear and our anxiety. The emotion in our right brain is connected to humanity, and is looking for how to collaborate and focus on our similarities. If we're recognizing someone else is in their emphatic, emotional, 'I need to be right, you're wrong' mind, I don't have to react with my comparable character. I can observe. I don't have to engage."

But if for some compelling reason I actually do want to engage, pediatric neuropsychologist and parent coach Dr. Sarah Levin Allen has some ideas. "Our brains compartmentalize and group 'like' information together to be more efficient," she says. "Then, we learn by connecting new information with what we already know. In order to change people's minds, you literally have to find what people already know and slowly connect the dots (or neurons — the cells in the brain) to the new information."

The challenge, as she acknowledges, is finding ways around the intense pressure and high reactivity many of us are facing, and looking for the right openings to approach.

"Most of the time, people whose brains aren't stressed with other things (like processing work or emotions) can find the thing that is 'like' the new information and begin to make the pathways themselves," she says, "thus creating a change of mind. When the new idea is too much of a deviation from what someone knows or when stress reactions block the ability to make pathways, brains need help. When trying to change the mind of someone who is stressed, we actually need to do one of two things: either reduce the stress hormone in the brain by making a connection and reducing negative emotion first or slow down the process delivering ideas in very short bursts that the brain can slowly process."

In other words, you don't have to love your enemies, but you're definitely not going to win them over to your ideas without first getting them to chill out.

Of course, belief and behavior are two separate entities. Your sister-in-law may believe that face masks cause demonic possession; she might still choose to wear one if she wants to go to Applebee's. A Florida man may believe he won a re-election, he still has to hand over the nuclear football. Ultimately, life affords us plenty of opportunities to settle for grudging acceptance, if not grateful conversion. (See: Everything you've ever browbeaten your children into doing.)

But in many spaces, we don't have to compromise; we don't have to find common ground. We can choose information — and disinformation — that affirms and exacerbates our deepest anxieties. We can stoke the fires of our amygdalas and never run out of fuel; that's totally an option. We can refuse to engage with those too far gone to reason with; that's often a healthy choice.

The harder work, if we want to take a swing at getting those who still have ears to hear us to listen and neurons to engage, is to consider Allen's advice. "Meet people where they are," she says, "and bring them to where you want them to be."

Here's the mysterious role blood type may play in the coronavirus pandemic

It was the first time the doctor and I had seen each other in a year. This was in December; I was in for my annual scans and blood work. We made small talk, catching up on the various ways 2020 had ravaged us both. I learned she'd been caught in the city's first wave of COVID-19 cases, back in March. She'd been seriously ill, and her sense of taste and smell were still not back to normal. Then she asked if I'd been sick. No, I told her. I'd stayed home, and I wasn't in a high risk group. "Well," she said, her eyes flicking down on the results of my latest labs, "and your blood type."

This article originally appeared at Salon.

I made it through nearly a full year of this pandemic before hearing the theory that certain blood types seem to be less susceptible to the coronavirus than others. Then again, I've never thought much about blood type at all. Until that recent day at the hospital, the extent of my understanding of my own blood — Type O negative — is that it's ineligible to donate, because I spent a college year in England. (Really.) Now, I admit I was intrigued that my blood type might make me at lower risk for severe COVID-19.

The search to root out mitigating factors for both vulnerability and resistance to the coronavirus started as soon as the crisis emerged. Back in March of 2020, early research out of China speculated on the "Relationship between the ABO Blood Group and the COVID-19 Susceptibility." Those researchers found that the number of COVID-19 patients with blood type A "was significantly higher than that in normal people, being 37.75% in the former vs 32.16% in the latter" . . . whereas the proportion of blood type O "in patients with COVID-19 was significantly lower than that in normal people, being 25.80% in the former vs 33.84% in the latter."

Other studies, from a variety of institutions, followed. A July report on the popular genetic testing site 23andMe updated the public on its own research, noting that "the preliminary data suggest that O blood type appears to be protective against the virus when compared to all other blood types. Individuals with O blood type are between 9-18% percent less likely than individuals with other blood types to have tested positive for COVID-19, according to the data." And an October update from the American Society of Hematology announced similar findings, stating that "Blood type O may offer some protection against COVID-19 infection."

But even in the most hopeful reports, the advantage of Type O blood appears to be slim. And the deluge of conflicting, inconsistent, misleading and constantly changing information out there about the virus makes that slight edge questionable.

There's another factor to consider, too, when looking at the virus across any population — the ways in which the pandemic has disproportionately affected different racial groups. 70 percent of African-Americans have type O and B blood. Yet the CDC reports that Black or African American, Non-Hispanic persons are 2.8 times more likely to die of COVID-19 than white people. Whatever advantage blood type may bestow, compared to socioeconomic factors, it doesn't seem to be making much of a dent in actual outcomes.

I spoke about blood types and COVID-19 with Michael N. Zietz of the Department of Biomedical Informatics, Columbia University Irving Medical Center. Last April, Zietz was a co-author on a study "Testing the association between blood type and COVID-19 infection, intubation, and death." The study, which reported "modest but consistent risk differences between blood types," had attracted my attention because it tried to separate out confounding variables in blood type studies. "Blood type frequencies vary across ancestry groups, so we evaluated the confounding effect of ancestry by adjusting for race/ethnicity," the study notes.

Blood is a fairly straightforward concept for those of us in the public to grasp, which is no doubt why mainstream media outlets like Reuters, AARP and Discover have all run stories on the potential blood type-COVID connection. But the deeper mystery — one of them, anyway — is in how it ties to our genes.

Zietz explained to me how blood type might relate to COVID-19 severity. "What I found helpful was thinking, let's just assume there are some associations between blood type and COVID, dying of COVID or contracting the disease. What mechanism potentially could underlie this?. … Blood type is determined by a few positions within a certain gene. It's possible that there are some true variants that are affecting COVID susceptibility within that gene. We don't definitively know that blood type itself is causal, but it's an indication something about this gene's function is causal." In other words, there's still a lot to learn here.

While I'd like to think that maybe my blood type means I have even one, paper thin extra layer of protection against the virus, I don't take my doctor's offhand remark too seriously. There's no magical protection spell, and until there is a solid, stable eradication of the virus I'll just keep washing my hands, wearing a mask and avoiding indoor gatherings. "We have very solid evidence that people of any blood type can get sick and die from COVID and be intubated," says Michael Zietz. "No one should think that they're immune on account of blood type. The differences that we see are not very large in the grand scheme of things. And compared to something like age or serious comorbidities, heart disease or something, it's not a large effect compared to those."

That WSJ op-ed about Dr. Jill Biden isn't just sexist — it's classist, too

When the Wall Street Journal ran a recent opinion piece criticizing incoming first lady Jill Biden for daring to use her honorific "Dr.," the pushback was swift and entirely justified. Of course, Joseph Epstein's tone deaf pronouncement that it's "fraudulent, not to say a touch comic" to call her "Dr. Biden" is easily shot-down sexist garbage that should never have been given a platform. But Epstein's tantrum over her form of address was only the second worst thing about the piece. What's even more offensive and dangerous is the WSJ's casual endorsement of the author's hostility to equitable, affordable higher education.

It's distracting, I agree, to sift through all the layers of condescension and offhanded misogyny at play in the story to get to the raging classism. But it's there! Get a load of this horse dung: "Your degree is, I believe, an Ed.D., a doctor of education," Epstein writes, "earned at the University of Delaware through a dissertation with the unpromising title 'Student Retention at the Community College Level: Meeting Students' Needs.' Epstein thinks he knows what Biden's degree is, but a man who concurs with the notion that "No one should call himself 'Dr.' unless he has delivered a child" can't be expected to know how to Google. (Wait till Epstein finds out how few Nobel Prize recipients in medicine are even clinicians, let alone obstetricians.)

Keep reading... Show less

Catholics will control two branches of government. What does that mean for American Christianity?

Catholicism is rapidly declining in our country everywhere — except in our government. A full thirteen percent of Americans — including me — identify as ex-Catholics. Church attendance is dropping sharply. But just last week, the Supreme Court flexed its newly-enhanced Catholic muscle. In little more than a month, Joe Biden will become only the second Catholic president in American history.

Keep reading... Show less

From pathological liars to Trumpian gaslighters, brain studies show why liars get better at lying with practice

The last five years have been a master class in gaslighting. For those of us who came into the Trump Era with some personal experience with narcissists, emotional abusers and flat out liars, it has been a jarringly familiar time.

For those who previously had the luxury of expecting honesty of others, this has been a sharp learning curve. We all now know exactly what it feels like to be on the receiving end of untruth so blatant and shameless it makes us question ourselves. We know what it's like to hear a falsehood repeated so insistently it almost becomes convincing. We get it from the highest levels of government, from cable news networks, from our radicalized relatives and neighbors. And we know the confusion, self-doubt and fear that come with long term exposure to what liars like to call "alternative facts."

Keep reading... Show less

Like Trump, I was on monoclonal antibody drugs. This is what they do to you

After Donald Trump was hospitalized last week following a positive test for COVID-19, he emerged from Walter Reed with all the "Scarface" energy of one of his sons, declaring that, after "some really great drugs" he felt better than he did twenty years ago. Those drugs include Regeneron's REGN-COV2, a monoclonal antibody cocktail that is not approved by the FDA but was administered through a process known as compassionate use. (Regeneron's CEO, Dr. Leonard S. Schleifer, is also a friend of the Trump family.) Mainstream and social media quickly lit up over Trump's revelations, especially when he declared that the treatment "wasn't just therapeutic, it made me better. I call that a cure."

Keep reading... Show less

These awesome two-ingredient brownies are one baking hack that doesn't sacrifice on flavor

What's in a name? We can only wonder if, in a different world, Larry Page and Sergey Brin would have had taken over the Internet with a search engine called BackRub, or if a singer called Stefani Germanotta would have sold ten million copies of "Bad Romance." One thing I am sure of, however, is that I would never take a bite out of something called a "chocolate omelette." Call it a two-ingredient brownie, however, and I'm already pre-heating my oven.

I discovered it, as I do most things, out of desperation and a limited cupboard. And now that every day feels like "Desperation and Limited Cupboard Day," I find myself returning to it time and again.

Keep reading... Show less

'They let us down': The Mayo Clinic's cringeworthy subservience to Mike Pence

It's to be expected that Trump and his teammates think the rules never apply to them. It's understood that a man like Vice President Mike Pence — whose most viral moment came when he  touched a piece of NASA's equipment marked "DO NOT TOUCH" — certainly doesn't. And the same former governor of Indiana, who somehow takes pride in his botched response to his state's HIV outbreak, probably doesn't understand the concept of public health.

Keep reading... Show less

CNN's fascinating series 'The Windsors' confirms why the dysfunctional royal family still rules

"The Windsors: Inside The Royal Dynasty" knows damn well you don't want to wait 100 years to get to Meghan. The Duchess of Sussex — well, a dreamy, imagined version of her as she prepares to walk down the aisle on her wedding day — is the first figure we see in CNN's new six-part documentary series, before the story time jumps back a few generations. "But all that glitters is not gold," our narrator Rosamund Pike warns, as our American television star embarks on an alliance with a family that "will do whatever it takes to survive." Corny? Yes. Unsubtle? Absolutely. A deliciously soapy reality show involving a dysfunctional clan with posh accents? Sign me up.

Keep reading... Show less

What would Jesus boo? Jesus would make trouble for those who abuse their power

I don’t really know, if Jesus walked among today, his bucket list would include “Boo the president of the United States at a ball game” or “Kick Sarah Huckabee Sanders out of his restaurant” or “Take a pass on shaking Mitch McConnell’s hand.” But there’s definitely enough room in my Christian heart to believe it would be a totally viable option.

Keep reading... Show less

Even without Shane Gillis, 'SNL' has always been a conservative show

The whiplash-inducing news cycle around nonstarter “Saturday Night Live” cast member Shane Gillis got a little more juice Tuesday, with some eye opening insights from Variety.

Keep reading... Show less

Parenting a teen is as intense as a baby -- but very different. Why don't we talk about it more?

There's no book out there called "What to Expect in the Eighteenth Year." During pregnancy and early parenthood, I never lacked for guidelines on how best raise my children. After a certain point, though, the advice pickings started to get slim, just as the challenges of my kids' teen years were kicking in hard.

Keep reading... Show less

Don't Sit on the Sidelines of History. Join Raw Story Investigates and Go Ad-Free. Support Honest Journalism.