In Pledged: The Secret Life of Sororities (Hyperion; 342 pages; $23.95), investigative reporter Alexandra Robbins, famous for uncovering the secrets of Yale’s Skull and Bones Society as well as George W. Bush’s cloistered college grades, turns her eyes on the Greek system. Robbins spent a year undercover, posing as a student at an unnamed American university, and following, in depth, the lives of four young sorority women.
Although Robbins claims to have set out to dispel the myths about sorority life, instead she found that “many of the rumors (as well as the fantasies) about sororities are indeed staggeringly true,” including, but not limited to “mind games, prostitution, racism, forced binge drinking, nudity, verbal abuse, cheating, eating disorders, rituals, mean girls, and secrecy.”
Indeed, by the end of the book, all this and more is covered. Those expecting a scandalously playful joyride from Pledged may as well look elsewhere. This is not some sorority version of Animal House. Here are young women who have the grades, have the money, have the social status, have the looks and consider themselves to be strong “liberated” women. And yet, they continuously subject themselves to such horribly base humiliations as to make one wonder if these women know it takes more than saying you are liberated to make it so.
Is it liberating, for example, to lay on a floor blindfolded and naked while snickering fraternity brothers “circle the fat” areas of your body that “need work” with permanent marker? Is it liberating to have to have the plumbing in your house routinely changed because the stomach acid of the dozens of bulimics you live with is eating through the steel? Is it liberating to not think there is anything wrong with that? To have your fellow sisters decide it is time for you to lose your virginity, and when you demure, to have be drugged unconscious and left with a fraternity brother willing to deflower you? To have your sorority refuse to allow you to report you’ve been date raped because it might hurt your chances of winning Greek Week?
In one particularly gut wrenching scene, a sorority sister, after being rejected by a fraternity brother she had a crush on, sleeps with another one who had date raped her only a few months earlier. To her surprise, sex with her former attacker does not console her.
At moments, the sadness is juxtaposed with a bit of unintentional humor, as when two sisters end up being filmed dancing naked on table tops at a spring break event.
“I was wasted,” one sister said. “The Travel Channel was there. Apparently, I signed the release form.”
“Whatever,” her fellow sister said. “We leave in two days, and I promised the fraternity guys they’d see my boobs by the end of senior year.”
ROBBINS, EVER THE ADVOCATE for her young subjects, sometimes doesn’t seem to recognize the absurdity of what she is writing. “Every time an ‘ass song’ played, Amy playfully backed up into the brothers, who affectionately referred to her behind as ‘ghetto booty,'” At one party Robbins attended, “Taylor and Caitlin, who by now had joined Amy on the dance floor, started a pool to guess how long it would take for Amy’s breasts to pop out of her shirt.” (Crowing throughout the book about the lack of Greek racial sensitivity, Robbins apparently finds “ghetto booty” an endearing phrase.) Upon arriving at the party, a fraternity brother gushes, “This is great! A hundred drunk girls!”
But while Robbins book makes you feel terribly sorry for these girls, she isn’t quite able to make them likable. Robbins paints a portrait of houses full of sisters who frequently cheat on their boyfriends, and take pride in getting away with it. They go “slumming” at “loser fraternities” and openly mock the young men when they’re kind to them. They enjoy being seen and promoting themselves as sexual objects.
Worst of all, they are utterly convinced, by and large, of their superiority over the mere mortals they share the campus with. “I don’t know if you guys noticed, but when a girl who was ugly, fat, had no style, seemed dorky, or her clothes didn’t fit came up, instead of moving forward, you guys stepped backward,” the recruitment chair lectures the sisters after one rush event. “You can’t be that obvious about it.”
Not that you can’t judge people on a superficial basis, mind you. Just don’t be obvious about it.
Even when Robbins tries to portray some heartwarming scene, the sisters come out of it looking hopelessly tacky. At one point, a sister threatens to kill herself, and her roommates deal with the situation by singing the disco standard “I Will Survive” to her.
When a fraternity brother gives a sister his lavaliere, a charm with his fraternity letters on it that he will be hazed viciously for parting with, the sister is pleased because it shows that the brother “loves me enough to get tortured by his fraternity.” That’s a high price to pay for the love of a woman who is part of a social clique that celebrates infidelity, don’t you think?
WHEN A GROUP OF people subvert their individuality to the groupthink of an elitist organization, almost anything can be justified. Is this fair characterization of every sorority? Absolutely not. But it is clearly a widespread enough phenomenon to warrant discussion.
Several times in Pledged the young women seem to waver in their cruelty to those outside the sorority or question the morality of certain actions. But there is always someone there to say, “No you must do what makes you happy. That’s all that matters.” In the single-minded pursuit of self-satisfaction, they have somehow made themselves completely miserable. It is, sadly, a story as old as the world.