Boys in Greek letters are still just boys. They worry about their hair and their breath and whether people will think they're cool. Maybe they came from a high school where they were one of the smartest kids, or the handsomest, or the sportiest, or the wealthiest, or the funniest. Or maybe they were the opposite of those things, or somewhere in the middle. It doesn't really matter, because nobody is a somebody on the first day of undergrad, which means anybody, with enough thought, can be whoever they want.
Every young man goes about this conquest differently. Bold froshes charge ahead, confident in their ability to rapidly accumulate new and high-value social capital, while the shy boys and the geeks and the hicks inch their way into college social life like cats exploring the nooks of a new house.
In the beginning, it is all yearning and nothing is nefarious.
Some boys are better at satisfying themselves than others. They mosey on over to frat row the first week of class in the clothes that make them feel best, their hair looking just right, and begin hunting for older boys to like who will like them back. The savvy ones not only have the boldness necessary to ingratiate themselves, they know what to look for. Sports insignia can indicate that another boy likes the things you like and thus may also like you (frosh boy, to older boy in Red Sox hat: "Hey, you from Boston? Me too." Boom. Instant camaraderie). Hairstyles are also helpful. Long hair: Maybe he smokes weed and surfs, things I also like to imagine myself doing/have done. And music, obviously: Is that [insert music you have maybe heard of or even listened to] I hear coming from room 12? I love [insert music you have maybe heard of or even listened to]! Maybe this dude will like me.
In the beginning, it is all yearning and nothing is nefarious. All frat-row neophytes want to get drunk and laid, of course, but they have more innocent wants as well, at least one of which is the same thing they wanted when they were 15, and 11, and six, all the way back to the pre-verbal days: a safe place, loving arms around them. Oh, what boys will do to secure that embrace!
If you've followed any coverage of fraternities, and the many heinous things they do, it may seem paradoxical that young, vulnerable boys would seek to cure their vulnerability by flocking to facilities where they will, if they are "lucky," be made to drink dangerous volumes of alcohol, or jump off tall structures, or chant racist and sexist slogans, or have their genitals struck, in order to feel affection. But there is a perception among pledges that so long as they are not alone in suffering these abuses, they are also not in any real danger. And boys are taught from a young age that there is such a thing as "good" violence. We learn this through sports and rough-housing and television and movies and sword-fighting with our dads. I have a little brother, and when we were kids, I beat the shit out of him. It wasn't even good-natured. Did he ever doubt my love for him? Maybe. But over time, he came to accept that someone who loves him could also physically hurt him. That violence was one of our languages. Fraternities are inheritors and incubators of this same psychology. Which is why those young boys who so desperately want to be liked go with the flow when the guy in the Red Sox hat, the one who is from where they are from and who always had a cold brew for them during the first few weeks of the year, says that in order to call him brother, they must first scale a two-story building with a lit cigar in their mouth while another boy in a luchador mask screams that he is going to shove his entire hand up their butt if they don't make it to the top.
Initially, none of this was for me. Fraternities reminded me of a debased version of evangelical church life. I despised the group-think. The unqualified enthusiasm. The excess. And in the name of what? I was a teetotaler and a sexual prude. Bookish. Not as religious as I'd been in high school, but, as any former Jesus Freak will tell you, the hang-ups last so much longer than the conviction. Frankly, the relaxed social mores of college terrified me, and frat row pulsated with them. Never mind that I was putting myself through school with a mix of scholarships and loans, and could not afford the dues.
But I also wasn't prepared to navigate a small college campus as a true independent. The friend-making strategy I'd developed in childhood and employed through adolescence was basically useless. It was borne of necessity: Because my family bounced around from rental to rental, school zone to school zone, my only consistent companion was my little brother. I'd made a few fast friends before college, but had also learned, in so many different schools and classrooms, to settle for simply not being scorned by the kids around me.
That first year of college was when I learned that I could no longer make friends based solely on safety and proximity.
My first semester, every friend I made was in my dorm room or worked in the cafeteria, the most shameful assignment for any work-study kid. By the end of my freshman year, I had almost as few real friends as I did on move-in day. Half the boys in my dorm were on the soccer team, and most of the others wanted to join Greek Life. Two boys seemed like they might hold out; we worked in the cafeteria together and were hall mates. Then one day they came back to the dorm wearing letters.
Harry sat next to me in a 6 p.m. English class, during which he'd sip from a Big Gulp of vodka and Sprite and tell me about how dumb fraternity life was, how much more interesting it would be if I'd just join already.
So I sat my first year out—of Greek life, and college life in general. When I was not studying, or wearing a hair-net and making sandwiches for people who did not need to wear a hair-net and make sandwiches for me, I was playing video games on my computer and wandering the aisles of the Winn Dixie near campus, always counting down the days until I could go home and be miserable in a more familiar place.
The summer after freshman year, I went back to my construction job, then worked as a line cook at a BBQ joint. Once again, I was a captive among captives, making friends the best way I knew how. And it was awful. Why had I been in such a rush to go back to cleaning out storm drains? To flip Texas toast? Sleeping in my childhood twin bed was awful. Why had I missed it? Running into people from high school who had no idea I’d spent the previous year at college was awful. They had not missed me. Why had I missed them? My nostalgia for the familiar disintegrated so thoroughly that by the time August 2005 rolled around, I was chalking off the days until I could go back to campus.
Sophomore year would be different! I would thrive. I would bloom. Perhaps I might try drinking alcohol! Cutting my hair differently!
This was not a detailed plan, But it turns out I wasn't alone in wanting better things for myself. Greg and Harry had ideas of their own.
Before we go forward, a quick trip back: On freshman move-in day in August 2004, I showed up to my dorm wearing the same clothes I'd worn to my construction job (they were clean, at least) and a walking boot (the result of a manhole cover being dropped on my foot).
Greg, though. Greg was put together. He had the right clothes and the right hair and the right words for everything. He'd spent the summer working as a lifeguard, listened to music I didn't know existed, and his body was chiseled. Just chiseled. He was also kind, despite the fact that I embarrassed him every time we went out in public. That first week on campus, I introduced myself during a freshman orientation ice-breaker by saying, "My name is Mike Riggs, I'm from St. Cloud, Florida, and I'm rooming with this guy," pointing two finger guns at Greg. Did he die inside? Perhaps. But he never punished me for it. For several months, he came back from his late-night adventures and regaled me with stories that made me blush. He turned me on to good music and the weird writing of Terrence McKenna, and taught me one of my favorite mantras for staying in shape: "Smell the brownies, eat the almonds." When I got food poisoning, he moved my mattress from my bunk to the floor, and recruited a couple of co-eds to coo over poor, sick me. (Heather and Brittany, wherever you are, thank you for the Robitussin. It is not actually for food poisoning, but thank you.)
When Greg moved into the frat house in the middle of our freshman year, the most interesting part of my college life moved with him. But he never stayed out of touch for long, sending me texts over the summer between freshman and sophomore year to see how I was. When we returned the following fall, he encouraged me to come to the house.
What most outsiders think of as a frat's essential personality is really a projection of its most dominant members, and this is accomplished through intense, petty internal politics.
Harry, meanwhile, was a year ahead of us, and the reason Greg had coveted membership in one fraternity above all others. Like Greg, he was a physical vision, brown skin and long hair. He'd also traveled, seemed effortlessly hip, and moved easily and gracefully through the small world of our campus. Harry sat next to me in a 6 p.m. English class, during which he'd sip from a Big Gulp of vodka and Sprite and tell me about how dumb fraternity life was, how much more interesting it would be if I'd just join already. Over lunch, the two convinced me to come by for a visit. Despite my homely appearance—my first year of college I looked like someone who fed at the dumpster behind a McDonald's and got dressed while fleeing a burning building, and I wasn’t much better in year two—they wanted me. Perhaps they saw in me things I did not see in myself. Perhaps they pitied me. Regardless, they were cool as fuck, and I was lonely.
When school resumed in January of our sophomore year, I did what the boys in my cohort had done a year before: Put on the clothes that made me feel best, fussed with my hair, and trekked to frat row. I was terrified, but I didn't need to be. Thanks to Greg and Harry's advance campaign, I encountered the same response in nearly every room I visited: Muted distaste from chill futon-sitters as I slinked through the door, followed by a cheery greeting after I gave my name. "So you're Mike Riggs!" So I'm Mike Riggs? People stopped what they were doing to check me out. And they seemingly liked what they saw! Or perhaps, what they saw did not conflict too much with what Greg and Harry had said. And I liked what I saw. English majors, skaters, potheads, strait-laced finance guys, hoopers, psych majors. The vile monolith I'd imagined from the outside was actually somewhat diverse in its tastes and interests (though, like our campus, largely white and straight). The conversation I remember most distinctly from that night was with a senior who emphasized to me the importance of giving back to the community. It's a common frat PR line, but he seemed sincere. (Since graduating, he's spent the last 10 years working on reducing poverty in developing countries.)
Thus did I learn my first lesson about the fraternity system: The "stoner frat" is not all stoners, the "creepy frat" is not all creeps, the "jock frat" is not all jocks. What most outsiders think of as a frat's essential personality is really a projection of its most dominant members, and this is accomplished through intense, petty internal politics. The incumbents who manage to get the most of their preferred guys into letters get to define the frat—at least for a year or two.
Next time I spoke to Greg alone, I told him I was DTF—down to frat.
Recruitment, which happened every fall on our campus, is first and foremost about keeping the frat alive: Shirting a lot of guys during rush is a great thing to report to the alumni who keep frats in the black, many on-campus houses have population quotas, frats run on dues, etc. But it's also a competition between intra-frat factions to maintain internecine cultural dominance. Frat houses are catty as hell, everyone wants a posse within the posse, and if your faction is small, there's no better way to strengthen it than by recruiting people who will be loyal, first and foremost, to you and your vision for the good frat life.
But for those who don't rush, there's another way to get in, and that is to be a goddamn independent. GDIs are very important to fraternities. The easy, obvious boys are a fraternity's grassroots. They religiously wear their jerseys on letter day, are always down for a beer run, and have to be heckled to go to class (gotta keep that fraternity GPA in the black). But fraternities need to convert non-believers too. The obvious analogy here is sports. Every position requires a different skill-set. I was not a drinker or a brawler or a Lothario, but I was smart and kind and reasonably self-aware. What group couldn’t use someone like that?
Next time I spoke to Greg alone, I told him I was DTF—down to frat.
The brothers voted on the question of extending me a bid the following Sunday, and a week later, an invitation to join the fraternity showed up in my campus mailbox. As I thumbed the embossed cardstock, I told myself that I would still be me, that joining a group could never really change me that much.
Somewhere in the bowels of the Internet is a video, one of who knows how many, shot in our fraternity house. A dozen boys and girls—maybe more—are crowded in a bedroom around a heavily shellacked bar decorated in beer bottle caps. There is music playing. Everyone is yelling. In the middle of the crowd. a sweaty belligerent boy is dangling a wriggling blue beta fish high above his head. He asks the crowd if he should eat the fish, whose name is Walker. The boys in the room say yes. "DO IT!" they bellow. The women squeal and cover their mouths.
Then I eat Walker. Just tip my head back, drop him in my mouth, and swallow him whole.
The great paradox of Greek life is that the people who are constantly pushing you, sometimes gently, sometimes not, to engage in behaviors that can kill you do not actually want you to die.
This was certainly not the dumbest thing we recorded for posterity. And much of our hijinks were what you see in the news. Binge-drinking, petty vandalism, sexist limericks recited in unison. There was even a house VHS collection containing mostly recordings of parties and pranks. (If there was a video showing any kind of sexual malice, I never saw it or heard about it). The tapes were handed down every year and, along with class composite pictures and the songs and chants that we all knew but never wrote down, made up our frat's institutional memory. One day you know none of these things—catechisms and catchphrases and codes—and then one day you know all of them. No one questioned whether we should say them or watch them or record them. Frat houses have rooms for drinking and rooms for watching surfing videos on a big-screen TV and rooms for dancing with the lights low and rooms for card games, but there is no room set aside for self-reflection.
Nor was eating Walker the dumbest thing I would do in my two-year stint as a frat boy. The contenders for that honor include the night I gave myself a frat brand with a heated coat-hanger; the night I discovered I could head-butt clear through drywall; the night I chased that kid up the house wall while wearing a luchador mask, only to watch him fall, then have a seizure; the nights—plural—when I slinked out of the house, wasted and/or stoned, climbed on my motorcycle and lit off for the back roads of our small college town.
The old me didn't act this way, and the person I am now is embarrassed to admit I ever acted this way. But the truth is that I gave myself over to the hive. I turned into a gym rat, I organized case races, I wore my Greek letters on the days we were supposed to, I memorized the pledge, I participated sincerely and earnestly in our rituals. I did it because it was super fucking fun, and because in the frat house bubble, it seemed like nothing bad could happen to any of us.
And then something did.
The great paradox of Greek life is that the people who are constantly pushing you, sometimes gently, sometimes not, to engage in behaviors that can kill you do not actually want you to die. When someone encourages you to drink yourself unconscious, then grabs a magic marker to draw a pair of open eyes on your comatose lids, ejaculating penises on your pallid cheeks, four-letter words on your clammy forehead, they do so believing that you will eventually wake up and have a good laugh at their work. No one does any of that while also believing that you are on the verge of death.
Boys at that age are so strong. We’re talking, remember, about 19-year-olds, 20-year-olds, 22 at the oldest. You can tackle boys that age and punch them and submerge them in Bacardi, and they will rise the next morning strong as bulls and meek as lambs and gleefully do it all again the next night. They run on chicken tenders and soda and the amoral enthusiasm that comes from being alive and autonomous and young.
Sometimes, when I walk home alone through D.C. after a concert or house party, I worry in some faint way for my safety, particularly when I see groups of young men who are around the frat age. I suspect the feeling is similar to what residents of my college town, and the female students on our campus, felt when they saw a group of us boys in matching shirts stumbling home from the bar, drunk and rowdy. Somewhere in our minds, we knew we had that effect on people. We knew we could broadcast our power with presence alone. And we knew, or at least believed, that we could get away with it.
The problems with this sense of entitlement are myriad. But I would submit that the fundamental problem, the problem at the root of all other problems, is this: Frat boys not only see themselves as invincible, they see each other as invincible. Which means not only did I fail to recognize when I needed help—with mental illness, substance abuse, schoolwork—I became anesthetized to the needs of the boys I loved. This sense of delusion is collective. It is a pact: Let me explore, let me test my limits, and I will let you test yours. Hell, let's do it together. Remember: So long as we are not alone in this, whatever this is, we are in no real danger.
Outside bodies can see this, they have seen it every year for decades, and they attempt to curtail the worst instincts. At my undergraduate institution, frat row is on campus and the school owns the houses, which means that campus security has every right to conduct unannounced walk-throughs and to respond to complaints. But overall, whether a fraternal organization is passing muster depends on a few nominal measures set by the national organization and by the school. Are we hitting our volunteer hours? Are we maintaining our GPAs? Are we making dues? Are we keeping the house filled? Are we sending people to the emergency room? Say yes to all of those (and no to the last one), and you can, in a way, say yes to the most important question of all: Are we OK?
Scott was not OK.
A biology major and ROTC cadet, he was also the best boy in our house. On volunteer days, when we sent members to do roadside clean-ups or help at the Special Olympics at Disney's Wide World of Sports, Scott was the first person out of bed and the last person to finish working. He believed, with his whole heart, that his role in our fraternity, and in the world, was to help and to heal. He did not drink or use drugs. He had near-perfect grades. He wanted to finish college and then go to Iraq, not to fight, but to be a medic. He loved the louts and the drunks in our fraternity with the kind of love that is ultimately necessary for the survival of any community. When we recruited, we looked for boys like Scott. Not too many of them, but enough of them. Every drunk needs a designated driver. Scott was like our designated conscience.
And because he performed so well by the make-or-break measures, I didn’t worry about him too much, even though he desperately needed all of us to worry about him with the same fervor he showed in worrying about us. He faced harsh criticism from highly successful parents, yet his religious education taught him to eschew the value of secular therapy which could’ve helped with his anxiety. When he tried to talk to me about it, I did little. Not because I didn't care, and not even because he violated the invincibility pact, but because I had forgotten how to help a friend whose crisis couldn't be addressed by a beer run, or a spare condom, or a trip to the beach. Also: Despite having pledged my loyalty to the nominal health of my brothers, I was mostly concerned with me and me alone.
In January 2008, a few weeks into the semester, and after months of asking for help in the only way he knew how—mostly dark jokes and innocent questions about how I dealt with stress—he sent an email to the fraternity telling all of us something we didn't tell each other often enough: that he loved us.
He also said goodbye.
I re-play that day less now than I used to. I don't blame myself, and I don't blame anyone else who was there. Once the crisis started, the members of our fraternity did everything they could to protect Scott. After he sent the email, half a dozen of us—lunkheads though we were, we knew what that email meant—literally ran from the cafeteria to the house, where Scott had locked himself in his room. We called the counseling center, which sent public safety officers and a mental-health counselor to the house. We then dispersed and went about our business (mine was to get high as a kite). Later that night, someone learned that Scott had snuck out of the hospital where he'd been under psychiatric supervision. News spread and led to a campus-wide search. Someone mentioned that Scott had received a handgun for Christmas. This did not deter us from the search. We loved Scott. Scott loved us. We were not afraid of him. We were afraid for him.
A group of us saw a medical helicopter land across campus, and then we were sprinting, the fastest any of us had ever run, wordlessly moving across campus, desperate, dashing ahead of our thoughts, responding to something deep and nameless. We managed to outrun the boys we'd been earlier that day, but we could not outrun Scott. His urgency was more real than ours, his intention clear to him if not to us. Outside the music building, we found cops and paramedics and a white sheet covering the smiley little boy with the crucifix tattoo and the perfect grades who loved us so much and asked us for so little.
Jesus Christ, the wailing that ensued. It was like every last one of us was trying to scream ourselves out of our bodies.
It was Michael who’d found Scott, in the music building, playing piano. Michael and Scott hailed from the same town, and Michael looked out for him. Perhaps it was something in the water there, but he was gentle the way Scott was, and managed to convince him to come outside, to talk to someone, to come back to his friends.
When the cops showed up minutes later and confronted them, Scott, for reasons that are buried with him, chose in that moment to take his own life.
I don’t blame the police officers. I don’t blame myself, or Michael or Scott or the hospital that let him slip out or the brother who knew for days or maybe even weeks that Scott had been given a gun. When I think about all the opportunities we had to do something different, to say something different when Scott said he was hurting, it seems crazy to blame anything or anyone.
But I do blame the pact.
Everyone handled it differently. A few of us made our way to the counseling center in the weeks that followed, but most of us retreated to the familiar comforts of booze and schoolwork and college life. I did both. And for months afterward, whenever I got drunk, I thought of Scott. Of the conversation we had in the gym when he said he needed help but didn't trust therapy. Of the bomb tattoo he wanted to get, because he said he felt like he was going to explode. Of the phone calls he got from his dad, who screamed so loud, and about such petty shit, that you could hear his voice from across the room. Of my own experience trying to balance secular therapy and religious orthodoxy. But mostly I thought of what I did with all this evidence of mental anguish: I did nothing, because I had my own problems. The guilt I harbored needed only a little tinder for it to flame up into something hideous and narcissistic and violent.
One night I drunkenly wandered around the frat house yard collecting the candle stubs that we’d all dropped after Scott’s vigil. They brought me to tears. How could we leave him out here in the dirt?
But my pain didn't express itself only in sorrow. One night, after a few of us returned to the house from a bout of binge-drinking at the bowling alley, I swore I heard the member of a rival fraternity, standing out on his stoop, say, "No wonder he killed himself." Did he really say this? I believed he did. I really believed this. I stumbled inside our house, filled my arms with empty beer bottles, walked right back out, and began chucking them as hard as I could, at the mouthy bastard, at the mouthy bastard’s house. When our neighbors sent their chapter president outside to de-escalate the situation, I told him I wanted to tape his hands to the steering wheel of his BMW, and set the car on fire. When our chapter president came out and asked me to come inside, I told him to fuck off. I wanted the whole world to hurt as bad as I hurt.
That was it for me. The university placed me on probation, and my friends suggested I resign from the student paper. My college tenure seemed like it was ending the way it began, in full retreat from the challenges of adapting to unfamiliar circumstances.
Except this time, I had people around me who wouldn't let that happen. In my narcissistic cocoon of guilt and sorrow, I could not see that the pact had changed. Pat, ever the social butterfly, barely let a day pass without stopping by my room and asking me how I was. Rob, the prototype of a New England bro, sat with me on the couch in my room, held my weeping face to his chest while I clutched my box of candle stubs, and told me he loved me. We met for lunch more. Alumni took breaks from their jobs out of state and drove down to be with us. Boys with whom I'd never really clicked cared for me. And for each other. And perhaps a bit more for themselves.
We were not fixed, but we finally could see that we were breakable.
On May 10th, 2008, the day of graduation, I woke up on my bedroom floor, naked, hungover, and bleeding from my hands and knees and elbows and forehead, the result of putting every part of my body I could manage through the walls in our frat house hallway. I still had not found peace, but it was time to move on. I dressed, had breakfast with my family, and then met up with the other boys in gowns, and together we taped our letters to the top of our mortarboards. When I come across pictures from that day, I cannot tell if I am happy or just relieved.
I don't talk to the boys very often, and I haven’t been back to the house for an alumni event in years, but I check in from time to time, see their adult lives unfold on Facebook. They've become lawyers and Web designers and insurance analysts and gotten Ph.D.s in molecular genetics. They've done pro bono legal work and been thrown out of Russia and gone to rehab and dropped out of college and gone back to college and become husbands and dads. As far as I know, we are all still alive.
While packing for a move five months back, I found the two decorative paddles that my little brothers presented to me as part of their initiation. On TV and in the movies, these paddles get used for hazing. And while that is no doubt true in some fraternities, in ours, they were treated solely as decorative items. (Generally speaking, we were far rougher on our livers than we were on each other, and even when that wasn't the case, our violence was mostly emotional.) On the back of each paddle is the signature of every brother. By the arcane rules of our brotherhood, littles couldn't present the paddles until they'd been signed by every active member of the fraternity. These are two of the tackiest things I own, and long before fraternities came under the microscope, I was too embarrassed to display them.
As I packed up my books and clothes and cookware, I left the paddles out, mustering the will to toss them. I’d already handed down my frat shirts, the box of candles, the luchador mask. Even the brand on my leg has healed. Finally, with nothing left to box up, I tried to throw away the paddles, but couldn't. You can always toss them later, I told myself, but you can never get them back.
A few nights ago, after I filed the first draft of this essay, I pulled the paddles out of their hiding place in my new apartment, and looked over the signatures. There, among the names of all the boys I loved and who loved me, is Scott’s.
Cults and (Sub)cultures is Pacific Standard's series of reported essays on all things cult, from religion to pop culture.