With Friends Like These

Inside a real college sorority

If I sound paranoid, it's only because belonging to a sorority made me that way. As in any abusive relationship, the victims of a college sorority can find it difficult to act on their own because they have been beaten down physically and emotionally. They cling to the abuser because their self-esteem has been decimated. They are dependent socially and often financially. Throughout my four years as an active sorority member, I felt weak and hopeless. Many of my sisters did, too, although they would be ashamed to admit it because the Greek system has long adhered to its own "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" system.

Remember that stunt about stealing the statue from the fraternity house? One of the girls knocked herself unconscious when, too drunk to guide herself down the steps, she fell. I asked her what her parents had thought of that, and she said, "I never told them."

Everything I have written here is true. All of it happened. I can say with a good bit of authority that similar things happen, in one way or another, to anyone who belongs to a sorority. "I always feel like I'm a puppet," a friend who belongs to another sorority told me. "And there's, like, 50 people who pull my strings, and I can't do a thing about it."

Whenever I brought up the possibility of deactivating my membership, I was bullied and threatened. So I won't tell you my real name or the Orange County university I attended. I won't tell you the name of the sorority to which I belong, nor will I get specific about anything that could give me away. I wrote this while I was still living in my sorority house, wrote it with one eye on the computer screen and the other peering over my shoulder to see if I was being watched. And I was. I wrote this because I thought I was strong. And because I was tired of the cruelty, tired of being a jerk, tired of telling the less attractive "sisters" to stay in the kitchen because they might scare away the good-looking pledges. Tired of being told my boyfriend wasn't worthy of my time because he didn't belong to a fraternity. So I wrote this.

But I wasn't as strong as I thought. When I finished writing it, midway through my senior year, I begged the editors of the Weekly to delay its publication until I had graduated. Then I asked them to delay it again, until I had been graduated for several months. Now, I've made sure I am very far from Orange County—and California, for that matter.

It's all about control, an insidious kind. Everyone's free to leave; it's just that nobody does. I was free to get up off that hardwood floor. But I didn't; I couldn't. Trying to understand why is like trying to understand why a battered woman stays with the man who beats her. Control. They tell you what to do, what to wear, who to see. If you don't conform, you run the risk of not getting to go to parties, not getting to have friends who give you answers to tests or tell you when you're getting too fat. My friend in another sorority was free to choose between carving her pledge class's name into her bicep with a knife or using a heated tool similar to a branding iron. She chose the latter.

"You can never really get away from them," she told me. "They won't let you."

Statistics are what brought me into a sorority. I was a freshman, trying to make the right decisions about my future, and the facts and figures told me to go Greek. The statistics say that 85 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs belonged to the Greek system, as sororities and fraternities are collectively called. The statistics show that 85 percent of Supreme Court justices since 1800 and all but two U.S. presidents have been Greeks. I've listened to the CEO of a Fortune 500 company declare, "If it weren't for the pull of the Greek system, a lot of people who work for me wouldn't be here. You surround yourself with friends. It's a natural process."

I listened to testimonials like that, and they made sense. For me, joining a sorority was never meant to be anything more than a means to help me after graduation. I wanted to maximize my chances of securing a good job, and I believed that joining a sorority was the best way to make that happen.

Many sororities have roots going back more than 100 years. They have thousands of alumni in their databases, people who are willing to help fellow Greeks get internships and jobs. The sororities come advertised that way, although you don't have to look too closely to see it's a mixed message. While sororities tell you they build stronger, more independent women, in actuality, they play upon a woman's worst fears. They use the basest stereotypes to define and restrict women: weight and good looks. If you don't measure up—literally—you're not getting through the doors of a lot of sororities. Every year, at least one girl didn't get into my sorority simply because she didn't look the part. She could have a great personality and be a terrific student, but ultimately, someone would say something like, "She'd really be happier with a bowl of ice cream," and that's the last you'd hear of her. Those girls were the lucky ones.

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