With Friends Like These

Inside a real college sorority

So you are kept away from everyone. Even your family. Though sororities claim to value the family, in fact, contact with your relatives is frowned upon. My sophomore year, I canceled a meeting with a sorority adviser because it was my birthday, and I wanted to spend it with my family. When I called to reschedule the meeting, she said, "Birthdays come and go; where do your sisters stand in all of this? I think you have your priorities out of order." The funny thing was that I thought she was right. After all, what was the big deal? Birthdays? Family? This particular adviser had missed spending her five-year wedding anniversary with her husband so she could help out at a sorority meeting. She had left her mother, who was visiting for three days, on the last day of her visit so she could come to a meeting we didn't need her to attend. Another adviser was a woman in her late 30s who spent little time with her teenage daughters or her husband. Instead, she micromanaged us to death. Maybe it was because she couldn't exercise the kind of control over her family she exercised over us. Daughters speak up; sisters don't.

Self isn't the only thing that gets left behind. You lose your compassion, too. As an upperclassman, I was on the other side of the initiation rites. I was the one who helped blindfold the pledges inside the house and led them outside to a ladder that led up to the roof. Each girl was taken to a corner where there was a plank set up. They were then told to walk the length of the plank and told it ran from the main house to an adjacent building. The girls were frantic. Several of them screamed and said they couldn't do it. The pledge master told them, "It's time to grow up, girls. These final steps will make you real women." Many of the girls held their breath as they walked on the plank; one was so nervous that after she took two steps, she turned around, squatted down and crawled slowly off the plank. The plank did not really connect the two buildings; it was raised only two inches off the roof and posed no danger to those who walked it—except for incredible mental anguish. When all of the girls had "made it to the other side," they were told they could undo their blindfolds. It was then that I saw the same expressions of disgust and fear I had seen among my pledge classmates after the permanent-marker debacle. I said nothing. I did nothing. In fact, I yelled at a few of them to shut up.

Remember how I said I joined a sorority to get connected? Well, I did get connected—to a collection agency. This is another, very concrete way sororities establish control over their members. It's financial, and it's formidable. Mandatory monthly and annual fees range from $25 to $2,000, depending on where you go to school and whether your sorority is national. In my house, if your fee was not paid by the due date, 10 percent interest was tacked on for each day your bill was overdue. At a sorority, they call this a "surcharge"; in most large cities, they call it loan sharking. And those charges applied regardless of whether a bill was for the monthly dues (which range from $100 to $300) or for a social event (from $30 to $150, more if the event is out of town). Then there were the not-so-hidden costs of membership. For instance, if you pay $75 (the average) for a formal event, you still have to pay anywhere from $100 to $300 for a dress. You then have the cost of alcohol for you and your date ($20), and dinner is usually included but sucks, so you drop another $10 to $20 for Denny's or fast food. There is then the finale for the evening: a hotel room, which can cost anywhere from $30 (shared) to $200. This is seen as mandatory since you don't really want to drive, and you're expected to spend the night with your date. Grand total: $200 to $500 just for an evening out.

For a sorority girl, this type of thing happens about once a month. If you simply could not pay the bill, several things happened to you—the first of which was getting sent to the sorority's national collection agency. Though sororities are usually nonprofit organizations, they rake in millions, and if you've ever been on the paying end, you're not surprised. If you still had not paid your bill, you were sent to a regular collection agency; in doing so, your sisters ruined your credit record.

Then there was the matter of having a little sister, a quaint form of extortion. When a girl is brought into the sorority, she receives gifts from a "big sister" who will guide her throughout her new membership. Big sisters have been asked to spend as much as $500 on gifts; the year that I had a little sister, I felt fortunate to get by for around $250. These gifts, which ranged from $5 to $75, were mandatory, not suggested. There wasn't a fund or anything that would help pay for the gifts; if you didn't have the cash, you found a way to get it. Not having the required gifts for your little sister meant a fine, which meant more money, and a stern reprimand from the chapter Honor Board.

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