With Friends Like These

Inside a real college sorority

No, it didn't feel right, lying facedown on the floor wearing nothing but my underwear and the blindfold I'd tied myself. Weird? Sure. But weird I could handle. Weird is standard operating procedure for sorority initiations. Already that week, my pledge class had been forced to sing and dance on tables while fraternity guys let their eyes and hands crawl up our skirts. We'd been made to play mud football at 4 in the morning, even though we were all sick to the point of vomiting after having had booze poured down our throats. And just the night before, hung-over and exhausted, we were told to drink some more and then sent out to steal a statue from a fraternity house.

So I was used to weird. But now, lying there nearly naked, it all felt very wrong. And it had felt that way ever since I'd heard the men. Until that moment, if anyone was frightened, it came out as anxious excitement ("I can't wait to wear my letters!") that sometimes bordered on religious fervor ("Isn't it wonderful to bond with our sisters!"). My heart beat fast as I followed instructions in the sorority's second-floor "education room," beat faster as I put on my underwear, beat faster still when another pledge grabbed at me with a sweaty palm and gushed, Children of the Corn-like, "We'll be sisters after tonight."

We were led single file down to the first-floor living room. The room was white. The windows and doors had been covered with white sheets. So had the furniture. The sorority's active members were wearing white sheets tied into robes. We sat down in a circle on the floor. We received strips of ripped-up white sheets and were told to tie them around our eyes. We were instructed to lie down on our stomachs on the hardwood floor. Almost immediately, girls began to complain that they were cold. Some asked for robes. Our pledge educator only snapped, "Quiet!"

And that's when the men entered the room, whistling and howling, "We are going to have fun tonight, ladies!" And then silence. The absence of sound was disturbed only by palpable fear; the floor seemed to vibrate from the involuntary quiver of body parts. The chapter president attempted to calm us.

"The fraternity guys are here to help us all become better sisters," she said. "You need to hold still and be quiet."

But panic set in. "What's going on?" whisper-screamed the girl next to me. Whatever it was, I wanted out—I really did—but somehow not enough to actually get up and leave. I held still because another part of me felt it was impossible to walk out. If I showed the slightest glimmer of independence, I would not only be a laughingstock but I would also be shunned for the next four years of college. I remembered a friend who had deactivated from her sorority, disillusioned. Her sisters ridiculed her behind her back; her fraternity boyfriend broke up with her. I lay there quietly instead.

The men circled us. One of the girls screamed when someone stepped on her finger. I tried to remain calm, but I was becoming disoriented and felt nauseated. Something smelled toxic. Then something cold came in contact with my thigh. I gasped. "It's okay, baby," said one of the men. "I'm just helping to make you look good." The cold moved to my inner thigh.

"You missed a spot!" one of them said to another, and they laughed.

His friend said, "Yeah, that's a pretty nasty one, huh?"

It seemed forever before they left, but as the last man walked out, the mood eased. We'd done it! We had made it through! There was a sense of accomplishment as we were taken back upstairs, still blindfolded—a sense of victory, even though we still looked like hostages at a Victoria's Secret. Back in the education room, our blindfolds were removed and there we stood, each of us positioned in front of a mirror. There was a moment of confusion as each of us noticed that circles and "X's" had been drawn on our bodies in permanent marker. Our pledge master began to explain, but her voice was soon drowned out by the cries of pledges as they realized what had happened: the fraternity brothers had marked up the fatty areas of our bodies. These were areas "that needed some work," the pledge master said. Some of the girls began to sob, but if they were looking for compassion or consolation—or sanity—they were in the wrong place.

"Don't be a ninny," one of the members scolded. "It's just going to make you a better person."

Let me tell you a little about who I am by telling you who I am not: I am not Margaret J. Soos. I'm using a pseudonym because I'm afraid of the consequences if my identity were known. When I joined my sorority, I took an oath of sisterhood that implied I would never tell anyone about the inner workings of the group. So if anyone were to find out I wrote this, I might be blacklisted by the local or national organization. I'd probably lose friends. I would almost certainly lose my sorority badge, which would destroy some valuable connections for me in the corporate world, and these connections are the main reason I joined—and ultimately the only reason I stayed in—a 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.

The obsession with image only gets worse after you join. Clothes are scrutinized, and those who don't fit the fashion profile are told to change. Girls are sent to the salon if their roots aren't freshly dyed. Being overweight is simply not tolerated. Food served at the house is low-fat, and anyone who takes what's deemed to be a large portion is teased. Members take group trips to the bathroom to throw up after eating. All of this is deemed necessary, since sorority life is crowded with social events that include meetings, exchanges and cocktail parties. They'll tell you the basis for sororities and fraternities is philanthropy, public service. But in my four years as a member, we never as a group went to a function for a worthy cause.

The worthiest of causes was the continued success of the sorority and its members, usually by means of alcohol and men.

Monday, there was usually an all-Greek executives meeting attended by several of the chapter members. Later in the day, the chapter meetings began with either an executive board meeting or meetings of the various chapter committees. In our chapter, we always had dinner at 5:30 p.m., but those who were still in their meetings had to do without. Monday nights typically wrapped up around midnight because there was an Honor Board meeting afterward. Honor Board sounds like something uplifting—something vaguely academic or moral. It's not. If you were called into Honor Board, it was because you were not making it to 90 percent of social events. Below 90 percent meant that you deserved less than an "A" for socializing. If your excuse was unacceptable—and there was rarely an acceptable one—you were either fined or given chores. Maintaining your grades was not an adequate excuse: the thinking is that you can't get kicked out unless you consistently fall below a 2.0. Almost all Greeks at my school averaged under a 2.8.

On Tuesday and Wednesday nights, there were recruitment and marketing meetings; you had to make at least 75 percent of them each year. These meetings were semisocial occasions since the senior members were often drunk or in the process of becoming inebriated during the meeting. Afterward, it was a must to go out to bars with our brother fraternity. If you weren't 21, you would stay at the fraternity's house and drink with some of their members. Many would frequently stay behind to take advantage of the younger sorority members. The older actives encouraged the younger ones to take part in this type of socializing. So a Tuesday or Wednesday night at the fraternity house often turned into the next afternoon. If you didn't stay at the fraternity house, there was always an onslaught of questions. "Why didn't you stay?" "Didn't he like you?" "Was it just going too slow?" Even if you had a boyfriend, these questions came up again and again.

Thursday evenings were usually composed of an exchange with a fraternity, an event that included more hard drinking. Thursday's partying turned into Friday's fraternity party, and the week usually ended with a Saturday-night cocktail party. These cocktail parties and formal occasions were sponsored by both fraternities and the sorority, and if our chapter wasn't having one, we were encouraged to be aggressive and find a date to one—or a date was found for us.

Classes? Oh, yeah. They were supposed to be during the day, but girls often traded going to class with another sister, who would return the favor later. This way one of them could always sleep. Myself, I never did any homework or reading, since the sorority already had hundreds of study files for every subject and test given at the school during the past 10 years or so.

My freshman year, I was appalled by the cattiness, the body emphasis, the teasing about food. Gradually, I not only got used to it but also joined in, partly because I figured that the presence of other targets for criticism improved the situation for me. But it was also because after a while, I had become so indoctrinated that I simply didn't know any better. By my sophomore and junior years, I found myself calling every other person who walked through the door a "dog" or "slut" or "too big" for our house. I told girls what was appropriate and inappropriate to wear for rush and other public events, tailoring each woman to a certain outfit that would show her best features. "She's way too big to wear those shorts," I'd say. "Somebody needs to go shopping with her." I saw not only logic but also wisdom in having the not-so-attractive members work in the kitchen so as not to scare away the good-looking rushees. When a school official called the house begging us to accept a girl whom none of the other sororities wanted, I said, "No. She doesn't fit."

The surrender of identity is something every member goes through and is central to the sorority's success. Other organizations, needing the same results—unquestioning loyalty, willingness to do things normally abhorrent—use the same methods: football teams, religious cults, the Marines. All are given relatively normal, decent folk to work with, the kind of people who would have a hard time killing someone or telling someone she should stay in the kitchen until the good-looking rushees leave. The novices are young, confused, eager to measure up, scared. You isolate them and take over their lives completely. You control how they dress, when they eat, whom they speak to and whom they date. Speaking to those outside the group isn't just frowned upon; it's dangerous. Outsiders bring different ideas; they can create doubt and begin the process of independent thinking—and that would be death to the Greek system.

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.

Fines were handed out like parking tickets in a barrio. Didn't have time for the Monday night meeting? $25. Couldn't make 75 percent of recruitment and marketing meetings? $10 for each meeting short of 75 percent. If you had no money for a social, then you got chores like reorganizing some of the house closets. If you missed rush, that cost you $100 per day.

I was seriously ill for a month of my junior year and had to stay at home. Several of the girls didn't believe I was sick, despite the fact that I was bedridden and had to miss more than one meeting. On my return, I was called in to Honor Board, who told me I did not have my priorities in line. They said they had seen my boyfriend's car at my house during that time, so I couldn't have been that ill. (My boyfriend, a non-Greek and therefore persona non grata, had come over to take care of me because none of my sorority sisters had so much as called to see how I was feeling.) As punishment, I was given several chores to make up for the time I had missed, such as reorganizing the closets and shelves and repainting several of our wooden signs. I was told that if I didn't complete these tasks in several weeks' time, I would be fined. And, of course, I was fined: still feeling the effects of my illness, I could not physically complete any of these duties. The final cost: $210.

Of course, the real final cost of my time in the sorority was just under $10,000.

Okay, so what did I learn? Well, No. 1, I didn't want to be anywhere near Orange County when this article appeared. That's why, as you read this, I am in another country. Really. They still hold that kind of power over me, but I'm hoping over the next few months to crawl out from under that rock. The sorority has other ideas, of course. They've already contacted me to contribute time and money to my collegiate chapter as an active alumna. I've politely strung them along without saying yes. Here's hoping there's no directory assistance in Europe.

And what about those "connections"? Well, the sorority actually did help me get my first internships, but I now realize that I could have gotten just as many connections if I'd simply put all that time and effort into going to class and talking to classmates and professors.

But what's done is done. And I am done. Looking back, I guess the sorority did do me some good. Having gone through the cruelty, the pettiness, the sometimes illegal activities, I do in a strange way feel stronger—strong enough to put up with the world's biggest pains in the ass. For someone who plans to work in corporate America, that's valuable training.

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