It will shock, shock you to learn that I wasn’t in a college fraternity. When I was in LSU in the 1980s, there was tension between my sort (G.D.I.s, or G*d D**mned Independents) and Greeks. It’s funny to look back on all that, because it seems so silly now, but it was kind of a big deal back then, or so it seemed to us Greeks and non-Greeks. I have friends now who were in fraternities and sororities back in the day, and it doesn’t seem to have improved them or hurt them. Point is, I don’t have an opinion about college Greek life. But I do hate hearing about idiotic hazing rituals, and will push hard that my sons, if they go to college, don’t seek to go through fraternity life. These stories telegraph that fraternities often seem to concentrate and bring out the worst in the character of young males in groups.
And I have an opinion about Caitlin Flanagan’s lede for her Atlantic piece critical of fraternity life. I think it’s just about the best lede ever written, for anything:
One warm spring night in 2011, a young man named Travis Hughes stood on the back deck of the Alpha Tau Omega fraternity house at Marshall University, in West Virginia, and was struck by what seemed to him—under the influence of powerful inebriants, not least among them the clear ether of youth itself—to be an excellent idea: he would shove a bottle rocket up his ass and blast it into the sweet night air. And perhaps it was an excellent idea. What was not an excellent idea, however, was to misjudge the relative tightness of a 20-year-old sphincter and the propulsive reliability of a 20-cent bottle rocket. What followed ignition was not the bright report of a successful blastoff, but the muffled thud of fire in the hole.
OK, that’s really funny. But here’s the serious part:
Lawsuits against fraternities are becoming a growing matter of public interest, in part because they record such lurid events, some of them ludicrous, many more of them horrendous. For every butt bomb, there’s a complaint of manslaughter, rape, sexual torture, psychological trauma. A recent series of articles on fraternities by Bloomberg News’s David Glovin and John Hechinger notes that since 2005, more than 60 people—the majority of them students—have died in incidents linked to fraternities, a sobering number in itself, but one that is dwarfed by the numbers of serious injuries, assaults, and sexual crimes that regularly take place in these houses. Many people believe that violent hazing is the most dangerous event associated with fraternity life, but hazing causes a relatively small percentage of these injuries. Because of a variety of forces, all this harm—and the behaviors that lead to it—has lately been moving out of the shadows of private disciplinary hearings and silent suffering, and into the bright light of civil lawsuits, giving us a clear picture of some of the more forbidding truths about fraternity life. While many of these suits never make it to trial, disappearing into confidential settlements (as did that of Louis Helmburg III, nearly two years after he filed his lawsuit) or melting away once plaintiffs recognize the powerful and monolithic forces they are up against, the narratives they leave behind in their complaints—all of them matters of public record—comprise a rich and potent testimony to the kinds of experiences regularly taking place on college campuses. Tellingly, the material facts of these complaints are rarely in dispute; what is contested, most often, is only liability.
Note that last sentence: the facts in these matters aren’t usually contested, but only the liability. Read the whole thing. I guess I can understand why young men would want to subject themselves to this kind of thing; young men are stupid (I say that from my own personal experience, to which the Baton Rouge Police Department can attest, and to which the security detail at the former Jimmy Swaggart Bible College might have been able to attest had one of us not been a swift talker, and had I not been able to convince Abbie Hoffman to shut his piehole until we could escape. True story.) But what I can’t understand is why parents footing the bill for college would want their sons to endure this nonsense. Flanagan, who is about my age, says that her year-long investigation into contemporary fraternity life reveals that frats have changed somewhat since our time — though much frat life remains eternal and constant. She also finds that while boozy mayhem is certainly general on campus, it’s hard to overlook the fact that being in a fraternity is distinctive, and not in a good way:
But it’s impossible to examine particular types of campus calamity and not find that a large number of them cluster at fraternity houses. Surely they have cornered the market in injuries to the buttocks. The number of lawsuits that involve paddling gone wrong, or branding that necessitated skin grafts, or a particular variety of sexual torture reserved for hazing and best not described in the gentle pages of this magazine, is astounding. To say nothing of the University of Tennessee frat boy who got dropped off, insensate, at the university hospital’s emergency room and was originally assumed to be the victim of a sexual assault, and only later turned out to have damaged his rectum by allegedly pumping wine into it through an enema hose, as had his pals.
I like how Flanagan weaves the contrapuntal motif of the spectacular idiocy of frat-boy injuries with the horrifying severity of these injuries throughout the piece. What she demonstrates, I think, is that it’s easy for us to laugh them off because they’re so stupid — Hey y’all, look, that jackass tried to shoot a bottle rocket out of his butt! — but when you think about it, it’s pretty awful.