Originally published May, 1992
To the student who embraces college lifestyle and observes its rituals, there’s no greater goal than peer acceptance. One way to infiltrate campus cliques is by pledging allegiance to a fraternity or sorority. But, to become a brother or sister, a student must first pass a psychologically and mentally demanding pledge phase. For most, pledging a frat can be hell. For Chuck Stevens, pledging was murder.
When Stevens became a sophomore at New York’s Alfred University, he pledged Klan Alpine, the school’s oldest and most prestigious fraternity. A strapping sophomore who stood 6-2, Stevens, like all initiates, had to first endure a series of humiliating stunts in the age-old process called “hazing.” Late on the night of February 24, 1978, Stevens and two other pledges were kidnapped from their dorm rooms, stripped to their underwear and each given a pint of Jack Daniels, a six-pack of beer and a fifth of wine to drink, with just one hitch: They had to finish the booze while trapped in the trunk of a moving car.
The temperature that winter night was near zero degrees. When the car trunks were finally opened, Stevens’s bare skin was pallid. The 20-year-old had passed out. The fraternity members dumped his limp body in his dorm room to “sleep it off.” Several hours later, Stevens’s vital signs dropped dangerously low. He was driven to a nearby hospital along with the two other pledges; all three were hospitalized in critical condition. The other two boys remained unconscious for more than 72 hours. Stevens, however, never woke up. The hospital pathologist told Stevens’s parents their son had died of severe pulmonary edema, a condition caused by acute alcohol poisoning with exposure to cold temperatures; his lungs filled with fluid beyond their capacity. The frat brothers who had stuffed their trunk with booze and live bodies were given a slap-on-the-wrist probation, and the case, along with the body of Chuck Stevens, was quietly put to rest.
For many adolescents, the desire to be accepted can overrule common sense, and few organizations exploit herd dynamics like the Greek system. While proponents believe fraternity living fosters leadership skills and fellowship, the houses are often icons to the spirit of immaturity. “It’s built-in to late adolescence,” explains Carol German, Associate Dean of Students at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York. “Many college students are in a setting where they set their own limits for the first time. You’re bound to get some odd behavior.”
In the 1920s, pledging became the only way a person could enter this secret, collegiate fraternal society. When the process first began, pledge pranks tended to be harmless. In the 1950s, during the Greek system’s Golden Age, swallowing live goldfish was a frat rage, along with such clever feats as locking a cow in the dean’s office or reassembling a car in a loathed professor’s study. The gimmicks were disruptive, but hardly fatal.
Fraternity outrageousness has increased through the years. Greek chapters began to compete at taking hazing to new hazardous heights. “Men who postponed education and went off to war (in Korea and Vietnam) returned and were not about to wear a red beanie to pledge a frat,” says Eileen Stevens, an antihazing activist. “The things these young soldiers did in boot camp, such as sleep deprivation and being dropped miles from their base to find their way back, found their way into a campus setting.” Common hazing practices came to include physical abuse, such as punching, paddling, branding, electric shocks and demanding that pledges strip in cold weather and sit on blocks of ice. In addition, overexertion through forced exercise and obligatory ingestion of stuporous amounts of booze have discolored the once-rosy view of fraternity life. These stunts have killed more than 60 students since 1971.
Eileen Stevens’s son Chuck died in the car-trunk incident. She has since devoted her life to ending the haze process and established a national campaign in honor of her offspring called CHUCK (the Committee to Halt Useless College Killings). “I have seen photographs of bloodied, bruised and blistered behinds of young men in frats who have been subjected to that physical brutality for decades,” Stevens explains. In 1978, when her son died, only three states had antihazing laws. Today, thanks greatly to Stevens’s work, 38 states have now officially banned the dangerous initiation process. Enforcing those laws, however, only works if the frat gets caught, and hazing is so ingrained into fraternity tradition that ritual clearly persists, only now in secret. “Every semester I hear of many injuries and even fatalities that are never reported,” Stevens insists. “Peer pressure is very intense, and many of the incidents never surface because the practice is shrouded in secrecy; members take oaths of silence; so even after someone is abused or injured, the allegiance remains with the group. That’s why we still don’t have a handle on how deeply rooted and serious this hazing thing is.” In fact, a frat only gets caught when one of its pledges turns up at the morgue.
American International College: Jay Lenaghan, a 6-1, 270-pound former high-school football star, was pledging Zeta Chi frat at the Springfield, Massachusetts, institution. Along with five others, Lenaghan ate piles of spaghetti and finished nine gallons of wine during a so-called ritual dinner on February 22, 1984. The 19-year-old died later that night of acute alcohol poisoning.
Lowell University: Stephen Call fell into a coma during a hazing stunt for the Delta Kappa Phi chapter on the Massachusetts campus. Call was performing an intense half-hour of situps, pushups and other calisthenics when he collapsed. Four days later his coma gave way to death.
Rutgers University: James Callahan was one of 14 newly pinned Lambda Chi Alpha members at the New Brunswick, New Jersey, university. Roused by his desire to belong, the 18-year-old was led into the house’s darkened basement in February 1989. The new frat boys were forced to split 200 kamikazes, a potent vodka concoction about as subtle as its name. After the drinks were downed, many pledges had difficulty getting to their feet. Callahan never did. An autopsy of the dead boy’s body found 23 ounces of alcohol floating in his bloodstream. His blood alcohol content was listed at .434%, more than four time the state’s legal limit. One of the Lambda Chi Alpha member involved in the incident admitted, “We never thought anyone would die from drinking a lot; we do it all the time.”
Even when students aren’t killed, the pranks often reach torturous proportions. Lee Rover was one of 20 Alpha Tau Omega pledges at the University of Texas who were locked in a room and pelted with 800 eggs for a sleepless 72 hours. “Those who join feel they need a ready-made group life with a clear identity,” writes Helen Lefkowitz in Campus Life. “For this they will give up personal freedoms, privacy and time.”
Marlow Martin admits he was paddled, slapped and kicked while pledging Omega Psi Phi on the University of Maryland campus and says he cherished every painful minutes. “I would definitely do it again,” Martin says enthusiastically. “The pledge process brought a lot out of me. It pushed you to your physical and mental limits. It makes you depend on people and support each other.” He, like many other brothers, believes that a “physically and mentally challenging” indoctrination is crucial to building a strong brotherhood.
Despite the so-called allure of brotherhood, fraternity membership has steadily declined for years—by 1972 nationwide membership was at an unprecedented low of 149,000 students and continued to wane—until 1978, when John Belushi and the members of the fictional Delta Tau Chi fraternity in Animal House glorified the fraternal pursuit of sex, drugs and Roman robes. To the high-school student contemplated his future while battling enraged hormones, the ads for Animal House became a raunchy recruiting poster. Frat membership boomed. Throughout the ‘80s, new fraternity members nationwide grew seven to ten percent each year. By 1990, at least 400,000 college men were members of a Greek house.
Jonathon Brant, executive vice president of the National Interfraternity Conference, a confederation of 59 Greek-letter fraternities with nearly 5,200 chapters in the U.S. and Canada, believes membership has increased, not because of lure of debauchery, but because, “The students have changed in profile. They’re really concerned about being successful in their careers and families, and they more willing to join for experiences beyond the classroom that will help them get a better job and be more effective leaders.” True enough: Many of America’s leaders—George Bush, Thurgood Marshall, Jesse Jackson and even Martin Luther King Jr.—came from fraternity backgrounds.
Author Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz doesn’t accept the beanie of frat goodness brother wear. “Fraternity members consistently argue that, in becoming brother or sisters, they accept only the positive virtues—service and leadership,” she writes. “Yet certain elements remain identified with the fraternity. The brotherhood still offers special opportunities for engaging in both hedonism and violence as a group activity.”
Robin Washaw, author of I Never Called It Rape, agrees. “It’s not the blood drives, charity fund-raisers or improved resume potential that brings new members,” she say. “It’s an attraction to a culture that often seems to say, ‘Become one of us, and you’ll get loaded, you’ll get laid, and you’ll become a man.’ Most fraternity cultures are still centered on proving manhood in accordance with three basic beliefs: that women are sex objects to be manipulated at will; that drinking and drug-taking are endurance sports; and that all nonmembers…are deficient wienies.”
In addition, the punishing hazing process is no longer confined to just fraternities. In recent years sororities have developed more creative initiation rituals. The sisters’ hazing practices aren’t nearly as violent as their brothers, but girls will slap female pledges and often require that girls “take a certain position—bending over, for instance—and remain in that position for hours at a time,” relates Janet Ballard, national president of Alpha Kappa Alpha. Judging from several publicized cases, college girls have joined their male counterparts in the degradation game.
University of Maine: In 1988, 16 female pledges were taken to a cemetery at midnight. Once there, the hopeful Alpha Chi Omega girls were ordered to remove their shirts, while a metal stamp with the sorority’s letters was heated with a candle and pressed into the girls’ backs. Each of the women was thus ritually branded.
Kent State University: Female pledges at the Alpha Kappa Alpha house of the Ohio university were paddled so severely, in 1991, that blood seeped through their clothes.
University of New Hampshire: One sorority forced its pledges to strip and put on dog collars and bathrobes. The pledges were then forced to carry dog dishes to fraternity houses, where the bowls were filled with beer, and the girls were made to lap it up.
A private university in New England: Five sorority pledges, as part of their initiation, were required to straddle doorknobs and ski poles before a roomful of men and use the object to achieve orgasm. One of the guys watching allegedly ordered the girls to, “Scream like you’re being raped.”
An Arkansas sorority: The sisters of Delta Zeta Phi stripped their pledges and lined them up against a wall on their hands and knees. An egg was placed before them, and an enema tube was inserted into each girl’s rear end. The naked sisters-to-be then had to push their eggs around the room with their noses, while other sisters administered warm enemas, pushing the bag as they went. Once the enema bags were emptied, each pledge held the sudsy water in her bowels for at least three minutes. As the pressure built to bursting point, the girls were finally allowed to relieve themselves, after climbing three flights of stairs to the one bathroom they all had to share. Whatever excrement was spilled would be cleaned up each pledge while still nude.
The common links between the hazing rituals of men and women begin with alcohol abuse as drinking has proven a factor in 98% of all hazings. Another profound similarity of all hazing is psychological abuse. Whether it’s guys who eat dog food and roll in feces or girls who are forced to strip and line up according to breast size, while sisters circle the girls’ cellulite and skin imperfections with markers, “degradation and humiliation is very common,” admits Eileen Stevens.
Stevens also believes Greek life can greatly affect future behavior. “I think former frat members harbor a lot of resentment,” she contends. “I’ve spoken with people in their 70s who still harbor resentment toward the people who hazed them. Psychologists say those who are ridiculed, embarrassed and demeaned will carry those scars much deeper than if somebody simply beat the hell out of you.”
Ritualized violence isn’t confined to fraternities. “Hazing is a societal problem, not just a fraternity problem,” says Hank Nuwer, author of Broken Pledges: The Deadly Rite of Hazing. “It’s more complex than people thought. The Masons, the Navy, school bands, even Future Farmers of America have hazings.”
Nicholas Haben was a freshman at Western Illinois University in October 1990 when he tried out for the lacrosse team. The 18-year-old first had to pass initiation. Team veterans “encouraged” Haben and eight other young players to drink “rookie juice,” a concoction of beer, schnapps, coffee, tuna fish, raw eggs and hot dogs. The rookies were later taken to a remote wooded area to run an obstacle course, occasionally pausing to swig more hard liquor. Haben passed out, and the next morning he was dead. An autopsy performed 24 hours after his death revealed the boy’s blood alcohol level was .34%. By comparison, a California driver is considered legally drunk with a level of 0.08%.
Who’s to blame for these tragedies? When 18-year-old James Callahan did of alcohol poisoning after hazing Rutger’s Lambda Chi Alpha, a lawyer representing the frat’s Board of Trustees contended that the house bore no responsibility because Callahan was not forced to drink. “This one isolated incident said nothing,” the lawyer, Joseph Discenza, maintained. “It said if somebody really wants to drink a lot, they can. It could have happened just as easily in my basement.” What Discenza, a former Lambda Chi Alpha member himself, failed to stress is the heavy cloud of peer pressure that hangs over impressionable youths.
As a result of that pressure, the abusive cycle persists. “It’s the old thing of, ‘I got hazed; so now I’m gonna do it to someone else,” says Stevens. And as the torch is passed, so is a sadistic psychology that seduces frat veteran frat members. Mel Bloom, who wrote Final Reunion, a play that deals with deadly consequences of hazing, pledged Phi Epsilon Phi at Northwestern in the late 1940s. Bloom recalls thinking that many of his brothers, “if left to their own devices, could be the Hitlers of tomorrow. But, as an 18-year-old man, you don’t have the rationale that a 30 or 40-year-old has. Now, in retrospect, I believe any injustice that hurts somebody else is wrong and, if we don’t speak up, despite the possibility of being ostracized or worse, we make it worse for society.”
Not all frats are mired in puerility; Sigma Nu and Tau Kappa Epsilon are two organizations that have openly stopped all hazing practices. In addition, some campuses have begun a deferred rush, where freshmen cannot pledge frats until the second semester, allowing new students to make friends and gradually adjust to college life. Individuals who desire fraternal fellowship without goon-squad abuse should simply assert their independence and deny the torture. “Kids need to speak out and ask questions,” Stevens advises. “The true leaders are those who think carefully before making spontaneous decisions.”
Joel Harris was preparing for a career in business law at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia. In December 1988, he pledged Alpha Phi Alpha, the oldest African-American fraternity in the nation, whose past members included Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. During hazing, Harris was punched in the chest and slapped in the face as part of a ritual called “Thunder and Lightning.” Harris collapsed, and later died of an irregular heart rhythm.
His mother, Adrienne Harris, couldn’t accept the cause of death. “If they told me my son had a heart attack giving food to the homeless, I could live with that,” the grieving mother said. “Or (if he’d) had a heart attack tutoring a young child, I could live with that.
“But horsing around,” she sobbed, “I can’t live with that.” Unfortunately, neither can her son.