379.19856, Pledged: The Secret Life of Sororities, by Alexandra Robbins (2004).
Full disclosure: I have always been skeptical (to be polite) about fraternities and sororities. I’m a non-joiner, at least when the primary purpose of an organization appears to be social, and have had many negative encounters with the Greek system– some while growing up in a university town and some later when I was at university myself. I’m pleased to live in a country where no one really knows what fraternities and sororities are.
It appears that Robbins, a journalist, approached this book from roughly the same point of view. She writes of her curiosity, her general negative impression, and her impulse to believe that there must be some positives to the Greek system that outweigh her prejudices. When she sought permission to immerse herself in a sorority for a year, she was rejected by every national office. Instead, she created some cover (which she never explains) that helped her gain access to sororities at several universities.
The result is awful. It’s not that the book is badly written; it’s well-paced, clearly structured, and even somewhat suspenseful. It also shows Robbins’ great determination to try to be even-handed, a goal that is greatly undermined by the vast number of horror stories that she presents: excessive drinking, the ugliest kind of peer pressure, date rape (and ostracism of the victim), intense focus on physical appearance and clothing, heavy drug use, alienation, and on and on. Although she alternates these events with comments on the young women who fit in and made lifelong friends, the negatives are overwhelming.
Reading this felt voyeuristic– not because of Robbins’ sensitive writing but because the behavior of the young women and men in the Greek system that she observed was so extreme. The only saving grace that I could summon was the thought that equally terrible events are perpetrated at universities by non-Greek students… which is a depressing thought if there ever was one.