Freshman orientation is the most orchestrated event a student experiences until graduation. Some students arrive to cheerfully decorated dorm rooms or planned activities that foster a sense of collegiate identity. Others are treated to group outings designed to forge lasting friendships and heartwarming memories.
My friend Alex Shapiro was beaten, garroted and urinated on by way of welcome to his upstate New York liberal arts school.
His isn't an uncommon freshman experience -- unless you're looking for it in a college guide. Despite the horror stories intermittently reported by the media, fraternity hazing is still one of the hush-hush issues that can quickly ruin a freshman's year, yet rarely warrants so much as a mention from those whose business it is to prepare freshmen for the "college experience."
In their zeal to do so, administrators have developed orientation programs devoted to such hyperpolitical campus issues as multiculturalism, date rape and honor codes -- programs that exude a commercialized goodwill in a way that suggests there isn't an issue that can't be painlessly resolved through a workshop or a fireside chat. Curiously, though, the psychological and physical dangers of fraternity life often go widely ignored.
My own college was no different, nor the hazing less terrifying. As at most schools, there was a rumor that trumped all others -- of a pledging endgame called "Ookie Cookie" in which fraternity hopefuls masturbated onto a cookie. The last one to finish faced a grueling ultimatum: eat the cookie or face instant excommunication.
To be sure, the thought of such a meal caused me more angst than four years of exams combined. But so did the thought of four years on the collegiate periphery; the prospect of being cut off from campus involvement because I had failed to pledge was too awful to seriously consider.
My roommate and I stayed up all night debating the merits of rushing. We'd quickly become best friends but shared typical apprehensions about college life outside the Greek system. Where would we live? How would we get into parties? Perhaps most important, how would we meet women? No answers presented themselves, so we rushed. It was the last time my life at that school held any sense of possibility.
As for many insecure freshmen, the attractions of fraternity life made the decision to pledge irresistible to me. The smooth confidence so many older "brothers" exhibited offered me a glimpse of who I might
become, and the "Animal House" bacchanalia of fraternity life promised a dangerous adult fun. But once I made this decision, I began to see that the pressures that accompanied it were more than some people could take. Several classmates turned to hard-core drug use in response to not being accepted. I vividly remember only two things from my freshman year: the night a dorm mate died suddenly of a blood disease and the night my roommate received a bid and I didn't.
There was an unspoken acknowledgment that he and I were suddenly and permanently members of two very different groups. Hanging out became uncomfortable, and we began to avoid each other as much as possible.
Yet as roommates we were for a year irrevocably joined. During that time I watched with mounting unease as my roommate was delivered in the early morning hours -- sometimes bleeding, often covered in vomit or mud and always piss drunk, as was, I suppose, the point. In these drunken, late-night hazes, he would unwittingly break the fraternity's vow of silence and reveal what his brothers were putting him through as he drifted in and out of consciousness.
What emerged were tales of male monsters, men you'd expect to find only in a Neil LaBute film. Some stories were of relatively harmless acts. Pledges, for instance, weren't allowed to vomit anywhere but into their own shirts. But others were mind-bogglingly abusive, forced sexual acts that would make Bill and Monica blanch.
It was the worst year of my life. Soon afterward I transferred to a school without a Greek system. Nonfraternity life proved more varied and compelling than my freshman mind had grasped. But I never would have found it at my first school, where the de facto caste system and my own imagined exile would have prevented me from trying anything new ever again.
I never spoke to my roommate again, though we were just 45 minutes apart. I imagine by our senior year that both of us would have recognized the foolishness of the wedge suddenly driven into our friendship. I never got to ask him if it was worth it. Other friends like Alex tell me it wasn't.
I still harbor a lingering resentment, not because I wasn't accepted but because no one explained to me the consequences of involvement. I watched the process again this week at a different school, as freshmen, eager to belong, stumbled between rush parties.
Me, I prefer my cookies with milk.