"There’s social status in breaking social norms": When the corrosive effects of Greek life spill out

An interview with Max Marshall, the author of the new book "Among the Bros: A Fraternity Crime Story"

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published April 5, 2024 5:45AM (EDT)

South Carolina, Charleston, College of Charleston, Greek life, Pi Kappa Alpha, Sigma Chi, fraternity houses. (Jeffrey Greenberg/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
South Carolina, Charleston, College of Charleston, Greek life, Pi Kappa Alpha, Sigma Chi, fraternity houses. (Jeffrey Greenberg/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Investigative journalist Max Marshall’s new book "Among the Bros: A Fraternity Crime Story" is much more than just a “true crime” story about young rich entitled (white) men acting badly. Instead, it is a story that embodies the much larger problem of how elite white men are taught at a very young age that they are above the law and generally can act with impunity. These attitudes, values, behaviors, and beliefs are at the heart of many of America’s greatest problems.  

A nationwide drug ring operating out of the Kappa Alpha fraternity at South Carolina’s College of Charleston was caught trafficking millions of dollars in Xanax and other drugs including cocaine, LSD, ketamine, and MDMA. The criminal enterprise ended in spectacular fashion in 2016 with one person being murdered, several students dying from drug use, and one of its leaders being sentenced to prison for ten years. Most of the leaders and members of the Kappa Alpha-based drug ring, however, suffered no serious consequences for their alleged crimes.

"They were still made up of wealthy kids from elite families, but they now asserted their rule by breaking the rules."

Beyond its sharp and darkly humorous writing and propulsive narrative, Marshall’s book is also a rich sociological text about the subculture of elite fraternities and sororities at America’s most exclusive (and predominantly white) universities and colleges. As he details in "Among the Bros," it is not an exaggeration or distortion to describe “Greek life” as an institution on to itself, one that operates according to its own rules, and in many ways controls the social lives of its members and the larger university and college community.

In this conversation, Marshall reflects on white privilege, gender and masculinity, and the culture of crime and other antisocial behavior that operate not just in the events depicted in "Among the Bros," but as signaling to much larger problems across the Greek life system at many of the country’s universities and colleges. He also shares his concerns about how these “leaders of tomorrow” (as shown by how the vast majority of America’s leading politicians and other influentials) are products of the Greek life system and its most problematic values and training.

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Marshall explains how popular culture’s understanding of Greek life as being some version of the movie "Animal House" is largely obsolete. The debauchery and chaos depicted in that movie are almost innocent and childlike compared to what is happening today.

What has the journey been like with the book?

It took about four years, 200 interviews, and a few thousand police documents, but the weirdest phase has been “book publicity.”

Has that novelty worn off?

Absolutely. You can only answer the same question so many times before you just push the “what led you to write this book?” button.  But I still hope that the act of writing will always feel novel to me. If I ever delude myself that I’ve become an “expert” at writing, it might be time for the urn.

Your book resonates with and reflects our larger society — especially in the Age of Trump and how we got here – this is so much more than “true crime."

I mostly agree, but I also don’t want to create too big a  “lowbrow/middlebrow” distinction. (Crimes always reflect our larger society.) But you’re right, you can’t write about a multi-million-dollar fraternity Xanax network without touching on all kinds of cultural pressure points, especially when nearly everyone involved gets away with it. 

After all the discoveries — millions of Xanax pills, student deaths, waterboarding, sweetheart legal deals, etc. — we still haven’t seen very many consequences. Most of the boys got suspended sentences, the Kappa Alpha Order is back on campus, and Sigma Alpha Epsilon never left. The fraternities even have public Instagram accounts, and last time I checked their parties look bigger than ever. 

What is the world of Greek life like? What are its rules, both stated and unstated? What do outsiders to that world not understand?

If you ever watch a Hollywood depiction of Greek life, you’ll usually see too much Abercrombie and hair gel. You’ll also see the elite fraternity members wearing sweaters and sucking up to the Dean, while the down-on-their-luck chapters throw the craziest parties.

In reality, it’s flipped. The “best” chapters — the ones with the wealthiest members — have the wildest behavior, and the lower-status chapters take things like philanthropy and academic standing more seriously. For the guys who can get away with it, there’s a lot of social power in saying, “I can black out four nights a week, sleep with girls from all six top sororities, skip class for pledge errands, and my family connections will still get me a better internship than you this summer.” 

I am not a joiner. But I also understand, deeply, the power of networks and social capital in determining one’s life trajectory and where it ends up or not. What are the types of personalities that are most compelled to participate in Greek life? What do we know about them?

Fraternities have always been a really efficient way of creating a separate campus for the ruling class. American colleges didn’t even need Greek life (as it’s currently comprised) until the 1800s, when middle-class students from rural backgrounds arrived wanting to learn how to be preachers. I’m not being glib when I say that the founding idea for fraternities was basically: let’s form a secret drinking club and not invite the random farm kids.

From there, they grew in influence. There’s the statistic from the Cornell Greek Life website that we ended up using on the back of the book: “While only 2 percent of America’s population is involved in fraternities, 80 percent of Fortune 500 executives, 76 percent of U.S. senators and congressmen, 85 percent of Supreme Court justices, and all but four presidents since 1825 have been fraternity men.” Greek alumni also give something like 75% of all money donated to universities.

From New Haven to Mississippi, there’s also a false sense that kids are “tricked” into joining these clubs and then thrown into a basement to be traumatized. But like you suggest, there’s a pretty clear reason for joining. Members of Alabama SAE or Ivy at Princeton have the same motivations: the best parties, the best-looking people, the best connections to do whatever you want when you graduate.

Reading your book, I kept thinking of "Animal House," which is one of my favorite movies and really a type of social history of a particular place and time in America.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that "Animal House" saved fraternities. Next to the '60s counterculture, fraternity guys looked like relics of the sweater-wearing, song-crooning past. In 1970, fraternity membership hit an all-time low. Then in 1978 comes this movie that shows two competing fraternity chapters: Kevin Bacon’s Omega Theta Pi, representing the old snooty ways, and John Belushi’s Delta Tau Chi, showing a wild new future. The Omegas made punch and cookies and called the Dean “sir,” and the Deltas burnt stuff and seduced the Dean’s wife.

After that, America’s real-life fraternities had a new way of branding themselves. They joined the counterculture in terms of smoking weed and having lots of casual sex, but they didn’t have to join it in terms of ‘fighting the power.’ (Caitlin Flanagan writes about this with her usual brilliance.) They were still made up of wealthy kids from elite families, but they now asserted their rule by breaking the rules. After "Animal House," fraternity membership boomed, and things ramped up from there. There’s a quote from the website Total Frat Move that I threw in the book: “Greek life today makes Animal House look like a Pixar movie."

"Among the Bros" is not a story of just a few bad actors. It is a story of a criminal culture.

This wasn’t a centralized drug ring like the first season of HBO's "The Wire." These boys never formed a hierarchy with foot soldiers reporting to lieutenants, who sat under capos, and on and up. 

Instead, they basically operated a multi-level marketing scheme. You had different kids buying unpressed alprazolam powder from Chinese labs via the dark web, and then they installed their own pill presses in beach houses and dorm rooms. These guys could make Xanax for a few cents a pill, and then they could sell it in bulk for about a dollar a pill. Then the pills moved from campus to campus, often through the fraternity system, with the price going up each time the counterfeit Xanax changed hands. (I met some customers who spent as much as $10 for a pill.) 

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One of the dealers told me he really wished he could’ve put the experience on his resume, because he learned so much about sales, marketing, inventory, pricing strategy, and all the rest. He said, “at the end of the day, it’s still a business.”

How is gender operative in "Among the Bros" and the larger Greek life system? What of fraternity “boys” and sorority “girls” vs “men” and “women?" These people are adults, not children. Yet, they are infantilized.

When journalists write about Greek life, they often call fraternity members “fraternity men.” Never in my life have I heard someone in a fraternity use that phrase. It’s always “fraternity boys,” “sorority girls,” and lots and lots of “kids.” I think you’re right to suggest that this language helps keep them from facing adult consequences. Also, given that so many of them grew up on a highly structured, meritocratic hamster wheel, you could argue their college years are more childlike than their childhoods.

If the men involved in the Charleston drug ring were not rich and upper class, and instead were working class or even middle class, never mind Black or brown, would they have been able to get away with these crimes on such a grand scale?

It’s not news to anyone, but it’s still amazing what a well-paid criminal defense lawyer can get you out of. If you have an attorney who can throw resources at a case and play golf with the judge and prosecutor, you’re in a pretty sweet spot. DUIs can disappear, drug dealing charges can get kicked down to simple possession, and multi-million-dollar drug networks can become “my client got caught up with the wrong group of friends and really regrets it.”

What happens when these baby gangsters encounter real gangsters and professional criminals? When fantasy is punched in the face by reality?

I noticed two competing fantasies among the guys who sold Xanax in fraternities. Some of the boys had the idea they weren’t really drug dealers; they were just “middlemen.” They bought something for one price and then sold it for a slightly higher price. (One guy compared it to working in commercial real estate.) Of course, they’re actually just describing the daily work of a drug dealer. Unless you’re farming poppy seeds, everyone in a drug network is a “middleman.”

The other fantasy went the opposite way. Some of the boys thought they lived inside [Grand Theft Auto]. They said things like “I was on my John Gotti,” got bottle service at LIV in Miami, bought a grenade launcher that didn’t have any grenades, or watched a lot of YouTube documentaries about Big Meech. I guess it’s not surprising, but these were the fantasies that sometimes ended in violence. One of the main characters in the book was killed right after watching "The Wire" on the couch. When he got shot, his housemate was playing Call of Duty in another room. He said that compared to the reverb-heavy explosions in the game, the real gun made a numb pop.  

What role do women play in the story?

On the one hand, this is a book about all-dude friend groups. The main characters are all guys, and most of the time everyone in the room is male. The book touches on the College of Charleston controversy surrounding Alison Bechdel’s "Fun Home," but it for sure fails the Bechdel Test.

On the other, many of the book’s best reporting sources were women. The College of Charleston is nearly 70% female, and those alumnae opened up my understanding of this whole story. They illuminated things about the boys that the boys would never illuminate about themselves. For example, here’s how one woman described why College of Charleston fraternity kids put Xanax in their punch at date parties: 

“For guys, blacking out means there’s no pressure. Then girls won’t say, ‘He tried to sleep with me, but he has a wack penis and couldn’t get hard.’ It’s just like, ‘Oh, he was on Xanax.’ ... Sometimes, I waited until sunrise for their penis to start working, and they’d start talking about their feelings. They'd be like, ‘my mom this and my mom that, and my dad and my brother and whatever.’ And I’m like, ‘I’m not even adding to the conversation. I’m literally a free therapist.’”

What is "Among the Bros" an example of in terms of its broader meaning for American society and culture in this moment and more broadly?

In my freshman year of college, I had a professor who wrote a lot about Imperial Rome. One class he told us that elite, late-Roman families sent their sons to Greece to finish up their educations. This might be apocryphal, but the Greeks apparently complained that the Roman “study abroad” kids got too drunk, looted ancient artifacts, and peed in the fountains. The boys got away with it because all they had to do was say cīvis Rōmānus sum.

I think that’s about where we are in America. (Maybe it explains the TikTok trend.) We’re far past Weber’s “Protestant Work Ethic,” and we’re onto the decadence of a late empire. There’s social status in breaking social norms, in playing the heel. I’ve come to feel that in powerful places, it’s almost like the goal is to show just how much you can get away with.

By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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