THE COLLEGE HILL INDEPENDENT


On Fraternity

by Vhalla Otarod

Illustration by Teri Minogue

published October 28, 2016


His sophomore fall we dropped my brother off at the frat house, car full of his boxes and sound equipment for his band. The frat house was a peeling two-story Victorian with Greek letters over the doors and an aged-looking balcony.  

My brother’s big came loping out to our car in a polo and khakis. He grabbed my brother’s hand through the open passenger door and pulled him out of the car and into a hug. 

New members of a fraternity are assigned “bigs,” big brothers, from the older classes. A big serves as your mentor within the frat. My brother had once told me that his big was a fucking psychopath. He said it in a way that meant it was a good thing, that he liked his big despite his psychopathy—or perhaps because of it. 

My mother and I stepped out of the car too. I ascertained from the first handshake that, yes, my brother’s big was a fucking psychopath. He had a facile smile, a casual gait without slouch, and the demeanor of a talented actor playing the role of “likable guy.” I saw right away that my mom loved him—he had started telling her how he’d sanded down the floors so they would be splinter-free for the new brothers. For my part, I couldn’t help but be charmed when he insisted on helping me unload the car.  

The first thing you see when you stand in front of the frat house is a big glossy boat attached to the trailer hitch of a pickup. It’s right in the middle of the lawn and at least three hours from the nearest marina. 

My brother smiled when he saw it. He nudged his big and said, “She’s back, huh?”

Laden with boxes, the boys had to go around the boat’s starboard side to get to the front door. My brother kicked the gleaming stern as if in greeting, and then they disappeared into the lettered maw of the house. Mom and I kept our distance, milling about in front of the pickup truck. 

My mother said, “Doesn’t he seem wonderful? I feel much better now.” 

We watched them make several trips between the house and the curb before my brother’s big waved us in for a tour. 

My brother led me upstairs to show me his room. Greek letters painted on the back wall, nearly his height. 

As we stepped into the hallway, a creature interrupted our path. It took a few blinks for me to identify the sinewy electric-green body winding through the sawdust. Yes, that is an iguana, my brother shrugged. I later learned that his big also kept a pitbull and a chinchilla in the house. 

After the tour, we said our goodbyes to my brother and his big brother. 

As my mother and I returned to the car, I saw some other guys on the roof, just throwing shit off it. Televisions and glass jars and mini-fridges. They screamed whenever something hit the ground and exploded. My mom followed my eyes and said, “Would you look at those kids.” Her smile hadn’t faded. I wanted to cry then, but I knew it was ridiculous so I laughed. 

We clambered into the car and shut the doors. 

“How about some girl time?” she said, and we drove away. 

 

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The 2016 film Goat follows a fraternity pledge as he undergoes a week of non-stop hazing in order to become a brother of the fictional Phi Sigma Mu. The film is an adaptation of a memoir by the same name. Some of the film’s events allegedly occurred in a fraternity at Clemson University.

Goat breaks from the boys-will-be-boys mold of movies like Animal House and Neighbors. It depicts hazing as physical and psychological torture. The film’s midpoint finds one pledge locked in a dog kennel as the Phi Sigma Mu brothers kick him, urinate on him, pour beer over his head, and turn the cage on its side. Our hero and the other pledges watch. They remain silent and lined up against the basement wall as ordered. 

As we watched this scene, my friend said, with gratitude, “We will never know what it’s like to be men.” I thought about her reaction as the credits rolled. 

I felt no relief in the knowledge that as a woman, I would never experience fraternity hazing. I revisited Goat many times after that first viewing, maybe in the hopes of understanding how I should feel at the end. I never do.

In one of my favorite scenes, the protagonist, his biological brother, and a Phi Sigma Mu brother abscond to the frat house lounge to smoke Cuban cigars. They wear a drunken uniform: navy sportcoat, rumpled oxford, half-undone ties. They’re sweating liquor into the upholstery. Between moments of comatose head lolling, the Phi Sigma Mu brother confesses to the other two that his father hates him. He tells the brothers how much he loves them, how happy he is that they’re there. Then he puts an arm around the protagonist and manages a giddy “Phi Sig, motherfucker.” It’s not meant to be a sweet moment, ending on that ominous note. But I find it tender and sad in a way that has little to do with the characters’ situation. That scene floods me with a nauseous emotion that smacks of disappointment or maybe envy. 

I keep thinking: I will never know what it’s like to be a man. 

 

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Fraternities represent a system of male social dominance that hinges on fictive kinship. Imposed fraternal bonds allow for and are even forged in abnormally aggressive behavior. These bonds are sustained by loyalty: not reporting your pledge master even if he abuses you.

As Goat illustrates, this structure can create an injurious environment that seems inescapable for pledges. One character insists, “If you quit, what else is there?” A laughable fix, perhaps, to those of us who have managed life unaffiliated, but this imperative is bigger than any one fraternity. According to a study by the U.S. Department of Education, over half of all college students in the nation are involved in hazing rituals. 

The idea of fictive kinship as vital to survival and success is not unique to the modern United States. Some Vikings, for instance, swore blood oaths and declared “blood brotherhood” with allies in battle. The early Celts often fostered their sons to be raised by wealthy and powerful men in the hopes of establishing bonds that would protect the boy as he trained to become a warrior. Men in these societies relied on fictive kinsmen for support in political disputes, personal quarrels, and blood feud. 

In Goat’s prologue, the protagonist suffers a violent carjacking. Injured and stranded in the woods, he survives because nearby homesteaders find him collapsed on their property. As the story of his trauma circulates, the brothers of Phi Sigma Mu assure him that once he pledges their fraternity, he will never again find himself so shamefully defenseless. 

“You know why?” asks a fraternity alumnus. “This is Phi Sigma Mu. Okay? We’re gentlemen. We don’t like to fight, but if we gotta fight, then we all fight.”

 

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Growing up, I lamented my lack of an older brother. I imagined that older brothers were invaluable to a young girl’s education. Or at least some of my friends’ older brothers seemed so, the ones who taught their sisters to climb trees and watch football. The sisters of older brothers all seemed smarter and stronger than I was. Emotionally tougher. Even as a child, I think I realized that having an older brother with older friends would have acclimated me to a sort of male space I now find threatening.

My younger brother and I were never close as teenagers. We didn’t go to movies or eat lunch together, we barely saw each other at home. We made no effort to understand each other’s lives. Once he found me crying in my bedroom after a school dance and asked why I’d put on so many tons of makeup just to ruin it. He never expressed any emotion except cool irritation, and I felt silly in comparison. I felt like such a girl.  

 

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Fraternities dominate the social scene at my brother’s college. To remain independent is to isolate oneself from campus life. My brother held an ambivalent attitude toward fraternities during orientation, telling my parents he likely wouldn’t bother with rush. He changed his mind halfway through the first week of school.

It was a pragmatic decision for him. Ideally, my brother would find in his fraternity a network of mentors, or at least ritual words of brotherhood to guide him: the Greek name of his fraternity, their generations-old oath of loyalty, even the crude nicknames bestowed upon him and his fellow pledges. He would belong to a clan that protected and promoted its own. He would become easy in the presence of wealthy men, privileged men, the kind of men who are statistically likely to run the country after graduation. 

During recruitment, my brother grew more excited about the prospect of pledging. He was not worried about hazing, though he knew it occurred. He had found a tribe, and it didn’t matter if he disliked certain individuals within it. All that mattered was that he liked them as a group. They seemed to him smart, well dressed, and fun, which meant that he would also seem this way when he became a brother. 

I was happy for him and envious of him. I had misunderstood my childhood longing for male mentorship and protection as the desire for an older brother. Now I knew, I had wanted all along what my brother had now—fraternity. 

 

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The first time my brother called me in a non-emergency situation came a week after his formal induction. 

I picked up the phone and demanded to know what was wrong.

“Nothing,” he said. “Just wanted to see how you were doing.”

He told me about the pledge ceremony, about his big and his new brothers. He disclosed almost nothing about the events of his initiation—only snippets that I knew represented a sanitized summary. 

The phone call couldn’t have lasted more than a minute. 

After my brother settled into the frat house, his big helped him build a bedframe for his mattress. It was sturdy and splinter-free. Together they also repainted the walls, carefully outlining the Greek letters. My brother would pay for supplies but never labor. His big seemed happy—even enthusiastic—to spend long hours improving my brother’s living space. 

In fact, he seemed keen to be of use whenever possible. My brother once asked his big for help in a physics class he had taken the year before, and his big would have given it, if not for the fact that he had eaten his graded final exam on a whim. Chewed it up and swallowed it. Shame, too, because he had gotten a perfect score. 

I was privy to such anecdotes now. As the year passed, I received more frequent phone calls from my brother. The first time he said, “I love you,” I stood dumbfounded many seconds after he’d hung up, phone pressed to my ear.

 

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In one the most intense hazing episodes in Goat, the older brothers lock the pledges in a shed with a keg and a goat. The pledges must finish the keg or, threatens one of the brothers,  “I can 100 percent promise you, you are gonna have to fuck this goat.” Despite frequent vomiting and general misery, the pledges tap the keg. Having drunk the last drops, our protagonist rings a bell that will alert the brothers outside to the task’s completion. 

 “I don’t get it,” said my friend. The concept of hazing baffled her, and more so, the fact that willing pledges allowed it to exist. 

I did kind of get it.  

The scene continues like this: For a moment after our hero rings the bell, the pledges stand in silence, unsure whether anyone is still out there. For a moment, they are abandoned. Then comes the banging on the door and walls and the whooping all around.  The door bursts open, and the older brothers pour in like a horde of riotous spirits. Except now, they’ve been appeased. They are benevolent. Hugs all around. A giant bonfire awaits the pledges outside.

I felt acutely the satisfaction of this moment and others in the film when praise and approval punctuate abuse. The pats on the arm, the well dones. I was scared of what it would say about me as a woman to admit this, but part of me understood the need to hear, you did good, kid—and understood the need to hear it from someone who had locked you in a cage and urinated on you. 

I know a guy who pledged a notorious frat in the South. He once told me that the humiliations and physical torments depicted in Goat were not uncommon during his frat’s initiation. His fraternity upheld a tradition of assigning, as a pledge’s big, the brother who had hazed him with the greatest zeal during initiation. He said that a pledge could expect sexual humiliation, sensory deprivation, and beatings from the man who would then serve as his mentor. 

Four years later, he and his big are best friends. 

 

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My brother suggests that I stop watching Goat

Whenever I call him now, I ask him about hazing. He tells me about his fraternity’s goals for rush this fall. Indulgent, like he’s answering a child’s questions about politics. When I prod him on the initiation planned for pledges, he says, “I can’t say, but if we don’t make it kind of hard, there’s no point.” I jump on that, tell him he’s quoting a character from Goat and, how weird is that? You just said the same exact thing and didn’t even realize it! 

Don’t you have schoolwork to do? he asks. 

I show my housemate a picture of my brother.  In it, he and I are standing side by side. He’s wearing an oxford and khakis and showing just enough teeth. We don’t really look alike. 

My housemate glances at the picture. 

“I thought you had a younger brother,” she says.

“Yeah,” I say. “That’s him.”

“Oh. He looks older there.” 

 

VHALLA OTAROD '17 studies warrior cultures.