I have to admit that at first the media blitz about the Glenbrook North hazing incident–the May 4 powder-puff football ritual that turned so vicious it sent five juniors to the hospital–didn’t register. Hunting for updates from Iraq, I scanned the headlines about it and felt a vague, removed contempt toward the students involved. But I didn’t read the articles.
Then my mom called. She’d seen a good five or ten minutes of videotape of the hazing on TV and it had really struck her; she thought it was in bad taste to show so much. I’m 35, but talking to my mother can make me feel like I’m 15, and I guess that’s why I finally got it: These stupid kids might actually have something to do with me. I’ve spent the better part of two decades trying to forget this, but in high school I was in a sorority. And every fall, we would gather in the woods and in basement rec rooms to haze the sophomore wannabes. Like it or not, the secret rituals of my own girlhood tied me to the girls whose shame was splayed across the nation’s news media.
By the time I hung up the phone, I felt the queasy high that comes from realizing that you just might have gotten away with something. Desperate to get my eyes on some footage, I got online and downloaded a blurry 60-second clip. You’ve probably seen it: a huddle of girls, some in too-big yellow T-shirts and ponytails, some grimacing and butoh white against the smoky green of woods on an overcast day. One girl swinging…what, a slow, heavy fish? And there was a bucket, the industrial kind that kids drum on in the subway, sailing through the air. It clearly wasn’t the graphic version that had raised my mother’s ire. But when I couldn’t find anything longer to download I played it again and again and again, squinting.
I was looking for something that would let me condemn those girls. I wanted to distance myself from them, chalk up their bad behavior to twisted values fed with silver spoons and reassure myself that my resume wouldn’t look better if I’d have had some of that silver-spoon action myself. Certainly aspects of the story–the lack of apologies and the plethora of lawyers, not to mention the pig guts, the human shit, and the walloping of a girl’s head in the aforementioned bucket with a baseball bat–make it easy. And the pundits gave anyone who didn’t want to recognize herself an easy out: these overindulged children, raised by distracted parents who are afraid to talk about right and wrong, they aren’t my kids, that’s not me.
Yet viewing the abbreviated clip I mostly just smelled the chill grass, the damp earth, the beer, the shampoo and the hair spray. Mostly I saw the smoky green woods and felt the good crackle of sweaty exertion in the cold. Something about it looked fun. And so I worried a little. Maybe it was me.
I grew up in Meadville, Pennsylvania, a county seat with a small college, some tool and die industry, and a few factories–zippers, dog food, glass. What with its 15,000 or so souls and its movie theater, its Kmart and municipal pool and skating rink, Meadville was the happeningest spot between Erie and Pittsburgh. In 1983, we had a Gothic redbrick junior high in the quaint, depressed downtown and a squat, yellow brick 60s-era high school in an outlying area. Boys’ sports defined the culture–especially football, which dominated summer as well as fall. The thump of the drum corps resounded throughout the town all through August, and I can still hear the crack of shoulder pads as the guys sweated through training camp from eight to four every day.
The main thing to do on a Friday night was to attend a game, where excitement came in the form of walking around the dark track that encircled the floodlit field. Even in junior high I was going to the public library and leafing through the college catalogs, dreaming of larger vistas, but when in Rome, the quickest way to have fun is to participate. Plus, there just weren’t enough people in my town to form a lot of specialized cliques–there were no punk kids, no Deadheads, no computer nerds–and in order to socialize you had to make odd alliances. It fostered a strange sort of tolerance. I enjoyed growing up in Meadville. It could be I’m the better for it.
But I don’t want to romanticize small-town life in America in the 80s. Racism in Meadville was vitriolic, and the provincialism bordered on ignorance. Having left it for Oberlin College, where most people were from more sophisticated communities, and then for Chicago, where it takes all kinds, I’ve learned what’s available to teenagers in well-off urban enclaves and suburbs–and I’ve felt twinges of deprivation. On the Tribune’s massive hazing comment board, there was a lot of noise about absentee parents, off working to support a lifestyle and not paying attention to their kids. It’s easy to come down on them for that when their kids are caught bashing their classmates’ heads in, but there’s something to be said for the visibility of options: moms and dads with good jobs, the proximity of cultural institutions offering workshops and lessons, and all the enrichment opportunities money can buy, like summer camps for language study or Outward Bound adventures. Just the list of activities available to students at Glenbrook North makes me drool: campus TV and radio stations, Russian Club, even something called the Glenbrook Aerospace Development Get-Away Experiment Team. So yeah, it’s true I once paced a length of prone sophomores squeezing Heinz into their open mouths, but I like to tell myself there’d be no way I’d have been in a sorority if I’d had other prizes to eye.
Still, in a country where lawyers making a quarter-million dollars a year call themselves middle-class and so do chronically unemployed teamsters, I see similarities between my high school and Glenbrook North. Both student bodies are primarily white, for one. And is there ever really all that much for teenagers to do in family-oriented communities dependent on cars and conformity? Even with Title IX in full swing, I’m guessing boys’ sports are pretty defining on the North Shore, too. I can understand how the girls’ powder-puff tradition got started. I can understand it in my bones: girls wanting to lay claim to some of what boys have, and to some of the boys’ sway over other girls.
That was the function of the sororities in Meadville. There were three: Reunir, for the jocky or popular kids; Alpha, for the smoking-lounge burnouts; and Miramar, for those who could go either way. They were well established–my boyfriend’s mother had been in one. In my era most sorority girls, myself included, belonged to Reunir. Out of a student body of about 800, I’m going to say there might have been 70 or 80 girls in Reunir. As soon as a new crop of sophomores was initiated, we’d start cruising the freshmen–who were still down at the junior high–for the next year’s pledge class. I read somewhere that a grudge stemming back to junior high boyfriends helped fuel the Glenbrook North brutality; in Meadville the high school guys regularly plucked pretty ninth graders to date, but Reunir co-opted the boys’ interest and made the genders competitive partners in the turning out of fresh meat.
The school didn’t officially recognize the sororities, but they played a bigger part of the social life than any other club or committee. Reunir hosted the annual semiformal Harvest Dance and had keg parties. We visited the old folks’ home and adopted grandparents. We raised money–held car washes in our bikinis, sold candy, bought clothing with our insignia, and what we didn’t spend on beer we gave away to the Jaycees or someone, got our picture in the paper once a year for it. But most of our energy was focused on internal events, and the fall was the most active season. The club hosted a tea for prospective members; a first rush (physical hazing); a second rush and a vote (psychological hazing); and then a ritual in which the girls who were accepted–the vast majority who rushed–met their big sisters, who showered them with gifts and feted them at a keg party, open to the public until the long-reaching beams of the cops’ flashlights scattered a hundred-plus kids through the woods.
It was the first rush that most resembled the Glenbrook North girls’ hazing. I think the idea was to pressure and humble–if not humiliate–the younger girls in order to get their measure and see if they had the stuff sororities require. Which was . . . obsequiousness? Respect for hierarchy? The details are fuzzy. We didn’t need to gather in a forest preserve; plenty of our backyards included or abutted acres of woods. We hauled in ketchup, mustard, and flour to dirty the prospectives, and for refreshment we tended toward hard liquor rather than beer. I remember the tink of a sophomore’s teeth against the bottle of tequila I was holding for her to drink from.
And we always brought eggs. Because here’s the thing: the location of the rush was supposed to be secret, but the guys couldn’t stand that. They’d pester us with as much persistence as if they were trying to get their hand down our pants, and of course someone would leak the info to her boyfriend. Early into the decorating of sophomores with condiments or making them play ring-around-the-rosy with their legs tied together, the edges of whatever clearing we were in would start to rustle. You could feel the impatience and jealousy on the back of your neck. And then out of the darkness would sail that first glowing egg, and the fight would be on.
Running buzzed on rotgut through the dark woods with your heart racing and your arm cocked to whip an egg was fun as hell. And it created a bond. Although we were just about to demand that the sophomores do push-ups in the mucky pine needles while barking like dogs, we older girls felt responsible for the younger ones. They were our guests, after all, and the posthumiliation egg fight showed them how worth-it it was to be in Reunir, to maneuver en masse against the guys, who for once had to navigate the sidelines of our game.
Turning on the TV one morning this summer, before I changed the channel so my son could watch Clifford the Big Red Dog, I finally caught a glimpse of video showing the sort of atrocities I’d read about: an arc of transparent pink paint thinner streaming through the air, 12 years of organized soccer coming to bear on someone’s clenched ribs. I’m not a person who believes there’s good violence and bad violence, and the girls’ behavior was deplorable. Still, it didn’t jolt me quite as much as the interaction between them and their male classmates. These guys weren’t skulking in the shadows–they were walking around with beers and hoisting the senior girls in the air so they could tap-guzzle. They played an integral, if not central, role in the drama. They were the Girls Gone Wild producers, taping the girl-on-girl action for their own pleasure and maybe more. If the socioeconomic differences between my high school and Glenbrook North don’t go far enough in helping me exonerate myself of retroactive complicity, maybe the differences in gender dynamics do.
I’ve wistfully envied the girls who came of age half a generation after me, in the post-riot grrl Internet era. Here’s another way to imagine I might have been better than I was, than I am: if only I had had a way to find out about bands like Bikini Kill, I could have taken a cue from Kathleen Hanna instead of Heart; if only I could’ve posted a blog for teenagers across the country to stumble on, I could have discovered smarter ways of bonding with other girls. Of course I’m seeing what I want to in the Rorschach test of pop culture, but I do think today indie and corporate media alike project and reflect a more proactive girl culture than they did in the 80s (shout-out to Buffy). Now it’s normal to see girls who are sexy and tough, strong and glamorous, proud of doing their own thing. The fathers of two of my high school friends persuaded them not to run track or play basketball team for fear their pretty bodies would get buried under ugly muscles. Now there’s Mia Hamm, Lisa Leslie, the Williams sisters on the cover of Elle. There’s Bend It Like Beckham. The signature movie of my high school years was Valley Girl, which is all about a girl choosing an identity via a guy (who, granted, had way better taste in music than any guys we knew). In high school and beyond, I spent a lot of energy trying to define myself any way but that.
Guys weren’t involved in the second Reunir rush. It was held indoors, and as a pledge I was told to wear old clothes that I could throw away. Calculatedly hysterical juniors corralled us into an upstairs living room or dining room and berated us–why oh why hadn’t we shown more respect at the tea and the first rush? Now we were going to see! Am I imagining that someone was slapped for talking? I remember the ragged shriek of a junior: “You don’t know how serious this is! You have to shut up!” Half a dozen sophomores at a time were blindfolded with someone’s father’s old ties and then flanked by stern seniors who’d emerge from the basement to lead them down, one by one. A few moments later there’d be a lusty chant–was it do it, do it, do it?–then the injured wail of the pledge. Those of us waiting our turn, hot and cramped and having endured hours of scolding, worked ourselves into real hysterics. There were only a few girls left now, all of us blindfolded. Then just two. Then I was waiting alone. With everyone else in the basement, the chanting was louder than ever. I started to cry, and my truly unfortunate haircut was surely not improved by my hands pulling at it or by the polyester blindfold.
Finally someone pulled me to my feet. I stumbled along to the top of the stairs. When the hot, mildewed smell of the crowded cellar wafted up at me, I screamed and fought off the hands gripping my elbows. I said, “No, I don’t want to be part of a club that hurts my friends!” My weepy, belated stand was met with what I interpreted as a bloodthirsty group holler. When I struggled more adamantly, tried to take the blindfold off, my best friend yelled up at me to do it, come on, she wanted me to. So I let myself be led to a chair, let my sweatshirt sleeve be pushed up and my arm be swabbed with cold alcohol. And then some senior branded me with an R…in kelly green acrylic paint.
By the time I was a senior, I was annoyed and embarrassed by the whole psychodrama and by the humid, teary second rush in particular, but I channeled my frustration to good effect. Early on the evening of the second rush party, after just a few prospectives had been sent down to the basement, I started hollering about the cruelty and injustice of our tradition. “I don’t care if we’ve all been through it! It’s dangerous! It’s not right!” I screeched, knowing my words would carry up from the basement. Red-faced and sweating, I thundered up the stairs to the living room, where timid girls sat cross-legged on the floor or eight abreast on the two shiny floral couches. I plucked my favorite sophomore out of the bunch and hugged her, apologizing for encouraging her to rush. Then I staged a fight with another senior, railing about the evils of violence, and when she “expelled” me from the club for my disloyalty I slammed out the door to the Ford Fairmont station wagon my parents let me drive. I probably terrorized more girls in that moment than in the rest of my sorority career combined.
The final ordeal was the vote, where each sophomore had to stand on a chair in a darkened room and, illuminated by a flashlight more commonly used for deer spotting, answer questions thrown at her by the sisters. Are you a slut? Do you think you have a great ass, is that why you wear your jeans so tight? Did you let Tony P—- feel you up at the Clarion game? In my three years the interrogation wasn’t as brutal as it was rumored to have been in the past. We’d exhausted ourselves by the second rush. Votes were tallied after sophomores left, and the next day at school they found out who’d made the cut. At Reunir’s end-of-the-year banquet, the sophomores traditionally serenaded the rest of the club with James Taylor’s “You’ve Got a Friend.”
The office ladies at Meadville Area High School tell me that sororities still exist there. Miramar’s the dominant one now. They weren’t sure Reunir was even around anymore. As in my day, the sororities aren’t affiliated with the school, but girls aren’t barred from wearing the insignia, and the administration doesn’t have plans to outlaw the clubs. But I bet in the upcoming academic year more schools will lay down a no-secret-society dictate like the one that allowed Glenbrook North to punish the students who had participated in the hazing even though it took place off campus on a Sunday. (So far the seniors who’ve been sentenced for their role in the hazing have gotten off with court supervision and community service. The judge has said their records may be expunged two years after supervision ends. They’ll graduate from college without trailing any priors onto a playing field that, in terms of gender anyway, is as level as it’s ever been.)
When I cried out at the second rush that I didn’t want to belong to a club that hurt my friends, I sincerely meant it, but I think I knew, too, that my friends were probably OK. That in making this claim–at the last minute, when the only person I could save from being maimed was myself–I might actually be increasing my popularity. Isn’t it cute she stood up for her friends? And two years later, when I put on my enraged Mother Virtue act, I had as much intention of scaring the shit out of the sophomores as getting myself out of a headache-inducing night. By the time I was a junior I knew I’d hide or deny it once I got out of town, but in the meantime, it was a passable alternative to studying for AP history and waiting for some boy to call. So we weren’t like them. Right?
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Emily Flake.