It's that time of the week again... Here is another chapter from my forthcoming book about my life as a struggling writer, Memoirs of a Starving Artist. This week I take a look at some of the darker aspects of the college experience:
The University of California at Los Angeles was the college experience writ large, with a beautiful campus of classic brick buildings and an atmosphere of promise and possibility. Besides the solid academic institution, there were football games, a vibrant social scene and a terrific sense of optimism among the student body. After transferring from the comparatively moribund UC San Diego campus, I felt lucky to be there.
As for the extensive Greek system on campus, I hadn’t actually expected to join a fraternity. Not right away at least. When pledge week came along I went to some of the parties with an old high school friend. Why not? I’d have some free beers and see what the fuss was all about. We stopped by one house just long enough for my friend to say hello to someone he knew there. This wasn’t one of the top houses in the social pecking order. It wasn’t where the chiseled blond beach boys or the varsity athletes hung out. It had more in common with the Animal House of movie lore, filled with a mix of hard-charging party types, average Joes, and the occasional misfit. There didn’t seem to be any common theme amongst the brotherhood, but a few of the guys that I met were nice enough. Three days after I made that first fateful visit I was a pledge there myself.
The house was up off the street at the top of a small knoll; two-stories high, cream colored with green trim and a large wooden deck out front. Inside, everything was just a little bit worn. A living room had couches with a big screen television and an elk head on one wall, pilfered from a local Elk’s Lodge. A large dining area had long tables where the brothers ate their meals, prepared by a professional cook in a big kitchen of questionable hygiene. Two wings out back framed a patio, complete with a basketball court.
My pledge class consisted of nine fresh-faced young men, all eager to take part in the longstanding college tradition that was Greek life. Four of the guys lived in the dorms together and pledged the house as a group. Joe was a tall and lanky guy from the San Fernando Valley with a bright smile and an easy-going air. Stewart was an ace guitar player from Long Beach who studied accounting. Ron was the comedian from the central coast with a wickedly dry wit. Bruce would go on to win an Emmy award for his reporting on the local PBS affiliate. Then there was Roger, a stocky stoner, and Ted, who studied biology on a graduate level and barely had time for the house at all. Bright and cheerful Greg played in the marching band and always had a smile on his face, despite the occasional abuse he took for his effeminate demeanor. Lastly there was Stan, the good-looking banker’s son with the bright red sports car and the laid-back air.
It was only a week or so in that I began to see the downsides of the social hierarchy of which we’d all become a part. Pledges are chosen in a fraternity much like they are in movies about fraternities. They go to pledge parties, meet active brothers and have their pictures taken. During house meetings, those pictures are flashed on a screen and all of the active brothers shout out their opinions, sometimes brutally, on whether the prospective pledges deserve to be invited into the house. Then the brothers take a vote. Of course I hadn’t experienced this scenario at that point. I’d been asked to join the house and accepted the invitation, and that was it. I found out afterwards that if the brothers later decide that they don’t like one of the pledges for any reason, they can “ding” the pledge. This means they can retroactively revoke their invitation. They can call in the pledge and say, “We’re sorry, we changed our minds and you’re no longer welcome here. We don’t actually like you after all. The door is right over there.”
One week after we pledged the house, one particular faction of brothers decided that they didn’t like Bruce. He simply wasn’t “cool” enough, for whatever reason, so they “dinged” him. Now I didn’t really know Bruce very well. I’d only met him the previous week, but it seemed particularly cruel to simply cut him loose like that. Bruce was a nice guy. There was nothing off-putting about him. As far as I could see, there was no reason to ding him at all. The moral dilemma, however, came to his three close friends, who still lived with him in the dorms. Would they stand for it? Or would they walk? I knew that if I was in their shoes I’d have walked. At least I liked to think so. But they stayed, all three of them, and it put a serious wedge in their friendship that I believe lasts to this day.
As for me, it was a glimpse into the darker side of group dynamics. That lesson would be reinforced in spades when initiation came along a few months later. We were told we’d be going on a camping trip of some sort, and to pack accordingly. It ended up that our bags were confiscated as soon as we arrived at the house and for the next three days we wouldn’t actually leave at all or even change our clothes. In fact, our initiation was basically indentured servitude, living in the house, being treated like dirt and made to constantly clean. Our pledge chairman, Ron Jenkins, was charged with running this fun fest. Ron was tall and thin with short sandy blond hair. He presented himself as a typical fraternity type, with an over-confidant, cocky air. Underneath it he had the maturity level of a self-absorbed twelve-year old.
The very first day of our initiation, those of us pledging the house were each assigned our own squares, side by side on the checkerboard tiles of the foyer. When Ron blew his whistle at any time of the night or day, we were required to run with undue haste to stand at attention on our squares. Ron’s eyes lit up with a wild fervor as he tested his power for the first time. A small crowd of active brothers screamed and yelled at us as we scrambled into our places. Moving down the line, Ron did his best impression of a drill sergeant, getting right up into our faces to berate us. We could only speak when spoken to and any questions had to be answered with a resounding “Sir, yes sir!” or an equally enthusiastic “Sir, no sir!” After these instructions came the beer, as brothers moved up and down the line pouring it onto our heads, down our backs, in our socks. The only clothes we’d wear for the next three days.
After half an hour of push-ups, sit-ups and verbal abuse, we were broken up into work groups to start cleaning up the devastation that was the house after our big annual party, the Sailor’s Ball. “Work makes you free,” we were told in a chilling reference to the concentration camp at Auschwitz. “Before I let you get to work, who needs to use the bathroom?” Ron asked. Stewart and Ted raised their hands. “All right, everyone take the hand of the pledge next to you and follow me.” That seemed a little strange, but we did as we were told and were led as a unit into the small bathroom downstairs. “Now to promote unity, when any of you need to go to the bathroom you have to tell me first! Then we’ll all go together and you all have to be holding hands! Understand?”
We shrugged and nodded.
“Do you understand!?” Ron bellowed.
“SIR, YES SIR!”
“I don’t hear you!! I said, do you understand?!!”
“SIR, YES SIR!”
Stewart was up first. Despite all of the attention, he managed to squeak out a leak. The next set of instructions came as he was finishing up. “I want you all to sing to him, just to make sure he gets rid of that last drop! You’re going to sing the following song!” And then he proceeded to share the lyrics, to be sung to the tune of KC and the Sunshine Band’s Shake Your Booty. Only in our case the lyrics went:
Shake shake shake,
Shake shake shake,
Shake your schwanze…
Shake your schwanze…
Of course it was silly, but humiliating all the same. When Stewart was finished and we’d sung with enough enthusiasm, Ron called for the next victim. “All right, who else has to go?!” he demanded. None of us said a word. I was standing next to Ted and knew he was the one, but I wasn’t about to rat him out. “I know someone else said they had to go!” Ron continued. “Who was it?!” More silence.
Ron thought this over for a while. “All right, but you better not let me catch any of you guys trying to go on your own!” He led us back to the foyer and then sent us on our way to perform our cleaning tasks. I was assigned to clean up the living room, along with Ted. It was full of empty beer cups and the assorted detritus of a wild night of bacchanalia. As soon as we were alone, Ted took a pouch of chewing tobacco out of his pocket and inserted a pinch of the stuff behind his lower lip. Next he picked up the nearest beer cup, shook out the last of the contents and unzipped his fly. Holding the cup between his legs, he filled it to the brim, then held the cup out and dropped it into the nearest trash can without a word.
For dinner we were given some gruel that was dyed a vibrant shade of green. It was the house’s official color, and all of the food we’d eat for the next three days would have the same dye, until by the end what went in and what came out was the same color. When it was time for us to go to bed, the brothers arranged four couches together into a square in the living room. The eight of us were made to sleep on the floor inside, which was perhaps enough space to sleep four. Again, it was all down to bonding and unity. It was nearly impossible to sleep. Even if we did doze off, we were jolted awake every two hours by Ron or a surrogate blowing the whistle and summoning us to our squares as brothers hollered more abuse.
Even more fun was in store for us during the next few nights, with activities like lying on our backs near the stairs while brothers dropped raw eggs into our open mouths from the second floor. Or being led blindfolded into the bathroom one at a time and made to kneel on the floor by a toilet while one of the brothers pretended to take a crap. When we heard the splash we were screamed at again, this time to “Kill the foe! Kill the foe!” until we reached in barehanded and pulled out the banana they’d dropped into the water.
It was all a lesson in human nature and it became clear pretty quickly that there were three types of people in the house. First were those who wanted nothing to do with the hazing and stayed away the whole time. This actually made up the majority, as far as I could tell. Next were the ones who stopped by on occasion mostly out of curiosity just to see what was going on. Finally there were the true sadists, reveling in their ability to inflict suffering and humiliation on others less powerful than themselves. This last group was never short of justifications. “This is what brings us together as a brotherhood. We’ve all been through it. Initiation is what makes the bond between us so strong.” It was all just BS to sooth their guilty souls as far as I was concerned. Having such weak characters that we allowed ourselves to be abused is what drew us together? The truth was, I saw the look in their eyes as they worked themselves into a euphoric frenzy. They were getting off on it, pure and simple. This insular social setting not only allowed, but actually promoted their ability to inflict cruelty. Plenty of them were ready to take full advantage.
So why didn’t I just quit? Why didn’t I walk out the door? I could have done so at any time and I was constantly tempted. Putting up with this hazing meant setting aside all self-esteem. Allowing them to treat me like this left me with a sense of shame, but still I stayed. I’d become close friends with some of my pledge brothers, as well as some of the other guys in the house. It wasn’t that I wanted the respect and admiration of those who were hazing me. I wasn’t desperate for their approval, though that was definitely part of the idea behind it all. I was supposed to want to be accepted by them so badly that I would let them do what they wanted with me.
The truth was, I would never respect these guys who abused us, not then and not ever. The house was truly divided for me; there were those who I considered to be friends and those I would never want a thing to do with. While my friends in the house never came by that week to haze me, they didn’t do anything to stop it either. Apparently they just didn’t have it in them. It was easier to simply stay away and ignore the whole thing. I made a vow to myself that I would stick it out, I would make it through this senseless hazing, but once I was in the house I would never let it happen again, to anybody. Somehow I would put a stop to it. That vow was what enabled me to retain some sense of my own dignity.
On the second night of initiation, I was so exhausted that I managed to fall asleep, sandwiched into the space on the floor with the rest of my pledge brothers. I was startled awake again, this time by some sort of commotion down on the street below the house. One of my pledge brothers risked punishment by leaving our confines to look out a window nearby. “It’s a fight, it’s a fight!” he shouted, upon which all of us ran to see for ourselves. Down below, a mass of bodies moved as one, back and forth, up and down the street. Maybe 40 guys in all, and in the center they were pushing and shoving and punching each other. I followed my pledge brothers out the door and on down.
It was obvious at once that this was brothers from our house in a massive brawl with brothers from the house next door. The reason for it, however, was a complete mystery. I didn’t see much point in getting involved. Instead I stood on the periphery, watching the spectacle in awe. After few minutes, one of the bigger guys from our house grasped the most agitated guy from their house in a bear hug from behind and pulled him to the ground. Johnny was just trying to calm the situation down. He was trying to put an end to the whole thing. “It’s over, relax!” he shouted as he held the guy tightly in his grasp. The entire crowd gathered around to watch and a strange, uneasy peace settled over them. It seemed that the fighting was indeed over. Somebody moved past me from just behind to my right. It was Ron Jenkins. I watched as he weaved through the spectators, right up to the front. He took a quick step into the center circle, facing Johnny and his captive on the ground before him. Ron lifted one leg and delivered a powerful blow with his heel square into the face of our helpless, incapacitated neighbor. Then just as quickly, Ron turned and weaved his way back out of the crowd as if nothing had happened at all. The guy on the ground began to convulse uncontrollably. His face went blank. His body shook as though he’d been possessed by demons. Johnny let him go and stood beside him as the crowd gasped.
Within a few minutes, police in full riot gear showed up followed shortly afterwards by an ambulance. The guy on the ground was lifted onto a gurney and an oxygen mask was placed on his face before they loaded him into the ambulance. No charges were filed. To the police, it was just another night on Fraternity Row. Back in the house, I asked some of my pledge brothers if they’d seen Ron kick the guy. Somehow, nobody had. They’d all been too distracted. It had all happened too fast, with too much commotion going on.
Before we were escorted back to our confines on the living room floor, Ron Jenkins himself pulled me aside. “I heard what you’re telling people,” he said. “I didn’t kick that guy.”
“I saw you!” I replied in astonishment. “You walked right past me! You kicked him right in the face!”
“I didn’t kick anybody. I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
In the end, neither of us had anything more to say about it, but I know what I saw and the image remains with me to this day. The heel to the face, the immediate spasms of the prostate victim, and Ron Jenkins slinking away through the crowd.
By the end of our initiation period, I was so exhausted I could barely stay awake but the brothers did everything they could to make sure we didn’t sleep. In the wee hours of the last morning, some of them loaded us into cars and drove us out to a field somewhere in the San Fernando Valley. This was to be the initiation ceremony itself. I was dreading it as well, but in the end it wasn’t so bad. The hazing part was over. Most of our tormenters didn’t bother to come to the ceremony at all. Without the hazing, the entertainment for them was finished. When we arrived at the location, active brothers escorted us into the field, said a few words, and that was it.
“We usually don’t go out to the field for that,” the house president told me later. “It was the first time we tried it, but we figured it would be fun for you guys.” I appreciated the thought, but at that point, sleep was the only thing that sounded like much fun to me.
By the following spring another group of young, fresh-faced guys pledged the house. I felt a rising sense of anxiety as their initiation drew near. Would I live up to my vow? Did I have it in me? When their initiation came around I stayed away for the first day but the guilt nagged at me. I knew that by not doing anything about it I was complicit. On day two I came by and pulled a few of the pledges aside to check in on them individually. One of these was my “little brother,” a pledge I’d been assigned to mentor. He broke down in tears as he told me what was going on. Not only was the hazing in full swing, it was even worse than before.
One stunt that was legend in the house but which hadn’t been performed in decades was called “The Circus.” It was based on the carnival game in which players have a high pressure water gun and spray water into the mouth of a clown figure. As long as the water is on target, a balloon on the top of the clown’s head inflates. Whichever player’s balloon pops first wins a prize.
In the hazing version of this game, the pledges are led into the large upstairs shower room and stripped naked. They are then made to line up facing one of the walls and grasp their ankles. Balloons, which have been sabotaged with pin holes, are placed in their mouths. Brothers with hoses line up on the opposite side of the shower. To the sounds of recorded circus music, the brothers with hoses spray water across the shower and into the pledges’ butts as they try desperately to blow up their leaky balloons until one pops.
This was the kind of human degradation I’d vowed to myself to put an end to, and here I was, allowing it to go on. I tracked down the brother who was behind it all and confronted him in the upstairs hall. “I think this has gone too far. I don’t agree with this. I think it should stop,” I told him.
“But you don’t understand!” he implored to me, that same manic gleam in his eyes that I’d seen before in the others. “This is where the bond of brotherhood comes from! We’ve all been through it!”
I tried to reason with him but he wouldn’t be dissuaded, as if this raw power over another human being was an addiction that he wouldn’t be denied. I found my roommate Ben and spoke to him about it. “We’ve got to do something to stop this,” I said and Ben agreed. We decided to call the alumni control board, the group of alumni tasked with overseeing the house.
Ben managed to get Lance, the president of the board, on the phone. I didn’t hold out too much hope from this group. After all, these alumni could just as well have been the same ones who came up with “The Circus” in the first place. Perhaps they had matured by this point in their lives. I could only hope. A group of them showed up a few hours later and talked to the pledges in turn, none of whom would admit what was actually going on, for fear of retaliation.
When the alumni left I flagged them down on the sidewalk outside the house so that I could speak to them alone. “It seems like everything is in order to us,” said Lance. “None of the pledges complained about any hazing. We’ll check in again in a day or two and see how things are going.”
“That’s not good enough,” I said. “Maybe they were afraid to talk to you guys, but my little brother was in tears when he was telling me about it. I can’t stand by and watch that.”
The alumni looked uneasy. “Ok, maybe we’ll stop back by again tomorrow.”
“Do you know what ‘The Circus’ is?” I asked. From their worried expressions, the answer was obvious. “Did any of the pledges tell you that they had to do ‘The Circus’ yesterday?”
“No, they didn’t mention that.”
“Because they’re too afraid to say anything,” I answered. “They don’t want to be punished for telling you the truth.”
“I see,” answered Lance. He was clearly taking this more seriously now. He thought about it for a moment. “We’ll be back in a few hours.”
True to his word, Lance returned that evening with a larger group of alumni, all wearing suits and ties. They came in and immediately shut down the initiation and held a small ceremony to welcome the pledges into the house as full-fledged brothers. The hazing was over, not just for that year but for good. From that point on, no pledge was ever hazed in the house again as far as I know. I’d managed to fulfill my vow, but that didn’t mean I was about to share that information with any of the other brothers. I decided that it was best to keep it to myself.
By the time my tenure at UCLA drew to a close I was already hard at work on my first big writing project. It was a movie script about social pressures and cruelty in a college fraternity setting. I’d heard the old maxim, “Write what you know,” and this is what I knew. Not that I necessarily agreed with the maxim. I wasn’t even sure exactly what it meant. Did Ray Bradbury know what life on Mars was like when he wrote The Martian Chronicles? Did Jack London have firsthand experience of life as a dog when he wrote The Call of the Wild? The obvious answer to these questions is no, but they did both have an understanding of human nature and man’s place in the world. That was what they knew, and what they were ultimately writing about. In my case, I would not be straying so far from the source material.
My fraternity experience left me with many good friends that I would keep for life, but it also taught me something about the darker aspects of group dynamics. I could see what might happen when the social norms that held us all together were allowed to break down. Sometimes those norms were the only things that kept us from descending into chaos. Most films about fraternity life were of the low-brow comedy variety. There was Animal House, for example, and Revenge of the Nerds. I loved those movies, but my script was going to be more of a serious drama. I wanted to write something that might broaden people’s perception of the darker sides of human nature. Like another of my literary heroes, Joseph Conrad, I wanted to portray that primeval Heart of Darkness that still lurked in modern man, hidden away behind a façade of civility. Do all of us have this cruelty within us, on some level? Is it part of what makes us human? These were the types of questions that, in Kafka’s words, might “bite and sting.” In a life that would be henceforth devoted to the concept, this script was my first real search for meaning. In hindsight, I was terribly naïve.
When I was finished my script I sent it cold to five or six Hollywood studios. Not even agencies, but straight to studios. The scripts came back unopened. Studios don’t read unsolicited scripts. Agents don’t either, I soon would learn. This was going to be harder than I’d thought. How was it possible to break into this business if nobody would even read your work? I started entering my script in contests, one after another. Maybe if I placed well I might get some traction that way. Perhaps then somebody in Hollywood might take notice. Unfortunately, I never placed at all. A big part of the problem was that the script wasn’t very good. It didn’t have the depth or complexity that I was aspiring to. It was also a tough sell for another reason. Movie studios didn’t want serious dramas about college fraternities, they wanted raunchy comedies. They wanted Animal House. At least this script was a start. I’d finished something and I was learning. Surely my next project would fare better. In the meantime, I’d graduated from college. That was something to be proud of, though my next step in life was still entirely unclear.