Mothers, don't let your babies grow up to be pledges. Sorority pledges, that is. Because if you do -- according to Pledged, Alexandra Robbins's often startling study of college sororities -- your daughters may soon be piercing their private parts, guzzling grain alcohol until they pass out, and pimping the sexual favors of their sorority sisters. And that's not all. They may be vomiting after every meal to be as slender as their sisters. They may be taking recreational drugs and suffering date rape more frequently than most college students.
If this sounds less refined than the perky, pearl-draped image of college sororities depicted in the last Reese Witherspoon movie, it surely is. And these examples only scratch the surface of a disturbing subculture ruled by out-of-control peer pressure and the lust for prestige. Consider the rampant eating disorders that Robbins reports from one campus, where a plumber was kept busy clearing the pipes that were continually clogged with the vomit of whole housefuls of bulimic sorority sisters determined to eat heartily and still fit into their size 2 jeans.
Robbins's book, both fascinating and eye opening, tells us a great deal about well-to-do young women in America and about the pressures on them. It describes a world in which some sorority houses choose their new members based on hair color, and where a young college woman's chief worry is securing her date for the next formal dance. And these are the less worrisome parts of the whole. No matter how many news stories you may have read about hazing incidents, binge drinking, and "Greek" rituals, the details that Robbins reports are often worse.
She writes, for example, about the "little sister" programs that some fraternities continue to sponsor, despite their being forbidden on many campuses. The supposedly prestigious and sought-after position of little sister, Robbins writes, includes "sex with many of the (fraternity) brothers, with gang rape a distinct possibility."
Robbins is a 1998 Yale graduate who has become something of a media celebrity largely due to her two earlier nonfiction books, both of which dealt with various aspects of collegiate or post-collegiate life. Secrets of the Tomb, published last year, explored her alma mater's exclusive secret society Skull and Bones, whose former members include President George Bush and presumptive Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry. Two years before, she snagged a piece of the Zeitgeist as the wunderkind co-author of Quarterlife Crisis, which dealt with the "unique challenges" of affluent twenty-somethings as they move from college to the real world.
However worthwhile a project, Pledged has a significant flaw -- the decision not to use real names or real locations for the core of the book. Robbins went undercover for an academic year to do her reporting, apparently becoming almost a part of the sorority landscape, although she isn't specific about just how she accomplished this. (A contributing writer for Cosmopolitan, Robbins is -- according to her press material -- "very camera-ready," suggesting that she might be able to look the part of a sorority member or perhaps a sibling or friend.) And she explains that the kind of access she got -- which allowed her to reproduce detailed conversations among the young women on topics as private as body-piercing and last night's sexual hookup -- was possible only if she completely concealed her sources' identities. (For instance, a sorority sister whom Robbins calls Bitsy, describing her as the "Jedi Master of nether-region rings," regales her friends as follows: "So I didn't get my clit pierced. I got my hood pierced.")
Robbins writes of her reporting method: "I sought out individual sisters who were willing to risk their sorority membership by letting me into their lives for an entire academic year ... I can't divulge how the four girls I chose, who knew they would be the main characters in a book I was writing about sororities, introduced me to their sisters, who did not know; and I can't divulge the disguise I wore or the role I played (suffice it to say, I can pass for 19)."
Her reasoning is plausible enough, perhaps. But as a result of this method, most of the book takes place in a hazy neverland Robbins refers to only as "State U." We don't even know what part of the country we're in. And we know the four young women whose lives she tracks in great detail over the course of a year simply as Sabrina, Amy, Caitlin, and Vicki. The resulting vagueness smacks a bit of the style of the women's magazines sold in supermarkets (Ladies Home Journalism, if you will).
Given current standards which make journalists more concerned to maintain their own credibility and, therefore, far more cautious about using anonymous sources, this technique is a blow to the book's credibility and authority. It is not, however, a lethal blow. Robbins has still done a great deal of homework in her year on campus, and it shows.
Some of what she reports is too strange to be fiction, anyway. Consider the story of one self-esteem-challenged sorority sister, who was raped after a party by a fraternity member she considered a friend. Later in the same year, feeling lonely and rejected by another man, she invited the date-rapist to her room where he obliged her with something close to a repeat performance of his earlier assault.
Robbins writes with empathy and affection for her college-age subjects (whom she anachronistically calls "girls"), many of whom are "sweet, smart, successful and kind." At the same time, and to her book's credit, the author clearly sees the problems of the Greek world in college, with its superficial values and dangerous practices. Early on, she asks: "Why are twenty-first-century women still so eager to participate in such seemingly outdated, ritualistic groups and activities?"
She does her best to answer, and -- in the final chapter -- to suggest reforms, but the appeal of the book is less in its sociology and more in its fly-on-the-wall details, reminiscent at times of reality TV. The paradox, of course, is that those details would be much more powerful if they were attached to reality: actual names and places. But though that was not to be, Pledged is still a powerful warning and an astonishing slice of American life.
Margaret Sullivan is an editor of The Buffalo News.