I applied to a really good university. In fact, it was an Ivy League college. I sailed through the SATs, took the two other specialist SATs that they require. I even got an interview, but I didn’t get in. The disappointment was very hard to deal with. So I ended up at my local university. A very good school, but not the one I wanted. It was, after all, my safety school. Who is really thrilled about that? I think they call that a first world problem.
My first year of university passed without incident. I was in residence, I had a boyfriend and in the supremely intelligent act of trying to prove to U of T how little I cared for it – I almost flunked everything I took. Some part of me didn’t take anything seriously and was very angry. This was a broad departure from who I really am (anal OCD perfectionist) and so in my second supremely intelligent act of trying to prove to U of T how little I cared for it; the following September I decided to join a sorority.
Sororities (or women’s fraternities as they are called up here barf) are not that popular in Canada, nor are they widely tolerated; and if they are tolerated then they are not encouraged. Most universities do not have them and if they do, they are managed by an off-campus separate organization called the Pan-Hellenic Association. From their website we can learn the following: There are only 16 Pan-Hellenic campuses in all of Canada (the largest country in the world!) and 8 of those sixteen are in Southern Ontario alone. This org manages the rules and regulations from everything from rushing procedure, quotas and in some cases it resolves disputes. By this I have heard it described, it throws its manicured hands in the air and leaves to get a glass of chardonnay when things get iffy. Things that a sorority can get in trouble for, from both it’s main house affiliation in the US and from the local Pan-Hellenic association are, men within the house, drugs, alcohol abuse, violence, destruction of property, academic probation and – wait for it – hazing new members, also known as pledges.
The rushing process was not that intense but it did take a lot of time. You have to meet the houses, the women and gather information in a structured manner which can feel managed. I do remember not being well-prepared for the meetings, not having rec’d the memos according to dress and co-ordinating timetables to plan activities was next to impossible. The women were cold and well-rehearsed. They were judgmental (naturally) and superficial. They also despised each other. It was quietly understood that the moment you accept your final invitation and chose your sorority all other communication with girls from different houses would cease. Within a week or 10 days the final envelopes were available for pick up and you knew what house had picked you. Because of the low numbers rushing, more than one envelope was awarded to each pledge.
For the first time in my college career I made a clear mature decision. I was not going to pick the most popular group of girls; I was going to pick the nicest. I had attended one house that had gone to great lengths to present themselves to me. They had sung songs in their beautiful common room and hugged each one of us on the way out while they presented us with tiny pine picture frames hand-painted with ivy leaves (I still have mine). This was the kind of lovely girl I wanted to be, someone who felt comfortable hugging strangers in their living room.
Pledge Week was scheduled to begin on a Friday afternoon and continue over a weekend. I never made it that far. Upon arriving at the house, the eight pledges were to dress only in white and obey what we were told to do by our new sisters. The first instruction was complete silence. We were blindfolded and made to follow each other into the basement with our hands on each others shoulders for stability. Each girl was brought forward individually and asked why she wanted to join the sorority. This was not a question we had been prepared for and I felt my answer was truly stupid. Upon answering there was a long pause and a bunch of feet stamped in approval. I realized I was in a room of people staring at me while I was blindfolded. I was led back to the group, waited until we were all re-assembled and then moved back up stairs. We got our coats to go outside and our wrists were tied together with a piece of rope, in addition to being blindfolded. Our sisters were getting bold with power and began to call us bitches and sluts. We pledges kept our vow of perfect silence. Outside on the sidewalk, they asked me to get on my knees, which I did. This forced the people I was attached to either move to their knees or crouch down. Then I was sharply forced back to my feet with a woman fiercely whispering “Stand up! Stand Up!” in my ear. I learned later that this was the one sister who disapproved of what was going on. However, this was the only time she ever spoke up and I never heard from her again.
We were marched through the neighborhood in front of the frat houses. I could hear hooting and catcalls as we passed. Then, onto the streetcar, then south to the harbourfront. Being October, it was abandoned and cold. Hours passed. We were brought to an open air music stage used for summer concerts and told to lie on our stomachs onstage in the dark. We were allowed to remove our blindfolds, or maybe they fell off. I remember looking at my next closest pledge who was from Australia and laughing hysterically out of nervousness. It was painfully clear that these women had no idea what to do with us, that they were drunk on the power of controlling us and that this served no purpose. We weren’t being “initiated” into a well-respected women’s group, we were rolling around on the ground of an abandoned park in the winter. I can’t stand stuff that holds no purpose. Like I said at the beginning, I had not formed a deep connection with anyone from the house and this was not was I was looking for. I had a group of real friends I could be hanging out with and it seemed like a waste of a Friday night. So I stood up and told them I was done. Like all overdramatic teenage girls, this caused a flurry of activity in my general direction. They wanted to know “Why?”, they assured me that it was almost over, they warned me that leaving meant I could not be part of the sorority. I politely responded that I understood but that I was still completely over it. We rode the subway back to campus in silence, I packed my belongings and went home and that was it. I was now a pariah among my new-found friends.
The following Monday, on the advice of my mother, I called the sorority headquarters in the States but when I mentioned that I wanted to report an incident of hazing the women was rude to me, then she hung up on me. I thought about and then composed a long letter and addressed it to the sorority headquarters in the States. It was returned unopened “address unknown”. I kept that unopened letter for ages as a constant reminder of what had happened. Then I threw it out and wrote this post instead.
Only one woman from the house – let’s call her PBT - spoke to me after that and she was very badly treated by her sisters because she was seen as a “traitor”. She invited me to a frat party a little while later and there – ironically - I met one of my most serious boyfriends of all time. Being with him for the rest of my university experience gave me a safe place to observe sororityland without actually being a part of it. It was there I learned more details about the house I had been rushing: about the rampant drug use and how sexually promiscuous these girls were, about how they were on academic probation for flunking out and how they pissed in the orange juice (literally) to passively-aggressively punish each other. I learned how the house, due to these and other violations, had narrowly missed losing its Charter and being shut down in prior years.
Additionally, I learned about the how the most popular house - the one I chose not to join - threw girls down on the floor of the bathroom of a local college bar and “playfully” kicked them as part of the initiation process. I learned from my boyfriend about the night during Pledge Week when a sorority brought their pledges into his frat house in their underwear with name tags that read “greasy boobs” and “elephant vagina” and asked the men to use magic marker to “X” out the fat on their body and circle the lean parts.
One of the women – let’s call her Shoshanna - from the house became obsessed with my boyfriend after she discovered he was courting me. He said that before we met, Shoshanna used to playfully flirt with him by yelling “Wouldn’t John make the cutest cabana boy?” at parties. Given that we live in Canada, the concept of a cabana is a foreign one and only served to underscore just how wealthy she was. She eventually had to switch the insult/flirt to “pool boy” in order to be properly understood by drunken frat boys. He didn’t appreciate it, but she was cute and in the same pre-law stream and the logician in him figured it was only a matter of time before he would sleep with her. When he met me and lost interest in Shoshanna, she began to loudly complain that frat guys should not date outside the sororityland (then how do you explain all the strippers?) and when that didn’t work to get his attention, she spread the following rumor: She told him that I was obsessed with her and that I forced myself into bathroom that she was using at a party because I am a closet lesbian. (Has anyone see Mean Girls?)
Reader’s Note: Using the word lesbian as a descriptor does not turn frat boys OFF
I vividly remember this incident. I was exiting a single bathroom on the main floor after being turned away from the quieter second floor washroom. Shoshanna came flying out of nowhere with a drink in her hand screaming (as usual) that she had to pee and punched me back inside, because due to crowding it was quicker than allowing me to exit. I began to re-open the door to leave for the second time when she began to scream that if I did that, the whole room would see her on the toilet. This was true, so I stood with my back to her as she finished while listening to her ask me personal questions because “now we have a chance to talk”. She was drunk and friendly and funny and I was laughing out of nervousness (see a pattern?), but I do remember being slightly scared of her, which is rare for me.
I never saw any of the girls from that experience ever again. Even at frat parties, they simply disappeared. At the end of my fourth miserable year of nearly flunking everything, I shared a class with the Australian girl for two weeks by happy accident. I did not mention the past, but she was quick to explain that she never really hung out at the house after that first fateful year; mostly she talked about her sexy bad boy motorcycle-riding boyfriend. Sexy bad-boy motorcycle-riding boyfriends were a hot commodity back then but I guess they never really go out of style. I was happy for her but I could feel that she was very guarded. I did not press her for any details but she seemed frightened that I would.
I would occasionally run into PBT at bars and clubs in later years. She got a nose job, became the girlfriend of a very successful drug dealer and dropped out of university because she didn’t “see the point”. I never saw her again either, but if you are out there PBT and you know who you are and what PBT stands for, I would love to meet for a drink. You were the only one who stood up for me and what you believed in and courage like that should be rewarded.
This post is in honor of you.