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'The Secret Life of Sororities'

New book by Alexandra Robbins offers an inside view of Greek life on today's college campuses. Read an excerpt.

The rituals of Greek life have been portrayed by Hollywood from the classic movie “Animal House” to the more recently successful “Legally Blonde,” in which Reese Witherspoon plays the perfect sorority sister. However, how realistic is that portrayal of sisterhood? In her new book, “Pledged: The Secret Life of Sororities,” Alexandra Robbins shares her insights into the clique-like atmosphere of sororities. She discusses the book on “Today.” Read an excerpt here:

“Delta, Delta, Delta, Can We Help Ya, Help Ya, Help Ya?”

(or, So Do They Really Have Topless Pillow Fights?)

Because I’ve never been a member of any girl-only group other than sports teams, I didn’t know much about sororities when I started researching this book. Actually, I was slightly afraid of them. We outsiders, who can only envision what goes on behind sorority house walls and inside sorority girls’ heads, merely have movies such as Revenge of the Nerds, Animal House, and Legally Blonde to inform our views about sororities. Those of us with the more salacious of imaginations — or the more B-movie of tastes — might associate with sororities the topless pillow fights that must inevitably occur when fifty estrogen-laden creatures gather for a sleepover (or so men everywhere fervently pray). Or perhaps a Heathers-inspired coldness might come to mind as we visualize the vicious hair-tearing, earring-twisting catfights between sororities clamoring for the most popular fraternity to escort them to Homecoming. Or our image of sororities (as was mine) is the tamer, more relatable version: the popular group of girls from high school — cooler, prettier, wealthier, multiplied by ten, living under one roof, and recognized officially by their college as a clique.

I don’t think I realized the extent to which I was an outsider, however, until I found myself smack in a bustling epicenter of sorority life — a “Greek boutique”at a conference for sorority and fraternity representatives. The room was swathed in the hyperprecise sorority colors: not blue and yellow but “Old Blue” and “Café Au Lait” (Sigma Delta Tau); not green and white but “Olive Green” and “Pearl White” (Kappa Delta). I was surrounded by sorority letters, colors, and symbols stamped on, drawn on, embossed on, engraved in, carved into, or welded onto such a variety of objects that it felt as if I had arrived in a Disney gift shop for “Sororityland.” As I watched sorority sisters in expensive-looking clothes try on kitschy jewelry they likely wouldn’t deign to wear if it didn’t bear their sorority letters, I wondered what possessed them to feel such passion for objects I obviously didn’t understand. Here, on table upon table of items divided neatly by individual sororities and their corresponding colors (sororities also have certain mascots, symbols, jewels, and flowers, such as Delta Phi Epsilon’s “Lovely Purple Iris”), the sisters had their pick of sorority emery boards, money pouches, picture frames, bottle openers, and refrigerator magnets. Lips feeling dry? Try the boutique’s “Sorority Lip Balm!” Bathroom not smelling sparkly clean? Here’s a sorority air freshener! Crave a more elegant hygienic experience? How about sorority bath crystals? Gesundheit! Have a sorority tissue.

In the long line at the cash register, sorority girls fussed and “fabulous!”ed over the souvenirs, twittering in italics about such foreign jargon as rush crushes, cold dorms, and prefs. I was officially entering Sorority World, a world of High Priestesses, Temples, and secret handshakes, a world so entirely different from my non-Greek experience that it had a name for people like me, people unaffiliated and unlettered. “Oh . . . ,” one girl drawled in a honeyed southern accent ”You’re a GDI.” A GDI? “A God-Damn Independent.” Oh.

Clearly, this wasn’t going to be your everyday reporting assignment. In order to understand this world so fully that I could portray it fairly and accurately, I realized I needed to have so engulfing an experience that I would be living, breathing, and shopping sorority. My first plan was to try to follow a sorority throughout the 2002–2003 academic year, to become such an ever-present fixture in the house that I would be treated as something like an honorary member. I canvassed several campuses in search of an appropriate group to shadow: a national group, affiliated with a “historically white” national sorority organization — white and black sororities are still largely segregated. (The sororities illustrated in this book are “historically white” unless otherwise noted.)

Finally, a sister invited me to observe her group, a popular sorority at a school whose Greek system had been under fire in recent years because of several hazing-related deaths. The day I was to visit the house, I agonized over my outfit, blow-dried my hair straight, put on more makeup than usual, and dug my spikiest ankle boots out of the recesses of my closet. Admittedly, because not many of my friends were sorority sisters, I was nervous about entering an entire house full of them. The more I learned about sororities, the more bizarre their world seemed. As I tottered up to the porch, I suddenly didn’t feel like a twenty-six-year-old investigative reporter preparing to dig into another project about secret group behavior. I felt like the kid I was in junior high school, wearing sweatpants and soccer sandals, hoping to please everyone but at the same time trying hard to pretend not to care.

Later that afternoon, I was curled up on a bunk bed and chatting with two of the sorority girls. Sometime during the emotional story one sister shared about how a sorority rivalry destroyed her relationship with her longtime best friend, I flashed back to my camp counselor days and had visions of serving as a kind of resident big sister to these girls. It hit me then that when I attended overnight camp, my teenaged bunk acted in ways that were somewhat similar to sororities. We traveled in packs, had rivalries with other bunks, pressured each other to break rules, and even fought over the same guy (who, coincidentally, eventually became the president of his fraternity at the school where I now sat). Here at the sorority house was a group that similarly provided selected college girls an automatic sense of belonging, no talent or niche required — a built-in social network to accompany a girl to bars, parties, sporting events, and study sessions. This comparison caused me not only to wonder if sorority girls were so different from the rest of us, but also to think that had I attended a larger college, maybe I would have been a sorority girl, too. But when the girls gave me a tour of the house, they told me about their sisters’ diet pill addiction, their pride in the fact that they hazed new girls, and their ”drug room,” which displayed a bong, several bottles of pills, and some suspicious-looking white powder (some of the girls regularly did cocaine). If I had joined a sorority, I asked myself, would I, like the girls I met, inevitably have fallen into the kind of herd mentality among sororities that can encourage conformity, cliquishness, and compromising morals? At that initial point in my research, I didn’t know.

After several days of observing this major national sorority, I was approached by the adviser of the house. A stern, heavyset sorority alumna who looked much older than her twentysomething years, she led me into the “scholarship room” — a small room with computers and a large file cabinet full of notes, tests, and papers from various classes offered at the school. She told me to sit down, and locked the glass door. Girls peered in quizzically as they walked by, but a quick glare from the adviser sent them scurrying on.

“You shouldn’t have been given permission to be here,” she said gruffly. She interrupted herself by cursing under her breath and yelling in her deep voice at the girls she could see through a window who were smoking cigarettes on the front porch. “You’re not allowed to smoke in front of the house! It doesn’t look good!” The girls reluctantly slinked away.

The adviser turned back to me. “You need to get permission from the national office, which is probably not going to give it to you.” She paused again. “And if for some reason they do, I simply cannot allow you to write about the drugs.”

When I got home, I called the sorority’s national office and explained what I was doing, figuring this process of obtaining official permission was just a formality. The executive director, however, said otherwise. MTV had just aired a show called Sorority Life, which followed the six-week pledge process of a California sorority (a “local” sorority, which meant it was independent and unaffiliated with any national organization). The show had infuriated sororities nationwide, who believed that MTV had overly sensationalized life in a sorority house and concentrated only on the girls’ drinking and catty fights. “Because of the MTV show,” the executive director told me, “all of the national sororities have decided on a blanket policy not to cooperate with any members of the media. It’s just not appropriate at this time.” With that, I was suddenly completely closed off from a group of several dozen sorority girls I had already started to like.

Realizing that I wouldn’t be able to openly observe a sorority house unless I received permission from its national office, I called other national sorority headquarters to state my case. One by one, every national office I talked to shut me out of their houses, even as I told them I was presenting a truthful — not necessarily negative — account of what sorority life is really like. “We’re gun-shy,” said one. “We’ve gotten several media calls even this week and we’re turning them all down,” said another. The twenty-six member groups of the National Panhellenic Conference, which was established in 1902 to oversee the historically white national sororities, had laid down the law.

I didn’t understand the panicked responses of the national offices, which claim to instill within their sororities “individuality, . . . togetherness, . . . [and] friendships,” according to the web site for Alpha Epsilon Phi, whose motto is “Many Hearts, One Purpose.” They promote goals such as Delta Delta Delta’s, to “develop a stronger and more womanly character, to broaden the moral and intellectual life, and to assist its members in every possible way.” They foster, like Kappa Kappa Gamma, “friendship rooted in a tradition of high standards.” These aspirations seemed laudable, these institutions beneficial. One would assume the real-life sororities, therefore, have so much to offer that their positives would far outweigh their negatives. But when one school’s Panhellenic adviser attempted to blacklist me on her campus for writing this book, she insisted she must “protect our women.” The question was, protect them from what?

Because no sorority would knowingly let me tail its sisters for the year, it became necessary for me to fly under the radar of both the national offices and the sorority girls themselves. I sought out individual sisters who were willing to risk their sorority membership by letting me into their lives for an entire academic year, knowing that they could not tell anyone—their sorority sisters, their friends, their families — who I really was. 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 disclose the disguise I wore or role I played when spending time with these groups (suffice it to say, I can pass for nineteen). To further protect the four girls, who could be ostracized and even thrown out of the Greek system if their identities were revealed, I have given pseudonyms to them, their school, and their school’s Greek groups, and have changed identifying details. But their dilemmas, emotions, interactions, and dialogues are real. (The girls didn’t know I also monitored their Instant Messenger away messages, which they changed sometimes as frequently as once an hour. Away messages are bulletins that IM users post online so that friends can see what they are up to. Like many college students, the girls used their away messages to convey their state of mind or broadcast their whereabouts.)

In order to provide a balanced view of sororities, I selected good-hearted girls who were members of “normal” sororities not known on campus as extreme stereotypes. I also chose these girls on the basis of their diverse attitudes toward and roles in their sororities. These sisters, one of whom was a sorority officer, are largely the kind of girls whom the national offices would be proud to have represent them, had the national offices been willing to allow themselves to be represented. The two juniors and two sophomores all attend a school I’ll call State University, a campus on which Greek life is considered important but not essential.

It turned out that “going undercover” gave me more candid access to the sororities than I would have had openly as a reporter. Because I played the role I did, the sisters didn’t know to censor their behavior in front of me, and my four main subjects tended to view me more as a friend than a journalist. With that said, however, I would not presume that the experiences of these four sisters alone could accurately represent a sorority system of millions. Many of the posts on Greek system message boards constantly remind readers that it’s not right to let a few renegade sisters, or even chapters, represent the image of the entire sorority system. I took this message to heart. My four girls aren’t renegades; nevertheless, I have supplemented my observations of them with visits and interviews with scores of other sorority girls. By the time I finished writing Pledged, I had spoken with or met with several hundred girls. Essentially, I got to return to college and experience the path I had not taken the first time around (and had a far better time than I did when I was actually enrolled in college). When a sorority girl needed a date to a Date Party, I went; when sisters went shopping together, I joined them; when new members danced exuberantly on Bid Day, so did I. Though I couldn’t incorporate all of the hundreds of interviews in this book, the sisters’ frank assessments of sorority life shaped my observations.

In writing this book, the surprise for me — and this may delight many readers — was that the notions of those topless pillow fights may not have been so far off base after all. In the back of my mind, I don’t think I ever really believed that sororities were quite as campy as their conventional image. But at about the time I heard about traditions like “Naked Party” and “Boob Ranking,” I had to reconsider. I learned that many of the rumors (as well as the fantasies) about sororities are indeed staggeringly true, including those concerning loyalty, sex, conformity, drugs, violence, verbal abuse, mind games, prostitution, racism, forced binge drinking, nudity, cheating, eating disorders, rituals, “mean girls,” and secrecy. But not all sororities encompass these experiences; and of the sororities that do, not all consist of girls one would necessarily consider “bad.”

Much of sorority life espouses noble purpose, and the friendships and philanthropy encouraged by these organizations can enhance a girl’s college experience, boost her self-esteem, and better her character. But the prevalence of the aforementioned litany, which still occurs on several campuses nationwide in the name of tradition, speaks volumes about larger issues concerning women, higher education, and female group dynamics. Even halfway into the year, I was plagued by questions. Why are twenty-first-century women still so eager to participate in such seemingly outdated, ritualistic groups and activities? What is the purpose of sororities and what does membership truly require of the sisters? How does a sisterhood change the way a girl thinks about herself? Do sororities cause women to fall further behind in the gender wars or are they instead women’s secret weapon? My challenge, then, in writing Pledged, was how to reconcile the unexpected discovery of a dark side to sorority life with the observation that many of the girls who participate in it and continue to join it in droves are “normal” girls, girls who are sweet, smart, successful, and kind both before and after they join. Girls — and this puzzled me — who by year’s end no longer intimidated me. Girls who would be surprised to read how their sororities appear from an outsider’s point of view.

Excerpted from "Pledged: The Secret Life of Sororities," by Alexandra Robbins. Copyright © 2004 by Alexandra Robbins. All Rights Reserved. Published by Hyperion. Available Wherever Books Are Sold. For more information, visit the Hyperion Web site at: