Book Review: “Fraternity”
The mental images associated with the word “fraternity” may vary, but they usually fall in the ballpark of boat shoes and button-ups, groups of men drinking alcohol and John Belushi in a toga. But there can also be darker associations, such as fraternity hazing and the deaths that it has led to. Or the sexual assault cases and blatant acts of racism and discrimination linked to fraternities.
This being considered, the first image that comes to mind may not necessarily be a flattering one. But Alexandra Robbins, author of “Pledged: The Secret Life of Sororities,” hopes to change that with her most recent book, “Fraternity: An Inside Look at a Year of College Boys Becoming Men.”
“Fraternity” includes interviews from numerous brothers connected to a fraternity in some way, whether they’re pledging, actively involved, trying to start a chapter or have graduated. They come from different states and backgrounds, and their varying opinions on Greek life and fraternities are mentioned sporadically throughout the book. Robbins primarily focuses on the story of two college students — Jake and Oliver — who she kept in contact with over one full school year.
Jake is a freshman attending college away from home and is interested in rushing to work on his social skills and meet new people. His father was in a fraternity and had an overall positive experience, so Jake expressed enthusiasm about the process and was only concerned about being forced to drink.
Oliver, on the other hand, is a sophomore and, already, an established brother in his fraternity. In an unprecedented move, his Phi Epsilon (PhiEp) chapter elected him as the youngest president in recent memory. His challenge is balancing the responsibilities of his new role and staying on top of his school work, all the while vying for the coveted “Most Outstanding Chapter” award.
Robbins offers a fair balance between the two men, not seeming to focus more heavily on one or the other. Both face setbacks and drama — Jake’s experience with hazing and PhiEp’s repeated run-ins with the police under Oliver’s supervision — that keep the story moving forward. Day-to-day activities are told in an almost narrative format, allowing readers to breeze through certain sections as easily as they would any light fiction.
This is the type of writing Robbins seems to have found her footing in — approachable and informative, but casual. Her Goodreads page identifies her style as “poolside nonfiction,” which is the most fitting phrase I can think of when describing the style of “Fraternity.”
She manages to tackle not only difficult topics but also generally complex ones, such as masculinity and various theories of social psychology. Most admirably, Robbins does this while still maintaining a tone of breezy accessibility. It is the kind of book that could be appealing to both those who regularly read nonfiction and those who prefer fiction, something that could help boost conversations not only about the book itself but about Greek life in general.
In her application of these theories and research and in the interviews she conducts, Robbins is not forcing any particular side. Rather, as expressed in her preface, she leans toward the “not all fraternities are bad” argument.
Despite Robbins’ explicit mention of how she feels toward fraternities, she does not shy away from the ugliness. “Fraternity” still features scenes showing a clear lack of social awareness on the part of the brothers.
In one chapter, Jake makes a “joke” about rape and is mortified when it becomes a fraternity-wide nickname, not because he made light of a serious issue but because he had “become a meme.” During a different exchange, brothers make blatantly racist jokes about a brother’s girlfriend, as well as about one of the pledges. Because of the lens of the book, it can sometimes come across as celebrating fraternities that meet the low bar of not hazing and not sexually assaulting while ignoring that they still perpetuate discriminatory and offensive ideologies.
On the other side, there are moments where the appeal of fraternities shines through. Brothers share numerous stories of being able to lean on each other during times of emotional turmoil, and the book tells of bonding exercises that include sharing life stories. Oliver’s PhiEp chapter, in particular, shows a fraternity built on supporting and looking out for others. This is shown in contrasting view to Jake’s experience, where brotherhood appears to be built on a foundation of hazing and fighting to prove worthiness.
In a way, Robbins’ book is not so much about whether fraternities are good or bad — it is about how we perceive them. While she makes it clear that there are good brothers and good chapters, she is less direct on what that means for Greek life as a whole.
What Jake and Oliver’s experiences come down to, then, is deciding what exactly this means for our understanding of fraternities. Should they be associated with forced drinking, fraternity-brother-on-brother sexual harassment and aggressive, borderline violent hazing? Or maybe philanthropic ideals, genuinely supportive friendships and emotional vulnerability? A combination of all of these things? By the end of “Fraternity,” it appears that Robbins wants us to make the decision for ourselves.
“Fraternity” hits shelves Feb. 5.