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February 20, 2006

Fond Memories of Hell Week

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Actually, I don't have "fond memories" of my college fraternity's initiation rites, but I find catchy article titles hard to resist.

Colleges and Greek-letter National organizations have spent decades trying to clamp down on initiation hazing by local chapters. My impression is that these efforts have been reasonably, but not entirely, successful.

Moreover, I doubt that initiation rites can be totally eliminated: it seems to be a human-nature thing. Maybe make that a male-nature thing, but I'll leave it to readers who took Anthropology (I never did, for some reason) to fill in the rite-of-passage details.

If I'm correct that frat house hazing has been toned down, then it makes sense to get on the record what Hell Week was like back in the days when hazing was really hazing. Obviously hazing practices varied from college to college, frat house to frat house; some were more severe than mine, others easier. All I can tell you is what I experienced. So here goes.

I was initiated into the Upsilon Chapter of Theta Xi Fraternity at the University of Washington in January, 1958 during my Freshman year. My impression at the time was that Hell Week was tamer than previously, but that it certainly was still nothing to sneeze at. (By the late 80s, Hell Week had been detoxed into "help week," but not entirely. Around 1990 good old Upsilon Chapter got kicked off campus for several years due to an unfortunate incident involving a sheep in the rec room that made the national press.)

The drill starts by "pledging" the fraternity. In my case this happened during Rush Week just before the start of the fall academic term. Pledgeship is a trial or probation period. On Monday evenings when initiated members were attending chapter meeting, pledges met with the Pledge Trainer, an active member who gave instruction on chapter and National fraternity lore and other matters. Some things we had to learn included the Greek alphabet, names of all fraternities and sororities at Washington, the names of national and local founders and the history of the fraternity. We also had to do chores around the house for our first year, initiated or not. The most important requirement was to "make our grades." At the time, this meant we had to get at least a C average before we could be initiated.

At the start of the post-Christmas term, those of us who hadn't partied ourselves into a flunk-out trajectory were eligible for Hell Week. Hell Week was a two-part deal. First was the Monday-Friday part which was intended to set us up for Hell Night itself (the second part) on Saturday.

We didn't get much sleep during Hell Week because we'd be awakened during the night to do a chore or calisthenics or some other activity that would insure we truly were awake. After five nights of this we were approaching zombie mode.

Then there was the rule that if we laughed, we had to do a certain number of push-ups. So the actives tried their best to keep us laughing. By the second day of this my arms were so sore I couldn't do push-ups. The only thing for me to do was stop laughing. And I did, but sometimes it was awfully hard to control myself (those guys could be very funny). Eventually, they gave up on me, recognizing that I wasn't going to laugh any more that week.

Most of the rest of it was just petty stuff. For instance, each of us was given a set phrase to yell out (after coming to attention) if an active said a certain word or phrase. Punishment for not responding quickly enough to the cue was more push-ups. Insubordination merited a whack by a fraternity paddle.

I'll skip some of the Hell Night actives in part because I've forgotten details. In any case, before things got rolling, we were sent off to do various errands. Mine was to go to the neighborhood drugstore to buy a box of Kotex pads. (For an 18-year-old boy back in the uptight Fifties this was a really embarrassing chore.) During the evening we were blindfolded (using those Kotex pads) a good deal of the time and were subjected to interrogations and other humiliations.

The most dangerous stunt was having us, individually, kneel blindfolded by the back steps of the frat house and reverse-count starting at 100. Three floors above us, actives had filled a metal garbage can with cold water and were poised by a window overlooking the back steps. Once the pledge had counted down to about 95, the water was poured from the garbage can onto the pledge. I can assure you that amount of well-aimed water was the equivalent of being tossed into a pool; I recall gasping for breath when the water hit and it took several seconds before I could resume my countdown.

The danger, of course, would be the full, heavy garbage can getting loose from the guys who were holding it. Had this happened, it could well have killed the pledge even if much of the water had spilled during the 30-foot fall.

I should mention that age differences still mattered. Upperclassmen -- especially Seniors and house officers -- generally kept a close eye on things to ensure that the initiation didn't get out of control. And it was the younger, more recently initiated Sophomores who were most likely to attempt foolish things.

At some point after midnight the hazing finally ended and formal initiation began. Soggy, half-naked initiates were allowed to take warm showers and get dressed in jackets and ties for the event. I cannot tell you what went on during formal initiation because we were sworn (in a manner something like a marriage oath) not to repeat what happened.

My initiation had one final psychological twist. During the break between the hazing and the initiation ceremonies one of the actives gathered us around and said something like: "Well, this is just about over so I guess it's okay if I told you the darkest secret of the fraternity".

This got our attention. Then he asked "How many founders were there?" Why, "eight" we chimed in, because that's what we had learned in pledge training.

"No, there were nine! The name of the ninth founder is John Wilkes Booth, the man who assassinated Lincoln". This set us back a notch. I half-realized that this didn't make much sense. After all, the fraternity was founded in 1864 and Booth had made his name as an actor long before then. Furthermore, Theta Xi was founded at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, an engineering school that wouldn't likely present the world many actors. But we were so sleep-deprived and shell-shocked that we simply absorbed the information before moving on to the next event.

Sunday afternoon we were dressed in suits for a reception for us, parents, alumni and other interested parties. Then the chapter president called us to attention.

"Can someone tell me how many founders there were?" We shuffled our feet. "Were there nine?" One of us allowed that there were indeed nine. Shocked silence. "So you were told! Who told you?" More shuffling feet. "Well sir, it was Brother Gutherless". Gasps of horror from the older actives.

"We heard that the word got to you before you were initiated" continued the chapter president. "The National office found out and they are going to withdraw our charter. Theta Xi won't exist at Washington. The National president is on his way here [as it happened, the National president was an alumnus who lived down the road in Olympia] to remove the charter and start proceedings to revoke Gutherless' membership".

So we were sent reeling once again. Exhausted after a week of being jerked around and finally getting initiated, now the fraternity was to be shut down. All our efforts and suffering were for nothing! A real downer, to use a phrase from a later decade.

Later that afternoon the National president did arrive and we were finally told that the whole "ninth founder" thing was a hoax. And so ended my fraternity initiation.



posted by Donald at February 20, 2006


The taming-down of hazing isn't the only way in which fraternity initiations have changed over the years. Back when I was in college (1975-79), getting an invitation to join a fraternity was a wholly passive process. Inquiring about membership was unthinkable, and trying to ingratiate yourself with members in the hopes of wrangling an invitation would pretty much guarantee that you would *not* be asked. You had to sit back and hope one of the frats would find you worthy enough to invite.
Today, from what I've heard, frats at most colleges actually hold open houses and other infomational sessions, and you can apply for membership (no guarantee you'll be accepted, of course). It sounds so much more democratic that the old system.
By the way, I was never asked to join a fraternity, and even though only about a third of the male undergraduates at my college were members, to this day I still sometimes regret the situation and wish I had been in one.

Posted by: Peter on February 20, 2006 1:45 PM

I think frat hazing is only a little tip of the iceberg and only kept secret because people pretend it's about laughs.

Some years ago I officiated at a wedding. The groom was from a Marine family but had decided not to become a Marine -- his friends all did. This young man was tough and brave, but he was also smart and had a bit of poet in his soul. The hazing given him was supposed to be about him becoming a married man, but I think it had more to do with him not becoming a Marine. It was a sort of substitute boot camp. They strung him up by his wrists to a tree limb. They held him underwater in the ocean. They left him tied to the rafters of his own ceiling, five inches above the bed, for hours. The ropes were again on his wrists and on his ankles. They narrowly missed doing him serious nerve and muscle damage, thinking they knew all about what was short of serious.

Here on the rez I had an aggressive student who got into a fight with a cousin and beat him up with a baseball bat -- he hit the cousin on the back of the head, meaning to knock him out, and killed him. This is not the first time it's happened.

At the county seat, supposedly very sophisticated and respectable white folks, they were doing the Chuck Palainuk fight club thing in the back alleys. No one died. There was brain damage. They are used to boys getting brain damage from football. One of my former students now has blackouts of a half-hour or more -- he doesn't drink. They're from concussions, untreated, back in the Sixties.

Girls did fight in the Sixties. I never wore pierced earrings because I sometimes had to go into the bathroom to break up fights and one of their favorite tricks was to pull your earring through the flesh of the lobe. Girls everywhere like social torture -- many of them never give it up. Secrets and lies, often destroying lives.

I think Abu Ghraib is the natural outcome of this mentality. And I think many people try to pretend it's not there.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on February 20, 2006 2:09 PM

Hazing rituals even if diluted to silliness and laughs are a good reminder of a real savagery.

Abu Ghraib is a mere joke in comparison to the real thing and makes me very proud of American military when you consider what constitutes a norm in other Armies, f.ex. Russian:

"According to Defense Ministry statistics, 16 conscripts died of brutal hazing by senior fellow servicemen in 2005. Another 276 committed suicide last year, most of which were motivated by hazing, according to investigations. The ministry keeps no statistics on how many servicemen become disabled in the brutal hazing."
A.Sychov, 19 (19!like my son) had his legs and genitals amputated after being tied to a chair and beaten during hazing ritual- in the military academy. He was given medical assistance only after 4 days of pleading.

On this background, initiation in my son's fraternity is a cake. [and nevertheless, I told himif anybody as much as dared to raise his hand on him,he's to tell me-and I'll boil the bastard alive. He just laughed].

Posted by: Tatyana on February 20, 2006 2:59 PM

All of these punishments sound horrible. I was in college at exactly the same time as Peter and our "Hell Week" was very tame, with a lovely flourish at the end. Bryn Mawr has no sororities and doesn't believe in them. Each freshman was assigned a "task" concomitant with her interests (for instance, mine was to spread a cloak for members of the English dept to walk over, as Walter Raleigh did for Queen Elizabeth). We were told we'd have to do our tasks on a certain day at a certain time. Then we were all pseudo-imprisoned in an attic room so we wouldn't see the sophomores bringing in the surprise--which was a truck of flowers. Each frosh then received a vase of fresh posies with beautiful cards tied to them, inscribed with flower poetry which the sophs had written out by hand--and we were all told we didn't have to do our tasks.
It was fun the next year writing the cards and arranging the flowers for the new freshmen. Instead of a humiliation, it's a cherished memory.

Posted by: winifer skattebol on February 20, 2006 5:35 PM

I was in college at a midwestern state U. from 1970 to 1973, and as I recall, there was a real sense that the fraternities were no longer the campus powers they had been not too many years before. The frats were still there, and they had their open houses every fall, but I got the idea there was some desperation about recruitment. I never heard anything about invitation only or even much hazing. By that time, the problem wasn't winnowing out the weenies and screening the best of potential new members but getting any at all, and really brutal hazing would have been counterproductive by discouraging new guys.

I suppose joining a fraternity had its points. Lots of new buddies, great parties, guaranteed dates for social events if there was an allied sorority, files of old test papers... and some houses were even supposed to be good for lifetime career support with an old-boy network always glad to help a brother looking for a boost. (Though I've heard it often works the other way, as there's always some brother who's selling insurance and calling his way through his college frat's membership list one by one.)

But not for me. I stayed what they called a GDI, though by that time the independents outnumbered the Greeks considerably, and if anybody needed a pejorative acronym for special identification, it was the fratboys. Nothing could be worth joining if I had to submit myself to even mild and good-natured hazing, and I didn't want any roommates, let alone a whole house full of them. I didn't even go to the fall rush parties even though I knew guys who did for the free beer and then ducked out before the sales pitch. There are some things about college I'd definitely do differently if I had to go through it again, but I'd still be a GDI and go my odd solitary way, and just hang out with a few like-minded eccentrics and malcontents when I wanted company.

Posted by: Dwight Decker on February 20, 2006 7:30 PM

During my college career, 1975-79 at a smaller college in the Northeast, the fraternities clearly dominated campus social life. They were able to maintain this dominance even though, as I mentioned, only about a third of the male students were members (there were no sororities at the time). Social events organized by the college itself were the lamest affairs imaginable, and after freshman year most students had enough self-respect not to attend them.
To their credit, four of the six fraternities held periodic open parties, which any students could attend with payment of a small entry fee. The two upscale rich-boy fraternities, however, would do no such thing. Their doors remained firmly closed except during an administration-mandated open house each fall. Many nonmembers would attend out of curiosity, eager to see the forbidden insides of the two opulent frat houses, but the rich-boy members were experts at making us (ick!) Common People unwelcome and few stayed for more than a few minutes. What especially galls me is the certainty that most of the members of these two frats today must be Wall Street tycoons with seven-figure incomes.
Speaking of today, I've heard that the fraternities still dominate my old college's social life, even though the percentage of students belonging to one has dropped still further.

Posted by: Peter on February 20, 2006 7:51 PM

From your description it sounds quite gay.

Of course I guess it's in fraternities that 'dont ask, don't tell' started.

Posted by: Raw Data Complex on February 20, 2006 8:40 PM

Sooner or later the GNXP crowd should come up with theories about how hazing is a reflection of times past when for men the threshold of adolescence was when they would have to do the hardest tasks for the hunter-gatherer pack.

(Went to MIT. My fraternity had (and has) a policy of delegating the hazing to the professors. Genuine hardship beats the contrived variety fraternities invent.)

Posted by: Omri on February 20, 2006 10:14 PM

My frat was Chi Psi. The hazing was fairly brutal with all of us pledges having to walk around with our chins on our chests and arms behind our backs for something like 48 hours while the brothers yelled at us. Then around midnight of the third night (I can't remember the details), the woo-woo stuff starts. Very solemn. Voices reading victorian style nonsense from beyond a circle of candle light. Being placed in a coffin and lowered into a grave that was in a secret room in the frat house. The oath followed by dire threats should we tell the secrets (I just did). The handshake, the pin, the "acceptance" into the group. What a crock. Those idiot business majors didn't have a clue about all that Greek symbolism. They still don't. Half of them are probably alcoholics by now.

Posted by: Bob Grier on February 20, 2006 10:57 PM

There was a study some years ago in which they compared frats with initiation rites and those without. Those with initiation ceremonies/Hell Weeks were seen as more worthy by the initiates.
This was due to the whole shared communal bonding. You have the good feeling due to removal of the physical and psychological torture/burdens and you now have a common experience that most people will never have.

Posted by: Jon on February 21, 2006 12:05 AM

Sorority initiation and fraternity stuff is totally different. My sorority initiation was all lovely and loving and "we're so happy to have you as a sister" stuff---along with the secrety password and handshake and stuff, which most of can't remember anymore.

But I heard recently from a guy I graduated from college with about his Hell Week. No sleep. They had to wear an onion tied around their necks at all times when they were in the house---which was when they were not in class. Actives would throw stuff on the floor during meals and tell them to pick it up, and then when they got back to the table the actives would have taken their food---their was also not much to eat. There was also a pig they had to care for. There were other activities done naked which he wouldn't even divulge. And then finally---the "salmon run"--they had to get naked, and the active members threw ice and snow on the back staircase of the house, and they had to try to run up the staircase though the ice while the actives pushed and shoved trying to keep them from climbing the stairs. When they got to the top---they were told they had "made it." This all supposedly added to the strong sense of "bonding". Like combat buddies.

Yes, this would all be considered "hazing" today. Imagine that!

Posted by: annette on February 21, 2006 10:45 AM

Provided it doesn't become too brutal, the male right of passage makes sense. My experience of the right of passage was basic training in the army. I don't pretend to understand it, but once you had passed through those eight weeks of "torture" and come out the other side you definitely felt a sense of bonding with the other "survivors" that you wouldn't have felt had basic been a cakewalk. That's the purpose: to create a bond. And it works.

Posted by: ricpic on February 21, 2006 11:22 AM

I went to a girls school with hemales only in the Music, Theatre and Art departments. Had there been fraternities, the initiations would have been interesting. There was one guy who went around with a petition to start a fraternity as well as ROTC, but this was 1968 and he didn't get very far.

My father, however, was branded on his chest with his fraternity letters. He was very proud of that.

Posted by: Sluggo on February 21, 2006 1:33 PM

Peter -- Fraternity recruitment certainly varies campus by campus or even over time. I suspect the frats at your school were operating under college rules, but I might well be wrong. I mentioned that I went through Rush Week. But about 10 years ago when my son went Sigma Chi, Washington had abolished it for frats and rush was done on an "informal" basis. Yet sororities continued with their version of Rush Week.

Mary -- Rites really do need "adult supervision" and your marriage hazing example clearly show why.

Tatyana -- Hmm. I'd read where such hazing was common in the old Red Army. Interesting that it didn't seem to end after 1991.

Winifer -- We need to bring Michael into this discussion 'cause it seems to be a male/female thing. I was watching The Fiancee at tennis practice Monday and all the ladies were making lots of supportive remarks to one another (even opponants) during a trial set. I'm pretty sure guys would saying something like "Joe, that serve was wimp-cr*p!!"

Dwight -- Frats rode high at Washington into the mid-60s and then became marginalized in many ways including student politics. This is probably the case nearly everywhere. They aren't evil and can be useful for providing a sense of belonging, especially on huge campuses. I joined mostly so that I would be forced to end my shyness about dating gals, an important priority for a young fella. But frats can do lots of stupid stuff and aren't for everyone. All things considered, today's situation where they are available, but not running things, is probably a healthy one.

Omri -- Ah, so there's one college where profs are still tough!

Bob -- We had a coffin too, but used it to haul a brother over to a sorority house for a pinning or an engagement. Other frats would even borrow ours for similar purposes. Ours wasn't used in initiation when I was there, but it might have been used for that previously.

Jon -- Yes, initiation rites long pre-date fraternities, so there is definitely something there that has been valued.

Annette -- Alas, Seattle is normally too temperate to count on ice & snow, so it looks like I missed out on some real fun.

ricpic -- I did Army Basic too, but it always struck me as being less a rite of passage than Marine Boot.

Sluggo -- Branded? Was he a Zeta Psi? Phi Gamma Delta tatooed their Greek letters on the inside of the elbow.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on February 21, 2006 11:38 PM

Why would it end in 1991, Donald? Not everything that media says is true, you know...better read blogs!
Here's some more on the subjest.

Posted by: Tat on February 22, 2006 11:28 PM

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