Andrew Lohse’s Confessions of an Ivy League Frat Boy is a strong contender for the one of the year’s most scandalous books.
Lohse, the former Dartmouth College student turned anti-fraternity activist profiled in Rolling Stone’s March 2012 hazing exposé, has set down in emetic detail many of the excesses of Greek life. Cataracts of vomit sluice through the book. Its pages must, like paper U.S. currency, bear traces of cocaine, so freely does the stuff swirl and drift about Lohse’s narrative. And though we speak of “Greek” life, it is the Roman depravity attested in Suetonius’s Twelve Caesars that Confessions brings to mind. Tiberius had his swimming pool of boy “minnows,” Lohse a plastic wading pool of excrement. Caligula drank “pearls of great price dissolved in vinegar.” Lohse and his beleaguered fellow pledges were, he claims, forced to chug vinegar and to dine on the dreaded “vomlet.”
None of this, however, is what makes Confessions so outrageous. The scandal is that one can receive an exorbitantly priced Ivy League education and emerge without much more self-awareness, insight, honesty, or flair for writing than a typical high-school senior.
Lohse is moved to blow the whistle on hazing and drug use at his fraternity, Sigma Alpha Epsilon, and within Dartmouth’s Greek system, only after his cocaine bust, suspension, and climactic altercation, involving a poorly aimed folding chair, with a female campus security officer. Anyone with the intellect of a ping-pong ball should understand how opportunistic that whistleblowing looks. (A ping-pong ball might even compose better sentences than: “[A] nagging existential doubt was lodged in his brain like a shotgun shell rattling around and leaving him deeply conflicted.”) Yet Lohse is confident that the reader will take his actions as the fruits of selfless moral courage.
Lohse rushes Sigma Alpha Epsilon, gets a bid, endures pledge term, and then submits to the dehumanizing rigors of Hell Night. The reader learns of real Dartmouth traditions like pong—a variety of beer pong played with sawed-off ping-pong paddles and Mandelbrotian arrangements of plastic cups—and “doming,” the storied chugging ritual in which two men enter and one man boots, that is, vomits. The centerpiece of this grim account, and of Rolling Stone’s exposé of Dartmouth College fraternity life, is Lohse’s being forced to wade through a kiddie pool of human feces. This is the most shocking and most hotly contested part of Lohse’s narrative.
As one Dartmouth alum and fraternity member told me: “There is absolutely no way SAE makes pledges do this. As a logistical matter, the brothers would have to clean up the mess themselves, given that the pledges would be out of commission.” More likely is that the pledges were told they were swimming in excrement, much the same way that kids at a Halloween party are given to believe that cold spaghetti is human brains or peeled grapes are eyeballs. Given the many times that pledges are bluffed and tricked in his book, it is telling that Lohse chooses to take this horror story at face value.
The fraternity idea has of late met with an unprecedented amount of criticism—some of it frivolous, some of it credible—not only in the national media but also from non-affiliated students. The major objections to Greek life are that it is exclusive, that it condones hazing, and that it enables or promotes sexual violence. The first objection would be childish even were it not the case that many of the institutions within which fraternities operate are among the country’s most exclusive. What gives today’s student the idea that, outside the nurturing confines of elementary school, anyone is obligated to befriend him? Inclusion must be earned, and if it cannot be, well, that’s life.
The second objection, to hazing, must studiously ignore the fact that large numbers of Dartmouth students “survive” such “abuse”—enjoy it, even laugh about it—before going on to remarkable careers and rewarding family lives. One suspects that they grasp the purpose of this genial nastiness: to remind the student with a hypertrophied sense of self-regard that he is only human, that he will never become an adult without first being cut down to size. It is puzzling why so many of those who categorically despise “frat boys” object to seeing them strategically degraded, which is to say humbled, in this manner. Perhaps the villain with a sense of humor about himself is harder to hate than the one dragged off in chains screaming, “But don’t you know who I am?”
It is hazing that Lohse chooses to focus on; after all, it is the aspect of fraternity life that caused him the most personal discomfort. He clearly has no problem with exclusivity, and he scarcely touches upon the question of whether the Greek system affects a campus’s sexual climate—which is beyond any doubt the most important question to ask, as recent disgusting scandals at the University of Virginia and elsewhere make clear. Why would he? His scrutiny is rarely engaged, it seems, when he is not himself the victim. The closest he comes to a “gendered” critique of Dartmouth social life is when he claims that some éminence grise of the Good Old Boys’ Network helped him leapfrog the waitlist, though not without cautioning that it might be trickier to pull strings now that “gals” wield influence in the admissions process.
Lohse’s attempts to imbue fraternity life with menace tend toward the bathetic: “We were surrounded by the fraternity’s composites on the walls, hundreds of miniature rectangular pictures of smirking white boys with undeveloped facial hair and aristocratic chins; someone was always leering at you.” The composite photo whose eyes follow you around the room are less Matthew Lewis or Sheridan Le Fanu than “Scooby-Doo.” Absent from Lohse’s account are the lasting bonds those boys form, the support they provide one another, or the acts of charity they perform as a sort of self-imposed penance. He implies that positive aspects of fraternity life are just a smokescreen thrown up to conceal its true purpose, sadism for its own sake.
Lohse is, needless to say, an unreliable narrator; were his book a novel, it would serve as an ingenious comment on selfishness and self-absorption. As it stands, he tells a true story by accident: the story of a young man who embodies that great bugbear of our age, entitlement, albeit not in the way it is usually understood. He feels entitled to accommodation, then forgiveness. Even if one could muster the generosity to see his recent anti-fraternity activism as anything but self-serving, the fact would remain that Lohse is attempting to change the institutional culture of an institution he was never forced to join in the first place, and could have left any time he chose. Whatever one thinks of Dartmouth, it is hardly Parris Island, and Lohse’s tragedy is hardly the Ribbon Creek Incident.
Students with an abiding contempt for Greek antics enroll at Dartmouth all the time, seemingly with the intention of saving the college from herself. The best that can be said for these budding radicals is that at least they sincerely hate the thing they so viciously attack. Lohse’s book looks like a desperate show, a bid to regain credibility in the eyes of potential employers. Everywhere there are invitations to feel sorry for him. A friend asks: “Have you ever thought, maybe, that the hazing and psychological abuse you suffered were done so you would just accept them as commonplace?” A “raging douche bag” of a bar co-worker, reduced to gibbering disbelief by Lohse’s revelation that college students use cocaine, says: “You’re just a kid with chubby cheeks. Kids with chubby cheeks don’t sniff coke. What kind of fucked-up frat were you in? I can’t even picture that.”
“Me neither,” Lohse says, gazing pityingly at his own navel.
Like many people who have written mostly for their professors, a captive audience if ever one was, Lohse takes his readers’ interest, sympathy, and gullibility for granted. His dialogue is forever being dragooned into the service of whatever crude point he hopes to make; the point is usually a variation on Lohse is more sinned against than sinning. His papier-mâché characters are either sounding boards or set dressing. The women in his life, even his love interests, come in for this kind of treatment: “Went to get food at Collis. Ran into Blair at the salad bar, pretended not to see her, noticed that she looked good in leather boots and a Polo oxford.” (Apparently they serve saltpeter at the Collis salad bar.)
Good luck telling anyone in this story apart.
Lohse’s book resembles nothing so much as an interminable college admissions essay. Its opportunism, sanctimony, and canned lessons are all too familiar from that exercise in mercenary self-promotion—as is Lohse’s naive expectation that he be taken at his word. This, and not what may or may not go on in frat basements, should worry us. If Lohse is a victim of any system, it is the one that guides young people to disguise their feelings, to dissemble, to sculpt their unruliest formative experiences into familiar, harmless, and self-vindicating shapes. It is the System that encourages them to think only of their own advancement and to avoid consequences, no matter how shamelessly they must act to do so. We see this system at work whenever a philandering politician pleads “sex addiction” and each time a public figure delivers a groveling apology for some trivial offense. We have become too comfortable being lied to—and, if Lohse’s book is any indication, the young have taken note.