On Saturday, I, my friend Lin, and my son went on a road trip to Amherst, Mass., to see the Shakespeare Folio from 1623. It’s a printed book of his plays. From 1623. Think about it. It’s amazing. It was on display at Amherst College’s Mead Museum and we decided to drag my son with us to check out Amherst College, UMass Amherst, and Hampshire College. The college portion will be another blog, no doubt involving me mapping out college visits by student-only tours close to bars that open early.
Lin is a theater lover, author of her own fabulous blog, The Creative Part-Timer, and the genius behind the Tiny Colony (TC) in Boston, which alluringly combines the idea of a creative colony with the tiny house movement. I’ve been to TC and it’s fabulous, but little did I know TC can also go on the road. As we talked about our own college experiences on the trip, I unearthed one I had clearly stuffed up into the attic and is now coming to you in full blog color: Greek life.
To all of you who liked Greek life at college and actually got something out of it, congratulations. I was not one of you. When I started telling Lin the story, she, who has known me for 30 years, said, “I wouldn’t have thought you were a person who would do that.”
I’m not, which is how I got mixed up in it in the first place. I went to Boston University, and in the 70s it had kicked all the Greek organizations off campus. When I got there in the 80s, they were trying to make a comeback and four houses were sniffing around for recruits, two women’s and two men’s. My main interest in joining the yet-to-be-legitimized-sorority was to get invited to frat parties. The drinking age kept going up just a year ahead of me and alcohol was always just out of reach. So logically, one of my main college pursuits was procuring alcohol; who are you again? Alpha Phi? Sisterhood, alumni opportunities, blah, blah, blah. Oh, frat parties? Why, yes, I’m in!
And so for most of the year, I and two of my friends Gloria and Rosemary went along, getting our friends into the parties and attending meetings that I remember as mostly social and harmless. I’m fairly sure the whole thing was casual, otherwise I would have been suspicious sooner. Towards the end of the year, though, the group took a very disturbing and serious turn. Suddenly (or at least it felt that way to my frat-party addled brain) an adult from the national Alpha Phi organization was coming to anoint us, tap us on the head three times with a Greek wand, put a sorting hat on us, or some such thing.
The next thing I knew I was being blindfolded and led to a secret ceremony down in the bowels of a college building. I’d seen Animal House enough to think maybe it would be a cool thing, until the blindfold came off and I was sitting with a group of other 20-year-old women being sworn to secret handshakes and passwords. OK, historically women’s organizations were a secret because they were not allowed to exist. And I appreciate that reminder that women have struggled to be seen and heard. That’s cool. Still being secretive a 1986? Uncool. And dumb, like a slumber party for 13-year-olds. So we sat and had to swear to never reveal the secrets. Spoiler alert, the Alpha Phi secret handshake is squeezing someone’s hand to the syllables Al-Pha-Phi, Al-Pha-Phi: three quick squeezes, done twice. There were other secrets revealed, but honestly I don’t remember them. I was preoccupied with how we as women had worked so hard (and have to continue to work so hard) be seen and heard, and why the hell were we hiding in a basement swearing loyalty and drinking something out of the big goblet that wasn’t alcohol and passing it around? Just when I thought it couldn’t get any worse, they started outlining The Rules. In one minute we went from annoying 13-year-olds to feminist-destroying women. We had to agree that we would dress a certain way and act like “ladies” especially when wearing Alpha Phi crap.
Um, say what, now? I went to college to throw off society’s rules and find new ones. I became an atheist, I drank, I swore, I debauched, I wore ripped clothes and slammed against strangers to the Sex Pistols, I had a stint as the other woman. Why the hell would I want to pack all that back and cross my legs and wear “appropriate dress”?
I kept waiting for someone to jump up and yell, “Surprise! Gotcha! Just kidding! Let’s go drink!” But no one did. It should have been me, and I regret that I didn’t. I considered myself lucky to get out of there with my feminism intact. My two smarter friends bailed after that. But there was one more piece to this ghastly business: The Induction Ceremony. Requiring, of all things, a white dress. Never mind that I only come in two colors, pale and sunburn red, and look like crap in white. The real problem was how ridiculous this seemed to me. I assumed these women I’d been kind of hanging out with would all come to their senses, but they all fell in line and embraced this like a bunch of Stepford wives. Even me asking if anyone found this ridiculous made them look at me weird. Without my two friends as a buffer, I realized too late that these people were not my sisterhood.
But here’s the thing. Despite the fact that I thought it was ludicrous and hauled women’s rights back 30 years, I couldn’t throw off my family programming that quitting equals failure, even if it’s a goal you decide you don’t want to achieve. So I found a white dress, god knows where, and allowed myself to be herded to the high-rise apartment of the aforementioned adult representative of Alpha Phi, once again blindfolded. Seriously, what the fuck is it with the blindfolds? Were they getting us ready for Fifty Shades of Grey? There was white gauzy stuffed draped everywhere like we were in a bad sci-fi movie on a planet with a city in the sky. There was some pseudo-Greek babble, more shit about swearing loyalty to the sisterhood forever, and severe awkwardness as I realized I had nothing in common with these women. It was all I could do to keep from screaming. Then it was done, and I fled the spread of cheese and crackers and a punch bowl like the Moonies were after me, and went straight to my real friends to spill the whole thing.
For many years, Alpha Phi magazine still found me after every move, which used to creep me out, but nowadays is no more creepy than Facebook knowing you were looking at blindfolds on Adam and Eve.com. Also for a long time I was mad at myself for not being the person who stood up and said, “This is ridiculous.” But speaking up is still a work in progress for me, so I try to forgive myself. These sisterhoods should be teaching that shit.
But now I realize the real purpose was so I could write about it so fully now. If I had quit after the goblet and secrets, you would have been entertained/horrified by only half a story. So thank you Alpha Phi. I dearly hope you have moved on from the blindfolds, or at least are exploring more interesting uses for them.