An encounter with a drunk UMass student brings insights into how frat culture works

This guest post was written by Oliver Broudy, executive director of Amherst Live and a member of the University Town of Amherst Collaborative.

I had a party at my house last month. Shortly after leaving the party — this was maybe 8 p.m. — one of my guests returned to report that some college kid was passed out in his car. Puke everywhere. He’d tried to rouse the kid but the kid refused to move. Should we call the cops?

So okay, I go out to talk to the kid and see what’s up. He’s huge, shivering in the cold night air, huddled in the back of the Prius, wearing only shorts and a basketball jersey. We finally get him out of the car and lead him wobbling to my doorstep, where he sits, shivering, hands between his knees, looking down. Says he has no memory of how he got there. It’s rush week, he says.

Eventually, he begins to come around, apologizes profusely, babbling on about there still being good people in the world. My guest returns to his car and heads home to start cleaning it, and after assuring myself that the kid doesn’t need medical attention, I get him back on his feet and steer his colossal, drunken form to my car and drive him home.

I get a bit more from him en route. Underclassman, studying science. Played football in high school, he says, so, yeah, is accustomed to drinking — but this was a whole other level. Keeps saying he wishes his girlfriend were here. To take care of him, presumably. He seems like a decent enough guy. Just out of his depth. Somehow ended up on my street, 25 minutes from UMass by foot, puking in one of my guest’s cars.

I tried to put the incident behind me. But as the Kavanaugh hearings played out, and we were treated to a clear picture of what frat culture looks like when it’s all grown up, I found I could not.

I needed to understand the why of frat culture, and where this kid was coming from. I only had the kid’s first name, but with a little effort I was able to track him down, and he agreed to a phone call.

The drinking started that day at 10 a.m. at Theta Chi. Days earlier, Pike had lost its national license after being indicted on two incidents of hazing, and with Pike’s fall Theta, apparently, had become the number-one frat on campus. The kid, whom I’ll call Mike, was thinking of rushing Theta. He had never rushed a fraternity before, but Theta was the number-one frat and, as he put it, “It was cool to be a part of something else bigger than you, y’know?”

The goal of rush parties, Mike said, was to weed out the weaker candidates.

“It’s basically like if you’re savage,” Mike said. “It’s a weird way to put it, it sounds kind of childish, but if they see that you’re a quote unquote savage, that’s what really makes them be intrigued by you.”

What did he mean by “savage”?

“Kind of like having an alpha male personality, how confident you are. If you’re confident, you stand out automatically. It’s not a skill everyone has.”

That was part of the reason for the drinking. The drinking brought out the alpha. Or at least created the illusion of alpha by eliminating inhibitions.

At Theta the drinking was in earnest. “They have like 30 racks lined up everywhere,” Mike said, “30 rack” meaning a 30-pack of beer. “They have like coolers filled with beer that they’re just handing out.”

Mike, who is underage, did not bring alcohol to this party. It was given to him. Lots of it. This was the other reason for drinking. To see who couldn’t hold their liquor.

“They peer-pressure you to drink, where you feel like you’re uncool if you don’t drink,” Mike said. “And they continuously do it over and over again. They think it’s funny, they make a game out of it, of getting kids like fucked up.”

He remembered one time, for instance, when they were pouring shots into this bigger kid. “They thought it was funny that he was walking around stumbling everywhere. They were like, ‘Oh what’s the matter, you can’t hold down your alcohol? Take another shot, it’ll sober you up.’ And this kid was really like passed out against the wall. And they’re like feeding alcohol to him. So they think it’s funny.”

By his own estimation Mike drank “at least” 12 vodka shots and 6 beers that morning at Theta. Then they went to a tailgate party, because there was a football game that day. The way it works is, each fraternity shows up at the tailgate party with its own flag and truck.

“And on the trucks they have more booze and more coolers that they hand out beers from.” There the pressure continued, with the boys from Theta repeatedly challenging Mike to shotgun competitions — to see who could suck down a beer first.

“Probably like six times,” Mike said.

The last thing he remembered was seeing a friend from Pike, who was slurring and stumbling as badly as he was. What was his story? What had happened to him? Something similar. Mike looped his friend’s arm over his shoulder and together they somehow made their way back to Pike. That was at around 3 o’clock. What happened between 3 and 8 is anyone’s guess.

“I could have fallen asleep in a bush for three hours and tried to walk home,” Mike told me. “I literally have no idea.”

And bear in mind that, with kids still pledging, the hazing hadn’t even started yet. “The hazing they do is crazy here,” Mike said. “People don’t think that it really happens, but it does. Like all day long.”

Still, in reviewing all of this in the days after speaking with Mike, it was not the drinking that disturbed me most. It was the image of Mike shivering, cold and alone and covered in puke, in the back seat of my friend’s car. For the only leverage that Theta ever had over this kid was that he was lonely. All he ever wanted was, as he put it, “friendship, brotherhood.” And what he got was the opposite.

For Mike, for the big kid passed out against the wall and laughed at, for every other kid trying to learn the ground rules, the lesson was simple: The cure to loneliness is cruelty to others. And you know what else? This cruelty is actually the norm at UMass. We don’t feel like we need to hide it or be ashamed of it. In fact, we flaunt it. It’s sport. So if companionship is what you want, the first thing you need to learn is cruelty.

And what I’m wondering as we sit helplessly watching the Kavanaugh travesty is: What else follows from this perverse inversion? Who exactly are we training these children to become?

Mike, in the end, decided not to join a frat this year. But this is a decision that he should not be required to make. Frats and frat culture should simply not be happening in our era. At all. Our kids deserve better, and this is not the way to make a better world. It’s not just that the drinking culture is toxic, and needs to stop. It’s that the drinking culture is taking up precious space that could be used for something else. Like teaching our boys how to be the kind and courageous men that the future will surely require.



Comments 9

  1. Wow what a great piece of writing and analysis. “All he ever wanted was, as he put it, ‘friendship, brotherhood.’ And what he got was the opposite”. So true. “Our kids deserve better, and this is not the way to make a better world.” Yes!
    So… how to change this?

  2. Really great article. “This cruelty is actually the norm at UMass” seems like a broad, unsupported comment, though.

  3. Makes me feel compassion for these kids, who otherwise make me angry. I feel for them. They are not equipped to deal with this cruel pressure.

  4. Thanks for sharing your writing with us, Oliver, and for showing kindness to someone in trouble, and for following up to get the deeper story. Grateful for your thoughtful curiosity…

  5. Thank you so much for this, Oliver. 🙏🏼 I so appreciate hearing a man name the sickness of frat culture. It’s always disturbed me.

    You are right to be looking at the psychological impact of such groups. We tend to think only of family of origin as shaping people, but peer groups play a huge role as well, and abuse from within a peer group can leave lasting trauma.

    Where are the frat culture recovery groups? Do they exist? It seems there would be a need. And that just its existence would be a validation for many.

  6. Oliver, spot on. This is compassion for the guy we encountered that night. Thanks for making this story so vivid!


  7. Nicely done. Very thought provoking to link this small, local incident to something as large and consequential as the Kavanaugh hearings (and to what else, one wonders: economy-crashing Wall Street excesses? Union-busting CEOs indifferent to the obscene inequalities within their own businesses? Indifference among so many power-brokers to an existential threat like climate change?)

    The simple fact is, of course, that all these monumental social trends/historic events we read about in the paper and in history books occur not in the abstract, but in the flesh-and-blood, moment-by-moment experiences and decisions of millions of ordinary people. They play out in the here and now, in real time, right on our doorsteps. For their well-being and our own, it would be great to see UMass step up and provide Mike – and the hundreds of other “Mike’s” out there – with a very different set of opportunities, experiences and guidance. I imagine they are trying to address this is some way or another, but clearly there is much more that needs to be done.

    You forwarding this to the relevant folks at UMass, Oliver?

  8. Thank you for this poignant and sensitively written piece, Oliver. I admire the courage of both Mike and yourself to follow up and explore this experience at a deeper level, and expose the humanity that is of course at the root. Those guys were all little kids not long ago – how do we help our kids choose not to be the tormented, or the tormentors?

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