Excerpt from Glen Retief essay
Anti-hazing week in rural, central Pennsylvania, and in my decade of teaching at Susquehanna University I have never seen this 200-seat Faylor Auditorium so densely packed.
Young women and men in Greek letter T-shirts fill foam-cushion seats and mill around the doors and at the back. Out of 2,200 or so students, around 400 are involved in Greek Life, and most are here this evening.
Tonight’s speakers are Jim and Evelyn Piazza, parents, and Caitlyn Tempowski, girlfriend, of Tim Piazza, a 19-year-old boy killed in a Beta Theta Pi hazing ritual a few months ago on the campus of Pennsylvania State University, 90 minutes to our west.
Hazing, illegal in most US states, takes the life of at least one US college student a year, with hundreds more injuries. Around 55% of fraternity, sorority, and sports team members report having been hazed.
Piazza’s case made national headlines because he was made to drink the equivalent of eight beers in 12 minutes, fell down a stairway, and then was left on a couch for 12 hours with a ruptured spleen and subdermal hematomas. Twelve of his fraternity brothers remain charged with reckless endangerment, furnishing alcohol to minors, and hazing.
Initiation rituals are not, of course, unique to US fraternities and sororities. Ever since ancient Norse warriors went “be(a)rserk”, killing bears as introductions into manhood, male institutions in particular have often been associated with dangerous rites of passage.
One of the worst hazing systems in the world exists today among Russian conscripts. There, dedovshchina – brutal, vodka-fuelled beatings and humiliations – have been responsible, according to the BBC, for several hundred suicides a year.
In South Africa, skivvying and beatings in whites-only boarding schools provided the focus for my own 2011 memoir, The Jack Bank. Today’s statistics of admissions to hospitals for Xhosa and Sotho circumcision schools make the deaths and injuries associated with US college hazing look like a picnic.
Yet there is a real sense in which this kind of catastrophe simply isn’t meant to befall someone like Tim Piazza, a member of one of the luckiest and wealthiest demographic groups on the planet. A ginger-haired son of two accountants, from suburban New Jersey, Tim Piazza is meant to play football and take his girlfriend to the movies. He is supposed to fulfil his dream of becoming a mechanical engineer.
Caitlyn, Tim’s girlfriend, petite and attractive in a white dress, speaks first.
“Tim was such an all-American boy,” she says. “Seeing him barely recognisable that morning, hooked up to so many different machines, and cold to the touch, are memories I will never get out of my head.”
Our auditorium of students was quiet to begin with, but now the silence has become hushed and respectful. Caitlyn Tempowski is no ambassador from the global disenfranchised. Like her audience, she is well-dressed, well-spoken. She probably shops at J Crew and gets her hair done in a well-lit mall.
Jim Piazza, balding, in a turquoise-striped polo shirt, khaki slacks, and leather loafers, looks like he just walked off a New Jersey golf course. Evelyn, a slender and attractive woman with long, wavy, strawberry blonde hair just a few shades less red than her sons, is wearing as many as a dozen bangles on each arm, many of them the rubber kind worn to protest bullying or brutality.
Jim’s presentation, with PowerPoint slides, focuses mostly on the facts of hazing. Any imposition of strenuous or humiliating tasks or games for membership in a group or team is illegal.
“I bet some of you have been exposed to hazing, and some of you may have done it,” he says now. Is he right? I look around at sombre faces, some tears and sniffles, tissues, handkerchiefs, from Caitlyn’s remarks.
My own students talk about Greek Life as a deeply meaningful experience, but when I ask about initiation rituals, they clam up. Later this week, I’ll ask Brian Rivas, Susquehanna’s Greek Life co-ordinator, about hazing at our school.
“It never happens at Susquehanna,” he’ll say.