Wrongs of Passage: Fraternities, Sororities, Hazing, and Binge Drinking Hank Nuwer. – Review – book review
Wrongs of Passage: Fraternities, Sororities, Hazing, and Binge Drinking Hank Nuwer (Indiana University Press, 1999) Reviewed by Colleen Roach
College administrators receive failing grades in Wrongs of Passage, an alarming book about young people literally dying to belong to Greek organizations on campuses around the country.
The author is no stranger to the topic. Nuwer’s first book on the subject, titled Broken Pledges: The Deadly Rite of Hazing (Longstreet), was published in 1990. His latest work goes into greater detail about the relationship between alcohol abuse and the deadly shenanigans that take place at fraternities, sororities, and other college social clubs.
Nuwer knows that the best way to move people to action is to tell the human stories behind the statistics of young people who died before their time. Photos of smiling students are interspersed throughout the book, along with the heart-wrenching words of families still in mourning.
But there are no wasted emotions in this book. On the contrary, Wrongs of Passage stops just short of overwhelming readers with hard data and research on the all too often lethal combination of hazing and binge drinking at Greek organizations. One blunt statistic is, in a sense, the raison d’etre of the author’s work: Every year since 1970, at least one fraternity or sorority member, or pledge, has died as a result of alcohol abuse or hazing.
Other statistics in the book are equally compelling. Fraternity members consume an average of almost three times as many drinks per week as non-fraternity males. Sorority members drink almost twice as many alcoholic beverages per week as non-sorority females. A 1998 report from the School of Public Health at Harvard indicated that four out of five fraternity and sorority members identify themselves as binge drinkers. The director of the study, interviewed by the author in early 1999, stated that binge drinkers are consuming more alcohol than ever. (Ironically, the first documented case of hazing in this country took place at Harvard in 1657. Harvard’s administration fined two students for inflicting “abuse”–the term “hazing” was not then used–on two of their peers.)
The book also does a good job of alerting people to the sexist behavior all too often fostered by fraternity life. Although very few women have died as a result of sorority excesses, many female college students have been subjected to predatory sexual advances when they walk through the doors of fraternity houses.
As Nuwer states in one chapter, fraternities “should join the rest of the world in developing a positive attitude toward women.”
Although the book is written in a very clear, journalistic style, it is backed up by a scholarly–but accessible–historical perspective. Readers learn, for example, that Plato inveighed against hazing practices by young students in ancient times, and that the medieval university was rife with ribald drinking and horseplay. Nuwer traces the first hazing death in more recent times to 1838, when a student lost his life at Franklin Seminary in Kentucky. Although records with exact details of the incident were lost in a fire, the author quotes from a family history saying that the student’s grieving parents refused to send any more of their children to the college.
The book’s sociological perspective provides an overall context for understanding the role played by factors such as tradition and ritual in Greek social organizations as well as their resemblance to cults. Similarly, some of the social pressures, such as students’ need to belong, peer pressure, and group loyalty, are examined. The author also keeps in mind the larger picture–data indicating that problem drinking among all students is a national trend.
One of the few deficiencies of the book is the absence of serious socio-logical inquiry as to why young people are consuming such enormous quantities of alcohol. What has happened in the country since the 1970s that has made alcohol–and drugs–so inviting to young people? Why aren’t universities addressing the social malaise of recent generations of students?
Time and again, anguished parents interviewed by Nuwer criticize college authorities for doing very little to shut down problem fraternities or help in the prosecution of miscreants. Universities are usually not liable for fraternity deaths because of weak anti-hazing statutes at the state level, or because they deliberately adopt a “hands off” policy that allows them to escape responsibility for what occurs in Greek organizations. If a death occurs off campus, there is even less chance that a university can be attacked in court. (The fraternities themselves have often paid millions of dollars to settle lawsuits involving deaths of young people.)
Nuwer accuses college authorities of a host of other failings. They are reluctant to divulge information to the media when tragedies occur. They operate internal judicial systems that have every interest in preserving the good name of the university. And they often stymie outside legal action by denying that hazing or alcohol abuse has occurred.
The last chapter of this book offers a number of specific measures that can be taken by fraternities, parents, educators, and police to help prevent substance abuse and hazing deaths. Since publication of the book, another important study has underscored the urgency of heeding the author’s call to action. In March, Harvard’s School of Public Health released its latest report on alcohol use by college students. The glass is half full: Abstinence is on the rise but so is the percentage of frequent binge drinkers.
Colleen Roach has a doctorate in sociology from the University of Paris. She was a professor in this country for more than a decade, and now works as a journalist. Her articles have been published in The New York Times, the Gannett papers, and many scholarly journals.
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