Tears rolled down my cheeks when I read about the death of Penn State student, Timothy Piazza. This happened every time there was news about a fraternity or sorority hazing incident that had ended in tragedy. I knew that many people wondered how these horrific ‘accidents’ happened, and why college students would put themselves at risk for physical injuries, emotional abuses, and very dangerous situations. I thought of the students who’d been hurt over the years and left college carrying emotional scars that they’d kept silent about. Then, I thought about my own.
My relatives always believed in getting a higher education and when they attended college, several of them chose to become members of Greek letter organizations. They were proud of their affiliations and encouraged me to pledge a sorority when I, too, attended college. This was because, in the African-American community, many of the most highly regarded professionals and community leaders belonged to Greek fraternities and sororities. From the earliest years of their existence, their accomplishments had always provided a great deal of pride and inspiration to the young and old, alike.
So, when I headed to Howard University in 1977, my mind was already made up. Like many women, my greatest dream was of my future wedding day, but my daydreams about Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority came very close behind it. I’d had several hip surgeries which had disrupted my schooling and social life and it left me with a strong need to feel accepted. I was sure that being a sorority girl, with all the popularity that provided, would compensate for all of my inadequacies. It would help repair my damaged sense of self-esteem.
Back then, I was very naïve about what I was getting into. As I prepared for my initiation, I had no idea that I’d one day record write a book about my stormy life experiences and that my hazing ordeal would be near the top of the list. I would never have believed that I’d break my vow of secrecy to share insights about pledging and warn youths about the dangers involved.
Unfortunately, I’d never received such a warning. When I attended the AKA Rush, no one prepared me for the violence that I’d encounter and the exhaustive all-night hazing sessions. Nor was I warned of the grueling hours I’d spend standing in the snow or the brutal emotional abuses I’d face. Like many other prospective members, I’d seen only a group of stunning women, their impressive sorority house, and the glow of their smiles as they spoke of their accomplishments. So, what was there to fear?
I never knew that pledging could lead to emotional scars that would remain for many years. I never thought that my school grades would drop, along with my attention to my work. I didn’t expect to deal with severe depression or the replaying of traumatizing encounters. However, I’d quickly learn that joining a sorority could be a very expensive undertaking and the dues you paid weren’t limited to the financial costs.
Even years after my initiation, I’d still hear the terrifying echo of a woman’s frantic screams during one of the most shocking experiences I’d ever witness. One night, a sorority member suffered a complete nervous breakdown right in the middle of a hazing stunt. During those frightful moments, the sadistic game that they’d begun suddenly turned into a crisis that they weren’t prepared to handle. If this scene wasn’t horrific enough, about a week later, another woman who was pledging with me ended up in the hospital.
To this day, I’m not sure how I managed to get through that grueling experience. It was already a harrowing season when one of the worst blizzards to hit the Washington D.C. area began. All the major businesses were shut down and our classes were canceled.
During that week, a few of my ‘line sisters’ and I went to McDonald's to get food for two sorority sisters, but then we discovered that one order of French fries was missing. Terrified, we quickly apologized and offered to return to McDonald's. As I started to put my coat on, I felt a sudden shock. Ice cold fluids ran down my face, neck, and back. I realized that one of the women had emptied her large Coca-Cola over my head. Paralyzed, I stood there as she screamed, stamped her feet and cursed at me. I was too stunned to even speak.
The reality was, I couldn’t do anything, anyway. We weren’t allowed to defend ourselves. The soror then grabbed me by the collar with her wrists and slammed me against a wall. Pinning me there, and screaming in my face, she looked angry enough to kill me.
During that same period, another sorority member who knew that I’d had hip surgery and battled with arthritis, demanded that I run up and down several flights of stairs of a dormitory. She jumped into an elevator and told me and a few of my line sisters to race with her. We had to run up to the third floor before her elevator reached it. When we accomplished this, she ordered us to run back to the first floor. She repeated her orders several times until I was so worn out that I was nearly out of breath. At that point, she rushed over to me, yelling and calling me a loser and demanded that I quit. That day, the word, ‘loser,’ took on a life of its own and would diminish my sense of confidence on many levels.
It pains me to know that, after all these years, the same type of hazing practices that made my life so miserable, are still used today. It shouldn’t be surprising, however, because hazing is very much like cancer. Unless it’s eliminated at the root, it simply continues to spread. It’s very difficult to supervise a fraternity or sorority’s initiation, especially an undergraduate chapter’s. In fact, there’s rarely an effective way to monitor hazing from the outside. It can only be stopped from within it, and enforced by the members. However, anyone who’s been involved in hazing knows that there’s a corruptive force that takes place. Although abused new members may have said, “I’d never do this to anyone,” they often inflict the same cruelty that they suffered on the next line of pledges. The rituals, unfortunately, continue to spread.
The anonymity that forms with the ‘group mentality’ plays a major role in this. Someone who’d never lash out at anyone else can suddenly become very aggressive when surrounded by fraternity brothers or sorority sisters. The lack of accountability, coupled with the use of alcohol and drugs, adds still another dimension to an already dangerous scenario. When people are abusing substances and have substantial power over others, things can rapidly spiral out of control. It can become an explosive situation.
Many ask why hazing is so pervasive and difficult to harness. I can offer my own observations. Even after the ugly incidents and the threat of a lawsuit led to my chapter’s suspension, within a few years, the hazing returned. It flourished because there’s a great deal of nostalgia and tradition that’s interwoven into the Greek experience. The intrigue that’s associated with the secrecy of an initiation draws students like a magnet.
People have an insatiable need to belong, especially young people who’re just starting out on your own. Membership in a popular fraternity or sorority carries enormous clout on campus, and it can also open doors for one’s career after graduation. People long for a strong sense of identity and many assume that they can satisfy this need by being part of a specific group. So, when one considers the powerful presence of Greek organizations, their impressive houses, and attractive images, they can appear as grand as the half-time show at homecoming. In fact, they are often featured at major homecoming events. It’s all very seductive and it entices students to join them.
It’s not until they’ve actually started the pledging process that they learn of the real nature of the group, and what they’ve actually signed up for. At this point, though, it’s hard to quit because there’s an ugly stigma attached to dropping out. Those who do are usually ostracized by the entire Greek community and treated like outcasts in their own college.
I should mention that not everyone has a terrible sorority or fraternity experience. To label all of them as dangerous is completely inaccurate. There are hundreds of outstanding organizations that make valuable contributions to their communities and beyond. Many chapters offer initiation programs that are deeply rewarding, educational and socially enriching.
In fact, Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority is a highly respected organization and enjoys a long and wonderful history of notable accomplishments. I was just unfortunate to have pledged at the wrong time under the wrong women.
Over the years, I’d reflect on my motivations for joining a sorority. I knew that I was searching for acceptance, purpose and an affirmation of who I was. After experiencing many of life’s trials and struggles, I’d eventually embark on a spiritual journey that offered the answers I was seeking. Now, when I share the lessons that I learned, it’s with a desire to help others avoid the mistakes that I made and offer encouragement to those who’re healing from similar experiences.
Pamela Sherrod is an author, life coach, and producer who’s established a ministry to offer art therapy to people struggling with depression, PTSD, and devastating losses. She’s produced inspirational documentaries about miracles and looks forward to producing films for youth. With the release of her new memoir, Pamela reveals the tragic events that plagued her life and triggered depression with hopes of offering encouragement to others who’re battling similar problems. Her coming of age story also serves as a frightening warning to the youth about the dangers that are often present, especially where you least expect them. The book is entitled, Rough Journey to God: Scars and Memories of Bullies, Spies and Celebrities. The e-book is now available at Amazon.com and the paperback version will be available by mid-June 2017. Proceeds are used to support the Academy of Arts and Healing. For more information about Pamela’s life coaching and ministry work, click here
To order the e-book, Rough Journey to God: Scars and Memories of Bullies, Spies and Celebrities, click here