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Caitlin Flanagan’s 15,000-word fraternity house of horrors: Some drunk guy falls off a deck

February 24, 2014

If you’re going to write a magnum opus titled “The Dark Power of Fraternities,” shouldn’t there at least be a parade of rapes and other foul deeds by the brothers somewhere in there? Especially since the subtitle of your purported expose is “A yearlong investigation of Greek houses reveals their endemic, lurid, and sometimes tragic problems—and a sophisticated system for shifting the blame.”

After all, the Caitlin Flanagan who penned this rambling, seemingly endless piece for the Altantic is the same Caitlin Flanagan who in 2011 wrote an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal describing Greek-letter houses as dens of sexual assault so pervasive–“male power at its most malevolent and institutionally condoned”–that that they should be shut down immediately. Flanagan herself had been so freaked out by the mere existence of a “sinister” Fraternity Row at the University of Virginia that she dropped out of U.Va. after a mere four days of classes. As evidence for her argument for immediately shuttering frat houses, Flanagan cited a single incident–the sexual asssault of a female U.Va. freshman at a fraternity party that had taken place in 1984, some twenty-seven years before Flanagan wrote her op-ed.

OK–so now Flanagan has had ample time–that “year” we’re told about–to to make her case that the SAE house should actually be called the RAPE house. So, what is “Dark Power” about? It’s about…um…building safety. Did you know that some frat houses don’t have railings around their porches, and they sometimes leave the windows open and students fall out?

Here’s the lead:

One warm spring night in 2011, a young man named Travis Hughes stood on the back deck of the Alpha Tau Omega fraternity house at Marshall University, in West Virginia, and was struck by what seemed to him—under the influence of powerful inebriants, not least among them the clear ether of youth itself—to be an excellent idea: he would shove a bottle rocket up his ass and blast it into the sweet night air. And perhaps it was an excellent idea. What was not an excellent idea, however, was to misjudge the relative tightness of a 20-year-old sphincter and the propulsive reliability of a 20-cent bottle rocket. What followed ignition was not the bright report of a successful blastoff, but the muffled thud of fire in the hole.

Also on the deck, and also in the thrall of the night’s pleasures, was one Louis Helmburg III, an education major and ace benchwarmer for the Thundering Herd baseball team. His response to the proposed launch was the obvious one: he reportedly whipped out his cellphone to record it on video, which would turn out to be yet another of the night’s seemingly excellent but ultimately misguided ideas. When the bottle rocket exploded in Hughes’s rectum, Helmburg was seized by the kind of battlefield panic that has claimed brave men from outfits far more illustrious than even the Thundering Herd. Terrified, he staggered away from the human bomb and fell off the deck. Fortunately for him, and adding to the Chaplinesque aspect of the night’s miseries, the deck was no more than four feet off the ground, but such was the urgency of his escape that he managed to get himself wedged between the structure and an air-conditioning unit, sustaining injuries that would require medical attention….

Sinister!

And here’s another incident reported by Flanagan:

It was at the [University of Idaho] that the 19-year-old sophomore and newly minted Delta Delta Delta pledge Amanda Andaverde arrived in August of 2009, although she had scarcely moved into the Tri Delta house and registered for classes before she was at the center of events that would leave her with brain damage and cast her as the plaintiff in a major lawsuit filed on her behalf by her devastated parents.

It would have been an unremarkable Wednesday evening—focused on the kind of partying and hooking up that are frequent pleasures of modern sorority women—save for its hideous end. Andaverde and her sorority sisters began the night at Sigma Chi, where the “sorority ladies” drank alcohol and spent the evening with “dates” they had been assigned during a party game. (The language of Andaverde’s legal complaint often seems couched in a combination of   ’50s lingo and polite euphemism, intended perhaps to preclude a conservative Idaho jury from making moralistic judgments about the plaintiff’s behavior.) The charms of Andaverde’s assigned date ran thin, apparently, because close to midnight, she left him and made her way over to the Sigma Alpha Epsilon house, where she quickly ended up on the third-floor sleeping porch.

Many fraternity houses, especially older ones, have sleeping porches—sometimes called “cold airs” or “rack rooms”—typically located on the top floor of the buildings’ gable ends. They are large rooms filled with bunks, some of which are stacked in triple tiers, and their large windows are often left open, even in the coldest months. Many fraternity members have exceedingly fond memories of their time on the porches, which they view—like so many fraternity traditions—as a simultaneously vexing and bonding experience. Although these group sleeping arrangements were once considered an impediment to a young man’s sex life, the hookup culture, in which privacy is no longer a requirement of sexual activity, has changed that, and the sleeping-porch experience is once again coming into favor. For a variety of reasons, sleeping porches feature in a number of lawsuits, pointing to an astonishing fact: despite fraternity houses’ position as de facto residence halls for so many American college students, safety features are decidedly spotty; about half of them don’t even have fire sprinklers.

According to the complaint, shortly after arriving at SAE, Andaverde ran into a friend of hers, and he took her up to the sleeping porch, where he introduced her to a pal of his named Joseph Cody Cook. Andaverde and Cook talked, then climbed into Cook’s bunk, where the two began kissing. It is at this point that the language of the suit finally frees itself of euphemism and reveals the fearsome power of the unambiguous, declarative sentence: “Amanda rolled onto her shoulder toward the exterior wall, and suddenly, quickly, and unexpectedly dropped off Cook’s mattress into the open exterior window, falling from the third-floor ‘sleeping porch’ to the cement approximately 25 feet below.”

The injuries were devastating and included permanent brain injury. Andaverde was airlifted to a trauma center in Seattle, where she remained for many weeks; in the early days of her care, it seemed she might not survive. Eventually, however, she improved enough to leave the hospital and was transferred to a series of rehabilitation centers, where she spent many months learning to regain basic functions.

This is a sad, sad story. It’s horrible that some young people have to pay with their lives or their mental functions for their momentary foolishness–in this case rolling around while intoxicated on an upper bunk next to an open window–while other equally foolish young people get lucky and escape unscathed. I feel for Andaverde and her parents.

But, uh, the “dark power” of fraternities?

Flanagan’s article, illustrated by bros ‘n’ beers photos that look lifted from Colorado’s kegger-centric Obamacare ads, would actually be a great article if it stuck to its two sub-themes: the partying/hookup/way-too–much-alcohol scene, financed by tuition hikes and massive student and parental debt, that is now an expected part of he “college experience”; or even more interesting, the ingenuity of plaintiffs’ trial lawyers in concocting ingenious ways to hold colleges and national fraternity organizations legally liable for the just plain stupid actions of students whose consequences, unfortunate as they might be, are the students’ own fault. Flanagan has written what could be a great tort-reform story. In the butt-bomb case, for example, Helmberg’s lawyer argued that the ATO house should have had a railing on its deck and managed to wring an undisclosed settlement out of the fraternity. In the Andaverde case, the judge had the sense to dismiss the lawsuit, pointing out that any reasonable person could see that the windows were open–this was a sleeping porch!–and that neither the fraternity nor the university could be held responsible for Andaverde’s foolish decisions, despite their hideous consequences.

But Flanagan is determined to stick it to fraternities. She regards their very fraternity houses as the equivalents of the hotel in The Shininganthropomorphic entities with malevolent minds and wills of their own; they push people out of their windows, they drop them from their decks. Flanagan cites numerous statistics regarding window and staircase falls and hazing mishaps among fraternity members–without comparing them to similar accidents involving college students who don’t belong to fraternities, not to mention the thousands of alcohol-related automobile collisions, sometimes fatal involving young people either in college or right after their high-school graduations. Greek houses are far from the only college setting where hazing, binge drinking, and indiscriminate sex are ordinary occurrences. The real problem is simply that college students in general–or at least a significant portion of them–drink and party way too much, and that there are few social institutions either on campus or off to encourage them to act responsibly and take their educations seriously.

Finally, Flanagan does get around to what may be the single fraternity-linked rape incident she found during her year of combing the files of the personal injury lawyers she contacted. That U.Va. rape story from 1984 is now getting quite old–it’s now thirty years in the past–so Flanagan eventually came up with another: an alleged sexual assault in the fall of 2010 at a party inside the Beta Theta Pi house at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. A Wesleyan freshman was criminally assaulted–but not by a “frat boy,” as Flanagan dismissively calls them, but by a non-student ne’er-do-well who had been a high-school friend of one of the brothers. (Campus security people at Wesleyan were nowhere to be seen, because the fraternity had been de-listed as campus-approved housing in a long-running dispute over a since-rescinded Wesleyan decree that all fraternities allow women to live in their houses.) Her lawsuit against various entities resulted in another of those undisclosed settlements.

But that’s OK. Rape, open windows, non-existent ceiling sprinklers, whatever. It’s all part of the Greek-house “dark power.” It’s “sinister.”

Posted by Charlotte Allen

Update: A reader informs me that the incident at Wesleyan occurred in 2010, not 2011 as I’d originally stated–and that the assailant was not a party-crasher but a friend and guest of one of the brothers. He later pleaded nolo contendere to simple assault, not sexual assault. I’ve made the appropriate corrections.

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2 Comments
  1. Days of Broken Arrows permalink

    I couldn’t get through her original article, so I’m glad you did the work this American wouldn’t do. That said, everyone who went to college knows you ain’t gonna find action at a frat house. It’s a bunch of fat guys sitting around smoking cigars and watching sports. The all-girls hall in the dorms are where the real fun was. Or better still, the dorms in the women’s colleges, where I saw the best minds of my generation…well never mind. The walls of Goucher have seen things the fraternity houses couldn’t imagine.

  2. pabarge permalink

    You know Caitlin wants it.

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