When I started writing what became The Etiquette of Wolves, I had no idea that the Greek world would play such a large role in the story. The plot of the book took years to unfold, years in which I tried to educate myself as much as possible about sororities and fraternities.
I worked with several Greek students at college, and I heard all sorts of stories about their parties and what it was like to live in their houses and pledge. That is one form of knowledge that informed my novel, but I knew I needed more information than that. I also knew I needed more knowledge than what I had gathered through my own experiences with the Greek world on campus, especially as it pertained to an episode that happened at the end of my junior year.
I stayed on campus for graduation that year, which always took place a week after final exams, and I worked as a closer. This meant I went to university buildings and checked students out of their rooms, making sure that they were leaving their dorms in good order before vacating the premises. One college property I was assigned on that hot, sunny day was a sorority, and closing this house was a learning experience.
While many of the sisters left without any problems, several of the sisters were not ready to move out. Having spent the week before graduation partying, they had not been packing up their belongings. Parents arriving with U-Hauls were furious, and I witnessed many fights as these parents berated their daughters for not being ready. There was name-calling and a lot of hatred being expressed.
And then there were the items people were too frustrated to pack, which were simply left as trash: brand new rollerblades, computers, TVs, clothing, boots, shoes, skis… I saw all sorts of things hauled out to the dumpster, or left in the hallways and common areas of the sorority house, which would later be hauled out by school custodians as trash.
This led, you might have guessed, to a whole caravan of people coming to the house dumpster to pick through the goods, poor families who lived in the area for whom these items were an amazing treasure. One family pulled up in a tiny car that was so rusted through that there were holes in the side panels, and even though the car was built to hold four people, a family of eight piled out.
These children and their parents went through the dumpster with glee, and happily toted items back to their vehicle to stuff into the hatchback. After twenty minutes, when no more items would fit, the father asked one of the sisters if anyone was taking the plastic kiddie pool that was still sitting on the lawn, full of water. The sister told him, “No one wants that thing. You can have it.” So the man instructed his children to climb into the car, and then he lifted the kiddie pool and pushed it on top of them, so it would fit in the vehicle.
He did not dump the water out first, and the kids shrieked as the water poured over them, and then ran in a waterfall out the rusted holes in the side panels as the car pulled away. The father sped around the corner quickly, like someone might come after him and demand the pool back if they lingered.
This image of wealth and poverty on the grounds of my beautiful university was one that burned itself into my mind forever. It was a sad day for me. I witnessed girls being yelled at in awful ways by fathers who wore pink collared shirts and expensive gold watches, and I witnessed this impoverished, underfed family happily stuffing their car with rollerblades and sweaters and anything else they could fit in their car from the dumpster.
I know that my images and experiences of the Greek world at college fed into the story I wrote, but I also did a lot of research in order to write my first novel. One nonfiction title I found helpful was Alexandra Robbins’s book Pledged: The Secret Life of Sororities. The research involved in this book was astounding, and so much more than I would have ever uncovered on my own. Online sources about sorority and fraternity life can often focus only on the sensational, and not give as complete a picture of the various lives of sorority sisters as Ms. Robbins was able to in her book.
While I have no doubt that there are some sororities and fraternities that are similar to the fictional Beta Lambda and Alpha Tau in my novel, the truth is, the Greek world is incredibly diverse, a form of social grouping that represents as many different ways of living together and interacting with each other as humanity itself.
And there are many reasons why students pledge these different houses, some of which are illustrated in this brilliant article by The New York Times: Pledge Prep, which was published on July 16, 2012. More recently, the question of sorority house rules has come under debate, and this article published by The Huffington Post on January 25, 2015, describes that discussion: Sororities Don’t See Their Alcohol Policies Changing As Colleges Try To Fix Greek Life.
Greek membership numbers are on the rise, and I think it’s important to understand the psychology behind this phenomenon, whatever a person’s opinions on Greek life might be.