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Review: Pledged: The Secret Life of Sororities by Alexandra Robbins

26/04/2011

I feel the need to begin this particular review with a disclaimer — forgive me if it runs a little long.

I am a proud alumna of Delta Zeta Sorority, Alpha Rho chapter (Ohio Wesleyan University). I first heard about Pledged: The Secret Life of Sororities before my initiation in 2007 (as a second-semester junior), and I was mad. How on earth could a so-called “journalist” presume to sneak into the world of Greek life, learn confidential information about sororities and then just blast it out to the world? There are things that every sister in every (historically white) sorority learns, after which she swears to keep that information safe from those who aren’t in our house. I wanted to stand up and passionately defend Greek life and particularly our house, a true sisterhood in which we all supported one another even if we didn’t personally agree; strived to be the best women we could be, in academics and extracurriculars and every other aspect of our lives; and committed ourselves to serving the community and our sorority’s designated philanthropies. If only she could see how wrong she is, I thought to myself.

Fast-forward to 2011. I’m four years out from my initiation, three years an alumna, and I still feel the same way about my sorority. However, I finally reached a point where I could read the book without automatically dismissing everything author Alexandra Robbins has to say. So I picked up the book, hoping as I cracked the cover that I would find some constructive insight about how the inner world of a sorority looks to someone from the outside.

What I found was a deep, troubling look at a world that I didn’t recognize at all.

Robbins followed four sorority sisters in two different houses at one university (called “State University” for the sake of anonymity) through the 2002-2003 school year. She chronicled the development of “Sabrina”, “Caitlin” and “Amy”, all “Alpha Rho” sisters, and “Vicki”, a “Beta Pi” sister across one academic year as they built and broke off relationships; grew closer to or away from their house and their sisters; and discovered what being Greek really meant to them. While there were several very troubling situations in which each girl found herself, Robbins treated these compassionately and wove them into a narrative that helps the reader truly identify with each girl.

Between anecdotes of the sisters’ experiences, Robbins includes interviews with women from other sororities across the nation, as well as her own reflections on what she has learned and statistics gleaned from heavy research. While “Alpha Rho” and “Beta Pi” are both national “historically white” sororities, Robbins also addresses local sororities (those not affiliated with a national office) as well as the “black sororities” and multicultural houses to introduce a more complete view of the Greek system as it exists today.

I found myself able to relate with only a few of the sisters’ thoughts on their houses; as I’ve mentioned previously, the Greek experience at OWU is drastically different from the environment Robbins presents. OWU has roughly 2000 students, give or take a couple hundred, on campus at any time. Twenty-five per cent of the campus is Greek, divided between seven fraternities and five sororities — while the ratios may be similar, by a function of sheer numbers we are a scaled-down version of what Robbins presents in Pledged. The sororities at OWU have houses, which are used for chapter functions and Recruitment, but we do not live in them. We have a zero-tolerance policy for hazing of any kind, and at least in my house I know we stood by it (I obviously can’t speak for the other houses, though I am confident in my expectation that they also adhered to the policy).

This was one of the major imbalances I found in Robbins’ work; while the sensationalism factor would have been reduced somewhat, I think her survey of the Greek system around the country would be better served if she had made more of an effort to include smaller schools where sororities do not necessarily fall into the stereotypes that she presents. One caveat in saying that, however, is that Pledged is currently seven years old; the Greek system that I take for granted is the result of a lot of work that was very likely begun after this book hit shelves.

My other major problem with Pledged is that Robbins felt it necessary to share information that she presents as “confidential” or “secret” with the reader, passwords and ritual details that she ostensibly heard in her interviews with sisters who did not take their initiation vows seriously enough to not divulge such information. I can’t speak to the accuracy or truth of her statements, but that section completely took away from an otherwise compelling read and its inclusion makes Robbins look more like she’s shilling for the cheap shot at Greek life than like she’s conducting a legitimate investigation into it. That she would think including those juicy bits of information (whether correct or incorrect) is appropriate makes me think that the National Panhellenic Council knew what it was doing when they wouldn’t let her approach houses directly.

Beyond that are the ethics concerned with undercover work and misleading your indirect subjects to get material, but that’s a post for another time.

Overall, I think Pledged is a good story about four women’s journey to discover themselves and an informative look at the Greek system at large universities as it was in the first half of this decade. However, as a current overarching treatise on Greek life it falls short and should be taken with a few grains of salt.

Rating: 3/5

Review copy obtained from Mentor Public Library, Main Branch. There was no sort of compensation for this review.

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5 comments

  1. Hi Shannon, I’m Jo Dunlap’s husband. Actually she’s now Joanne Ramos. She asked me to look you up in Twitter and I found your blog from there.

    That was a very good review on Pledge.


    • Thanks Orlando! Even now this is a touchy book for me, so I was definitely taking a risk with my review — fortunately, I think it’s gone over well so far. And, no angry rants from the author so I’m in good shape!


  2. Shannon,

    I picked up the book after finding it in the school bookstore. I was a senior at the time, and read it after my graduation. I was a member of a local sorority chapter during my college career, and I also struggled with some of the secrets that were revealed in this book. I was devastated when I read that some girls had revealed parts of the rituals that are supposed to remain sacred. I do agree that her book is limited, but what you have to keep in mind is the limits that were placed on her at the time. Also, pretty much every piece of writing has some form of bias, and it would almost be impossible for her to get every facet of the Greek system. As far as the hazing goes, you have to remember that this book was published in 2004. I don’t know about your campus, but the rules on mine have gotten stricter every year regarding hazing, not only in Greek life, but in other campus organizations as well. It is my opinion that even though this book was published, I believe that the Greek system can use it to its advantage. Why not use it to grow from the mistakes of the past and use it as a learning experience.



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