PART ONEFamily ApprovedCHAPTER ONERush: Sorority Sisters It’s the first day of sorority rush at UCLA and things are going smoothly. I’m in a sorority house chatting with a group of sisters when my fellow rushees and I are herded into the sorority’s back room for a slide show. The back room has a ceiling full of brightly colored helium balloons, their ribbons curling like fusilli pasta, and more sorority sisters for us rushees to meet, among them a most unwelcome surprise: Nancy.Now evidently a sorority sister, Nancy is a girl my little sister grew up with and I recognize her immediately. Standing about ten feet away, she looks right at me and I’m positive a loud air-raid like siren is going to go off, the kind of warning signal sororities must surely have on hand to alert sisters than an impostor is in their midst. I hide my face behind my hair and stick my chest out in her direction so she can see my name tag, which bears the name Katie Wintersen, an alias. Like a lighthouse’s beam, Nancy’s eyes pan the room, and then cross back again, without stopping on any one rushee’s face in particular. So I’m safe, for now at least.The reason for all of the above—the fear, the alias, my relief at not being recognized—is that I am not a legitimate rush candidate. In fact, I’m not even a UCLA student, but a twenty-six-year-old college graduate who has never been in a sorority. The New England liberal arts college I attended didn’t even have sororities. By taking part in this ritual undergone by thousands of college women each year, I’m hoping to better understand the enduring appeal of sororities and to experience what it’s like to rush.Going to college has always struck me as the quintessential American experience—that is, of officially leaving behind what you once were and starting over somewhere else. Yet I’ve never understood why people who have just arrived at college would renounce their freedom by joining a fraternity or sorority so early in the game. Because rush usually starts before classes do, most students have found their frat or sorority before they’ve even determined their first semester class schedule.This wasn’t always the case. In their original incarnation (the first sorority was founded in 1851 at Wesleyan College in Macon, Georgia), sororities were open literary societies. Would-be members didn’t have to go through the rush process, and girls could belong to more than one sorority at a time. In 1902 sororities came together to form a national organization, the Pan-Hellenic, and it was then determined that girls could “pledge” no more than one sorority; soon after “the entertainment of rushees for a short period before the day of formal invitation,” i.e., rush, was made official. Over the years the process of joining a sorority has become more rigorous and cutthroat as sororities have become strictly social in nature. This process seems to be based on so little (looks, musical taste, boys known/dated/slept with) and established in such a short period, (rush lasts one week) and yet sorority bonds often endure a lifetime.I decided to find out for myself what distinguished a sister in one sorority from that of another, and what each sister’s everlasting fealty to her chosen sorority was really about. I chose to rush at UCLA because its rush is known for being particularly superficial—rumors of invisible scales existing beneath the thresholds of each house to weigh entering rushees have been going around for years—and particularly severe: Unlike most schools, it’s possible to rush UCLA and not get into any sorority.
When I arrive in the L.A. airport on a late September Sunday morning, I find myself ducking surfboards swung around like helicopter propellers by blond, tan boys. Quite a change from last night’s party in Manhattan where slow-moving, cigarette-smoking boys immodestly “summarized” at considerable length the plots and importance of their eternally in progress, self-defined Proustian novels, and jousted over interpretations of Joyce. But there’s no time to ponder this difference between boys on opposite coasts nor to attend to my lingering hangover; the information that I—or rather, Katie Wintersen—was faxed informs me I have to get to a Welcome Reception for all fall rushees that afternoon.In the LAX restroom I change from the all-black outfit I’m still wearing from the night before into a multicolored skirt and tank top (this is, after all, L.A.). I gloss my lips with pink—college girls are always wearing pink lipstick and always with a sheen of gloss—and practice smiling in front of the too-brightly-lit airport bathroom mirror. I almost don’t recognize my own reflection—in my preparation for rush week I’ve highlighted my hair (again, this is L.A.), lost a little weight (don’t think those rumors of invisible scales didn’t get to me) and there’s the sought-after Sorority Smile spreading across my face, straining my mouth muscles. I head off for the reception.The affair is held outside, on one of the student center’s terraces, and is attended by representatives from every sorority (they’re all wearing light blue T-shirts with the name of their sorority on the front) and girls who hope one day to be like the girls in the light blue T-shirts. Katie Wintersen mills around anxiously with the four hundred some girls in the latter category.It’s hot out, so I go to pour myself some punch at a refreshment table on the edge of the terrace. A mistake. When I turn around I see that in the brief time my back was turned groups have started to congeal, improbably tight cliques of girls heading in different directions—alt of which are away from me. I’m worried that my inability to besister from the outset will make me an outcast during rush.Feeling increasingly desperate, I walk over to the girl who’s standing closest to me. She looks friendly enough, so I say: “Does everyone tell you you look like Renée Zellweger?”“Oh my God!” she says. “That’s such a compliment.” She beams.Score. I feel like a sleazy fraternity brother on the late-night make.Her name is Robin and the thing is, she really does look like Renée Zellweger. Robin’s about my height—five six—and has below-the-shoulder straight blondish brown hair. Her dark blue eyes seem to take in everything around her without being the slightest bit distracted from our conversation. Her composure and lack of nervous gesturing make her seem more sophisticated than the other rushees who, at any given moment, are either shifting from one foot to the other, consulting a mirror stashed in their purses, or inserting or removing Care Free sugarless chewing gum.Robin asks why I transferred schools (I say I’m a junior transfer because trying to pass for a freshman when I’m twenty-six seems like a stretch) and I try out my bogus bio. “I grew up in New York,” I lie, “and then I went to Columbia, which was only blocks away from my parents.” I roll my eyes. “I’ve always wanted to live in L.A., and I figured college is a good time to experiment, like, living somewhere else.” (The frequent interjection of like was one of my primary exercises while practicing Sorority Speak during the days before rush.)“Plus,” I continue—lying has never been so easy—“my boyfriend of two years and I just broke up and it was a really bad breakup—we had all the same friends and everything and I realized I could either start over at Columbia, which would be a drag, or, like, start over somewhere else.”“That’s so brave of you, Katie,” Robin says. I smile. The reason I’ve made up the story about the break-up is because I know that love is the lingua franca of girls and, I imagine, especially of sorority sisters. Plus, I don’t want them to think the reason I switched schools was because of something in their minds much worse than heartbreak: not having many friends. The reason I claim to have transferred from Columbia is because, having gone to grad school there, I’m familiar with details about the college and its environs—i.e., local bars, its Greek system, and, should it come up, the course curriculum—details that make lying easier and less spurious sounding.When I ask Robin where she’s from she says, “You’ve probably never heard of it, but I’m from Pacifica.” Pacifica! I can’t believe it. Pacifica is a small town outside of San Francisco where I was raised until I was four, when my family moved into the city. Of course, I can’t tell Robin this and I feel a certain sorrow in not being able to reveal our shared roots.In part because I’ve taken on an alter ego myself, and in part because I feel an affinity for Robin, I find myself imagining she is the person I would have been had my family stayed in Pacifica. This identification with Robin makes me start to think that maybe rush is a reasonable—albeit hastened—approximation of how friendships naturally evolve. I chose to approach Robin on the basis of looks, vibe, and proximity—all superficial motivations, yes, but though only I know it, we have something substantial in common and she’s definitely a likable person. Maybe, I think, these sorority friendships only seem arbitrary.At the end of the reception I make my way over to the registration table. I fill out a sorority rush registration card, fabricating everything. Since I don’t know how many digits are in UCLA student ID numbers, I peer over another rushee’s shoulder, but she notices my glances and shields her form the way people do when they think you’re cheating. Nonetheless, I manage to determine how many numbers are in an ID, give the name of a New York high school many of my friends attended (Stuyvesant), and explain that I’ve transferred from Columbia, where, I claim, my activities included writing a men’s fashion column for the school paper.When turning in my form and forking over twenty dollars (thankfully I don’t have to write a check), I’m informed that the next day will be a long, ten-party day.“What should I wear?” I ask the girl with heavily waxed eyebrows who’s taken my money.“Well, be comfortable,” she says, “but wear what you want to rush in.” She smiles a conspiratorial Get it? smile that implies what she really means to say is, “Wear what you want to be judged and evaluated in, dress like your popularity/ happiness/ overall success while you’re at UCLA, and maybe the rest of your life, too, depends on it.”
On Monday morning, rush officially begins. Classes don’t start until Thursday, so for three days rush is a full-time job, or rather, a full-time audition. This year’s UCLA rush theme is “Come As You Are.” Glancing around at orientation I note that the rushees are all smarter than to show up au naturel. Dressed in trendy patterned miniskirts and spaghetti-strapped tank tops, or little sundresses and heels, and with every strand of hair blow-dried, they look as though they’re headed for a night of dates that entail drinking and dancing rather than a day of house tours. Strange when you consider that no boys are present at rush and that during rush week rushees are prohibited from going to fraternity parties (sorority sisters who have been elected as “advisors” to the rushees frequent the frat parties to ensure rushees don’t violate this rule). Not so strange when you realize that female attractiveness to males is a primary consideration in sorority rush. The rushees are primped so that they will look like the kind of girls boys like, and therefore the sisters will select them because this will bring benefits to the house: Attractive rushees improve, or at least maintain, the sorority’s gene pool, and therefore its reputation as well.At check-in I am given a name tag and a rush identification number (390). The 430 rushees are divided into ten groups that rotate among ten sorority houses. On the first day we will go to ten thirty-five-minute parties, one at each of the houses. I’m in Group 10 with all the other rushees whose last names fall at the end of the alphabet. All groups have two group leaders, or Rho Chis as they’re called. (The Chi is pronounced with a hard K sound, as in the Greek.) My group leaders are named Claire and Celerie, and they’re members of sororities, but they’re not allowed to tell us which ones they’re in because they are supposed to be impartial and not influence our decisions. (When visiting the houses I see that each sorority has taped black paper over photographs of some of their members. At first, I think this means that the person who appears in the picture has dropped out, died, or gone obese, but I later learn that the purpose of the paper is to veil which Rho Chis are members of which sorority.)Rho Chis are the bearers of bad news—they call and comfort rushees if they’re not invited to join any sororities. Theirs are the shoulders we are supposed to cry on if we don’t get invited back to our favorite house. Like the best-prepared camp counselors, Rho Chis carry emergency kits with them at all times. Their kits include tampons, mints, Band-Aids (all the brand new high-heeled shoes leave the rushees with multiple blisters), and nail polish (to halt a run in a rushee’s stocking). This last item seems particularly anachronistic, a leftover from a time when bare legs were considered improper, a time before bare legs were a valuable asset in flaunting minimal fat content and a good tan. Only one girl in Group 10 is wearing stockings, I notice, and she must notice this too, because after only ten minutes she’s excused herself to go to the restroom and returns with newly exposed limbs.Before we head off for our first party, Claire and Celerie have us play a name game of the variety you play in camp when you’re seven. The particular name game we’re forced to play is one in which the group pretends we’re all going on a picnic and we each pack an item that starts with the same first letter as our name. Example: Claire’s going on a picnic and she’s packing cheese; Celerie’s going on a picnic and she’s packing celery.Even an innocuous-seeming exercise like the picnic game makes it clear who’s going to get into a sorority and who’s not. (Lesson: Nothing in rush is innocuous.) A girl with hay-colored hair who looks like she could be on a milk commercial announces, “My name is Hillary and I’m going on a picnic and I’m going to pack hummus.” We’re sitting on stairs in front of a lecture hall and fellow rushees on the stairs below and above me murmur, “That’s so healthy,” as though (a) what’s really cool about Hillary is that she’s a health freak, and (b) we’re actually going on a picnic.Next, a girl whose lip gloss seems to reflect the morning sun says, “My name is Carol and I’m going to pack kumquats.” Her shiny lips smile such an I’m-proud-of-myself-for-saying-something-original smile that I don’t have the heart to voice my opinion that her answer should be disqualified on the basis of poor orthography. (Lesson Number 2: Rush brings out a competitive edge in people.)Unlike the other rushees, I have the disadvantage of not having played this game with the same name since childhood. The reason I chose the alias Katie is two-fold: (1) I’ve always wanted a name people could pronounce without being instructed three times, and (2) a friend of mine who lives in L.A. is named Katie and said I could list her voice-mail number (which has an outgoing message saying “Hi, this is Katie …”) as my own. Wintersen I chose because it sounded sufficiently nonethnic, which, considering the homogeneity in the sorority system, may have turned out to be a good choice. Ethnically speaking, UCLA is a diverse school. Yet while only 35 percent of the university’s student body is Caucasian (40 percent is Asian; 18 percent is African American), the Greek system is a reservoir of whiteness. Asian and African American sororities do exist at UCLA, but students wishing to join them don’t go through the official Pan-Hellenic rush.I’m still wishing I had picked a first name that was more amenable to the picnic game when it’s my turn. I haven’t thought of anything better, and I’m craving chocolate, so I say, “My name is Katie and for the picnic I’ll bring a Kit Kat.” Thankfully, no sorority sisters who can report me are present (at least the Rho Chis aren’t supposed to report anything), and I view this as a sort of practice Social Aptitude Test and make a mental note to study up on my nonfattening K foods. Does Special K count? I wonder.Poor Deborah, though. At well over two hundred and fifty pounds and wearing what resembles a mud-colored muumuu more than a Sorority Sister Sundress, she pipes up with considerable confidence, “My name is Deborah and for our picnic I’m going to pack Doritos.” Her test run does not bode well for her. I can imagine a sorority sister looking at her and thinking, fat, dandruff, glasses, and I feel bad that she’s not going to get what she thinks she wants.
One of the first houses Group 10 goes to is Kappa Kappa Gamma, reputed to have all the pretty girls, cocaine parties, and strict bulimia regimens for its members who are failed anorexics. Our Rho Chis escort us to the bottom of the house’s brick steps and we wait until the party officially starts. Up and down Hitgard—the street where all the sororities are lined up like pastel-painted, front lawn-mowed, floral-pattern draped, Martha Stewart-esque suburban homes—the other groups are similarly clustered, waiting for the doors of sisterhood to open.At the appointed time, the president and rush chair come out and welcome us to Kappa Kappa Gamma. They are both blond, and the bright sun reflecting off their heads makes it look like they’re wearing crowns. I’m not the only one to note what a vision they are; one fellow rushee standing near me lets out an “Oh my God!” as though some nonminor deities have just appeared to her in person.I get in line with the other rushees in my group and shake hands with the president and the rush chair at the door. I say, “Hi, I’m Katie,” and they say, “Welcome to Kappa Kappa Gamma, Katie.” Then another girl greets me, gets me a glass of water with a semicircular slice of lemon wedged onto the rim, and walks me to a table in the house’s garden where yet another girl is sitting. She introduces us, and before leaving me, takes my calling card. On the first day I have ten calling cards (one for each party) that my Rho Chis have given me and on which I’ve written “Katie Wintersen” and my rush ID number.The girl at the table is named Tina and she starts the conversation by asking where I’m from, what year I am, why I transferred, what I think of L.A., and what my major is. After three minutes another sister comes over and squats near us—actually, it’s more like a curtsey—and Tina introduces us to each other. “Julie, this is Katie. Katie was just telling me that she wants to be an English major.” “Oh really!” Julie says, as though this is very exciting. “Katie,” Tina says, “I’m going to leave you now to talk with Julie but it was nice meeting you.” Julie then talks to me about my major, where I’m from, what year I am, why I transferred, and what I think of L.A. After three minutes with Julie, Alyssa comes over and asks what we’re talking about.The banality of these conversations with the sorority sisters isn’t entirely their fault. Sorority sisters actually have to attend “conversation skills workshops” at which they are trained in how to make a rushee feel comfortable and instructed not to ask any potentially embarrassing or emotional questions. Emotional questions include anything about the rushee’s home (she might get homesick) or anything about her boyfriend (a Kappa Kappa Gamma at Northwestern told me that conflicts have been known to arise when a sister asks a rushee who her boyfriend is, only to discover that they’re both dating the same guy). But just as striking as the similarity of all their conversational initiatives is the uniformity of their appearances: With the hollowed cheeks of Modigliani women, all the Kappas seem to share the same hairstyle, dress, diet, earrings, perfume, and toenail polish, not to mention an equal amount of sun-kissed freckles sprinkled on the bridges of their small noses, some of which are surely rhinoplastic. I get the feeling that, unlike their highly honed, interchangeable small talk, no extensive workshopping or training is necessary to ensure their physical homogeneity.The game of greet-judge-pass-the-rushee continues until I sit down for a longer conversation with Ashley, a tall sophomore who has pink glitter on her face and in the valley of the V created by the neckline of a thin pink T-shirt designed to show off her ample chest. She asks if I have any questions for her, and so I ask what she likes about Kappa.“I like that we can be really silly together. I mean, we like partying, but there’s also school. But you’re seeing us at our most sophisticated side, I mean, we’re talking and everything.”Someone announces that the entertainment is about to begin.“Oh my God,” Ashley says. “Aren’t you excited?”“Sure,” I say, and sit up straighter and try to look wide-eyed.The entertainment at Kappa features a girl less attractive than the other sisters, dressed up as a Loser-Looking Rushee who’s just arrived at UCLA and wants to join Kappa. (I wonder if the choice to have her play the part was a deliberate one.) She watches the Kappa sisters dance to “YMCA” and “Celebration,” but when she tries to dance with the best of them she’s laughed at. She perseveres, however, and after shedding her glasses and bookbag and literally following the other girls’ footsteps throughout the “I Will Survive” number she, too, is given a pink scarf and made into a Kappa. The pink scarf is tied around the rushee’s neck in the style of the Pink Ladies in Grease. The allusion to this elitist group is not accidental.The entertainment emphasizes two things: (1) humiliation is part of the rush process, and (2) Toni. Toni is the president of Kappa Kappa Gamma and she looks as though before doing dance performances here she was on Beverly Hills, 90210. She’s thin, blond, largebreasted, and is never not smiling. She’s also never not dancing. Just when you think she’s burned out from kicking her long legs up in the air like a Rockette and has retreated off stage for good she improbably returns for the next song in a new outfit, her legs kicking even higher.All the sisters are cheering Toni on, but Ashley is the most enthusiastic of them all. She’s clapping to the music and screaming “Go, Toni” and “Shake it, Toni.” I look around to see if the other rushees are clapping or shouting; they’re not. I’m momentarily relieved by this and feel my lack of enthusiasm is excusable. But then, upon scanning the garden a second time, I notice that there’s a reason the other rushees aren’t clapping or screaming: They’ve been mesmerized by this potent display of sexuality and sorority spirit. I can see it in their eyes, which look like they’ve been dappled with Kappa Glitter.When the dance performance is (finally) over, Ashley says, “Did you like it?”“Yeah,” I say. I know that I haven’t exhibited the proper enthusiasm. But Ashley, possibly softened by the rushee’s plight she just witnessed in the show, gives me one more chance. She looks around at all her sisters and says, “This morning was such a trip. You should have seen us. We were all running around listening to music and going through each other’s drawers and closets getting dressed together. I helped make the decision that everyone should wear bright colors.” Ashley brings her hands to her heart, and squeals (yes, she squeals), “I just love colors. Colors make me so happy. What’s your favorite color?”“Excuse me?” I say. I’m surprised to still be surprised by the strangeness of being in an environment where the reflective/refractive properties of light can be loved … and where that love/nonlove is judged.She gives me a never-mind-I-shouldn’t-have-asked look. Sternly silent, she walks me to the entryway I came through, which is now dark with flashing lights—the desired effect is that it’s like a model’s runway, the flashes those of cameras snapping away. Maybe there really are cameras, I think. Maybe pictures are being taken of all the rushees so the sisters can evaluate each girl individually later on. I imagine all the Kappas sitting around a slide show of these candid photos, alternately waving pom-poms for girls they like and throwing lard at the ones they don’t.On either side of the makeshift catwalk Kappas are lined up and they’re all saying good-bye. And there’s Toni—again, and in a new outfit!—at the front door. I have no idea how she’s made it there from the stage through the traffic jam of rushees and sisters so quickly—maybe there’s an underground passageway? She’s not even breathing heavily.Before I know it, I’ve made it outside where it’s light and calm. I feel dizzy from the experience.
One of our next parties is at Delta Delta Delta. At the set time, like a bird shooting out of the door of a cuckoo clock, the Tri-Delt rush chair and president exit their house as one, holding hands. They say how excited all the girls are to meet us, and welcome us in “without further ado.” Once inside, it’s greet-judge-pass all over again … until I meet Kim. Kim is a beautiful funkily-dressed black Tri-Delt (the first funkily-dressed, not to mention black woman I’ve seen during rush) whose bookshelf—which I see when she takes me on a house tour—is not to be believed. Unlike bookshelves at other sororities that seem to serve as no more than display cases for teddy bears holding UCLA banners and photos of smiling sorority sisters with gold-embossed captions saying “Sisters” or “Best Friends,” Kim’s bookshelf houses an impressive collection of Scandinavian literature. So Kim and I talk Laxness and Lagerkvist, Hamsun and Ibsen, and I think/dream/hallucinate that maybe sororities still have a trace of the literary society in them. Not even members of my mother’s Swedish Women’s Group with all their eating of lutfisk and dancing around midsummer poles have ever discussed Lagerkvist with me.I talk with Kim until it’s time for the Delta Delta Delta slide show. The main purpose of the sororities’ slide shows is to showcase the sisters’ popularity among fraternity boys. By the time the slide show starts, you’ve met some of the girls in the house, and ostensibly you’ve been sizing each other up. But because rushees can’t go to fraternity parties during rush week (the sisters aren’t allowed to go to frat parties during rush week, either, which may account for some of their excessive energy), rushees don’t get a chance to see the sisters being hugged/courted/liquored up by the fraternity boys. So the not-so-subliminal message of Tri-Delt’s slide show, which features cute boys dancing with Tri-Delt girls at date parties, kissing their Tri-Delt girlfriends at mixers, and boys pinning Tri-Delt sisters (pinning is a Greek ritual between a fraternity brother and a sorority sister that signifies that the couple will soon be engaged) is this: The right boys (i.e., good-looking, cool-dressing, openly affectionate members of “good” fraternities) like Delta Delta Delta girls.I have to say it’s effective. I find myself slipping into my role as Katie Wintersen who has just broken up with her long-term boyfriend and is on the rebound. Maybe, I think, if I become a Tri-Delt I’ll go out with these alpha males as well. Not only that, but I’ll get Tri-Delt sweatshirts to authenticate and advertise my membership to everyone around me and a social calendar that includes bid day, pledge night, dad’s day, and semiformals. It’s not a social calendar alone I covet, but the social calendar of a group. All serious groups have their own calendars, just as religions do, and the true sign of belonging to a group, I’ve decided, is that you plan the rest of your life around the group’s events.1At the end of the slide show the girls form a semicircle around all the seated rushees, lock hands, and sing along with the 10,000 Maniacs’ “These Are Days.” They keep singing, a cappella, even after the song is over, and suddenly I feel hope swelling up like a balloon around Katie Wintersen’s recently broken heart. Friends to break into song with, days to remember—what could be better medicine for the lovelorn, or for those whose first time it is away from home, for anyone? UCLA already feels smaller, less foreign. If I make it through sorority rush, I think, I will have a place to live, a full social calendar, and a hundred-plus friends—sisters, no less. All within a week. Life has never been so easy.At the end of the long day of parties, Group 10 reconvenes with our Rho Chis, who instruct us in filling out our preference slips. We are to put down our top seven choices—my top choice is unquestionably Tri-Delt—and when the houses put down their top choices of rushees, the computer will determine a schedule for the next day. The omnipotent computer is ominously referred to as “the scantron.” Whenever the word scantron is mentioned during rush week even the most composed of rushees can be seen chomping on their French-manicured nails.
On Tuesday Group 10 meets on the steps by the inverted—like an innie belly button—fountain at 9:15. I’m still exhausted from the approximately three hundred conversations I had the day before—or rather, from having had more or less the same conversation with three hundred people. There’s a problem with one of the schedules, Claire tells us, and Celerie is waiting at the Pan-Hellenic office to find out what’s wrong.Convinced that the problematic schedule is mine, I start to sweat. Even this early in the morning, the sun is streaming onto the pavement, leaving not the slightest slice of shade. It’s as though someone’s put peaches under each of my armpits and, like a juice presser, I’m squeezing out sticky juice that runs down the sides of my body and into the waistband of my skirt. I’m sitting next to Robin and she’s telling me that today is her boyfriend’s birthday, and I try to make conversation about what she’s gotten him, how they’re going to celebrated, etc., but my mind is reeling through possible problems as well as the excuses I can offer the Pan-Hellenic office. I’m not as concerned about punishment as I am about how, given that everyone’s so secretive about the process, I’ll find out about what goes on during rush if I am “discovered.” All the Pan-Hellenic presidents and sorority sisters alike rely on the refrain that rush is “a mutual selection process.” An obvious lie.While we’re waiting for Celerie to find out what’s wrong with the one missing schedule, Claire tells us that at 9:40 we’ll get our lists of parties for the day. The scantron has matched our preference lists with those of the houses and we may have up to seven parties to go to that day, or we may have zero—it all depends on whether or not the houses we “preferenced” also preferenced us. “You guys need to remain quiet when you get your lists—don’t get really excited, or ask the person sitting next to you what houses she got—because this is a really emotional time.”Claire is pretty down-to-earth (she’s wearing Birkenstocks) and I know from my one day of house parties that she’s not in one of the snobby sororities. “Don’t be upset if you didn’t get invited back to a sorority you really liked,” she says. “It doesn’t mean that they didn’t like you, it just means that they don’t think you’ll fit in there.” She says this with an it’s-all-for-the-best attitude.“Also, if yesterday you talked to a girl at one of the houses and you felt like you really had a good conversation, like you really clicked, and then you’re not invited back to that house, don’t feel upset with her personally, or feel embarrassed or mad when you see her around campus. It’s not all up to the girls you talked to. It’s a democratic decision—the whole house decides on who gets asked back—and the girl you talked to and clicked with isn’t the only one deciding.”If the people who talked to you aren’t necessarily the ones deciding on whether or not you’re asked back, this means that the decisions are being made by people who may not have even said hello to you. The harsh reality behind Claire’s “comforting” words is that whether or not you’re asked back is determined by your looks/dress/ mannerisms and what sorority girl A said to sorority girl B about your “conversational skills.”At 9:40 the schedules are distributed to all the groups. I’m amazed to find that they haven’t discovered I’m an impostor, and that I have seven parties to go to. I’m surprised and oddly jealous of Katie Wintersen: Had I been acting like myself and not Katie—that is, saying whatever was on my mind and not what I felt I should say, and had I dressed how I felt and not how everyone else did—I wouldn’t have been met with such approval. I start imagining how my whole life could have been different had I just not been me.Not all of the parties are at my number-one ranked houses (no Kappa), but then I reflect on Claire’s words of wisdom. I’m consoled by the fact that maybe the girls I talked with enjoyed my conversation; it was just the other girls—the ones I didn’t meet—who didn’t approve of my appearance.“Are you happy with what you got?” Robin asks. I look over at her and see that her it’s-my-boyfriend’s-birthday blush has blanched into a pale shade of death.“So-so,” I say.“I’m not at all happy,” she says, although there’s really no need for her to tell me this since she looks positively lachrymose. “I only got invited back to three houses and I’d only consider one of them!”“Robin,” I say, “there must be some mistake.” I actually mean this. I’m so enamored of her that I can’t imagine why anyone wouldn’t be, why everyone isn’t. The scantron must be behind this, I think.And then she says it. “Can I see your list?”I hesitate. I fumble. I think of telling her that it’s for her own good—for the good of our friendship—if she doesn’t see it. But her shaky hand is outstretched, her eyes greedy, and I know I have no choice.Robin looks at it, then she studies it, and then she begins to cry. Not small, movie star-like tears of the sort you’d think a girl like her would cry, a girl who after all looks like a movie star, but mascara-blackened tears that leave skidmark-like trails on her cheeks.“Robin,” I say, “I’m sorry.” Suddenly feeling maternal, I stroke her hair. I want to tell her that the only reason I got asked back to more houses is because I was pretending to be somebody I’m not, and she was just being herself. But I know it wouldn’t make her feel any better.“You better go, Katie,” she says, and removes my hand from her head. “You have to be at your first party at ten. I don’t even have to be anywhere for another hour and a half.”As I leave she starts to cry again, and I say, “Robin …”“Go,” she says. She doesn’t want my pity; all I want her to know is that I don’t think she deserves this fate. It’s not that I think sororities are so great, but that I think Robin is, and that sororities should be able to recognize that about her.My first party is at Delta Delta Delta. It strikes me that all the girls have newly acquired sultry voices of the kind you get from smoking packs a day. But UCLA girls aren’t big smokers and it turns out that everyone’s throat is hoarse from so much talking—and cheering—the day before. Other than being brought down an octave, the conversations are essentially the same, with one new question thrown into the routine: “Do all the houses seem the same to you?” The correct answer to this question is, of course, “No.” Not just “No,” but “No, some really stick out above the others in terms of spirit and the quality of the girls.” To be uber correct, this response must be accompanied by a sufficiently conspiratorial grin. A grin that says, While most houses are lame, yours is cool. Which is in fact how I feel. Tri-Delt is where Katie Wintersen, as I’ve created her, would fit in.As I’m leaving the sisters are all lined up at the door to say good-bye. The obvious purpose of having this departing line is so that if they see a girl they think they “want” they can note her name tag and ID number. This open objectifying of women would be deemed unacceptable if it weren’t for the fact that it’s all women and this is L.A.“So good to see you back, Katie,” several of the sisters I vaguely remember talking to say as I’m leaving, and I know that they are the reason I’m back, and that they want me to know that they’re the reason I’m back. “They’re so nice,” I write in my notes afterwards—I can’t help myself.At the parties on the second day there are more skits, most of which are based on television shows or movies. At Alpha Delta Pi I have a painful conversation with a cheerleader and watch the sisters perform “We Go Together” from Grease, complete with choreographed shimmies. At Chi Omega I watch a Batgirl skit scripted to show off the virtues of a Chi Omega: “A Chi Omega spends fifty to seventy-five percent of her time partying, but she also spends time doing philanthropy and scholasticism,” Batgirl says. Anyone who refers to college learning as “doing scholasticism” can’t be very good at it, I think.At Pi Beta Phi there’s another skit, this one based on Dick Tracy. I wonder if the sororities have to register their movie/TV showthemed acts with the Pan-Hellenic office so there aren’t any repeats among the houses. But a Pi Phi sister tells me, “I hope you like the skit. We’ve been doing it for years,” and I realize that like clothes inherited from an older sibling, the skits are passed down from year to year. And like hand-me-downs the themes are a little out of date, even if they’re supposed to be kitchy. I mean, Dick Tracy?On my way to Theta I see Robin coming down the hill toward me. “Robin,” I say, and I grab her hand. “Hi, Katie,” she says coolly. She’s used her compact to even out the still-remaining red splotches she has on her face from crying. By my estimation, the tears ceased maybe ten minutes before, which means she’s been crying for over an hour. She doesn’t stop to talk, and I sense that seeing me has set her on the brink of tears again, so I let her hand go, and she continues down the hill.Cat tails, black noses, and painted whiskers adom the president, rush chair, and membership chair at Kappa Alpha Theta because the sorority’s acronym is KAT. Theta is one of the two sororities known for having the prettiest and thinnest girls (the other is Kappa), and the girls seem proud to look like a coterie of sex kittens.The girl I’m talking to, Yvonne, asks me what activities I plan to be involved in at UCLA. She asks the question as though she’s reading from a cue card behind my head, and for a moment I’m tempted to turn around and see if she is. I quickly sense Yvonne has never read a newspaper in her life, but nonetheless, I tell her about the fashion column for men that I supposedly wrote for the Columbia school paper.Fortunately (or, at the time it seemed fortunate), just as the cue cards appear to have vanished, the president of the sorority approaches us and introduces herself saying, “Katie, I’ve heard so much about you and I just wanted to come over and say hello.”She sits next to Yvonne in the shade of an umbrella. Meanwhile, I’m in the sun and I can feel my highlighted hair darkening with perspiration. I smile at her, and wonder to myself what the “so much” she’s heard about me could possibly consist of.“What were you two just talking about?” the president/Queen KAT asks.“Fashion,” Yvonne says, with a flip of her blond hair. (You’d think the flip was intended to punctuate her response if you didn’t know that she flips her hair about as often as she blinks.)“Fashion!” the president gushes. “I just love fashion. I especially love Prada.”“I especially love anything Italian,” Yvonne continues.“I love pasta!” I exclaim, as though we’re playing a word association game (which, it turns out, we’re definitely not).Both girls stare at me—not just at me, but more specifically at my thighs. Although my thighs aren’t large enough to disqualify me on their own merit alone, I think of how, on the grounds of my response, they could conceivably fear that I’m an agent provocateur sent to fatten them up.(I did not get asked back.)
That night I hole up in my motel room. When I first checked into my “motor hotel” in L.A. I enjoyed the fact that although close by, it felt worlds away from sorority row. What I’ve always liked about motels is the feeling of transience they offer, and much to the annoyance of my travel companions I’ve always opted for the seediest motels, even if better options were available. When I first entered my motel room in L.A., the mattress that sagged like a hammock, the dim lighting, the sound of too-loud TVs pulsing in from other rooms, and the roar of car engines outside the door pleased me greatly. The motel was a welcome respite from the character-free charm of sorority row.But even as early in rush as Tuesday night it’s evident that something has changed in me; both the seedy motel and its social equivalent—crowded, dirty bars and last-minute planning—have lost some of their romantic allure. For the first time, I can identify with Humbert Humbert in Lolita when he says he eventually grows “to prefer the Functional Motel—clean, neat, safe nooks, ideal places for sleep, argument, reconciliation, insatiable illicit love.” Maybe the appeal of sororities is analogous: clean, neat, safe nooks, ideal places to conduct the business of living, meet dateable boys, and form friendships that all the sorority songs claim will last a lifetime.On Tuesday night I curl up on my motel room’s brown and white velour couch. Styrofoam pops out of the pillow’s zippers the way my swollen feet have been spilling out of my strappy high-heeled shoes. I stay up late smoking all the cigarettes I haven’t been able to smoke all day, filling the motel room’s brown ashtray. With the volume turned down on the flickering television, I talk on the phone. My sister, who was a Kappa at Berkeley but who became disillusioned and deactivated (or as she calls it, “deKappatated”), can’t believe I wasn’t asked back to Kappa. “What were you wearing?” she asks. She’s been on the other side and knows what sorority sisters look for from their rushees.I talk with a woman I know who was in a sorority at Comell. She’s now thirty and I thought she had a sense of distance, if not humor, about Greek life. “You know,” she tells me testily, “you’re taking a space away from a girl who might really want to be in a sorority.”I think of Robin and get off the phone as quickly as possible.I talk to a disgruntled male writer friend of mine who approves of what I’m doing because he doesn’t think any blond, peppy, sorority-mold girl would so much as look at him, so he feels that justice is being served, that I’m exposing the same obsession with appearances that would prevent any of these girls from giving him the slightest chance.I talk to a guy I’ve been seeing in New York who—although never part of a fraternity or close to that scene—seems to question my coolness when 1 tell him I wasn’t asked back to be a Kappa. Even he is well versed in the hierarchy of houses. “What are you going to do if you don’t get into a good house?” He sounds worried. He’s beginning to have his doubts about me. I’m beginning to question his vanity. I can understand how Katie Wintersen defers to sorority girls’ opinions, but I begin to wonder why everyone else does, too—even those who are purportedly against the Greek system seem to give credence and weight to the membership choices of organized groups.
Wednesday, I continue to rush. At Alpha Epsilon Phi I see a slide show that’s accompanied by songs like “Lean On Me” (for the philanthropy slides), “Groove Is in the Heart” (for the party pictures), and (for the photos of friends) the theme song from Cheers with the lyrics “you wanna be where you can see our troubles are all the same.” They obviously haven’t bothered to listen carefully to the second verse, which reveals that the song is more about desperation than socialization, “climbing the walls when no one calls; you’ve lost at love again/And the more you’re down and out, the more you need a friend …”At Pi Beta Phi and Delta Gamma I hear tear-jerking stories (stories that bring tears to the sisters’ eyes, not mine) from sisters who, like speakers at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, stand up and share their experience, strength, and hope … about joining their particular sorority. At Pi Beta Phi, the rush chair tells us (jumping up with hands above her head as though shaking pom,poms), “I was in the womb saying ‘Go Greek,’” and then adds (hands at her side), “but it’s okay if you weren’t.”At Delta Gamma the silver-eye-shadowed speaker’s story goes like this: “When I was going through rush, I was sitting there like all of you and my leg fell asleep! So when it was time to stand up, I fell backward! But a Delta Gamma sister named Suzie caught me! Suz, will you stand up?” Suzie, a not-dyed blond girl seated in the middle of the room pops up, and her central position and undelayed response remind me that this is the third time she’s jumped up for this story today.All the rushees ooh and aah. Then, they actually applaud Suzie. With tears swelling, the speaker says, “Delta Gamma was there for me then, and they’re there for me now.”Later, I ask a DG sister what she likes best about being in a sorority. “I like the mornings the best because we’re all in the bathroom blow-drying our hair together? And we ask each other if we have anything in our teeth?”She says all this in perfect Sorority Upspeak—the transformation of declarative sentences into interrogatives that I know I’ll never be able to master. A French teacher once told me that if you learn a foreign language after the age of ten, you’ll always have an accent, but if you learn it before, you’ll sound like a native of that country. I’m wondering how this DG became fluent in Sorority Upspeak and then she tells me: “All my older sisters, I mean, my real, like, biological sisters, were DGs, too?”It’s not uncommon for a sorority girl to hail from a family of sorority sisters—older sisters, mothers, or grandmothers—and for them all to have been in the same sorority. In fact, while parents ultimately leave the choice of joining a sorority up to the girl, a rushee must get a recommendation letter for every house she rushes from a past member of that house’s chapter. This means that rushees at UCLA must track down ten co-workers of their mothers or wives of their father’s friends who belonged to chapters of each of the ten sororities at UCLA (it’s not imperative that the women belonged to those houses at UCLA—they could have been Delta Gammas at Boulder, Kappa Kappa Gammas at the University of Arizona, or anything at the University of Illinois, the only school that has all twenty-six sororities) and convince them to write recommendation letters on their behalf. The letters are sent with photographs of the rushee to all the houses before rush even begins.Except in Katie Wintersen’s case. I don’t find out about this letter /photo aspect of rush until I’m in the midst of it—yet another reason I’m scared I’ll be “caught.” I just hope the sisters are too consumed by skits to be preoccupied with paperwork. What the letter of recommendation requirement emphasizes to me, however, is how instrumental families are in the rush process. Not only do the parents financially support their daughters’ desire to be in a house—sororities at UCLA charge membership fees ranging from $1,895 (Kappa Alpha Theta) to $2,237 (Alpha Delta Pi) per member per year on top of the school’s $4,050 in-state, $13,034 out-of-state tuition—but they also serve as their social network. After all, what eighteen-year-old female knows ten potential sponsors without brainstorming with her parents about the sorority credentials of everyone they (the parents) know?That afternoon we have to fill out our forms for pref night. We have to put Is by our top two choices and 2 and 3 by the others. I sit on the sidewalk and deliberate. Robin puts ones by both her choices (her options, have been winnowed again) and leaves.I have four houses to choose from—again, not all of them my top choices. What the scantron’s print-out tells me is that the lightening of my hair, body, personality, and vocabulary was not extensive or enduring enough. I put down Delta Delta Delta and Kappa Delta as my first choices. The former because it really is where Katie Wintersen would join, and the latter because she has nothing in common with anyone there—all my conversations at Kappa Delta have had the naturalness and suavity of a bad blind date—and I find it amusing that they like Katie. The gamble, of course, is that if I don’t get into Tri-Delt, I will end up somewhere I don’t want to be, and I’m haunted by the words of the guy I’ve been seeing: “What are you going to do if you don’t get into a good house?” I can’t imagine the pressure if I were doing this for real.One thing that had always intrigued me about sororities before going through rush wasn’t that a group of smiling happy girls would associate together—take one look and you’ll see that they are always smiling and happy—but rather how those particular smiling, happy girls happened to find each other. Given that they are all happy, why would these young women choose to join, or be chosen to join by, one sorority over another?Rush week teaches me that some of these girls are happier than others and that sororities function as castes in a social system that is not only reminiscent of high school cliquery, but one that seeks to establish and secure a hierarchy. Throughout the week, fellow rushees have told me which houses they’ve heard aren’t “worth it” to join. They’re not talking finances, they’re talking about the relative benefits. Some houses are not “worth” joining because they don’t do much for your social status or dating life. Another big topic among rushees is what fraternity boys think of the various sororities. A few of the rushees have older brothers who are in fraternities, and rushees defer to these girls for the lowdown.I put Kappa Delta as my second choice precisely because it is not high on the social ladder and I’m curious to see how it teaches the sisters who end up there—whose first choice may have been compromised more than that of a rushee who ends up at Kappa Kappa Gamma or Kappa Alpha Theta—to smile the Sorority Spirit Smile.If I really were Katie and I really were planning on joining a sorority at UCLA I would do what is called, in Greek, “committing suicide,” or “suiciding.” Suiciding is when you just pick one house and pray that they pick you back, otherwise you’re not in any house and, as far as the Greek system is concerned, you may as well be dead.
Just before six o’clock Thursday night, three hundred of the remaining rushees show up at one of UCLA’s lecture halls for pref night. Pref night means we will go to parties at two of our remaining houses so that we can make a decision (a “preference”) about which house we want to join, and the houses can decide if they want us to join. All the girls who weren’t asked back to houses were supposed to be called by their Rho Chis during the day so they wouldn’t suffer the humiliation of showing up at pref night all dressed up, with literally no place to go. But one rushee who’s in a wheelchair shows up in a velvet dress with glitter in her hair and the Rho Chis have to break the bad news to her then and there. “I’m so disappointed,” she says, as a Rho Chi wheels her out and back home. Most likely, she would be even more disappointed in the system if she knew the truth: Her Rho Chi later informs me that on the first day she didn’t get asked back to any of the houses, so the Pan-Hellenic office made some of the houses invite her back. They just dragged her hopes and her heart along until the very end.When the rush chair goes up to the podium on the stage at the lecture hall the first thing she does is sigh into the microphone. “You girls all look so beautiful,” she says, staring out at the sea of hundreds. She reminds us that pref night will be one of the most emotional nights of our lives. “A way of helping you decide,” she continues, “is to think carefully about who talked to you about things that are important to you.”Then we convene with our original groups, and I notice that, unsurprisingly, a lot of faces from the pretend picnic are missing. Seeing eighteen-year-old women dressed up is a bit like seeing a five-year-old girl wearing her mother’s blue eye shadow. The rushees’ attempts to look older than they are only highlight their youth. Their heels are high and their dresses simulacrums of those featured in fashion magazines, but most carry dark Jansport backpacks—and some even have teddy-bear backpacks—instead of purses. I’m struck with a strange admiration for these girls, who at such a young age go through so much to find a house away from home.At 6:40 our Rho Chis hand us our schedules for pref night. I have two parties: the first at Delta Delta Delta at 7:00; the next at 8:30 at Kappa Delta. Stopping only to consult their reflections in the windows of parked cars, a stampede of nearly three hundred dressed-up want-to-be sorority girls make their way down Hilgard for the first party. (Those who evidently did not get invited back to their top choices have already absconded the scene, tripping in their high heels as they ran. I consider going after one, a girl whose mother’s in the hospital and whose death-bed wish was that her sickness not prevent her daughter from becoming a Theta, but I recall my failure with Robin and opt to let her be.) Tri-Delt is at the bottom of the hill so I have the opportunity to see other rushees standing outside their houses, waiting to be let in. The girls outside Kappa Kappa Gamma are skinny and, judging from their dresses, look like they love colors, too; the girls outside Kappa Alpha Theta look like the kind of girls who would gladly dress up in whiskers and cat tails.Outside of Delta Delta Delta I meet the other girls who have made it this far. You’d expect us to be sizing each other up like rivals in a beauty pageant given that not all of us will be asked back tomorrow for bid day, when houses invite/don’t invite the finalists to join, but instead everyone’s full of praise for one another’s dress/ hair/composure (“you’re, like, totally not nervous”). After all, everyone’s thinking that we might be in the same pledge class together.At almost seven exactly the dusky glow gives way to darkness. Tri-Delt’s doors open and the sisters stream out, holding candles, singing a sentimental song about sorority sisterhood, as they line up on either side of the stairway.Next come the dozen or so girls who are welcoming rushees. Carrying a white rose, each of these sisters makes her way past all the other sisters with candles and stops on the third from bottom step. Then she says, “My name is [sister’s name here], and I’m especially happy to be welcoming back [rushee’s name here] to Delta Delta Delta.” The rushee walks up to the sister, is handed the rose, and the two of them hug. In Sorority Speak, the sister who invites a rushee back is the rushee’s “silver sister.” (In addition to having their own calendars, all groups have their own jargon.) What this means is that she has “preffed” the rushee. Preffed is short for preferenced, and it means that the sister has made a special effort to ensure the rushee is invited back to the house by telling all the other sisters how great the rushee is.As Kim, lover of all things Scandinavian, descends and stops at the third step, she starts looking around and I try to make eye contact with her, but it’s difficult because she’s not looking in my direction. She announces that she’s “especially happy to be welcoming back …” I take a step forward, but she doesn’t say “Katie Wintersen” and I feel oddly betrayed. What about Strindberg?, I think.When Laura, a senior with curly light brown hair, who I talked to the day before about her junior year abroad, welcomes back Katie Wintersen, I practically skip toward her, get the thornless rose, and give her a hug. I feel elated and popular and wanted. I feel loved. I wonder why I never wanted to be in a sorority before. Like someone who’s just gone on Prozac and starts reflecting on how their life would have been different if they had always been that happy, I think about how my life would have been different had I always been surrounded by so much sisterhood. With her arm around me, Laura leads me inside to a table set with a champagne flute filled with sparkling apple juice. We sit at the table and she continues to flatter me and ask me about my/Katie’s breakup with my/her boyfriend, and says she’s so sorry, that everyone at Tri-Delt is so sorry about this.When Laura’s through, another sorority sister comes and tells me how special I am (I’ve talked with her for five minutes over the course of the week) until it’s time for the ceremony. We move into another room and, guided by our sisters, the other rushees and I form a semicircle around what looks like a big birdbath. Laura stands behind me, rubbing my back with small, clockwise motions. I look around and see that all the silver sisters are rubbing the rushees’ backs, and what’s more, the other rushees are crying.The one hundred or so Tri-Delts who aren’t preffing girls at the party are lined up around the perimeter of the dim room holding candles. The ones who hold high offices in the sorority—i.e., the president, rush chair, social chair, philanthropy chair, etc.—take turns telling us a “legend” about a girl who stood with a pearl under a crescent moon. To make a long legend short, she made a wish and threw the pearl into the pond, and the ripples from that pearl represent the ripples of friendship that lasted her whole life.Laura presses a pearl into the palm of my hand and tells me that when it’s my turn, I’ll go up to the birdbath and put my pearl in, and make a wish. “Don’t be nervous,” she says. “I’ll go with you.” Laura, I notice, has tears in her eyes.So we walk to the birdbath and I throw my pearl in. Of course, everyone assumes your wish is to join Tri-Delt, and this is, in fact, my wish because my heart and Tri-Delt have melded. I concentrate on making the pearl skip like the flat rocks I threw into still lakes as a child. The pearl makes a lot of ripples, and as Laura stares at them, her eyes widen at the sight of what she interprets as an auspicious sign. Then we walk back to the circle, and the other girls throw their pearls in.When the ceremony is over we all walk down the stairs, accompanied by the singing of Tri-Delts. Outside, all the pledges are ecstatic. “It’s like how you feel when you meet a guy,” one bubbly girl from Sacramento exclaims, “except it’s girls!”I go to the next house, Kappa Delta, and the woman who’s preffing me praises Katie to the roomful of sisters and rushees. “Katie is intelligent, and beautiful, and has so much to offer,” she says. I think it’s sad, because Katie really wouldn’t have anything in common with them and it strikes me that a lot of the girls in the room who are being similarly talked up and praise Vendela Vida graduated from Middlebury College and received her MFA at Columbia University. Her work has appeared in Vogue, Jane, and other publications. She lives in Brooklyn. This is her first book.