For today’s post, we present an excerpt from Jon Atack’s book, Opening Minds: the Secret World of Manipulation, Undue Influence and Brainwashing.

Initiation is found in many groups, often as a series of steps, levels or grades. The Freemasons and Rosicrucians climb a ladder of degrees. However, it is often the first initiation into a group that is most significant. It indicates the adoption of a new identity. So, religious novices accept a new name to become a new person. This will also be found during gang initiations where the old pre-gang self is rejected.

Masonic groups have an equivalent in the fraternal societies of colleges in the US. For most students college is the transition from family into society. Fraternities and sororities are a hugely powerful force. These groups usually adopt Greek letters for their names – like Phi Delta Kappa – so it is called ‘Greek life’.

Membership of a sorority or fraternity is often a lifetime commitment. All of the alumni of a given fraternity or sorority will help one another in a brotherly or sisterly way. Like the Freemasons these groups are ‘old-boy’ or ‘old girl’ networks, which raises questions about preferential treatment based upon acquaintance rather than merit.

Membership is certainly significant: 75% of US Congressmen and 40% of Congresswomen belong to fraternal societies – most famously Yale University’s Skull and Bones. This dwarfs the amount of such network members in the general society.

Fraternities and sororities are notorious for the use of ‘hazing’. Students have been severely hurt and even killed during these antics. The BBC documentary Frat Boys included both a young woman who had been raped at a fraternity party and a young man – Terrence Bennett – who had been branded – with a red hot branding iron – and almost died.[i] Bennett claims that he was beaten with boat paddles and urinated on before members of Tau Kappa Epsilon branded him.[ii]

Beatings and humiliation are commonplace, along with the consumption of dangerous amounts of alcohol.

During ‘Hell Week’ at Harrison Kowiak, killed in a hazing incident, Harrison Kowiak, an athletic 19 year old, was blindfolded and urged to run across a field in the middle of the night, while frat members football-tackled him and other prospects, as they searched for ‘sacred rocks’. Kowiak suffered fatal brain damage during this ordeal, and his parents are suing the young men who were involved in his death.[iii] At least 22 students have died in the last eight years in similar incidents.

The American Association of Universities has published a study showing that one in four young women report unwanted sexual contact at college, while one in eight reports a serious sexual offence. It is estimated that frat boys are three times more likely to commit such offences than their peers in normal society. As one example, in 2015, Syracuse University suspended or expelled 16 students for sexual misconduct.

Hazing can be seen as simply youthful hijinks – but there are transformative potentials in the extreme behaviour. As one frat boy put it, the intention is to ‘break these guys down – find out what we can do to build them up into better men.’ These words are a sinister echo the thought reform ideas of communist China. The question is whether hard-drinking promiscuity and social advantage through connections does actually make ‘better men’. There are far better ways of inculcating team spirit.

While fraternal societies own $3 billion worth of campus housing, and their alumni contribute 75% of the donations to private universities, it will be difficult to change this culture of thought reform, but 44 states have now criminalised hazing, and there are many cases in the US courts against fraternal societies and their members.

What do you think about this article? Do you agree? Have you read Opening Minds? Do you have a story about [subject] that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you! 


[i] Frat Boys, BBC This Week, 2016.