A Peek Inside the Secret, Sick Rituals of America's Frats
Just in time for the likely confirmation of a frat guy accused of sexual violence to the Supreme Court, a look at the underbelly of the world many powerful men pass through.
All photos by Andrew Moisey
The American Fraternity looks like one of those books you might pick up in your attic that unleashes a series of catastrophic events and ultimately leads to the demise of your entire family. The physical nature of it, as an art object, connotes secrets. Its cover is soft, black, and leather-bound, almost seductive in sheen. Inside, there are black-and-white photos, printed on yellow-tinted pages, most of them modern and even more crude than the ones I'm about to describe: men in formal clothing, hoods over their faces, march somewhere out of the frame; a dude vomits into a trash can; a naked guy walks around in a single ski boot. Some are archaic—a miniature version of George Washington crossing the Delaware; a spread of the many American presidents involved in Greek life; daguerreotypes of young men, the type who graduated Harvard at age 18, when that was a thing. Between all these images is a real fraternity ritual manual, which includes initiations, libations, candle ceremony instructions, and duties of chapter officers.
When I hold the thing, it feels like I shouldn't have it in my hands. It seems—especially in light of a renewed national conversation about sexual violence and other crimes emanating from Greek life in America—like a cursed tome.
It's not, of course. The new book is a decades-long project by Andrew Moisey, now an assistant professor of art history and visual studies at Cornell. During the Bush years, Moisey was an undergraduate at the University of California, Berkeley, where his brother came to study, too. His younger sibling pledged a frat, and Moisey spent much of their overlap—and some of his graduate studies (he also got a PhD there)—photographing its members under the condition he not identify their chapter except via a pseudonym, Psi Rho. He had always intended to collect the pictures into a cohesive whole, even if he wasn't always so sure on the specifics.
"It was something I believed that I should make for posterity," Moisey told me. "It took me a while, however, to know that this book was about the promises one makes and then the life that one leads, next to each other."
It is, fundamentally, a historical document of a powerful—and aggressive—American subculture. In one of the book's afterwords, Nicholas L. Syrett, chair of women, gender, and sexuality studies at the University of Kansas, summarizes the history of fraternities in the United States—how they evolved into these secret, single-sex clubs where men bonded in degrading one another with homoeroticism, where friendships were formed through "secrecy and shame," and where sexual violence was commonplace. (As Syrett writes, "Sociological data about fraternities from the past 20 years demonstrates that fraternity brothers are more likely to perpetrate sexual assault than nonaffiliated men on campus.") Through this survey, he puts Moisey's photography in its proper context. He explains it better than I ever could: Everything—the initiations, the hazings, the ragers—happens "behind closed doors." And Moisey, here, has opened them.
The American Fraternity also arrives at a time when the sordid underbelly of institutions explicitly meant to foster community—the Catholic Church, private schools, the whole US political system—have been exposed, or at least partly so. Moisey had finished the photobook some time before Donald Trump nominated Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. But in light of that saga, it takes on a more charged kind of resonance. I don't think these photos will ever be captured again.
VICE talked to Moisey about America's frats and leaders, their role in society, the pervasiveness of sexual assault at these places, male friendship, hazing, Dionysus, and the Freemasons. This conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Some of the images below may be graphic or disturbing.
VICE: What was the genesis of The American Fraternity? Can you explain the process in creating the photobook, and how long it took to finish?
Andrew Moisey: I was an upperclassman when my brother came to study. He joined a fraternity, and I hung around. I amassed enough pictures of them, and I always wanted to make a book. The project started out as taking photos and trying to capture a piece of American culture. There had never really been any other photobooks about fraternities, and the only things we really had about them were newspaper reports and Hollywood comedies. I thought that it was the perfect subject for a photobook. It remained a cultural document for a while—I never wanted it to be about that particular fraternity, because the important thing to me was the culture of all fraternities. I just so happened to have access to one. So my goal was to create a book that highlighted the differences between fraternity culture and the rest of culture. Eventually, I realized that fraternity culture bleeds into the rest of culture—I realized, in other words, how I should be framing [the book]. Especially because I was making these pictures during the Bush years, and we had this fraternity brother in chief as president. I started to wonder how many American leaders were in fraternities. Like, America's leaders go through this culture, and that's really striking. And then, you know, [years later] I found the ritual manual.
How did you find that?
[My brother's] fraternity had been shut down, after I had been shooting. I have no idea why—I went to graduate school at Berkeley, too, and at some point, I had to write a dissertation. Which meant I had to stop shooting, really. So I did—but then I heard it had been shut down, so I went over there. And sure enough the doors to the fraternity were just, like, open, and there was nobody there, which was super weird. I went in—it was me alone in what felt like the ruins of a culture. I noticed that the door to the chapter room—which I had never been allowed inside before—was open, too. I walked into this secret room that been totally off-limits to me, and on the floor was this ritual manual.
"Every fraternity does have a couple of Brett Kavanaughs..."
Yes, it's crazy. I felt like a weird archaeologist. You see, at Berkeley, if there's a building that's empty, it's a matter of hours before people start squatting in it, and this manual, which seemed like a part of a culture there that didn't exist any longer, was just going to get thrown in the trash. There was only one person to whom it still felt important. And that was me.
If we had something like this for the Roman legions or the Teutonic knights, it would be incredible. In graduate school, you learn to think in broad strokes and terms, and studying art history, I thought about what it was that I had. I had no idea if the book would ever be published or not, but I just thought how valuable it would be, if a scholar or someone like me, hundreds of years from now came across this visual document of what a culture promised itself to be and actually was. Because that also resonated to me a lot with the failings of American culture, in general—to have these high ideals, and then be kind of seen around the world, especially after the Bush years, as failing to live up to them.
Let's talk about the texture of the book—its existence as a physical object. It almost looks evil.
[Laughs] I'm glad you said that, because I explicitly designed it for that reason. There are a lot of intentions I had—you develop a lot after such a long period of time—and one of them was that I wanted to make a photobook that made it feel as if you weren't supposed to be holding it. I mean, like, every other photobook on the planet seems like you're walking into an art gallery.
I wish I had a bit more cogent of a point to make, but it strikes me that I have American Fraternity in my hands at the same time we're talking about Brett Kavanaugh's high school yearbook and calendar from the 1980s, these other weird, contemporaneous artifacts. I don't know—it's as if I stumbled upon it, or I'm seeing something that I never thought I'd ever be seeing.
It looks like the ritual manual—it's the same size, the same cover, the same rounded corners, the same colored paper. It is that ritual manual.
Did you ever suspect this current moment coming, though, even a decade or two earlier? We're talking about a Supreme Court nominee's alleged binge drinking, sexual violence, frat life, and prep school education.
I always thought that these pictures would be great cultural documents. I didn't think that they were going to be used to indict that culture.
Do you think that now? Do you think they will be?
I think that it's being released in a moment that is obviously good for the book, and perhaps unfortunate for the rather innocent men in it. People have to understand: Every fraternity does have a couple of Brett Kavanaughs, but the majority of the people in them—the majority of the people I met, who became close friends—were, and are, very respectable people. There's something awful about a culture that can provide shelter and protection for people like Brett Kavanaugh—and there's no doubt that's what fraternities do. You join them because you want to have some protectiveness for the wildness you want to have. Some people obviously take that way too far—and there are some pictures in my book that go way too far.
If you take a look at our culture, one so microfocused on productivity, and it's totally soulless in its architecture and its spiritual outlook—even our religion is basically just, like, a surveillance machine—I totally understand why men join fraternities. Like, in Ancient Greece, there was the Festival of Dionysus, where people purposefully dropped all social mores (at least all men did) and tried to get as wild as they could be. There were, of course, terrible repercussions to that, but there was, in the very least, a recognition that the social contract was that: It could be ripped up. I'm not so sure we have that anywhere anymore. Look, there are a lot of men naked in my book, and to a lot of readers, they're going to be like, "Hey, check out these buffoons." To people, though, who do have respectable morals, and do also get wild, they are, to me, kind of like heroes of a modern age.
So you're less critiquing frat culture than you are presenting, or preserving, what it is?
I certainly didn't want to preserve it, that's for sure. I thought there were things alarming about it. The book is just one giant question. Which is: Do we want our society to have this in it? Do we want it to look like this? And there are certain aspects of it, especially from the perspective of people who don't have the privilege of being in [frats], the answer is definitely not. There are two consistent reputations. There's the reputation of the Ugly American, and that person is ignorant, above the law, loud, and in charge. That reputation, which we have around the world, is consistent with the reputation fraternity guys have in this country. They're the only two stereotypes that we have in the United States that match up perfectly with the reputation we have around the world. And I think there has to be a reason for that.
There are very clear problems that [frat] culture causes, and I thought that the culture itself causes too many problems in the rest of society not to be even remotely beyond critique. And everyone has known that for the longest time. I don't think, then, that the book makes any new critiques of fraternity culture, but it allows people to see it, which never really gets to be part of the conversation. The book makes you intimate with it, too, so it can actually make you feel more than anything before, I hope, what it would be like to participate in it. And then it also shows this to you, in the broadest terms, the leadership this country has had for so long.
Is there too much drinking? Yes. Is it a dangerous place for women? Yes, it can be. I never thought, though, that a critique was the central part of the project. I don't think photography is the best way of doing a cultural critique—it can sometimes be the best way of delivering the perspective that makes [the critique] stick. The book does try to do something very difficult, which is capture the culture and in ways critique the culture by doing that, without it being about the individual people, necessarily.
Have the old fraternity brothers seen the photos yet?
Well, not the book—but they've been seeing the pictures forever. The press, it wants to see Brett Kavanaugh as a kid, but my subjects aren't Brett Kavanaugh. But, as I said, they are part of a culture that has generally protected people like him.
"This is the last culture that they experience away from their parents before they become adults."
How did you build trust with your subjects, initially?
It was hard. They had to have a meeting to decide if they would, basically, let me stay, and I had to show them pictures and stuff like that. During Bush's presidency, by joining a fraternity, it didn't look as if you were doing anything, like, wrong. You couldn't be criticized for just that. I did a show for these in 2004, and some of the more hardcore images were in that show—and the fraternity showed up at the show, and some did keg stands. Fraternity culture, again and rightfully so, is being more scrutinized than it's ever been, and I think that's totally justified. I don't think anyone would have agreed to the level of access I had today, in this climate.
There's another question, too, of how self-aware the fraternity members are about what they're doing, and how influential this culture is over them. And that can vary from person to person, but I include, as if it were piece of homework folded into the book, this essay by one of the fraternity guys written for an anthropology class about the fraternity and graded by a TA. Everyone should read this thing. It's a kid trying to step out of his life and literally be an anthropologist. You can see how much effort he put into it, and also just how totally revealing—like any critique you want to have of the Brett Kavanaugh mentality is embodied in this piece. You see how much more power the fraternity has in shaping the values of the men in it than the university itself does. It's four years of a secret boys' club, and then you get unleashed into the real world.
You mention that so many American leaders were members of fraternities. How pervasive is this? How many US presidents, say, were part of one?
It really depends how you count them. There's one count that goes to 18—that's more than I list in my book. The presidents are just one thing, though. It's the Supreme Court justices, the congressmen, the college presidents, the bishops of the Church—people who are at, like, every level of every corporation. This is the last culture that they experience away from their parents before they become adults.
Has this sort of unrestrained behavior always existed? Was Thomas Jefferson doing keg stands?
There are some historical photographs in the book, too, and like you can see, there's one initiation from, like, 1899—you would never be able to tell it was 120 years ago. It's interesting: One of the surprising arguments that was made against women going to college, who state schools and some private schools started to admit in the 1880s, was not that they didn't want women to go to college, though some people certainly argued that. Rather, it was that they should go to their own colleges, because we don't want them around the fraternities. I wouldn't be surprised if Thomas Jefferson was doing keg stands in the Flat Hat Society. It's hard to imagine a secret society of men where excessive drinking is not taking place.
The whole history [of fraternities] is very fascinating, after all. There was a Freemasons scare in the United States in the 1820s and 30s—basically that the Freemasons were running everything. So Free Mason membership totally dropped. What's strange is that college fraternities end up filling that vacuum, using very similar rituals.
Right now, as I'm talking to you, I'm probably 300 yards from the first fraternity hazing death in America. It literally happened around the corner from my house [in Ithaca, New York, near Cornell], in 1873. I had so much I wish I could have fit into this photobook, but because of the constraints I put on myself—the concept of it being a book that almost belonged to the fraternity itself—that I couldn't have too much outside material. Otherwise, it would have broken the spell.
Learn more about Andrew Moisey's book, The American Fraternity: An Illustrated Ritual Manual, here.
Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of VICE delivered to your inbox daily.
Follow Alex Norcia on Twitter.