It was August of 1990. I had just moved into a sorority house at the University of Florida, where I was living with 50 other women. When I try to picture the moment, I see myself sitting at one of the long, polished wood tables in the dining room, mowing through my daily salad smothered in ranch dressing and crunchy Chinese noodles, hearing the news as it passed by in urgent whispers.
It would be an exaggeration to say that we were prepared for the arrival of Danny Rolling, a.k.a. the Gainesville Ripper. But in a way, we were: Our house was built to keep creeps like him out.
The doors could be dead bolted. Men had to leave before 10 p.m. The whole structure was a bit like a minimum security prison, designed to keep us in and psycho killers out. That made all the more sense after it was explained to me that our house was remodeled in the early ‘80s, after a serial killer named Ted Bundy snuck into Chi Omega on the Florida State campus and assaulted four women, killing two. Despite what must have been a noisy attack, no one woke up.
For that reason, our sleeping quarters were not designed for secrets or privacy: Small and windowless, the rooms featured bunk beds where up to ten girls slept alongside one another. (One thing that I learned in those days was that there is nothing that tests sisterly bonds like listening to ten women slap the snooze button — repeatedly — starting at 6 a.m.)
It didn't take long for news on my campus to spread. Classes were officially canceled, and any "sister" who didn't leave town was invited to hunker down in our TV room with her sleeping bag, where we munched popcorn and watched movies, secure in the safety of our numbers.
Living in confinement with dozens of women in a sorority house taught me a lot. I remember it as a version of Orange is the New Black — if all of the inmates looked like Piper, were straight, and wore linen sundresses, that is. We recycled the same colds. We were rarely, if ever, alone. We ate all of our meals together. We went to parties together. We hung out and watched One Life to Live between classes and work and whatever else we were doing. All day, sisters who lived in apartments or dorms would come to hang out. I didn’t get much studying done.
For the most part, I loved it — being a part of a community, knowing that no one would dismiss me for a leadership role because I was female in a place that was removed from the smug maleness of the world at that time. In addition to one infamous killer, the campus was crawling with face-painting football fans, arrogant frat boys, and indie rock guys who would dismiss anyone (but especially sorority girls) who didn’t memorize the trivia surrounding their favorite bands as posers.
The sorority house was also the rare place where most men squirmed with discomfort. Fathers, brothers, friends, and boyfriends shifted anxiously on the rattan love seat if you made them wait for you in the foyer as the parade of women walked by — sometimes snickering, always relishing how pained these menfolk appeared.
People who know me now are surprised to learn that I held hands and sang songs with teary sincerity, and wore thick Champion sweatshirts with angular Greek letters stitched to the front. My sorority life isn’t something that I advertise. But it was a secret that needed to be shared, considering that I have written a book built around that experience: My fictionalized account of that era is centered on a young woman who is rebelling against a suffocating social circle, craving a more authentic life, when she is suddenly faced with an event so shocking that she longs for the time when feeling out of place was her biggest concern. The Drifter is also a novel about a woman who learns to trust and value her own voice and ideas. As her life crumbles around her, she discovers — like I did — that she is a feminist.
Women-only “fraternities” were founded, beginning the late 19th century, with many noble principles in mind, like philanthropy, leadership and scholarship. Over the years, as women gained access to what were previously male-only or male-dominated environments, the purpose of a sorority was less clear. In the radical ‘60s and ‘70s, few progressive women considered joining such elitist social clubs. By the time I went through what’s now called recruitment, it was very late in the Reagan '80s, when nostalgia for the wholesome ‘50s was at its peak, and people loved tradition, tan lines, and strong drinks.
The old and the new collided. First, the process of selecting new members was heartbreaking and shallow. Good grades were required, but looks prevailed. Judging by the well-viewed “bid day” videos sororities post on YouTube, that hasn’t changed. The sorority code of conduct — an etiquette guide that could have been written by Amy Vanderbilt on an amphetamine binge — was a relic. The first time I read it, a red warning light flashed in my brain, alerting me this is what the pre-feminist world looked like.
"As a ship sails out to sea, I dip my soup away from me" is one memorable line. We couldn’t serve alcohol at any functions. Fraternities provided booze, at their houses, giving them control over the event — and setting up a minefield of potentially horrible outcomes, ranging from date rape to long walks of shame in the light of dawn. I hope that things are different now.
Eventually, my rebellion won out over my desire to be poised. I moved out and stopped showing up altogether. But the friends I made, the real ones, didn’t care. I learned that the safety that occurs in numbers is physical, not emotional. I learned that you can’t have 120 best friends. And I have realized that I don’t talk about that time of my life much because my feelings about it are too complex to convey. I made it out alive. It’s part of what made me who I am. But if you want more gory details, you’ll have read about them for yourself.
Christine Lennon is a journalist and the author of the novel The Drifter, out now.