Reading the news, you might think that every college student in America spends their nights protesting foreign wars, obsessing over arcane linguistic designations, and working on unionization drives. While there are students doing these things and those activities can be worthwhile endeavors, from my experience as someone who lives in a college town, college students are doing what college students have always done: a lot of partying.
A major driver of all that partying, inevitably, is still the Greek system. But the world of sororities and, especially, fraternities has changed over the years: The parties have gotten wilder, the drugs have gotten stronger, and — as a new book out this week makes clear — the money and stakes have grown to nearly out-of-control proportions. As college has become more and more of a capitalist enterprise, the parties have roided up: from Animal House to The Wolf of Wall Street.
In Among the Bros, author Max Marshall — an investigative journalist for Texas Monthly, among other publications — spent several years tracking the story of a drug ring among the Kappa Alpha fraternity at the College of Charleston that would lead to felony convictions, millions of dollars of seized contraband, a homicide, and the deaths of multiple students. Marshall — a former frat “bro” himself, albeit a Delta Sig who went to Columbia — chronicles not just the details of the case (which spans to include colleges all across the country, Connecticut hedge funds, and Waka Flocka Flame) but the culture of fraternities in the macro. What he uncovered is guaranteed to terrify anyone within a decade of sending one of their children away to college. The story is Kids for the Greek system. Except the youths chronicled within aren’t destined to become New York City skater punks, they’re more likely to become your estate lawyer … or senator.
I spoke with Marshall about frat culture, whether or not it has changed in the age of Me Too, and whether he has empathy for the bros he wrote about.
Among the Bros is a reminder that for all the focus on college activism and other newsworthy issues at universities, the majority of what’s really happening on college campuses across the country is the same as it has always been: partying.
As much as I do care about the discourse about college protests or the death of humanities, these are very elite discourses that revolve around a very few campuses. For a lot of people, college is about tailgates and day parties, about finding your crew and finding your college bar. And for a lot of people, that revolves around Greek life. The American college is about a party. That’s what so many people are there to do. I showed up to college at a school, Columbia, that is not a party school at all. And as soon as I got there, everyone still looked around like, “Okay where is the party?” Because that’s what was promised. And I think that’s what so many students are still chasing and will continue to chase.
Is that culture different now?
Yes. Not just fraternities. Drug culture in colleges in general has changed. The dark web made it much easier to deal drugs at scale. It used to be if you wanted to be a college drug dealer, you had to connect to a cartel or a gang supply chain, and that’s a scary thing for a lot of college kids. Being able to get Xanax, or Xanax knockoffs, at scale is a game changer. In general, Xanax as a party drug is very different than weed. The damage that can be done, and now what you’re seeing is people aren’t even buying it on the dark web. They’ll buy Xanax on Snapchat and it might come cut with fentanyl. I think the worst-case scenarios are worse than they used to be. I think the drug culture has the chance to get more out of hand.
You should know that I am a GDI, which is fratspeak for a “God Damn Independent” — someone who never joined a fraternity. So much of this was mind-blowing to me. It’s such an enclosed culture. All the social changes of the last half-decade or so, and it feels like most of them haven’t even touched the Greek system.
It’s not even just that. There is a sense among a lot of them that going to these parties will do more for their careers than any class, any business-school class or otherwise, could do for them. And you don’t only see this in fraternities. If you look at elite business schools, my friends who go to Harvard Business School, they go out five nights a week and they go on these party trips every weekend and they spend as much money socially as they do on their student loans. There’s a shared sense of “This is worth it, this is how I’m meeting my cohorts, this is how I’m going to get my job.” I think fraternities are just another example of that. I think a lot of students are aware that this is where the action is in terms of oil, gas, real estate, banking, all sorts of things. You can also see it in an eating club at Princeton or a club at Harvard. It’s where the elites gather. That’s where the craziest party often is.
According to your book, the kids in this world are absolutely obsessed with The Wolf of Wall Street. I found that fascinating for a variety of reasons, particularly because I wondered if this book had a little bit of Scorsese’s issue with that movie, which was that while he clearly wasn’t endorsing the characters’ behavior, there were so many people who found that movie aspirational — including the characters in this book. Is there a fear that in describing this behavior in detail, you make people, you know, want to be a part of this frat culture?
It does make me think of that Truffaut quote: “There’s no such thing as an antiwar movie.” No matter how you portray a war, how much trauma and violence and blood you show, even war crimes, it will make some people want to go fight in wars. The guys in this book, they made shirts calling themselves the Wolves of King Street, which is the Bourbon Street of Charleston. That movie came up again and again as “This is how we want to live.” I hope by the end of the book — when you have death, mass arrests, addiction, pretty total fallout — I think you would really have to have your blinders on by the end of the book to be like, “Oh, this is a how-to guide.” I didn’t want to hold the readers’ hand and say here’s the moral of the story or here’s how you should think. But I do think narratively, the way the arc goes, I think for a perceptive reader, the story speaks for itself.
One clear through-line of the partying in this book is that so much of it has to do with anxiety. Xanax is the drug everybody wants the most. Several kids even talk about not caring as much about having a good time as they care about feeling less awkward and anxious — about simply making it through the day. It’s like they feel pressured to feel like he-men.
There is a crippling amount of anxiety. The reason Xanax is pitched as such a great party drug is it helps you black out faster. Whenever I tell people in my parents’ generation, they’re like, “Well, we took cocaine for fun, why is blacking out fun?” For a lot of the kids I talked to, it was all anxiety: So much of my life is mediated. I’m comfortable. When I’m on my phone, I have so much control of perception management. But then you walk into this party, there are all these super-rich kids from Greenwich and Westchester, and kids from these old, southern families. Everyone is ranking each other. You know you’re in the fourth-best fraternity and you’re talking to someone from the second-best sorority. And that ranking pyramid is going through your head. Xanax is an opt-out pill. You take it and all of those worries go away. And then, of course, because it’s designed for panic attacks and not for generalized anxiety, you wake up the next morning with even worse anxiety — and then starts the cycle. I think anxiety was coursing through the whole book.
The title of the book has Bros in it, and there’s a lot of bro-y behavior, but it certainly doesn’t seem like the age of the “bro” right now, to say the least. Has the age of the bro passed? Or am I just saying that because I write for New York?
The historiography of the bro is pretty fascinating. From 2000 to, say, 2016, we were in the golden age of bro movies, where everyone seemed to love bros, and whether it was Old School or Hangover, any movie that involved Jack Black and Ben Stiller and that sort of crew, they called the Frat Pack. There was a transition going on in the 2000s where bros were going from kings, big men on campus, to jesters. There were Ryan Lochte memes, all of that stuff.
Then there was a real cultural shift right around Trump and Weinstein when “bro” became an insult. It went from the funny guy at the party pouring a Solo cup on his head to them as examples of toxic masculinity, patriarchal structure. It entered identity discourse in a different way. I think the bro went from a king to a jester to a villain. So you saw bros learning to play the heel, play the villain, be the “deplorable.” And then the word became an insult. Tech bro, Bernie bro. I think the title works because it was written around the age of 2016 and after, the last time the word “bro” meant something. Now I think it gets thrown around in so many different ways. I certainly don’t know what it means.
One of the most terrifying aspects of this book is not only that most of the kids you chronicle are never going to suffer any consequences for their actions, but that basically every aspect of their lives is already set up for them. It’s like they can’t fail.
I was talking to this guy about the concept of “sidecar”ing drugs — how you combine several drugs at once. He was talking about waking up hung-over, drinking a shower beer, doing a few lines of coke, Xanax to even out the coke, smoking all day, and then cycling through that cycle for the rest of the day. And he ended with Xanax punch being a roofie that you want to be a part of. Like you would “QB sneak” a quarter-bar of Xanax into your friend’s beer and then both of you black out. At the end of the interview, he brought out this leather folder and he pitched me on both being my financial adviser and doing my life insurance. And the weird thing is, it was an incredible pitch. To him, it’s the most natural thing in the world, that sort of segue from that whatever-insane party basement to the boardroom on top. I don’t know if it makes me feel better or worse about the world because I think it’s how it’s always been. You read Plato’s Symposium and it’s like the guys who rule Athens and they’re all getting blackout drunk together and fighting over who gets to sleep with who. In some ways, it’s always been that way.
A lot of people are going to read this book and not have a lot of empathy for what happens to the rich, pampered white kids in it. Do you?
I certainly don’t see them as heroes. I might reject that the book was written as a moralistic, cautionary tale. But it’s certainly not a celebration. I’m not being, like, These guys are awesome. That’s not where my head was at all. I think it’s a sad story. Underneath the frothy excess, there is a lot of pain. Whether you want to empathize with that pain or not, that’s not really up to me, and I’m really okay either way. I think if you just want to read this book as a study of structures of power and how they work, you’re welcome to it. I think that reading is fair and open to that, and I think it also exposes a lot of things. I also think there’s a lot else you can take from this book that has nothing to do with any of that.