Letter from Trumpland: An auditorium of tears for an all-American death

Letter from Trumpland: An auditorium of tears for an all-American death

Hazing is an initiation ritual that takes the life of at least one US college student a year, with hundreds more injuries. Tim Piazza, a 19-year-old “All American boy”, was killed in a Beta Theta Pi hazing ritual a few months ago on the campus of Pennsylvania State University. By GLEN RETIEF.

Anti-hazing week in rural, central Pennsylvania, and in my decade of teaching at Susquehanna University I have never seen this 200-seat Faylor Auditorium so densely packed.

Young women and men in Greek letter T-shirts fill foam-cushion seats and mill around the doors and at the back. Out of 2,200 or so students, around 400 are involved in Greek Life, and most are here this evening.

Tonight’s speakers are Jim and Evelyn Piazza, parents, and Caitlyn Tempowski, girlfriend, of Tim Piazza, a 19-year-old boy killed in a Beta Theta Pi hazing ritual a few months ago on the campus of Pennsylvania State University, 90 minutes to our west.

Hazing, illegal in most US states, takes the life of at least one US college student a year, with hundreds more injuries. Around 55% of fraternity, sorority, and sports team members report having been hazed.

Piazza’s case made national headlines because he was made to drink the equivalent of eight beers in 12 minutes, fell down a stairway, and then was left on a couch for 12 hours with a ruptured spleen and subdermal hematomas. Twelve of his fraternity brothers remain charged with reckless endangerment, furnishing alcohol to minors, and hazing.

Initiation rituals are not, of course, unique to US fraternities and sororities. Ever since ancient Norse warriors went “be(a)rserk”, killing bears as introductions into manhood, male institutions in particular have often been associated with dangerous rites of passage.

One of the worst hazing systems in the world exists today among Russian conscripts. There, dedovshchina – brutal, vodka-fuelled beatings and humiliations – have been responsible, according to the BBC, for several hundred suicides a year.

In South Africa, skivvying and beatings in whites-only boarding schools provided the focus for my own 2011 memoir, The Jack Bank. Today’s statistics of admissions to hospitals for Xhosa and Sotho circumcision schools make the deaths and injuries associated with US college hazing look like a picnic.

Yet there is a real sense in which this kind of catastrophe simply isn’t meant to befall someone like Tim Piazza, a member of one of the luckiest and wealthiest demographic groups on the planet. A ginger-haired son of two accountants, from suburban New Jersey, Tim Piazza is meant to play football and take his girlfriend to the movies. He is supposed to fulfil his dream of becoming a mechanical engineer.

Caitlyn, Tim’s girlfriend, petite and attractive in a white dress, speaks first.

Tim was such an all-American boy,” she says. “Seeing him barely recognisable that morning, hooked up to so many different machines, and cold to the touch, are memories I will never get out of my head.”

Our auditorium of students was quiet to begin with, but now the silence has become hushed and respectful. Caitlyn Tempowski is no ambassador from the global disenfranchised. Like her audience, she is well-dressed, well-spoken. She probably shops at J Crew and gets her hair done in a well-lit mall.

Jim Piazza, balding, in a turquoise-striped polo shirt, khaki slacks, and leather loafers, looks like he just walked off a New Jersey golf course. Evelyn, a slender and attractive woman with long, wavy, strawberry blonde hair just a few shades less red than her sons, is wearing as many as a dozen bangles on each arm, many of them the rubber kind worn to protest bullying or brutality.

Jim’s presentation, with PowerPoint slides, focuses mostly on the facts of hazing. Any imposition of strenuous or humiliating tasks or games for membership in a group or team is illegal.

I bet some of you have been exposed to hazing, and some of you may have done it,” he says now. Is he right? I look around at sombre faces, some tears and sniffles, tissues, handkerchiefs, from Caitlyn’s remarks.

My own students talk about Greek Life as a deeply meaningful experience, but when I ask about initiation rituals, they clam up. Later this week, I’ll ask Brian Rivas, Susquehanna’s Greek Life co-ordinator, about hazing at our school.

It never happens at Susquehanna,” he’ll say.

According to the Piazzas, they attended a 2014 information session at Penn State where university officials told them the same thing. This raises the question of how much professors and staff members are ever able to know about what happens among the students. In my old boarding school, being a snitch was infinitely worse than being a bully or a thief.

Susan Lantz, Vice President for Student Life at Susquehanna University, notes, “Our education programmes, policies and procedures are created in a way to stop hazing from happening on our campus. If we hear of any potential hazing on campus, we respond immediately.”

Now, at last, in the auditorium, it’s Evelyn’s turn. She tells her story in the second person: “You see your son’s bruises and wounds, all over his body.”

She talks for 15 minutes like this, opening a vein of agony and rage, seldom making eye contact with us – she keeps her eyes glued on her computer monitor, which replicates the PowerPoint projection showing Tim in a suit hugging Caitlyn, presumably at his prom; Tim with his family at a baseball game; Tim at a family holiday dinner.

Yet if Jim Piazza still showed some faith in American institutions, assuring us he is not anti-Greek life, just anti-hazing, Evelyn’s whole world view seems shattered by her experience.

I have turned away from my church now,” she says, “because I’m mad at God.” How could she not also be angry at Penn State University? In a sense the very fabric of US middle-class life, represented by the leafy, red-brick surroundings of both that campus and my own, has let her down.

Our son died on your watch because of ignorance and denial at Penn State,” Jim and Evelyn Piazza wrote in a May letter to the Board of Trustees.

Even more disconcertingly: is it uncharitable to see Tim’s death as directly connected to privilege? Was it coincidence that the lone Theta Pi brother who tried to talk the group into calling 911 happened to be the black son of a 16-year-old single mother who abandoned him to the foster system?

If you grow up with certain safety nets – a superpower military; parental business and legal connections – does that to some extent blind you to fragility?

But now something extraordinary happens. As Evelyn gets to the climax of her story – seeing the chaplain arrive and hearing herself think, “Why on earth are they sending someone to perform last rites?” – now at least half of the auditorium are openly crying.

Boys and girls alike gasp into T-shirts and handkerchiefs. First-years and seniors all shake and sigh, overcome with feeling.

I have attended perhaps 300 public events as a university professor, including talks about famine, police brutality, and rape. Never have I seen a group of students remotely so affected by oral narrative. It is as if we have all lost a son, brother, or boyfriend. As if something about this story has touched the very core of our human mortality and vulnerability.

After the talk I ask a favourite student of mine for a comment. She’s horrified, of course, but she declines to comment, even in her individual capacity, fearing repercussions from her national sorority executive. (In an email, Meghan Parker, the executive director of Zeta Tau Alpha, stated, “We wholeheartedly encourage all our members to exercise their First Amendment rights.”).

Likewise, when I ask Jim and Evelyn how Tim’s brother, Mike, feels about what has happened, they tell me he is reluctant to speak out because of his own position in Greek life.

How long will fraternities and sororities remain a part of the US higher education landscape? A half dozen leading small liberal arts colleges have banned them; Harvard has barred members of single-sex student groups from holding leadership positions. According to an NBC news story, few of these schools express regret.

Eleven days after the Piazza talk, Stephen Paddock opened fire on a crowd in Las Vegas. This was, sadly, another familiar ritual from American life.

Penn State brothers smuggled their $1,200 stash of hazing liquor into their fraternity house. Paddock ferried 23 guns into his hotel room in 10 ordinary suitcases.

If Piazza’s death occurred on the watch of the Penn State Board, then the deaths and injuries in Nevada arguably occurred on the watch of a national Board of Trustees, Congress, who might well be accused of ignorance and denial in their unwillingness to pass gun control.

You need to break the patterns,” Jim Piazza told his auditorium. Sadly, as the news loops played on our campus cafeteria television screens, his words seemed to touch on a deeper undercurrent of American violence than the one that felled his son, and to apply to far more than the act of hazing itself. DM

Glen Retief’s The Jack Bank: A Memoir of a South African Childhood, won a Lamda Literary Award. He teaches creative nonfiction at Susquehanna University.

Photo: Thomas Picauly/(Unsplash).


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