book reviews, true crime

A review of Click Click Click: From the Say My Name Series, by Karen DeVanie and Anne Varner…

A couple of days ago, an old college friend of mine sent me a private message on Facebook. Initially, I was a little concerned, because the message began with the words “Click Click Click,” and an unfamiliar link. I was afraid she’d been hacked. It turned out my friend had sent a link to Amazon.com, where a book titled Click Click Click: From the Say My Name Series was for sale.

This book, written by sisters Anne Varner and Karen DeVanie of the Sugar Coated Murder podcast, is a “true crime” account of a notorious murder that happened in my friend’s hometown in February 1990. I have written about this murder a couple of times in this blog. My old friend wanted my opinion of the book. She wrote that she found the writing “amateurish”. She hoped I could offer an unbiased opinion, since I’m not from her hometown and don’t know the people involved.

I already had big plans to start reading Prince Harry’s book, Spare. However, I’ve noticed that a lot of people have been hitting my two links about the murder of seventeen year old Raymond Trent Whitley, perpetrated by Whitley’s classmates, Frederick “West” Greene and Michael Jervey. Click Click Click, only consists of 133 pages and promised to be a fast read. I told my friend, who had also been a high school classmate of Trent’s, Mike’s, and West’s in tiny Franklin, Virginia, that I would read the book and write a review. True to my word, I’m now working on the review, as the book was a very quick and easy read. I’m sad to say, my friend was right about the writing.

First thing’s first…

I am not from Franklin, Virginia. Although I am from Virginia, I have never so much as visited Franklin. I don’t have a connection to the city or this case, other than knowing my friend, and meeting West Greene once, when my friend brought him to visit our alma mater, Longwood College (now Longwood University). At the time, West was a cadet at Virginia Military Institute, the military college my father, uncle, and several cousins attended. The fact that he went to VMI is probably the main reason I remembered West Greene. I remember my friend really liked West. Indeed, he’d seemed like a nice enough person when I briefly met him that one time.

It later came out that West, and his friend, Mike Jervey, had murdered their classmate, Trent Whitley, over an insult. My old friend was devastated when she heard about it. I remember her on the verge of tears, saying over and over again, “How could he do that?” She was absolutely gutted.

In 2013, I randomly decided to write a blog post called “Crime blasts from the past“. It was a post about several cases from my youth that I recalled. I remembered West Greene and wrote about him, never dreaming that my old friend would find the post and comment. Then, we hooked up on Facebook, and she told me more about how this case had affected her hometown, a place where “everyone knows everyone else’s business.”

Now, Jervey and Greene are out of prison, which has rattled many people from Franklin.. That’s probably why I keep getting hits on my blog posts about this case. Obviously, there was interest in a book to be written about Trent Whitley’s murder so long ago. Enter Anne Varner and Karen DeVanie, two sisters who happen to originally come from Franklin, Virginia and run a true crime podcast that marries murder with their love of baking sweets.

What happened?

According to Click Click Click, back in 1988, 16 year old Michael Jervey was in a bad way. His father had not been well, and in spite of visits to doctors, the cause of illness was elusive. Mr. Jervey finally went to Duke University Medical Center in Durham, North Carolina, where he received a cancer diagnosis. Mike’s father spent a few weeks hospitalized. He never made it out again. Mike blamed his mother for not telling him about his dad’s illness. Her reticence caused Mike to lose precious time with his dad before he died. The young man was angry and reclusive, until he paired up with West Greene, a popular classmate whose father had been a prison warden.

West Greene and Mike Jervey reportedly became obsessed with the idea of killing someone. Based on Click Click Click, the two had an unwritten “list” of people who had crossed them and could be candidates for killing. They would strike names from the list if a person unlucky enough to be on it sincerely apologized. If they didn’t, they were “fair game” for murder. Say someone made a joke at the boys’ expense, or somehow embarrassed them in another way. They might end up on the list. But if they somehow made amends, they would be safe… at least until the next perceived slight.

Supposedly, no one else was any the wiser that these two guys were planning violence, but my friend tells me that actually, there were a few people who knew about the plot. Evidently, no one chose to do anything about it, or take the warning signs seriously. Then, on February 23, 1990, Jervey and Greene lured Whitley to a construction area and shot him in the head.

Varner and DeVanie include graphic details about Whitley’s brain matter splattered all over Jervey’s pants, and the blood stains in the trunk of his car. They had wrapped Trent Whitley in a stolen tarp and used the car, a gift from Jervey’s mother, to take Whitley’s body to Jervey’s family’s farm. That was where Greene and Jervey buried him in a shallow grave. For two years, no one knew what had happened to Trent Whitley. It wasn’t until Jervey had an attack of conscience and confessed, that the authorities finally found his body. Then, Trent finally got a proper burial.

My thoughts on the book…

I think Click Click Click could have been a much better book than it is. It appears that Mike Jervey contacted the sisters after they did a podcast about “his case”. More than once, they write about the email. Below is a screenshot.

Yikes!

Apple describes the sisters’ podcast as “comedy”, and it gets very good ratings. At this writing, Sugar Coated Murder scores a 4.9 rating out of 5 stars. Personally, I have a hard time with the idea that murders can be considered comical, but I will admit I haven’t listened to their podcast. I got the sense that Varner and DeVanie tried to frame their book the way they do their podcast. I don’t follow Sugar Coated Murder, so I was confused.

The book starts in a dramatic way, as if it were more of a novel than a true crime book. Honestly, at first, I felt like I was reading the script for a very watered down Lifetime movie version of a true crime case. I have nothing against using an evocative style in a true crime book, but it wasn’t immediately clear to me who these women are, and what their connection to Franklin is.

The sisters mention their “momma”, and the locals in Franklin, writing in the first person plural, as if they’re part of the story… which they kind of are, since they’re from Franklin. They write about their “daddy’s” pharmacy, the paper mill, the community college, other crimes from the past, and how Franklin is a little town where everyone knows each other. Those details aren’t totally useless, but the sisters initially failed to connect them to the crime story.

Because I am not familiar with the sisters’ podcast, I was confused about why “they” were in the story, initially writing as if they were directly involved. Especially since they wrote that they’d left Franklin by the time this crime occurred. I was expecting a book only about the crime, not the authors’ personal connections to Franklin. Now I think they were simply explaining that they’re from the tiny community, and what life is like there.

As the book continued, it became more obviously about Mike Jervey, and it seemed to be mostly from his perspective. Mike Jervey’s perspective is valuable, of course, but it’s just one perspective. My friend assures me that Trent Whitley was no angel, but he certainly didn’t deserve to be murdered. Other than a somewhat sympathetic description of Whitley’s yearbook photo and graduation cap and gown, I didn’t get a sense that the sisters gave his perspective much thought. Trent Whitley was the victim, but the book really seemed to more about Mike Jervey. I didn’t understand why I, as a reader, should have sympathy for Mike, other than the fact that he lost his father at a young age.

Other issues…

Although the book credits Michelle Morrow as the editor of Click Click Click, I spotted a number of proofreading errors. Below is a screenshot of one that immediately comes to mind.

Do you see what I see? This bit was about an unrelated crime, as someone tried to steal the STEEL cash register in the authors’ father’s pharmacy. Not sure what it really had to do with Trent Whitley’s murder.

Later, they refer to the South as “the south”. The South is a specific region, making it a proper noun. Proper nouns are typically capitalized. But then they refer to a “Southern” county, capitalizing the adjective, when it should have been styled lower case. There are numerous little glitches like this, even though this book supposedly had an editor.

The authors also refer to Frederick West Greene as “Fred”, rather than “West”. I happen to know that “West” was the name he went by in school. I don’t know if there was a specific reason for using the different name, but based on the Amazon reviews, I wasn’t the only one who noticed.

But… I did learn some new things about this case…

First off, Trent Whitley was born June 19, 1972, which is the day before I was born. He was born in Franklin, which is a mere hour’s drive from my birthplace. Like me, he was a Gemini, a fact the sisters mention.

Secondly, I liked that the sisters wrote about the University of Tennessee Anthropological Research Facility, popularly known as The Body Farm, a term coined by crime fiction novelist, Patricia Cornwell. After Jervey confessed to the crime, he told investigators where to find Trent Whitley’s body. They weren’t able to find it based only on Jervey’s description. They contacted an expert at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, who told them to consult a botanist– a person who is an expert on plants. The investigators contacted a botany professor at the local community college, who spotted differences in the vegetation on Jervey’s family’s farm. With the professor’s help, investigators found Trent Whitley’s body, and his family was able to properly and respectfully lay him to rest. I wish the sisters had commented more about that process.

And finally, Discovery Plus contacted the sisters about presenting this case on television. They were excited about the prospect of going on TV, but the deal never came to fruition. After reading this oddly titled book, I think I can understand why the show never happened.

Again… maybe I should listen to their podcast. Their storytelling abilities might come across better in that medium than it does in this book.

Anyway…

Based on the number of people who continually hit my blog posts about this case, I have a feeling that Karen DeVanie and Anne Varner will sell a lot of books. Obviously, Trent Whitley’s murder is still interesting to many people. I probably would not have read this book if not for my old friend’s request for my opinions. However, I can see that people who are from Franklin, especially, want to know more about this trio of young men whose lives were tragically and irrevocably altered (or ended) by a violent, gruesome true crime.

I do think this book could be much better than it is. It really needs better editing. I also think the sisters should have collected many more facts about the case and presented more of them, rather than endless minutiae about life in Franklin. “Comedy podcasts” about murders, combined with baking sweets, seems like a bizarre concept that wouldn’t appeal to me. But… I also admit I haven’t listened to the podcast. I might change my mind if I ever did take the time to listen to it. It’s hard to imagine that I’d want to do that, though.

I’ve written about true crime cases myself. Some people related to victims have left me angry or distraught comments. None of my posts were “comedic” in nature. I wonder how a “comedy” podcast comes across to family members of murder victims. I guess people have conceived stranger podcast concepts than that. In any case, I don’t think I would recommend Click Click Click, except to those who want to read all there is available about Trent Whitley’s murder. But, at least it’s not a super expensive title on Kindle.

As an Amazon Associate, I get a small commission from Amazon on sales made through my site.

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funny stories, memories, nostalgia

Repost: “You want a bun with that?”

Here’s a repost from August 2018 as I wait for my stomach to settle.

Today, I think I’ll write something silly as opposed to something depressing or controversial.  It may not seem like it in most of my posts, but I actually have a pretty great sense of humor.  When I was younger, I had a male friend in college with whom I used to spend a lot of time.  His name is Chris.

I’m still friends with this guy, by the way.  I just don’t get to see him anymore because he’s in Virginia and I’m in Germany.  When we were in college, though, we were kind of inseparable.  We spent hours hanging out and, when he was a drinker, we often got drunk together.  He quit drinking when we were juniors in college.

Anyway…  located right next to our campus was a McDonald’s.  I didn’t eat there very often because I never had any money.  But one night, my friend went there with some of his buddies.  I believe they were all inebriated and likely pretty obnoxious, too.

This wasn’t Chris and his crew… but the idea is kind of the same.

Chris went up to the counter and ordered a cheeseburger.  The guy who took his order apparently got an attitude and said, “You want a bun with that?”

Chris, who was likely feeling no pain, said, “What kind of a question is THAT?  Of course I want a BUN with that!  Who the hell orders a burger without a bun?”

The guys who were with Chris were gently trying to extricate him from the situation, but he was still cussing as the dude handed him his order.

Actually, I can think of a few funny situations involving Chris and fast food.  One of his favorite things to do when we were in college was act like he was going to throw up.  He’d make a fist and sort of hesitantly place it to his mouth, then start fake hurling.  He said he’d always wanted to try that at a fast food restaurant.  He wanted to go up to the counter and act like he was going to puke, then sort of settle down and say, “Can I have another burger, please?”

The funny part of this scenario is that he’d then revert to acting like the no nonsense female worker behind the counter.  Her eyebrows would be raised, unbelieving, and her eyes would be downcast.  And she’d say, her voice laced with attitude, “Do you know how to work a mop?”

Then Chris would revert back to his fake puking self and say, “I just want another burger, please.”

Chris, acting as the female worker, would say, “Do you see anyone else standing back here?  Who you think gonna clean up the mess if you toss your cookies all over my clean floor?”  With a wag of her head, she’d continue, “Now, you know how to work a mop, I’ll give you another burger.”

The little scenario would usually kind of end at that point.  Sometimes, I’d join in and play the fast food worker.

Chris also told me once about how he and his mom went to a McDonald’s once and saw some woman cleaning with a toothbrush.  Chris’s mom, who died in 2009, said, “Chris, I think that woman is a halfwit.  Why is she cleaning like that?”

This isn’t to say, by the way, that I think people who work in fast food are halfwits.  I don’t think that at all.  There is no such thing as truly unskilled labor.  I just laugh when I remember the way my old friend would do these imitations and act out these scenarios, especially in places like McDonald’s, where you’re liable to run into anyone…

This topic comes up thanks to the hamburger meat in our refrigerator that needs to be consumed.  I probably ought to go vegan, but I don’t see it happening at this point in my life.

LOL… that woman says what my mom used to say to me all the time when I was growing up.

Yes, kids, this is what we did in the 1990s, when Internet for everyone was still just a pipe dream.  I kind of miss those days.

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music, musings

Repost: There’s life beyond your senior year… confessions of a C student

Here’s a repost from the original blog, written March 28, 2018. It appears as/is. I know it’s not currently college application season, but I think this post could be useful for some people.

Yesterday, my alma mater did a fundraising drive called #LoveYourLongwood.  This is apparently a new development.  For many years after my graduation in 1994, Longwood University was rather relaxed about fundraising efforts.  I’d say in the past ten years or so, they have become much more assertive about pushing alums to donate money.  I usually ignore the pleas, although I did donate during the holiday season.

I probably would have made a donation yesterday, had I not looked at our rather paltry bank balance.  March still has three days left in it.  Still, as I get older and our finances have improved, I have given some thought to donating more money to my college.  The truth is, I owe a lot to Longwood.  Maybe my time there didn’t lead to a smashing career, but it did leave me with a lot of intangible gifts like wonderful friends, some excellent experiences, and the opportunity to study music simply because I love it.  It was a warm, nurturing place to go to college.  Today, almost 24 years after I graduated, I still reap the benefits of my four years there.

I have written about my college admissions experiences before, but I’m going to briefly repeat the tale for anyone out there in Internet land who is currently experiencing the pain of rejection from college.  I’m inspired to write about this after reading an article in the Boston Globe about the immense pressure high school seniors are dealing with at this time of year.  It takes me back to the spring of 1990, when I was myself trying to find a place to go to school.

I may call myself “The Overeducated Housewife”, but the simple truth is, I was a very ordinary student.  I didn’t earn great grades in high school and didn’t have super high SAT scores.  I did do well on standardized tests, particularly in writing.  However, I was a singularly unimpressive student in high school, even in English class.  I would get praises for my writing, but I didn’t care enough about the books we were reading to put a lot of effort into my papers.  Consequently, I earned average grades.

My parents, who had already raised my three sisters, didn’t really care too much about my performance.  I got through high school pretty much on my own efforts, with lots of Bs and Cs and the occasional D.  I remember working hard in school, particularly in my math and science classes, but not as hard as I probably should have.  I didn’t have any extra help, nor did I have anyone pushing me to excel.  I was also completely unmedicated, which isn’t a bad thing, but I think if I had grown up ten years later, I probably would have taken meds for depression or perhaps ADD.  I was encouraged to get good grades, but it was entirely up to me to accomplish that.  I didn’t really know how. 

In high school, I spent most of my free time riding horses.  I did do well in that activity, although I wasn’t particularly talented.  My success in riding was mainly due to my fabulous pony, Rusty, a dedicated riding coach, and a lot of dogged hard work.  I was definitely not “born in the saddle”.

When it came time to decide on a college, I had sort of a beer budget and champagne tastes on every level.  I didn’t have the money to consider attending private schools.  I didn’t have the grades or impressive resume to consider trying to get scholarships or applying to super competitive schools.  My mother, ever the pragmatist, told me I shouldn’t bother applying to the one school I really wanted to attend.  She didn’t think I’d get in there.  She was right.  In fact, Longwood was the ONLY school out of the four I applied to that accepted me.

Looking back on it, I think I would have had more choices if I had applied to a couple more schools.  The other three that I’d applied to, besides Longwood, were in a slightly higher league– too high for me at the time.  I do think I would have ultimately succeeded if I had gotten into any of the other three schools, but they were very popular choices among my peers.  My crummy grades and mediocre test scores were simply not competitive enough and I got the dreaded rejection letters.  Even Longwood accepted me conditionally, mainly because I was struggling in math.  Fortunately, I had a wonderful math teacher my senior year who made sure I got through with the required C.

My trend of mediocre academic performances mostly continued at Longwood.  I never once made the Dean’s List; however, I did blossom in other ways.  It was at Longwood that I finally started doing what I was probably born to do.

People who knew me when I was growing up didn’t know that I could sing.  My mom knew that I had absolute (perfect) pitch, because I took piano lessons when I was very young.  My piano teacher noticed I could name pitches without a reference note.  But I would never sing in front of anyone because I was (and still am) very sensitive to bad singing.  I knew I could sing on key, but didn’t think I sounded particularly good.  So I wouldn’t sing in front of other people, and was never encouraged to try.  My parents were both musicians, though, so it makes sense that I’d have a knack for music. 

To earn a bachelor of arts degree at Longwood, I needed to take a course in one of the fine arts.  I chose music appreciation and a one credit voice class.  I ended up excelling in the voice class and my teacher invited me to study privately.  Before I knew it, I had joined Longwood’s Camerata Singers, which required an audition.  I was soon singing with people who had been in choirs all through high school.  That experience was truly life changing for me.  Making music is now something I do most days, even if not many people hear my efforts.  It’s made me a much happier person.

It may seem like a minor thing now, but that one voice class opened up a whole new world to me.  I only wish I had taken it sooner.  I might have majored in music instead of English.  I both excelled in and loved my music classes.  I got straight As in them, with the lone exception of that one music appreciation class I took.  By contrast, I was a mediocre English major, except when I took writing classes.  In my writing classes, I excelled like I did in music.

It was an adjunct music professor at Longwood who cared enough about me to encourage me to study music, even if she couldn’t persuade me to change my major. I can’t help but wonder if I would have gotten the same attention at any of the other schools I had considered.  Looking back on it, it seems as if I was destined to go to Longwood.  Maybe I wasn’t a superstar student, but I think I flourished there.  Even today, I communicate with professors who knew me in the 90s.  My husband, Bill, attended much more prestigious American University and he hasn’t seen or spoken to any of his former professors since the 80s.  Sometimes, the less famous college offers a better value.  I know I’ve often mused about how much more I got out of my time at Longwood than I did the University of South Carolina.

After Longwood, I joined the Peace Corps kind of on a whim.  I was soon exposed to people from other parts of the country and then the Republic of Armenia, a place that had been mostly off limits to Americans only four years prior to my arrival. I used my music skills a lot in Armenia.  Then I went to graduate school and earned those two master’s degrees that I don’t use… which became the reason I call myself “overeducated”.  Still, I recognize that I was able to compete with people who went to “better” schools, both as a Peace Corps Volunteer and a graduate student.  I don’t regret any of those experiences now, but sometimes I wonder how in the world I ended up here.  In some ways, I have been extraordinarily lucky.  I often feel kind of like a fraud, but I know deep down that I’m not one.   

I empathize with high school seniors who are now dealing with the hell of trying to get into college.  I don’t envy them at all.  They’re dealing with so many things that I didn’t have to deal with.  Life has gotten super competitive on many levels.  I thought it was bad in 1990, but my generation had nothing on their generation. 

It’s harder and more expensive to go to college these days.  So many young people are racking up huge debts, and competition for well-paid work is stiff.  Young people are having to worry about gun toting lunatics invading their schools and killing random people.  We have a total buffoon in the White House who doesn’t care about anything but making rich people even richer (ETA: Remember, I am writing about Trump, not Biden). 

I don’t envy you young folks at all, although I am very impressed by how young people are standing up and making their voices heard.  And young people today are doing such incredible things… things that perfectly average, mediocre people can’t conceive of doing.  I would imagine that the pressure to stand out must be insane… and yet it gets harder and harder every year.

I’m impressed by that insane drive to succeed that some young people have, but I have a heart for those who were perfectly average folks like me.  It’s true that life is not a dress rehearsal, but most people end up okay, even if they aren’t stars.  These years on the brink of adulthood can be tough going, but eventually, most people come to a place where grades and test scores no longer matter.  So take heart.  There’s life beyond the spring of your senior year.  You just have to get through it and keep your eyes on the prize.

A musical project I completed at the time I wrote this piece. Lately, I’ve focused more on playing guitar than singing. I’m better at singing than guitar playing, though.
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book reviews, education, religion

Repost: Kevin Roose tries out Liberty University…

Here’s a book review I wrote for Epinions.com in 2009. Since I’ve been on a fundie kick lately, I’m reposting it here as/is.

Sometimes life can take you to places you never dreamed you’d go. Such was the case for Kevin Roose, who was, in the fall of 2006, a student at Brown University. Like so many other students of his ilk, Roose was very much a free spirit who liked to party. But Roose was also a curious reporter who happened to be working with author A.J. Jacobs.  In 2007, Jacobs published his book The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible. Inspired by Jacobs’ experiment trying to live his life as literally by the Bible as possible, Roose decided to trade in his wild ways at Brown for a semester at Liberty University, a conservative evangelical Baptist school in Lynchburg, Virginia, founded by the late Jerry Falwell. Roose chronicles his experiences at Liberty in his book The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner’s Semester at America’s Holiest University (2009).

I had just started reading Jacobs’ book when I got my copy of Roose’s Unlikely Disciple. Though I was thoroughly enjoying reading about Jacobs’ stab at living biblically, I couldn’t resist putting down Jacobs’ book in favor of Roose’s. You see, I am a native of Virginia and graduated from Longwood College (now University). Longwood is located in Farmville, Virginia, just a mere 45 minutes east of Liberty. I had some high school friends who attended Falwell’s famous school and had driven past Liberty on many occasions on my way to my grandmother’s house in Natural Bridge, Virginia from Farmville. Though I never in a million years would have wanted to attend Liberty– not even for a semester– I have always been curious about the place. So reading Roose’s book seemed a lot more urgent to me than finishing Jacobs’ book was, even though it appears that Roose’s project was inspired by his mentor’s earlier work.

Roose’s background

Obviously, Kevin Roose is very intelligent, since he managed to get into Brown University. His parents are very liberal and not very religious.  Roose explains that they most closely identify with the Quakers but were never a particularly churchgoing lot. When Roose proposed to attend Liberty for a semester, his parents and the rest of his family were not too thrilled. Like so many other people, they had heard Jerry Falwell’s well publicized remarks about how secular America had caused God to punish Americans with 9/11. They had heard him talk about how Tinky Winky, the beloved purple Teletubby of the children’s show, was actually a symbol to promote the acceptance of homosexuality. They had seen Falwell on television, blustering about how the liberals were degrading America with immorality. Roose’s family and friends were shocked that he’d want to be associated with Jerry Falwell, even just for a semester. And yet, though he wasn’t that into being an evangelical Christian, Kevin Roose applied to Liberty University as a transfer student and was accepted.

Changes!

Using a witty and appealing writing style, Roose explains what it was like to be a fish out of water at Liberty. He writes about how he had to learn to fit in as an evangelical Christian. The process was harder than the average person might realize. For one thing, Roose had to learn how to refrain from cursing while, at the same time, not react too harshly when he heard someone refer to a homosexual as a f*gg*t. Next, he had to learn about the Bible and actually take classes in the Old and New Testament. He had to change the way he approached members of the opposite sex, including the way he dated them. And he also had to stop drinking.

The results of Roose’s new lifestyle had some surprising effects on him. Though he knew he would only be at Liberty for a semester, Roose found himself changing with the experience, mostly in a positive way.  Just quitting drinking allowed him to enjoy hangover free weekends. He also managed to score the last print interview with Jerry Falwell, who died at the bitter end of Roose’s semester at Liberty.

My thoughts

I hesitate to think that Liberty University is actually America’s “holiest” university. There are quite a few evangelical Christian colleges out there, at least a couple of which are much stricter than Liberty is. For instance, as Roose points out in his book, at Pensacola Christian College (PCC) in Pensacola, Florida, men and women use segregated stairwells and are not allowed to stare too long at each other. A prolonged gaze at someone of the opposite gender is known as “optical intercourse” or “making eye babies” and can lead to significant punishment. At Bob Jones University (BJU) in Greenville, South Carolina, students were not permitted to date outside of their races until the year 2000. And women are not permitted to wear pants in public at either PCC or BJU; instead, they have to wear long dresses or skirts with pantyhose. But, I think for someone like Kevin Roose, Liberty was probably holy enough.  Shoot, I always thought Liberty University’s name was very ironic, considering the restrictions its students live with.

In any case, I really enjoyed reading Kevin Roose’s story about life at Liberty. I was very impressed by how much research Roose did, both in terms of the school and the conservative Christian movement in general. His writing is very easy and fun to read, as well as insightful. Having spent some time around college students and graduates of prestigious universities, I think I was afraid Roose might be a snob about going to Liberty after being at Brown. But Roose manages to maintain a very objective and open-minded attitude about Liberty. In fact, he even reveals some of the guilt he feels about hiding his true agenda from his new friends and colleagues. I half expected Roose to decide he wanted to stay at Liberty after all.

Overall

I think this book will really appeal to anyone who’s ever been curious about the religious right or Jerry Falwell. Roose includes some tidbits about Falwell that humanize the man a great deal. I also think The Unlikely Disciple is good reading for anyone who’s either attended or is planning to attend Liberty University– as long as they have a sense of humor.  I would also recommend this book to anyone who’s just curious about it. It’s often very entertaining, yet ultimately rewarding to read. I came away from reading this book thinking that Kevin Roose’s life was greatly enriched from his semester at Liberty; so was mine, as a result of Roose’s willingness to share.

As an Amazon Associate, I get a small commission from Amazon on sales made through my site.

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book reviews, funny stories

Brotherhood… and sisterhood… and a reposted book review.

This morning over breakfast, I was telling Bill about a former friend of mine… a guy I knew in college. We met when we were freshmen at what was then known as Longwood College. He lived on first floor Tabb, which was the only all male floor at that time that wasn’t associated with a fraternity. I lived on second floor Tabb, which was an all female floor. Both were dedicated to freshmen students and supposed to be “dry” halls.

This former friend– former because a few years ago, he took me on in a comment section when I dissed Donald Trump, and it ended on a rude note– went on to pledge one of the fraternities on campus. The frat he joined no longer has a place at Longwood. I believe they got kicked off campus because of hazing, so their chapter is now “inactive”. However, in the 1990s, they were known as sort of the everyman’s fraternity. The “nice” guys were members. Their parties were the most welcoming to all comers. That was as opposed to some of the other brotherhoods at Longwood, who seemed a bit more discerning as to who could come to their chapter room and dance to ear splitting 90s era music while sipping flat Beast.

One time, my former friend was talking about another fraternity on campus, known as Alpha Chi Rho– AXP. He asked, “You know what AXP stands for?”

I shook my head, because I didn’t know the Greek alphabet at that point.

“Assholes expecting pussy!” I must admit, we shared a big laugh over that joke. Sadly, there was an element of truth to it, although I think that could have been said for most of the fraternities at Longwood.

Former friend once took me to task for referring to his “brotherhood” as a “frat”. I asked him what the big deal was, and he said, “You don’t call your country a ‘cunt’, do you?” At that point, I had more of an understanding as to why so many of the women at Longwood seemed brighter than some of the men. I don’t think fraternity shortened to “frat” is quite the same as country shortened to “cunt”. But at the time, I didn’t feel the need to correct him on the point. It didn’t seem important to try to correct his thinking, as we were “friends”… even though this guy, now the father of a couple of daughters, used to run his hand, uninvited, up my thigh just to see how I would react. One time, he did that, and I involuntarily smacked him right on the dick. It wasn’t the last time, either. I can think of at least twice that he tried something pervy with me and wound up doubled over, calling me a “bitch” because I protected my own honor from his probing fingers. He was kidding around, but my reflexes didn’t know that.

I never joined a sorority at Longwood, although a lot of my friends did. I did join an honorary music fraternity for women, which was a lot cheaper, made fewer demands on my time, and was less intimidating. Consequently, I didn’t have much of a social life in college… at least as it pertained to dating. Looking back on it, I’m kind of glad I didn’t date in those days. I think it spared me a lot of heartache.

In fact, the older I get, the more I think trying to connect with people ends up being a waste of time. It’s like panning for gold, finding people who are true friends. So many people turn out to be temporary contacts, and the breakups can be brutal. Or, they can be heartbreakingly mundane. Someone just fades out of your life, forgotten like an old toy. One they they’re your friend. The next day, they’re gone.

Although I never went “Greek” myself– unless you count Sigma Alpha Iota, the music frat for women– I have always been kind of interested in Greek culture on college campuses. But then, I think I look at those groups as kind of akin to fringe religions, which readers of this blog may notice I find very intriguing. I wouldn’t want to join a group like The Way or the Jehovah’s Witnesses myself, but I do find them interesting to observe and study.

Back in 2004, I even read a book about Greek life, and reviewed it for Epinions.com. In the interest of preserving as many of my book reviews as I can, below is the review I wrote May 2, 2004, of Alexandra Robbins’ book, Pledged: The Secret Life of Sororities. As usual, it appears here as/is. I seem to remember that some people weren’t too happy about Robbins’ characterizations of their sisterhoods. In that respect, the sorority members aren’t unlike the disgruntled members of religions who get angry with outsider opinions about their faiths. I see Robbins has also written about fraternities. I might have to read and review that, just to be fair to all the brotherhoods.

It’s not easy being Greek: the truth behind sororities

I’m a graduate of Longwood College, which is now known as Longwood University, where four national sororities were founded: Kappa Delta, Zeta Tau Alpha, Sigma Sigma Sigma (Tri Sig), and Alpha Sigma Alpha. Greek life, that is membership in a sorority or fraternity, was very big at Longwood when I attended. I have little doubt that being Greek is still a very important part of life on the Farmville, Virginia campus where I got my undergraduate degree.

I vividly recall the hullabaloo surrounding Greek rush at the beginning of each semester. My freshman year, I lived with a woman who rushed Kappa Delta. Kappa Delta was full of pretty women– KD ladies, according to my ex-roommate, who were among the most popular women on campus. When she had accepted her bid, her big sisters had decorated our door. Every time I walked into the room, I felt like I was walking through a throne. The whole door was covered in signs and decorations with KD colors and symbols all over it. And then my roommate was a pledge and she constantly went to parties, got involved in philanthropies and fundraisers, and spent all of her free time studying about the sorority and its mission. I witnessed firsthand some of the experiences Alexandra Robbins writes about in her 2004 book Pledged: The Secret Life of Sororities.

I remember wondering at times if being in a sorority would be fun for me. I did join a musical honorary fraternity for women and we did a lot of the same stuff the social sororities did, only our dues were less expensive, membership was based on GPA and the number of music credit hours we had, it wasn’t as time consuming, and there weren’t any parties (though there was also a men’s music fraternity). According to Robbins, being in a social sorority is a major endeavor. First and foremost, there’s the significant investment of time and money. Sorority ladies pay dues that generally cost several hundred dollars a semester, and they are expected to attend meetings and ceremonies. If they miss those ceremonies and meetings, they might be fined, even if they had a good reason like work or school. According to Robbins, there’s a strong emphasis on looking a certain way and always behaving in a way that would reflect well on the sisterhood. There are mandatory study periods because many sororities have a minimum grade point average that sisters are expected to achieve. All of this sounds pretty positive until Robbins reveals the darker, more secretive side of sorority life.

In order to write this book, Robbins had to go undercover at an institution she calls “State University”, posing as a nineteen year old woman during the 2002-03 school year. She had the help of four sorority members: Vicki, Amy, Caitlin, and Sabrina (not their real names) who agreed to risk their memberships in the sororities in order to help her with this project. Vicki was a member of “Beta Pi” (not its real name) and the other three volunteers were members of “Alpha Rho” (not its real name). Sabrina was the lone black member of Alpha Rho. Robbins writes of Sabrina’s experiences of being in a white sorority, where the sisters insensitively made racist remarks in her presence. Caitlin, the daughter of an overly involved mother, was the vice president of Alpha Rho who had been date raped by a fraternity member after a party. Vicki was the pretty, blonde, California girl who looked the part of a Beta Pi sister but had so far disappointed the other sorority members by being too shy and reluctant to socialize. And Amy was another “girl next door” type member of Alpha Rho whose twin sister had died. According to Robbins, Amy was looking for a sisterhood that might help ease the pain she experienced with the loss of her biological sister.

As Robbins acted as a “fly on the wall” watching these four women over the course of the school year, she found out that most of the stereotypes surrounding sororities were actually true. Robbins claims that she witnessed eating disorders, racism, drug and alcohol abuse, psychological abuse, violence and extreme promiscuity. Worse, the abuses were inflicted by attractive, intelligent, otherwise successful women. Robbins balances these sordid stories with interludes about related news items related to sorority women, articles about hazing, date rape, and drug and alcohol abuse. She interviewed several hundred sorority members from campuses across the country, emphasizing that Greek life is most important in the South. It’s taken so seriously that some parents hire rush consultants in order to guide their daughters through the rush process and into the “right” sorority.

Robbins includes an interesting chapter on black sororities, comparing them to the white sororities– one institutionalized part of college life that is still quite segregated. She also includes information about local sororities, that is sisterhoods that are not part of a national panhellenic group. One black woman Robbins wrote about started her own sorority having been twice rejected by the white sororities. The woman claimed that she wouldn’t have fit in with the black sororities and that had she become a member of a black sorority, the sisters wouldn’t have accepted her because she didn’t “act black”; yet the white sororities wouldn’t accept her because of her skin color.

After I read this book, I found myself glad that I didn’t join a social sorority. I had, and still have, a lot of friends who were members of sororities, and I witnessed what happened to some of them after they joined Greek organizations. Most of the women were very nice, but as they became more involved with Greek life, they were a lot less involved with their “independent” friends. It was interesting to read Robbins’ accounts of the peer pressure she witnessed. Robbins also includes a lot of information about so-called secret rituals. If you’ve always wondered about sorority passwords, secret ceremonies, or symbolism, you may really enjoy the section of the book where Robbins removes the shroud of mystery.

The fact that Robbins does include secret passwords and information about secret rituals may be very offensive for those women who are members of sororities. Part of what makes the sisterhoods “special” is the emphasis on secrecy. Robbins destroys that secrecy with her expose, although I have to admit that I found the information interesting. On the other hand, I did wonder why she felt the need to include it in this book, especially since those secrets are part of what makes sorority life attractive. It was almost sad for me to read about the secrets that are held sacred by sorority women. Robbins also didn’t make it clear how she got away with being “a fly on the wall”, since she obviously didn’t join either of the sororities she wrote of. I would think that the sisters would have gotten suspicious, even if most of the contact Robbins had with the four sisters she was keeping track of was via instant messenger.

Pledged: The Secret Life of Sororities is well written, thorough, and fairly well researched. For those who are not familiar with the great deal of jargon associated with Greek life, Robbins includes a glossary, but she also does a good job defining the elements of Greek life in the book itself. I found Pledged: The Secret Life of Sororities an interesting read, although I doubt I’m a more enlightened person after reading about the sordid affairs that go on in sorority houses across the country.

Robbins concludes this book by writing her suggestions of how national sororities could change for the better. I was glad to see this, since so many expose type books write only of the negatives and yet don’t include any information about how the negatives could be made positive. She emphasizes the need for more “adult supervision”, something I found curious since college students are supposed to already be adults.

Robbins also believes that all women who rush should get into a sorority, a suggestion that I fear would defeat the purpose of sororities. After all, many people join Greek organizations so that they can be a part of something “special” with people who are like them. While I understand the reasoning behind this suggestion and actually agree with the sentiment (that Greek organizations are elitist), I doubt this suggestion would go over well. Robbins writes that the national offices are always interested in making more money and yet they are particular about who can be a member. This is another reason why she believes that sororities should be more open to all college women.

This book wasn’t entirely negative.  Robbins does include information about some of the positive aspects of sorority life, such as forming enduring friendships and business connections outside of college life, although the overall emphasis in this book is the negative side to Greek life.

I believe that Pledged: The Secret Life of Sororities might be useful for high school senior girls and their parents, however I also believe that what is written in this book should be taken with a grain of salt and balanced with other sources. If you aren’t looking to go Greek but just want to read about sorority life, you might enjoy reading this book as well. Go to Amazon.com to order this book, though, and you will see many negative ratings contributed by indignant sorority members who are upset that Robbins has attacked an institution that they hold sacred. Still, I believe her account was fair, even if it was shocking.

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