November 10, 2010 was going to be a big day for Kamil Shaunay Arrington. The 21 year old had endured weeks of physically and emotionally taxing demands from the higher-up members of East Carolina University chapter of the Delta Sigma Theta sorority. Finally, she would become a member.
Arrington was driving to the initiation with two other pledges, Victoria T’nya-Ann Carter and Briana Latrice Gather, both 20, riding as passengers. Suddenly, Arrington lost control of the vehicle. Police investigators would later allege she had fallen asleep, her entire body heavy with the exhaustion of meeting the sorority’s hazing obligations.
The car smashed into a tree. Carter and Gather died. Arrington survived and was charged with two counts of misdemeanor death by motor vehicle. Delta Sigma Theta and local chapter Kappa Sigma were named in the wrongful death suit brought by Carter’s mother, Bernadette, along with Arrington and East Carolina University itself. The school, Carter’s lawyers argued, ignored reports of dangerous hazing rituals; Arrington’s sleep deprivation should have been preventable.
It was, but perhaps not for Arrington. The accident took place during Hell Week, the time when hazing intensifies and pledges are expected to display their unwavering commitment to their chapter. If Arrington wanted to belong, she would have to operate on the reported six or seven hours of sleep she managed in total that week, while sharing a two-bedroom apartment with 17 other pledges. In the Greek system of social construction, being driven to exhaustion is part of the education.
Hazing is illegal in at least 44 states, although that means very little when it comes to the reality of trying to gain admission to any one of the hundreds of fraternities and sororities on campuses across the country. School administrations would first have to be informed of such activity, which few pledges are willing to assist in. According to a 2008 University of Maine study, 55 percent of all college students have experienced some form of ritualized humiliation; 95 percent of them conceal the details from administrators.
While those activities take many forms — often involving alcohol and stunts reminiscent of “Jackass” — one recurring element is a lack of concern over pledges getting an acceptable amount of rest. Tasked with inane duties and roused at all hours, pledge sleep is fractured, slight and non-restorative, the better to make them more submissive. Arrington, for example, had been forced to stand on one leg and perform tasks for hours on end.
Although it’s not known for certain how deprivation became a part of hazing, it’s probably not a coincidence that it also takes place in the military. “It would make sense that the practice could have come from West Point and Annapolis cadets who dropped out, transferred to public and private schools, then pledged,” says Hank Nuwer, an expert in hazing who has petitioned for school reform for decades.
As in the military or medical school, recruits are propped awake to test their mettle. “I think it is that unceasing predilection of hazers to put pledges under stress to see how they will react,” Nuwer says. “They are malleable, easy to influence, and it's the perfect time to tell a tired pledge that if you don't drink or do X, Y or Z, then your pledge brothers will have to pick up the slack.”
Kevin* attended college in Colorado and pledged an unspecified frat as a freshman. It wasn’t that sleep was expressly prohibited, he says, just that the bothersome behavior of the “brothers” made it nearly impossible to get any.
“At some point each night we’d be allowed to sleep on a concrete floor with a thrift-store sleeping bag,” he says. “[It was] in a room that had huge speakers, and the speakers were turned way up, playing the same song over and over and over.” (Comb through the CIA’s torture deposition and you’ll come across myriad examples of guards using a similar tactic to break prisoners.) At some point, Kevin says, someone who lived in the house would turn it off and we’d get some actual sleep. “Then they’d wake us up and we’d go for a three-mile run.”
Kevin wasn’t just woken up — he was also forced to stay awake. On other nights, he and pledges had to line up against a wall while blindfolded. When their heads began to dip, a senior would jab them in the crotch with a stick.
Kevin doesn’t believe he slept for more than an hour at a time during Hell Week.
“Much like alcohol, you get that ‘Sure, whatever,’ attitude [when sleep deprived]. Jumping into a vat of mustard? Sure, whatever. Hold a couch over your head with 20 other pledges? Sure, whatever," he says. “In retrospect, it was scary as hell what we were doing. But I was 19, and everyone is invincible when they’re 19.”
The shuffling, drowsy fatigue of a Greek pledge eventually pays off with full admission to the house, where abused members can pay the torture forward with a future crop of freshmen. As a team-building exercise, however, it doesn’t pass muster.
“The military is catching on,” says Joyce Walsleben, PhD, an associate professor of medicine at New York University who specializes in sleep research. “[You’ll see] friendly fire on each other after several days. You don’t toughen up. You just lose awareness of how bad [off] you are.”
Exhausted pledges, she says, lose their judgment. The frontal lobe, where executive decisions are made, is numbed by lack of sleep. Alcohol acts as a sedative, increasing one’s need for rest at the same time it’s being withheld. The sleep-deprived brain is then asked to focus on academics.
Lucas* pledged at a Bay Area college as an 18 year old. “By the fourth day I was falling asleep in the study room,” he says. His big brother was protective, offering to stash him away in his room to catch some sleep. Otherwise, energy drinks and protein bars were expected to provide enough fuel for wakefulness.
By day six, though, Lucas had slept so little he felt like a “zombie.” He estimates he once went 38 hours without any sleep at all.
Why do it? “By the time we got to the beginning of hell week, we were 100 percent committed to crossing, come hell or high water. We were a super tight knit group, and at that point we had sworn an oath, either we all cross or no one does.”
During one particularly harsh stretch, Lucas saw a character from My Little Pony pop out of his laptop screen. “Wow,” the imaginary pony said. “You don’t look so good.”
“When we were done,” he says, “I slept for 12 hours straight.”
The Carter lawsuit has yet to receive a trial date. East Carolina University has banned Kappa Sigma from school grounds until 2025. It’s unlikely the accident or others like it — Bethune-Cookman University band member Marcus Thomas also died after a driver fell asleep behind the wheel in 2012 — will lead to tighter monitoring of hazing. Whistleblowers are frowned upon; suffering, so much of sorority and frat culture preaches, is simply the cost of transitioning into adulthood.
“I don’t know if toughened is the right word, but you certainly bond with your pledge class going through it together,” says Kevin. “You also learn about yourself when you reflect back. I know I can handle a crisis when sleep-deprived.”
Was he scared to drive?
“I didn’t have a car at the time.”
*Some names have been changed.