Dartmouth Psycho

By Joseph Rago ’05

I know, you know, we all know all about the College’s work-hard, play-hard, murder-hard ethos. Yes, the fraternities are the center of the campus universe, engender a culture of narcissism and entitlement, and inspire crime rates rivaling those of lower Manhattan, circa the 1980s. Yes, these bastions of heteronormative oppression and white-male privilege condone hazing, substance abuse, anti-intellectualism, and murder. Yes, the violence that is at the heart of Dartmouth experience would be unacceptable anywhere else, but here, it’s just the way things are.

If I make the College sound like a place that would only appeal to a sociopath, oddly enough, it kind of grew on me. For the record, it no longer appeals to me today, in the unlikely event you haven’t heard. I now realize that I lost my dignity when I joined a Dartmouth fraternity, even my humanity, as did the countless people I murdered.

Yet who among us is fearless enough to defy Greekthink, no matter how unpopular his views might make him among his peers? Who will pop the Dartmouth bubble and make the students think, I mean really think, perhaps for the first time in their lives? Who will be the one to blow the whistle on Dartmouth’s murder culture, once and for all? Me, that’s who, reporting for duty.

In recent months I have trashed the College’s character and reputation in dozens of publications nationwide. Last week my anti-Dartmouth campaign culminated in 9,000-word tirade in that crown jewel of American journalism Rolling Stone, by Janet Reitman, last seen spinning the fake Duke lacrosse rape fiasco into a fable of racist depravity.

My penchant for unabridged truth-telling has ruffled a few feathers. I was prepared for some blowback, though honestly, I’m surprised. See, I’m not one of those people who abandons his beliefs the moment they are no longer convenient, like that guy who quit Goldman Sachs in the New York Times because his bonus was too small. I did admire the million-dollar book contract he landed. But that only goes to show that good things come to those who make lurid accusations in the most obnoxious and self-aggrandizing ways they can imagine. In my case call it Alma Matricide, with malice aforethought.

          * * *

When I fell off the turnip truck as a freshman, just a small-town boy from Anytown, U.S.A., I took the idea of creating an identity really seriously. By that I mean I was most concerned with finding and fitting into groups. I’ll admit it was a little disconcerting at first when kids mysteriously disappeared from frat basements and turned up days later stabbed, strangled, or drowned in the Connecticut River, though soon enough I got to climbing the greasy pole. Your status at the College, after all, is measured by how much you hang out, your sex exploits, and your cumulative body count.

Navigating this finely calibrated hierarchy could be daunting. One afternoon I recited my randy anecdotes about the girlfriends I’ve sated, in particular this really hot skanky cheerleader. In retrospect it was a mistake to do so at a Women and Gender Studies mixer. Another early misstep was mentioning an adolescent hit-and-run rampage, which seemed to shock all and sundry. Hard guys apparently consider vehicular manslaughter Mickey Mouse murder.

I rushed the house I did because I heard it had the hardest pledge term on campus. I won over most of the brotherhood because I am a handsome kid with tousled brown hair and a polite, almost self-effacing manner. I heard though the grapevine that certain elements in the house wanted to ding me——me of all people——mainly because they were perturbed by my habit of lurking behind shrubbery while brandishing sharp objects. A sophomore bumping off a brother normally would be a faux pas, but I did it on the sly, boring the holdouts to death with my cultural commentary.

On Sink Night my pledge brothers and I lined up in the chapter room known, somewhat ominously, as the “execution chamber.” A long silence was broken by a sharp report and I turned to see a poisoned dart protruding from the neck of the fellow next to me, before he slumped bonelessly to the floor. Within seconds other pledges joined him. From the gloom emerged the pledge master, holding a blowgun in one hand and a traditional fraternity murdering stick in the other. Its rich patina from decades of accumulated viscera flickered in the tea lights. “Tonight we murdered at random,” he explained. “From now on you’ll be murdered for cause.” I adjusted my collar nervously.

The abuses I witnessed since that evening could fill a motion-picture treatment (fingers crossed). In order to become a brother, I was forced to drop a quick six from goblets made of human skulls. The pledges were commanded to swim in a kiddie pool filled with organs and disarticulated limbs. Alongside the vomit-omelets——a playful but mysterious little dish——we were served, well, the Bloodiest Mary I’ve ever had. Basement practices such as “pulling the trigger” took on a whole new meaning. The upperclassmen made us play pong using a corpse as the median. Their demands on us were so unremitting that I could barely commit my extracurricular side-murders. We were forced to swallow nails, gravel, and broken glass until some of us ended up in the morgue. Sure, we could have refused these orders, but the peer pressure to murder or be murdered was too extreme for most to resist: It was the only way we could gain social acceptance. By Hell Night, only a handful of us were still breathing.

At last we were initiated, and since we had discarded any remnants of ourselves as individuals, right then and there I smothered the social chair with a throw pillow to affirm my new communal identity. As I descended into the gaping maw of frat life, my nights were soon consumed by binge murdering and other ritualistic high-risk murdering behaviors. I introduced hemlock to our champagne formal. As a prank, I submitted a torso instead of a term paper. I developed an illicit drug habit. I returned some videotapes. It’s true what they say: There really is nothing to do in Hanover but party and murder.

This one time, I wanted to shoot pool not people, so I retired to the billiards room and cut out some monster lines on a composite. There was a knock at the door. “Wait a sec,” I yelled. “I’m signifying my elitism.” Then this one brother burst in and called the cops. Who knows how he managed to evade the tractor beam of brotocol and bromocide and retain a shred of probity, the point is that I was hosed. It turns out that felony possession and witness tampering are not among the baptismal rites of the new power elite.

I was Parkhursted. I lost the Fisher Account that I had secured through corporate recruiting. The medical school turned down my standing offer to donate my brain to science as an unused specimen. It was so unfair, so hypocritical. The 1% gets away with murder, yet when I murder, I am the victim, in addition to my actual victim.

I needed a new identity, fast. My high-school classmates voted me most likely to nominate myself for a Nobel Prize in literature, so I started to write a generational tale in the manner of Scott Fitzgerald and Jay McInerney. And Bret Easton Ellis, why the hell not. My memoir will be a lyrical meditation on coming of age, haunted by a sense of loss. Publishers and literary agents will swoon over the tell-all chapters where I deconstruct the mystique of “the Ivy League frat boy” and disclose the casual, matter-of-fact way otherwise well-adjusted, high-achieving gentlemen become homicidal maniacs.

I handed over a dossier of my fraternity’s dysfunctions to the College establishment and described my crimes in graphic detail. I named names. I told them about the murdering stick, the kiddie pool, the human-skull goblets, the throw pillow, and Paul Allen. But they only looked at me like I was some troubled young man whose credibility and motives were open to question. One more teaching moment in Dartmouth’s lax “murderers will be murderers” discipline! I went berserk. I threw my Keystone in the dean’s face, stormed out, and, in an existential act of rebellion, bludgeoned an S&S officer to death with a plastic folding chair.

The Hanover police followed up with an investigation, despite the fact that the population of the Upper Valley had not plunged by a third or more due to murders, as I had claimed. I tipped them off about my fraternity’s plan to enact a bacchanal and sacrifice a virgin, but when an undercover team staked out the altar, no one showed. Don’t the powers that be understand that the cover-up is worse than the crime?

I could never get justice behind closed doors. I showed the crusading female journalist where all the bodies are buried. I found an elderly blogger who was so credulous that he would circulate any claim, no matter how far-fetched, even from an admitted murderer, so long as it made Jim Kim look bad.

In order to stop the killing, the system needs systematic reform. But the College cannot come to terms with the horror show because the fraternities enforce a code of silence. Undoubtedly my nuke-frat-row plan will also encounter resistance from some of the most reactionary fringes on campus, such as the student body. Two-thirds of the kids eligible to join a fraternity or sorority do, as generations did before them.

My critics concede that no institution is perfect, but note that the Greek system’s popularity wouldn’t be reaching modern heights if everyone was getting murdered all the time. It’s no mystery, they add: College students tend to like fun, and fraternities tend to be fun. Another part of it is that strong friendship is more important at Dartmouth than at other schools; and because Dartmouth people tend to care about each other, they generally have the moral sense and basic decency not to go on killing sprees, let alone perpetuate the other atrocities I say they do. Omerta!

          * * *

Then one day——maybe this is the psychosis talking——I looked around and saw that the College was beautiful, more beautiful than any place has any right to be. The nearby woods and hillsides were awash in green and gold, the sky was pale blue, almost white, and the breeze carried the smell of the elms and the pine boughs. Dartmouth’s culture was more beautiful still. Everybody around me was in high spirits, and everything about the old school inclined toward joy. The Baker bells struck the hour and played “Twilight Song”:

Brothers while the shadows deepen

While we stand here heart to heart,

Let us promise one another

In the silence ere we part.

We will make our lives successful,

We will keep our hands from shame

For the sake of dear old Dartmouth,

And the honor of her name.

For the dear old college home, boys,

For the happy, happy days;

For our glorious Alma Mater,

Shake the campus with her praise.

In that moment I couldn’t help but wonder at how extraordinarily lucky I was, stupefied that as a Dartmouth undergraduate I had the opportunities and the time to do virtually anything I desired. It was my choice.

So here’s what I chose. I chose to crucify myself in the center in the green, and made my martyrdom complete. “There are no more barriers to cross,” I said to no one in particular. “All I have in common with the uncontrollable and the insane, the vicious and the evil, all the mayhem I have caused and my utter indifference toward it I have now surpassed. My pain is constant and sharp, and I do not hope for a better world for anyone. In fact, I want my pain to be inflicted on others. I want no one to escape.” It is a small College, but there are those that hate it.