September 27, 2018

LEUNG | (Not) Behind Closed Doors

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While my professor unpackaged the books and distributed them around the room, I felt as if I was actually witnessing a part of history; as if this was something I would look back on years from now and say, that was me he handed a copy to. That was my professor.

Prof. Andrew Moisey, art history and visual studies, recently published The American Fraternity. This photobook places photos that Moisey took in an unnamed fraternity at the University of California, Berkeley, in the early 2000’s next to text that comes from a 60-year-old ritual manual that was found on the fraternity’s floor. Starting in 2000, Moisey documented his younger brother’s involvement in the fraternity, from initiation rituals to drunken parties to an untimely funeral.

I don’t think I can find a word to describe all the emotions I felt as I paged through the book. Some photos horrified me, others I found disturbing. But many of them filled me with a sense of sadness: one that came from having seen these things first-hand. From stories I’ve been told, and experiences I’ve witnessed myself — that’s why it hurt.

Photographs do not tell stories. They do not contain narratives or explain why things happened. They capture a moment; raw, intimate, revealing, but still hidden. They lead us to question: who are these people? Why are they here? What are their stories? These photographs leave us with pieces we cannot fill, of stories we do not know. An unconscious woman lies on a bed, her legs spread wide.  A man pukes over a trash can. A naked woman lies on top of a table while men surround her. They all come intermingled with text from a ritual manual that does not explain the photos, yet eerily supports how these situations existed.

Moisey worked on the book for over a decade before getting it published. In light of the Brett Kavanaugh allegations, I believe the book holds more impact and power than it would have if Moisey had published it years ago. During class, he explained that he had gained consent from the people who were photographed in compromising situations — they had agreed to this. But in light of the #MeToo movement and sexual misconduct allegations that have arisen over the past few years, this book comes at a pinnacle point in our culture where we need to question the so-called “traditions” that have dictated collegiate culture, and infiltrated how lives are led and impacting others. These lessons that are learned in college do not end after graduation; they are carried out into the world.

I asked Professor Moisey what his intentions were for producing the book: he began by saying that he wanted to show where so many American leaders come from; fraternities and their construction of power is usually passed over when looking at how they reached their position, yet for decades these men of power have come from fraternities. Secondly, he wanted to make a metaphor for American ideals and behavior by putting side by side the images of what fraternity men do, and placing the oaths they took next to them. Thirdly, he wanted to create a new kind of photo book, one which was never meant to be seen but has come into being. Finally, he wanted to create a portrait of a culture in which people in the future would look back on us now and know what we were like. And that, frankly, is horrifying.

I have many friends who are in fraternities. I have many others who are not. And I can appreciate the idea of finding brothers and allies. But what these photos show us is the danger of what happens after a line has been crossed. Photos from a funeral, which Moisey was careful not to reveal information about out of respect to the deceased’s family, shows what happens when boundaries are pushed too far; the dangers of not knowing those boundaries have been pushed until it is far too late.

Not all fraternity men act like this. Yet why are these communities consistently targeted as systems of toxic masculinity and sexual abuse? How much more evidence do we need to acknowledge that fraternities are dangerous institutions that have evolved far from maintaining ‘brotherhood’? Jason Jeong, another opinion columnist, eloquently wrote “the institutionalization of secrecy and the expectation of indiscriminate loyalty are why fraternities will never fully evolve from the racist, classist and sexist institutions they were established to be.” These are structures that perpetuate wealth and whiteness in which the “white, male and wealthy derive the most value…but the most pernicious and threatening incidents are the regular and ignored transgressions that we never hear about because they are settled within the confines of the house.” The American Fraternity exposes this secrecy. What happens behind the closed doors of fraternities does not stay there. Professor Moisey’s visual depiction of this shows how these behaviors and ideas transcend into the world far beyond the years of college.

Gabrielle Leung is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at gleung@cornellsun.com. Serendipitous Musings appears alternate Thursdays this semester.