The contents of the following article contain offensive, derogatory language, and material that may be triggering for survivors of sexual assault. The names and some of the details in this article have been changed for privacy and legal concerns (but more about that last bit later).
Written in bold black sharpie, the phrase “She said stop, I said Hammer Time,” was one of the first things that Dan and I saw on move-in day. I was helping him load his things into the room he was renting at Wesleyan University’s Beta Theta Pi fraternity, where we both lived last summer, as tenants. This was not the only message left for Dan—writing covered almost every square foot of wall.
I had just moved into my own room earlier that sweltering afternoon in May, and I was already growing slightly unimpressed with the misogyny. I would be lying if I didn’t say that over the summer that I lived in Beta, the impact of the graffiti grew smaller and smaller, till it felt the way bathroom obscenity feels. Still, on move in day the abrasion wasn’t calloused over yet.
First, however, a few words on how I ended up living in Beta. I had originally planned on living in official universities dorms for the summer research session. Then I got an email saying that Beta would be offering housing for a third of the price: only $300 a month.
In addition to cheapness, there was the benefit that the house was big enough for nearly all my friends who were staying on for the summer. The house had a yard equipped with a charcoal grill, a huge living room where we could hold open mics, parties, etc, and a refrigerator big enough for twelve 30 racks of Miller—not to even mention the king-sized beer pong table. On top of it all, I had leased early enough to get my pick of the rooms. I ended up in the Beta president’s suite.
Better still, this room is actually two rooms- a living room with a huge curving leather couch and a bedroom with windows on three sides. And, when I first arrived, both rooms looked like they had been hit by a fully armed trash missile. Just pushing my covered cardboard boxes through the summer heat and into the room felt like parting a Red Sea of paper, flies, abandoned clothes, and used condoms. On the far side of the living room, propped against a scarred, wooden table was a large chalkboard with the formula “SQUIRRELS = CUNTS” scrawled in all capital red letters.
I was staring at the word “cunt.” One of the brothers, who I’ll call Travis, was moving some of the former president’s stuff out of the room. He saw me looking at what was written on the chalkboard.
“Oh yeah,” He chirped walking out towards the hall. “Watch out for the squirrels. They’ll get into the house and, like, steal your shit.”
“Fucking squirrels!” I echoed.
After Travis left I smudged the words out with a Lakers jersey that had been tacked onto the wall. Examining the bedroom, I wondered if this had been place that was in the news two and a half years ago.
I was beginning to expect the worst under every nook and cranny. My squeamishness provoked, and a pair of home depot gloves purchased, I began to peel the former president’s sheets from the bed. Describing what lay beneath as “worn” might suffice for polite company, but this really would not do justice to the mattress’s complex array of discoloration and tear. Clammy-hued and rippling stains dotted its top. Along the seam there was a thick line of black spots, at places appearing to be dyed into the fabric and at other places popping out like micro specks of dirt. Now I’m no expert on the matter, but coming from a long and proud line of neurotics I already had been instructed on the dangers of mattress infestations. This one seemed like an open and shut case of bedbugs.
So, just as quickly as I had arrived, I pushed my boxes back down the hallway to a small closet the janitor said he’d lock for me. I scribbled “Quarantine” onto a sheet of paper on top of the stack of boxes, took a well-earned shower, and left a message with the house’s acting landlord—a man who operates Beta Theta Pi’s Wesleyan property from his bungalow out in the flatlands of western Nebraska, whose real name was only spoken in hushed whispers and who everyone simply referred to as the Big Kahuna.
Parasitic nest aside, the former Beta president had evidently left in a hurry. Such a hurry, in fact, that I not only found an iPod stuffed between the couch’s leather cushions within a week of moving in, but, later that June, a second one as well, lying on the bottom of one of the closet cupboards.
All the rooms had an artifact or two to be unearthed. Downstairs, my buddy Casey’s room had an extended index of “Things That Are Gay” listed in sharpie on the wall. For those of you who are wondering which of the “Things That Are Gay” are the most gay, the top of the list includes: 1, Reading, 2, Books, and, 3, People Who Don’t Like Hawaiian Shirts. It continued two thirds of the way down to the floor, and with each entry in a different pen it looked like people had been adding to the list for years. Further down the list: people who don’t like boat hats, and, of course, salad with no meat.
In the room in Beta where I was temporarily lodged during my days of pest-quarantine limbo there was a couple of index cards held to the wall by one thin piece of scotch tape. When I lifted them up I saw a drawing of a woman on her knees, curves outlined like you’d see on the mud flaps of a semi.
But back to the bedbugs.
On the phone, back in Nebraska, the Kahuna wasn’t having any of it.
“In all the years I’ve been managing this house, there’s never been a single case of bedbugs…You really think Dana could have been sleeping every night in an infestation and not realized it? You don’t think he would have gotten itchy, or noticed the bites?” He demanded.
Not out of the realm of possibility, I thought. It seemed like there were a lot of basic hygienic reflexes this guy didn’t have.
“I mean, I don’t know if there are bugs. But still, I’d just still like an inspector to come,” I told the BK, “I mean, just the fact that the bed’s so dirty that it even looks like bedbugs is sort of a problem.”
If there were, in fact, bedbugs to be found, it obviously would’ve required extensive and also costly fumigation, so it seemed like it would be in the Big Guy’s interest to make sure everything was kosher.
A few days later I was pacing around the house as I waited for the inspector, past an engraving of thin-slit eyes and “I have ver ver smarr penis.” When I saw health inspector Charlie come up he told me he wasn’t taking this bed-check officially. The Kahuna had told me earlier he and the inspector were good acquaintances, so none of this informality surprised me too much. But I was surprised by how fast inspector Charlie worked once I led him upstairs to the suspect bed. He lifted the sheets off, ran his eyes over the headboard and the seams, and within two minutes he was looking down shaking his head.
“There’s no bedbugs here.” He stated, a bit plainly and annoyed. “This looks like a combination of dirt, fleas and probably vomit stains.”
I had never been happier for such a triad in my life. But still, something about the two-minute check just didn’t bring the anxiety-assuaging relief I was really hoping for.
Afterwards, I called the Big Kahuna and told him I thought the inspection seemed short and a little unprofessional—and that I read something on the internet that said inspections are supposed to take around an hour.
“What if you really do have an infestation here?” I asked him.
* * *
At least eight months went by after the above episode before I started thinking about Beta again, and about the graffiti. When the news broke about a new rape allegation at Psi Upsilon (and this charge coming only weeks after Caitlin Flanagan wrote a major piece in The Atlantic re-examining the 2010 rape lawsuit at Beta), I knew that it was important for people to know what I saw at Beta.
The graffiti on the walls at Beta is exactly what is being talked about under the umbrella of “rape culture” and its presence on the fraternity’s walls stands as strong evidence for the enabling of sexual violence. I wanted to see if the writing was still there and find out if I it was really still as omnipresent as I remembered.
More importantly, I needed to be as thorough as possible in reporting this story. Normally when I’m writing a piece of non-fiction, I try to fact check as much detail in a story as possible. Given the current controversy swirling around frats at Wesleyan, it seemed particularly vital to make sure the graffiti quoted in this piece was as my sources and I remembered them to be.
Of course, I knew that I wouldn’t be able to get invited to come back inside Beta and scrutinize their architecture for potentially embarrassing quotes. So I pretended to do what I had actually done a year before—I called up Gary, the Beta brother coordinating summer housing. I told him I was looking for a room.
As he showed me around the house, I mentioned that I was looking for a room for me and my “long-distance girlfriend” who was “coming to Middletown for the summer.”
“She wants to help me choose which room we take—is it alright if I take photos?” I asked Gary. He agreed, saying that it wouldn’t be a problem.
But, a minute after showing me through the first room of the tour, he paused and pivoted toward me.
“Wait… are you Ethan Hoffman?”
“Yeah, uh, did you get the email from the Big Kahuna? I think he sent it to you.”
He showed me his iPhone:
Mr. Hoffman –
When I first responded to your inquiry, I had not realized that you were the gentleman who stayed in the president’s suite at Beta last summer.
I believe you would be happier if you found another place to stay this summer.
[The Big Kahuna]
Gary was very perplexed, but he told me I had to go, and so I left, without having taken a single photo.
Then ten minutes later my phone exploded with a call from a high-ranking Beta brother who was, to put it mildly, a little ticked. Word had gotten to him that I was reporting on the Beta walls, and he quickly put the dots together that I had been snooping around.
This high-ranking brother explained that I was banned from Beta, permanently. Or, as the Kahuna put it in an email a few days later:
Please be advised that you are forbidden to enter upon our property, both land and building, and that any such entry will be considered an act of trespass and will be prosecuted to the full extent permitted by law.
[The Extra Big Kahuna]
The high-ranking brother declined to officially comment about any of this. I can’t say much about the conversation we had on the phone, because he threatened me with a defamation lawsuit if I quoted him on anything he said—including the very fact that he did threaten to sue me with a defamation lawsuit. I asked if I would have hypothetically been invited to fact check if I had been up-front about my identity. He told me it most certainly would not have been allowed.
The high-ranking brother explained to me that the writing I’m investigating at Beta is not meant to be hurtful, and that he and his other brothers had viewed the writing as just dark and humorous. The writing isn’t even from the current class and has actually been there since the 1970’s or 80’s, he claimed. Still, this is clearly not the full picture. A source in the class of 1985 familiar with Beta at the time said there was nothing offensive she remembers from the walls. And it’s also worth mentioning that MC Hammer (of Hammer Time fame) didn’t release the song “U Can’t Touch This” until 1990.
It did seem like most of the brothers had never realized the ways those words might hurt people. I did not sense any kind of malevolence. And, to his credit, the high-ranking Beta brother I spoke to did agree to paint over the wall—an action he said is long overdue.
I also hope that the graffiti gets cleaned. What is in question is whether the fraternity will take the necessary action to change the culture that imprinted itself on these walls. For that I’m hopeful, but not optimistic.
* * *
After about a week of badgering about the inspection, the Big Kahuna finally agreed to do something about the bed. I asked him to send for the inspector, and for him to do a real check this time.
I wanted to really know that there wasn’t a problem. In the end though, he just ended up just getting me a new mattress.
—Ethan Hoffman ’14