Thursday, July 16, 2009

Observing My Grief

The postings on this site are my own and don't necessarily represent IBM's positions, strategies or opinions.

With Apologies to C.S. Lewis

"I feel sad," I told a friend tonight.

"Feel it," she said.

"Yeah, otherwise, the grief just comes back and bites me...." I agreed. Here is why I am sad:

None of the sororities at the University of Michigan asked me to pledge when I rushed in 1983.

Last night, on the way out of class, while exiting Columbia University's Teachers College, where my employer graciously is sponsoring my Masters, I dialed a college-friend and said, "I'm walking out of this great university to my fancy Volvo in an Armani suit and I feel awful....In class, in small groups, we analyzed an article by a black lesbian around my age, about how she joined and then quit a sorority at the U. of I. in the '80s....I have all of this stuff and yet none of it can keep me from feeling second-class."

When we were University of Michigan dormmates, my friend was incredulous that I went through Rush. She never really knew how devastating an experience it was for me. And the extra indignity of having a gorgeous, random roommate sophomore year, who pledged the Tri-Delt sorority, tied with Chi Omega as the top sorority on campus. Her mainstreamness, and that of the beautiful friends -- her sorority sisters who would stop by our room too routinely -- opened my Freshman wound, which festered all year long; living with such a perfect woman, I proved awkward with a mean edge.

That summer, as part of a birthday present, my friend thought she was funny by sending me a whole pad of Delta Delta Delta stationery, with a "Ghostbusters" symbol through the three deltas on the top of every page. I laughed along even as I still felt ashamed that I had not even remotely qualified to join that club.

Outsider Status-symbols

During class last night, our professor showed us amazing clips from "The Way Home," by the World Trust, which highlighted exclusionary experiences of biracial women from a variety of cultures -- a very different sort of sorority. Afterwards, one of my classmates spoke of her experience, growing up in Japan with a Portuguese father and of her own half-White daughter's experience of going to Japanese School on Saturdays.

My classmate's story encouraged me to talk about what I hadn't discussed when we were explicating the "Sistah Outsider" article. I raised my hand.

"Yes, Sarah?"

"I appreciated Cathy's story and it made me want to say a couple of things. In another class, I had a classmate, who grew up as half-WASP and half-Jewish and she said she envied me my solid identity, and I couldn't imagine anyone, considering me privileged for being *Jewish,* a tiny minority that's had to move all over the place throughout history." Sarah, be courageous. Say what you really want to say, I told myself.

"And I didn't say this during the window when we were talking about the 'Sistah Outsider" article--"

"That's OK," said my professor in a kindly tone.

"But I really related to her story, except that I'm Jewish and she's black. I remember thinking, Should I try to get into the WASPiest sorority possible, or should I aim for at least the more prestigious of the two Jewish sororities? What if the friendlier, but less prestigious, one invited me to pledge?

If I got into a sorority, it would be proof that I was a real woman, and I could escape my lesbianism, I reasoned. And then I was invited back to the next round only by the least desirable sorority on campus. [Choking up,] My mom had been in a sorority [that wasn't on my campus....]." How raw I felt!

A Layer-cake, Layered with Shame

It was always a layered shame for me -- my wish to be a sorority-girl: I was ashamed that I wanted to join a sorority; ashamed that none would have me; ashamed that I really believed I could prove my heterosexuality through sorority membership. If anything, it would have been a far more difficult place to try to hide my lesbianism.

I never felt lonelier those first several weeks of Freshman year than when I would put on a skirt, leave all of my new friends behind at the dorm, all of whom thought sororities were ill-suited to their sensibilities, and ride the bus from North Campus to Washtenaw Avenue, or Sorority/Fraternity Row. My father was dead, I was in a new place, where I'd never been till Day 1 of Freshman year, never having moved at all, and nourishing a dream of universal popularity and highly-visible good-deeds.

One of the sororities -- the one that had the cartoonist of Cathy among its alumna if I remember correctly -- promised that the next round of Rush would feature an peppermint social. I could taste the ice cream as the interviewer spoke. I never did get to, though.


Bernie said...

I don't know if this observation will help, but speaking for myself, I have found that I have learned more about myself when I have been excluded then when I have been included. In the long term that has been much more valuable to me.

Furthermore, the more I learn about groups, the less value I place in them. Your best identity is the one that comes from knowing yourself, not from your association with the identity of a group, I have found.

Sarah Siegel said...

Bernie, thanks for your wisdom.