Memoir explores male brutality -in and out of fraternities
Goat: A Memoir
by Brad Land
San Francisco Chronicle Book Review
February 15, 2004
Brad Land's memoir, "Goat," tells the disturbing story of a young man who is physically and psychologically tortured and abused -- once by strangers, and later in repeated, brutal hazing by his would-be brothers at the Kappa Sigma fraternity at Clemson University. Land's recounting of the actual traumatic events, written in clipped, matter-of-fact prose, is well wrought and affecting. But the book as a whole, which might have been an incisive look at the criminal and societally sanctioned violence that men commit on other men, never addresses the questions it so starkly poses.
By his own description, Land has always been "weird," especially compared with his brother Brett: "I'm twenty years old and I weigh one hundred thirty two pounds and my hands shake a lot and I'm always nervous and scared but I don't know why." Brett, in stark contrast, though a year younger, is handsome, confident and athletic. Brett is also cool and remote, in effect the epitome of the idealized and envied older brother.
As the book begins, both brothers have returned to their Southern hometown after unsatisfying first years of college. One night they attend a frat party at their local college. Brad, always uncomfortable in social situations, decides to head home early. As he leaves the party, a stranger, "all teeth and glowing eyes," asks Brad for a ride and, his reflex to please overriding instinct, he quickly says yes. What follows is a nightmarish ride with the stranger, referred to only as "the smile" and his partner, "the breath." For no apparent reason but the thrill of it, "the smile" and "the breath" coerce Brad into driving them to a remote country road, where they make him pull over, beat him brutally, and, just when he's sure they're going to finish him off, "to break my skull, to crush my ribs," they abandon him by the side of the road.
That event and Brad's return to the local college before leaving for Clemson University, where he will join Brett, make up the first third of the book. Little is made of Brad's psychological recovery, which is boiled down to "This semester I'm making good grades, a three point zero. I've forced the smile and the breath from my head. It's simple: I pretend it was a dream." While Land is clearly being somewhat facetious when he says "it's simple," the reader is left wondering how, in fact, this terrorized young man went from debilitating shock to collegiate success in a matter of weeks.
The rest of "Goat" covers Land's semester at Clemson, where he pledges his brother's frat and goes through brutal hazing rituals. The events of the dehumanizing pledge process are recounted in excruciating detail, but, as with his recovery from the earlier attack, are not explored with any psychological depth and are rendered in stark black and white; Land and his fellow pledges are invariably innocent, sensitive and terribly scared, while the brothers who do the hazing are, almost to a one, vicious thugs.
Such absolutes abound in the book. Men are almost invariably either bullies (or worse) or naifs (or, in the case of brother Brett, who repeatedly abandons Brad in times of need, a little of both). Women are either potential saviors -- repeatedly, after nothing more than a kiss or a held hand, often from a drunken girl he has never met before, Land writes some version of "I wish she'd love me" or "I know she can fix me" -- or victims, mostly of frat brothers who get them drunk to have sex with them and then offhandedly dismiss them as "whores" and "bitches."
As easy as it is to see Brett as the book's villain, the aloof brother who could have helped Brad but didn't, it's worth noting that Brad is insatiably dependent on Brett and seems to look for disappointment from his brother wherever he can find it. A telling episode takes place as they drive to Clemson in separate cars, with Brad, as ever, following Brett: "Brett doesn't look in his rearview mirror every so often like I wish he would to make sure I'm still there."
As "Goat" progresses, Brad grows more and more incapable of coping with the violent and degrading hazing and eventually decides to quit the fraternity. This could be a decisive event in the book and in Brad's life, and a break from the brother who can't give him what he needs. It could be cathartic. Instead, it is disappointing in the extreme for both Brad and the reader. Rather than face them himself, Brad lets Brett inform the brothers of his decision -- in effect he has Brett do the quitting for him -- and the moment it's done, Brad feels no relief but instead immediately experiences dread over retribution from his now former brothers.
Another would-be pivotal event near the book's end is the death of Brad's friend Will, an equally sensitive fellow pledge who doesn't have Brad's strength to quit. After months of abuse, of being the biggest goat among the goats (as the brothers call the pledges), Will ends up being the only pledge who is not voted into the fraternity. A day later, he drops dead of a heart attack while talking to his roommate. While fraternity hazing is absolutely indefensible, Land's argument against it is weakened by focusing on Will's tangentially related death. As Brett says to Brad, half sarcastically, but more relevantly, perhaps, than the author intended, "You don't die from a vote. "
Although there's no denying that Land suffered greatly at the hands of brutes, often there's a hint of excessiveness to Land's descriptions of his abuse. In one of many examples, the morning after he was shoved into a wall during a frat ritual, Land describes his bruises as "soft and gummy. Almost black." But then he adds, as if it's the brightest ray of sunlight in his day, "Didn't leave any blood on the sheets though."
There's also one unsettling question of factual accuracy. In an interview with Land in Publisher's Weekly in November 2003, the author is asked, "Did the death of Will ... trigger you to walk away from the fraternity?" Land responds, "His death was the turning point for me because it gave me permission to say this is not the place for me. ... Also, my decision to walk away came after an accumulation of events and the trauma of his death."
In the book, though, Land quits the frat weeks before Will dies, and even shares a long car ride home with Will before his death. During this drive, they have a heart-to-heart about their frat experience, and Will tells Brad, referring to his decision to quit, "You've got more guts than me."
If it's true that Land revised the chronology for dramatic effect, then the reader has been betrayed. Such substantive creative liberties in memoirs lend substantial credence to the argument that "creative nonfiction" (most recently and controversially that of esteemed memoirist Vivian Gornick, who recently admitted fabricating elements of her work) all too often misleads readers with the "nonfiction" moniker. "True" stories, after all, from memoir to reality TV, do entice and, especially in the past few years, have a cachet (which, to a great extent, inherently excuses them from criticism of plot and other narrative flaws) that fiction lacks.
Controversy aside, "Goat" ends as hopelessly as it begins, with scores of frustrating, unanswered questions. Brad and his fellow pledges are portrayed as sweet, innocent kids. It would be interesting to explore how readily these good kids become next semester's harassers.
Also, why does Brad fall in love with any woman who'll kiss him (and even go so far as to write "I don't know why I love her but I do" about a drowned woman he's never met)? And why does he think, after repeated women do in fact seem to want very much to kiss him, that they only want to do so because he's pledging a frat? Brad and his fellow pledges want to be in a fraternity because, as Land put it in the above-mentioned interview, "As a young teenager, most people feel isolated, awkward and long to belong. ... Fraternities are almost impossible to resist." Clemson has more than 13,000 undergraduates, only about 20 percent of them in fraternities and sororities. Why do Land and his fellow pledges feel such a pull toward fraternal life when so many other students clearly don't?
And, most important, how do the two violent episodes that make up "Goat" relate to each other, and what do they mean to Land, and thus to the reader? In the Publisher's Weekly interview, Land says: "I wanted to talk about violence committed against men in its many forms and what it can do to you." Well, Land describes two harrowing examples of that violence, but he doesn't really talk about it, just repeats some version of his noir mantra: "Somehow this is all wrong."
For "Goat" to have succeeded, Land would have at least struggled to tell us how it's "all wrong." Instead, "Goat" reads as the scattershot journal of a sensitive young man who isn't ready to face his fundamental demons.
© 2006 Jamie Berger