Thursday, April 13, 2006

Duke Lacrosse, "American Psycho," and "I am Charlotte Simmons"

One of the most powerful details used against the Lacrosse players at my alma mater is the email from one of the players to his teammates that says, "I plan on killing the bitches as soon as the [sic] walk in and proceding [sic] to cut their skin off." This has been blared across the media without the explanation that this is a reference to the film "American Psycho," which is apparently a campus cult classic. One of the teammates cleverly replied, "I'll bring the Phil Collins."

On the flight back from Buenos Aires, I read Tom Wolfe's "I am Charlotte Simmons." Even if Wolfe's account is highly exaggerated, the level of misogyny, debauchery, and cynical, sarcastic stupidity at our nation’s best colleges is just amazing.

Does Wolfe exaggerate? I was at The New York Times during the Tawana Brawley days, and, boy, Wolfe was pretty prescient and accurate in “Bonfire of the Vanities.” Nevertheless, his account of lawlessness in the South Bronx was highly exaggerated, making me scared to death when the Times sent me up there alone to cover a story. Also in "I am Charlotte Simmons" he says that Nike's marketing budget is $200 billion. That blew me away. So I asked Gary what he thought Nike's budget is. He guessed $1 billion. So I googled it. Gary was exactly right - $1 billion, not $200 billion.

Back to “I am Charlotte Simmons.” The fictional “Dupont University” is said to be based on Duke, and Dupont has a large share of crass Lacrosse players, one of whom attacks Charlotte sexually in a drunken stupor. Pretty amazing, aye?

Personally, when at Duke 20 years ago, I didn’t see any of the jerks or debauchery described by Wolfe or indicated by the Lacrosse team’s email or stripper show. That’s probably because 1986 is now officially ancient times and because I didn’t run with the self-proclaimed “cool” kids.

Duke was big enough that one can easily stay away from these people. That undermines a central assumption in Wolfe’s novel: Charlotte could not help but be corrupted by her social surroundings. My boarding school, however, was small, and I had to eat and live with just the sort of lacrosse-frat types that are described so richly by Wolfe.

It is easy to see how the snobby, highly conformist attitudes incubated in boarding schools and elite day schools can lead to the behavior exhibited by Tom Wolfe's monsters.