For nearly 200 years, Yale’s premier secret society, Skull and Bones, has influenced the political, economical and cultural landscape of this country. Undoubtedly many people have tried to unearth the society’s clandestine operations from break-ins to years of research, and the question naturally arises: what makes Alexandra Robbins’ account, entitled Skull and Bones, The Ivy League and the Hidden Paths of Power: Secrets of the Tomb, so special?
One needs only to glance at the inside back flap of the book and contemplate the picture of the author in order to hypothesize how she could have wrenched secrets away from such a staunch group. Leisurely thumbing through the center pictures allows the reader to capture the most salient points of the book – in my opinion, there are few actual passages written by Robbins herself worth reading.
I cannot by any means claim to be an expert on secret societies, nor one on the English language. I also concede the inherent difficulty in writing a book on a secret society that has tentacles reaching into every aspect of life, and works to scare anybody that gets too close. Nonetheless, Robbins fails to introduce any brilliant revelations or insights into these secret societies, or crystallize any previous observations on these societies.
Instead of an exclusive piece of breaking news, the book comes off as a lackluster book report. Additionally, in an attempt to justify her lack of finesse and salvage some merit for the book, I falsely hypothesized that she was attempting to convey the notion that she was writing this book under the pretense that Skull and Bones was the ghostwriter, controlling the progress of the book.
No evidence of this materialized in the book, but the harsh criticisms of Skull and Bones alumnus President George W. Bush, as well as other associated public officials, are indicative that the society did not approve of the publication of this book. In terms of a historical account on secret societies, Robbins does an adequate job. Though the subject matter is currently rather heated, I expected a little more fire in her accounts.
Engaging in the task of writing a book requires a certain amount of dedication and passion, which seems absent in the author’s approach to the book. Robbins consistently fails to draw any meaningful conclusions on the current state of Skull and Bones, or their past actions. She splits the difference on their involvement in such touted events as the Bay of Pigs Invasion, the Kennedy assassination and even the development of the atomic bomb.
The book lacks flow and direction, and fails to persuade or enlighten. I also question the obvious conflict of interest, as she herself is a member of another Yale secret society. Ultimately, Robbins starts out asserting that secret societies possess an awe inspiring amount of power, with enormous financial resources and boundless circles of influence. This bold statement contradicts her closing arguments that these societies are dwindling, and that their primary source of power is rooted in the information that the public perceives about their society.
Although reading this book and writing this review ate up much of my weekend, there were several small glimmers of hope buried within the experience. The whole notion of Junior Tap Day, the time when juniors were approached by societies and then invited to join the order, amused me, particularly the lengths that some groups would go to in order to extend invitations to juniors in study abroad programs or in training after the draft before World War I and II. Williams’ own Gargoyle Society, incidentally, once employed a similar method of inducting new members, albeit in more public and less mystic fashion. Our secret society sector does not meet the standard Yale sets.
I must offer some recognition to the amount of research Robbins must have conducted, and to the only enlightening aspect of the book: the quotation of expert and first-hand accounts. Nonetheless, the crude arrangement of quotes inclines me towards seizing her bibliography and reading selected works in order to grasp a more comprehensive knowledge base on secret societies.
For anyone interested in learning more about secret societies I suggest renting the terrible Joshua Jackson vehicle “Skulls,” because although the movie embellishes the grandiose nature of a society, watching a bad movie is less painful than reading a bad book.