Max Marshall, who has written for publications like GQ, Sports Illustrated and The New York Times, arrived at the College of Charleston in 2018 as a 25-year-old fraternity alumnus hoping to write about Xanax. He intended to investigate a small-time trafficking ring that involved the arrest of nine young individuals, most of whom were students or former students at the college with ties to the Greek system. The group’s ringleader was Mikey Schmidt, a 21-year-old member of the Kappa Alpha fraternity who had just been sentenced to 10 years in prison without parole. As Marshall started reporting, however, it became clear that the scope of the crimes was far bigger than what was made public: homicide, several student deaths, a nationwide trafficking network and the seizure of 21 million dollars worth of black-market Xanax.
Telling this full story for the first time in his debut novel, which was released earlier this month, “Among the Bros: A Fraternity Crime Story” takes readers below the surface of one of Travel + Leisure ’s “Most Beautiful Campus in America,” tracing several of the boys’ journeys from fraternity pledges to interstate drug traffickers. Marshall interviewed more than 120 people connected to the case, including Schmidt and his attorneys, fraternity and college representatives, family members of the murder victim, and many others.
I talked to Marshall about his research journey, what diving into the party cliche of Greek life means and how his writing impacts a college demographic.
Even before your debut book, you were a writer. How did your journalism career begin, and what about reporting drew you to the field?
I actually started writing as a songwriter when I was little. I was a pretty serious musician in middle school and high school. But at the same time, I was reading a lot of music journalism. I was the classic nerdy kid reading Rolling Stone, and then in college, I actually ended up interning at Esquire for a while to study long-form journalism. I always thought I was going to be a musician and culture writer, and I was living in Vietnam for a year for a journalism fellowship. I pitched GQ about a Hollywood director who decided to move to Ho Chi Minh City to become an ambassador for the Vietnamese government.
So I interviewed him at a nightclub in Saigon and he told me why he loved Vietnam. Right before it ran, my girlfriend at the time, now my wife, had a cancer scare so I had to put the whole story to the side. During that interim, [the director] went back to that same nightclub, and he got attacked by a bunch of Vietnamese Canadian drug traffickers. They destroyed the whole nightclub. He woke up about a week later and he asked the police, ‘Who did this to me?’ and they said, ‘It’s best you don’t look into this.’ He called the only journalist he knew in Vietnam, which was me, and asked me to help him solve the case. That’s how I started in investigative journalism.
You open your novel by talking about learning about Mikey Schmidt during a conference. Was this the first time you encountered a frat crime, or was there something about Mikey that made you decide to open your book with him?
I had seen a lot of Xanax flying around the fraternity when I was in college. After doing that GQ piece and learning more about investigative journalism, I was like, ‘Is there a way to talk about Xanax in college more like a crime story that could get people reading about it?’ I Googled ‘Xanax bust fraternity,’ and [Mikey’s] article was the first result, so that’s what got me into it.
As one of the few people willing to talk about the dangers of Greek life openly, how do you think researching and writing this book has affected you personally?
It’s a very painful headspace to live in for years. Obviously, the hardest part is talking to parents who have lost their children. That really weighs on you. But generally, it feels like I’ve spent so much time talking about Mickey that one part of my brain is always in his cell in that watery prison. It’s definitely affected me, but I also think having these really candid conversations about addiction and anxiety has helped me change the way I view my own anxiety and mental health.
When researching, was there anything that shocked you, or anything that no one thinks of when it comes to these cases?
There were a few things missing in the way people wrote about Greek life. I felt like there was a class bias. I felt like kids in Greek life were from really wealthy backgrounds and white. I felt like that was missing when we talked about Greek life and fraternities. Also, I think what was missing was a way of talking about why kids join these groups. I think there’s a false sense that kids get tricked into joining, and then they go down into the dungeon and get hazed. Whereas a lot of kids join fraternities knowing they haze, so it’s a question of why. That was something I really wanted to interrogate.
Your nonfiction writing has an excellent storytelling tone that makes me feel like I’m watching a crime show. Were there any specific types of media that you consumed when drafting “Among the Bros?”
My favorite guy was Emmanuel Carrère. He has a book called “The Adversary” that I think is a great crime book. The movie “Spring Breakers,” was definitely an influence on my book, since it was from the same time period. Everything you read and watch trickles in one way or another, but “Spring Breakers” was definitely often in my head.
Your research started almost a decade ago and includes blackout culture (when students mix drugs and alcohol). How do you think blackout culture has changed from then until now?
I think the biggest thing you see in blackout culture is the arrival of Fentyl on the scene, which happened after the 2012 to 2016 window. It arrived in 2018, and so now you have the one-pill-kills mentality. It only takes one pill to overdose, and I definitely saw that manifesting with guys from the fraternity who graduated, but in other ways, I think it’s a deepening of themes in the book. There’s a lot of self-medicating for anxiety which is still very much a big story on college campuses. I don’t have a sense it will be going away anytime soon.
Despite the apparent darkness within college Greek life, as a member, did you ever regret joining Phi Beta Kappa? Did you have any favorite memories that shaped your college experience?
One of the main reasons people join fraternities is to be in a connected world. Even when I sat down to write the book, I realized I needed a LinkedIn to reach out to all these guys. I had zero connections, but then I started typing in the names of fraternity guys and the next thing you knew, I had 40 connections, 80 connections, [etc.]. By the time I was done, I had a lot of mutual connections with guys in the story. So there’s this sense of being in a bigger network that was really helpful in reporting the book.
Senior year [of college] I stopped paying dues at my fraternity, so I think I already had complicated feelings about it, but some of my closest friends at the time were from my fraternity. I got married this year and they were at the wedding so it shows how it stays with us.
How do you think this book will appeal to a college demographic who may not want to read about something as harsh as the fraternity crimes you write about?
I think that it is a page-turner of a story. It’s funny. I think once you walk through what happened, the consequences, the lack of consequences, there are plenty of morals to take away from it. But it’s this journey inside this bubble that, for most of the time, is impenetrable. Whether you’re part of Greek life or not, this story is about the American elite and the breeding ground of American power, and it’s also a crazy story with lots of twists and turns for a lot of people.
Many thanks to Max Marshall for taking the time out of his hectic day to sit and chat with me about his book. It was such a fun interview to conduct after listening to how he got started (what are the chances it started in a bar in Saigon?) and where he is today.
I’d also like to thank Elena Stokes from WunderKind PR for setting up this in-person interview between Marshall and me. It was so fun chatting about Marshall’s book and all of the ins and outs of college and publishing.