Chancers: Addiction, Prison, Recovery, Love – One Couple’s Memoir
By Susan Stellin and Graham MacIndoe
422 pages, $27
By Lee Coppola
Susan Stellin, a free-lance journalist, met Graham MacIndoe, a Scot working in New York City as a professional photographer, at a beach house in Montauk.
Three years later she contacted him (she had to send him her picture to jar his memory) to ask if he could take her portrait for the release of her book on travel tips.
A spark was ignited.
And for much of “Chancers,” that spark glowed, faded, reignited, extinguished and finally flared again. Stellin and MacIndoe, in entries sometimes akin to fighters in the ring, tell the story of their lives as MacIndoe rides a roller-coaster life of drug addiction and prison while Stellin plods along watching, sometimes from afar, as his life unravels.
It is a remarkable nine-year parallel journey that forced them to bare their innermost thoughts and feelings, forced them to distance themselves and, finally, forced them to recognize that a life, even in the depths of despair, merits saving.
They recount the journey through emails, notes the journalist Stellin took to keep tabs of her life, and conversations with themselves and others they admit were based solely on their memories.
If anything, it’s the extensive dialogue that sometimes throws the reader. How could such detail be remembered over so many years? No matter, the power of the telling compensates for any doubts. It grabs in a voyeuristic way and propels page-turning to find out what happens next in a saga no soap opera could create.
MacIndoe, especially, provides horrid glimpses of the world of a junkie. He describes in lurid detail the crippling need for crack or heroin, the desperation to light the crack pipe when his lighter lacked fuel, the frenzy of finding a vein to inject the heroin.
All the while, his world spins out of control. He loses Stellin, he loses his Brooklyn brownstone, and he distances himself from his family back in Scotland and his teenage son living nearby with his ex-wife.
It’s a shame-filled expose of the lies he told to hide his habit and the shoddy lifestyle into which he descended.
Meanwhile, Stellin never loses concern for him, even when he manipulates her and takes up with another woman, a fellow junkie. In the end, she’s the one who saves him, perhaps, the reader theorizes, because of her upbringing in a staunch Catholic household that recognized the need to care for others less fortunate.
But she admits she was naïve. “I thought that getting clean was mostly a matter of willpower,” she writes. “You finally decide to quit because the negative consequences of using had become unavoidably, painfully clear.”
MacIndoe, on the other hand, tries to convince himself he’s on the road to recovery before he finally hits bottom. “I wish she could see I’m doing my best,” he writes. “I’m just trying to get better, bit by bit, and when I slip it gets thrown in my face like I’ve made no attempt whatsoever to get clean. That’s when I want to go back to the one thing I know will ease all the pain.”
Answers Stellin: “Graham as I knew him didn’t exist anymore. An addiction overtook him, like vines you stop cutting back or trying to control, it was getting harder and harder to remember who he used to be.”
Of course, MacIndoe’s addiction lands him behind bars, first in Rikers Island and then in a federal detention facility awaiting deportation. Again, his description of bone-chilling cells, uncaring guards and inedible food provide insight into what his craving for drugs had led to.
But then, for some unfathomable reason even she can’t explain, Stellin steps in. She provides bail, then spends months jumping through bureaucratic hoops to fight his deportation.
“I really didn’t swoop in to try to save him because I thought we’d get back together,” she remembers. “I wasn’t sure he’d be able to stay clean over the long haul, and more importantly, I didn’t know if I could ever really trust him.”
For his part, MacIndoe joins a boot-camp-like rehabilitation program in prison that helps convince an immigration judge to allow him to remain in the United States. Stellin, perhaps too humbly, refuses to take credit for MacIndoe’s rise from the depths, preferring instead to give him credit for overcoming his addiction.
The title of the book came from a Scottish phrase about people who take chances. It seems Stellin took a chance on MacIndoe, but only time will tell if he remains free of drugs and the chance was worth it.
Lee Coppola is a former print and broadcast journalist, a former federal prosecutor and a former dean of St. Bonaventure University’s Jandoli Journalism School.