Chancers: One Couple's Memoir
by Graham MacIndoe and Susan Stellin
Ballantine (2016), 448 pages
Chance. Luck. Choice. We take chances. We have luck. We make choices.
As a photographer, Graham MacIndoe chose—subjects, frames, aperture settings, negatives to be printed.
As a writer, Susan Stellin chose—subjects, sentences, adjectives, edits to be published.
They both took chances with their creations, their careers, and each other.
When MacIndoe was locked up in Rikers Island and then dragged through the absurd labyrinth of the immigration detention system, they had to make some choices about which chances were really worth taking. They eventually chose one of the most risky chances: love.
Stellin writes of MacIndoe, who is originally from Scotland: “He talked his way into art school, landed a New York gallery job, bought a brownstone, got approved for a green card. When he decided to become a commercial photographer, his success was practically instant. In British slang, people might call him a ‘chancer’—an opportunist or risk taker—although I preferred a more positive spin on that label.”
MacIndoe took chances and seemed to have had some “good luck.” But he also had “bad luck” in spades. Maybe it was “bad luck” that MacIndoe was arrested for an explosion from a forgotten CO2 canister that had fallen behind the radiator on the second story of his brownstone. The blast had nothing to do with do with the drugs on the first floor, but when the cops arrived and destroyed his home searching (probably illegally) for “evidence,” they found the forgotten crack pipe that Stellin had hidden months ago the first time she caught him passed out from smoking.
Maybe it was “bad luck” that the cops saw a single drop of blood on MacIndoe’s shoe as he was exiting the corner deli, a suspicion that led to the search that found the other pipe in his sock—another arrest, a conviction, and the beginning of his Kafkaesque journey through Rikers Island and then his detention by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and near deportation.
“Luck,” however, always starts with a choice. MacIndoe chose to light the pipe and put the needle in his arm, a choice that, much like suicide, made him incapable of making future decisions. Such is the tragedy of addiction. MacIndoe also chose to stick with the recovery program in York County Prison, but only with the “luck” of having been allowed into the program at all, as it’s uncommon for an immigrant to be afforded such treatment.
Most lucky for MacIndoe was that Stellin chose to take a chance...on him.
Chancers is a memoir about addiction, prison, recovery, and love. Each chapter alternates between the perspective of Stellin, then MacIndoe. Reading any memoir is intimate, as the reader is invited into the heart and mind of the writer, but the structure of Chancers places the reader directly between Stellin and MacIndoe, allowing scrutiny of their letters and e-mails as the romance buds, dissipates, and then rekindles through their correspondences while MacIndoe is incarcerated. The experience of reading Chancers can at moments be unsettling, as though, just as all letters that come in and out of prison are surveilled, we too are somehow participating in the surveillance and control of these two hearts. But in the end, a more honest picture of both MacIndoe and Stellin develops.
The memories we write about ourselves only tell half the story of who we are. The memories that others write about us are what make the “picture” of a person more complete.
Chancers would be worth reading if it were simply a story of how love triumphed in the face of addiction and imprisonment. But it moves beyond the personal and the romantic into the social and political, becoming a story of the fight for justice and a scathing indictment of jails and prisons in the United States. MacIndoe’s horrifying stories of his stint at Rikers would be enough to provoke anyone ignorant of how the criminal justice system works in this country to question whether any “justice” is being served. But when he is picked up by ICE and taken through immigration detention, the process and the conditions become indistinguishable from those in authoritarian countries. “Hell on Earth” may be an overused metaphor, but reading Dante’s Inferno or Kafka’s The Trial alongside the chapters about MacIndoe’s incarceration makes for an appalling comparison. “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.”
(This living hell for a white male who can speak English and has advocates fighting for him on the outside. Imagine what the experience must be like for someone who does not have these advantages.)
MacIndoe would be the first to admit that had he not been locked up, he might have died from an overdose in the cold dark corner of some housing projects. But his recovery in prison had nothing at all to do with the institution of “justice” through which he passed.
He writes of his experience at Rikers: “It’s like a finishing school for criminals. If you got busted for dealing, you’re guaranteed to meet a better connect. If you’re in for shoplifting, you’ll learn how to beat the store detectors. If you boosted cars, someone will teach you how not to get caught. Everybody comes out of here even more embedded in a life of crime—and it doesn’t seem like there’s any attempt to give people better options.”
But when he is moved to the immigration detention center in York, Pennsylvania, MacIndoe looks back on Rikers with nostalgia. At York, MacIndoe writes, “They treat us like we’re worse than criminals—like shit on the bottom of society’s shoe, something offensive to be scraped off and thrown away.” The whole account makes one wonder how legal any of the treatment is once one gets sucked into the black hole of immigration detention—the denial of basic legal and human rights, the various mechanisms of control that start to resemble forms of torture, the systematic destruction of living subjects into merely existing objects meant to be managed and literally shipped out like merchandise marked “Return to Sender.”
Those who are to be transferred are awakened in the middle of the night, “Pack up…pack up.” Graham writes, “It’s a real mind fuck, all these people getting taken away in the middle of the night. It’s the kind of thing you see in movies or hear about in repressive countries. I’m sure most people have no idea it’s happening here.”
“Here I feel like I’m trapped inside of a machine designed to move people through detention centers and spit them out of the country. We’re all tracked by our alien number, which is how the government refers to anyone who isn’t a citizen—as ‘aliens.’ It feels like we’ve been totally removed from the world we used to know.”
One night, it seemed like MacIndoe was finally going to be deported. They woke him in the middle of the night. He had to pack his things and prepare himself to leave everything behind for good now. But just as he was about to be “returned to sender,” there was an inexplicable delay. He returned to York. Days later, he was finally able to reach Stellin on the phone. “Sorry I haven’t called,” MacIndoe said. “I was in the hole.” “The hole?” she asked. “The box—solitary. They packed me up to ship me out a few days ago—again—but for some reason they didn’t’ put me on the bus. Then the guards didn’t know what to do with me so they threw me in the hole.”
He said it almost casually—such unexpectedness became expected, such absurdity became rational. But this was a turning point for Stellin. “Graham had been plunged in the kind of nightmare most Americans thinks only happens in other countries—usually not democracies—where people get thrown in prison with no rights…So when Graham told me that he’d been thrown in solitary confinement because some guard didn’t know what else to do with him, I got drawn into his battled. And to be honest, at that point it became mine.”
Hell hath no fury…
MacIndoe was rescued from this abyss. Stellin’s persistence, MacIndoe’s own choices to quit using, a little bit of old-fashioned good luck, and above all, love, helped MacIndoe to be free today. In a recent project, MacIndoe has turned his camera onto other immigrants who did not escape, so many mothers and fathers who had to leave their children behind. Stellin has gathered their heartbreaking and enraging stories. Their collaborative project, American Exile, shows the sad reality that many times, love is not enough, how the so-called sword of justice is often used to cut the ties between family and community, severing any possibility of redemption through love.
Justice is personified as blind, an image of objectivity, impartiality, and fairness. In her right hand, she wields the sword of punishment. In her left are the famous scales that weigh the evidence. This symbol goes back to the ancient Egyptian goddess Ma’at, a deity that was also connected to the concepts of truth, morality, and balance. The hearts of the dead would be weighed against the feather of Ma’at—those light hearts of virtue would be rewarded with an afterlife, the heavy and hard-hearted devoured and forever annihilated from existence.
But if the heart of Justice herself were weighed against the feather?
In the line of recent books about the tragedy of mass incarceration in the United States—Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, Marie Gottschalk’s Caught, and Naomi Murakawa’s The First Civil Right, to name a few—Chancers offers a personal glimpse into the absurdities and horrors of the criminalization of drugs and the treatment of illegal immigrants. Stellin and MacIndoe write this memoir not only to tell their story, but to expose the heavy heart of Justice. Stellin writes in the epilogue: “Maybe it’ll change how some people think about addicts, and people with criminal records, and immigrants.” In this way, Chancers moves beyond the particular relationship of two partners and interrogates the universal relationship of a polity to its citizenry. They are brutally honest in their bleak diagnosis of the malignant tumors that have metastasized across the criminal justice system, a body that might be terminal. They offer no roadmap for reform or abolition, but through their love, not only of each other, but also of justice, they provide a model of action that might penetrate and soften the hard heart of justice. Exhausting vigilance, dogged persistence, and, above all, the courage to choose to take a chance—only in this way might abstract justice be mediated by the concrete and embodied action that is love.
Nonfiction, Prisons, Prison Writing