From Brooklyn to Rikers and Back with Susan Stellin and Graham MacIndoe

Susan Stellin and Graham MacIndoe Authors, Chancers – Brooklyn, New York © Graham MacIndoe

When Susan Stellin and Graham MacIndoe began seeing each other in 2005, neither of them could have imagined the terribly difficult journey they would embark upon together. Co-written by Stellin and MacIndoe, Chancers: Addiction, Prison, Recovery, Love: One Couple’s Memoir recounts the most trying years in both their lives. Just as their relationship was beginning to blossom, Graham relapsed. They were tested by the unflinching grip of addiction, the rock-bottom reality of Rikers Island, and the unexpected ruthlessness of immigration detention. Chancers is a searing look into the bowels of the American criminal justice and immigration systems, and the lengths that we will go to protect those we love.

SIGNATURE: You co-wrote Chancers, and while Susan’s professional background is in writing, Graham’s is in photography. How did each of your backgrounds play into the writing process? What were you each able to bring to the table?

SUSAN STELLIN: Graham may not be a writer (as he sometimes reminded me when he got frustrated), but he’s very articulate and he has a really sensory way of experiencing the world. Plus he’s got that Scottish gift for storytelling, so I don’t think I could’ve captured what happened to him as well if I had tried to write this book on my own. For instance, when he described getting strip searched at Rikers Island, he wrote about the sound of everyone getting dressed afterward, as they zipped up their jeans and their shoes squeaked on the floor. It never would’ve occurred to me that all these guys would be trying not to look at each other, so describing what he heard was the best way to capture that moment.

Graham is also much more visual than me, so his chapters reflect all the things he’s noticing around him, whereas I tend to focus on interactions between people – not the setting or how anyone looks. What I brought to the table was more experience as a writer, so I spent a lot of time on the plot and structuring the scenes in each chapter, then choosing what to develop or leave out. I’d never written a book like this, but years of interviewing people as a reporter helped me refine the dialogue to sound more authentic, and also focus on what was essential. I was used to writing 1,000-word articles, so at first having 400-plus pages seemed like way more than we could possibly fill, but in the end there was a lot we decided to cut. We were always very aware of the fact that readers would know the ending, so it was important to keep the narrative moving, and try to create a bit of suspense about how it all played out.

SIG: Chancers isn’t the first time either of you have, in one way or another, gone public with the story of Graham’s addiction and its many consequences. Graham, you have a book of photography out, and Susan, you interviewed Graham for New York Magazine, for a piece that included some truly visceral photos of Graham’s depicting his addiction. How was writing this book both similar to and different from your other expressions of this journey you’ve both been on? Did writing Chancers achieve something your interviews, articles, and photography couldn’t?

GRAHAM MACINDOE: Writing the book gave us the ability to really explore many of the themes that had come up in Susan’s interview with me in a much deeper and personal way. In that interview I was looking back at my addiction – with hindsight – but my chapters in Chancers are all told in the present tense. The reason we did that was to allow readers to get inside my mind – while I’m using drugs or sitting on my bed in jail or about to go into court and get sentenced.

All those thoughts and feelings are really difficult to communicate just with photography. The self-portraits I took while I was using are really intense to look at and provoke an immediate reaction, but they only tell part of the story. The book puts that experience of being an addict into a wider context and also gave me a chance to talk more about my recovery. One thing that made me hesitant to publish those self-portraits was that they don’t show how I got clean, and for me that’s a really important part of the book.

SIG: You draw extensively from emails and letters you wrote to each other throughout your relationship in Chancers, and Susan, you even draw from your own journal entries. How do you think this book would be different had you not both written so much while it was all happening? Would you still have been able to write it?

Susan Stellin and Graham MacIndoe Letters


SS: Honestly, I’m not sure we would’ve been able to write this book if we hadn’t had so many emails, letters, and notes from journals to help reconstruct how we felt and what really happened. It was actually a little sad to go back and read through these long emails from ten years ago and realize that my friends and family all send text messages instead of the detailed emails we wrote back then. That’s partly why the book ends when Graham got released. Ever since we’ve been living together, our written communications tend to be things like, “Just got to the gym” or “Can you p/u milk?” so it would’ve been tough to write about our recent past with as much detail and authenticity as the rest of the book.

SIG: The book alternates between each of your points of view, in sections that tell their own stories, but that also build upon and enrich one another. For each of you, was the act of writing Chancers an individual task, or more of a group project? How much time did each of you spend alone, writing?

SS: I wrote most of my chapters by myself, then I showed them to Graham and he weighed in with suggestions. He was somewhat tentative about commenting on my chapters at first, but as he got more confident about his writing he didn’t hold back as much, and he actually became a really good editor. That was sort of annoying, because I felt like I had taught him what to look for, so when he’d give me advice and I realized he was right I sometimes thought, “Damn, now I have to go back and rewrite that whole section.”

With his chapters, we tried different approaches. If he was writing about a time period when we were together I could give him more guidance about what to cover because I was there, but for parts of the book I didn’t experience, like his time at Rikers, he had to do more of the heavy lifting. Then there were parts that were either too emotional or too complex for Graham to put down in words, so I’d interview him and either take notes or record his answers. Then he’d go off and try to turn some of those notes into a scene, or sometimes we’d sit on the couch and do that together. So it really varied depending on which section we were working on. We actually didn’t write this book in chronological order, partly because it took us a while to be able to tackle certain chapters.

SIG: Chancers is a deeply personal book that catalogues what essentially must have been the worst time in each of your lives. What was it like for you both to re-enter that headspace? To what extent was writing Chancers a part of the addiction-recovery process for you, Graham?

GM: It was really painful at points, and I don’t think anything prepared us for how deep we’d have to dig to get what we wanted or what it would be like to do this together. Susan was really good at eking things out of me but also knew when she had to pull back and give me a break. It was especially hard for me to put myself back into that headspace of being an addict and write about how I felt on drugs, then also reflect on how I was treating the people who loved me.

One of the most upsetting things was looking back and seeing missed opportunities – when I might’ve been able to get clean earlier on – but we both tried not to dwell on things we can’t go back and change. Not that we always succeeded, but I think in some ways writing this book was good for me in terms of my recovery. Trying to make sense of what happened allowed me to open up more with family and friends – I’d already done that with Susan – and I think all of those conversations really helped make those relationships stronger. I love that I can be open and honest about what I’ve been through now, but I’m not sure I would’ve understood it as well if I hadn’t gone through this writing process.

SIG: What advice would you both offer to those going through addiction themselves, or to those who have a loved one suffering from addiction?

GM: It’s tough to give advice to people without knowing their specific situation, especially since I think there’s no one-size-fits-all solution to addiction. We all became addicts in different ways, so getting clean is a very individual process. But one of the things I think addicts and their families need to accept is that recovery takes a long time. You can’t fix years of addiction in twenty-eight days. Even after I did a four-month rehab program in prison, it still took a lot of work to come to terms with what I’d been through and the pain I’d caused – and then relearn how to live my life without drugs.

The other advice I’d give is to address the situation when you first realize that someone has a problem. A lot of people are afraid to do that because addicts can be really belligerent and defensive, but if you don’t do that early intervention, you’re going to be dealing with a problem that’s much harder to address down the road. The bigger issue is that there are not enough affordable, comprehensive programs to treat addiction, and that’s something that has to change if we’re really serious about fighting this epidemic.

SIG: About two-thirds of the way through Chancers, the story turns to your struggles with the deportation process. Although Graham had a green card and had been a permanent resident since 1999, after being convicted of a misdemeanor, he was subject to deportation. You tell the story of battling immigration detention from the inside and the outside, and expose many injustices within the system that the average citizen may know nothing about. Reading this in the midst of an election season, I couldn’t help but think of the angry, unproductive rhetoric that has surrounded matters of immigration (i.e., Trump’s “wall”). How do you think the political climate would shift if voters were more aware of the implications of such rhetoric? What do you think needs to change to raise awareness around the lives and struggles of immigrants?

Graham MacIndoe ICE

SS: I think there’s a misperception that only people who are undocumented can get deported, when in reality it can also happen to green card holders, asylum seekers, and people who came here with a valid visa and were trying to adjust their status. The immigration system is extremely complex, but if you’ve never dealt with that bureaucracy you might think that people are either here “legally” or “illegally” and not realize that there’s a wide range of visa types; it’s not simply a matter of getting in line and waiting to get a green card.

So about a year after Graham got released, we decided to do a project together interviewing and photographing other people who had been deported and their families (usually citizens) who stayed behind in the U.S. We eventually got a fellowship from the Alicia Patterson Foundation to support that project, and when we exhibited it at a photography festival in New York last fall, we were really blown away by the reaction we got. About 75,000 visitors passed through, from all walks of life, and almost everyone who looked at the photos and quotes we exhibited was sympathetic and outraged by what they saw. We sat by the exhibit the entire time it was open and only heard a few negative or dismissive comments, so I do believe that when people are exposed to the full range of who this is happening to and what goes on inside these detention centers, they come away with a different understanding. Sending someone to live in exile is a really extreme punishment that also punishes the family members who decide to stay in the U.S. – often because they’re citizens and have settled lives here. There’s no way to split up a family “humanely.”

SIG: You both mention frequently the advantages that Graham had while in immigration detention: He was able to afford a lawyer, he spoke English, he is white. Even for all that, Graham’s experience being held in immigration was quite brutal. Could you each speak a bit about what it’s like for those who don’t have the advantages that Graham had? What chance do they have of resisting deportation after committing a misdemeanor?

GM: Obviously I had some advantages that others don’t have – especially having Susan’s help fighting for me – but it was still really shocking to see how people are treated once they’re in this system, regardless of your immigration status. In fact, having a green card made people more likely to put up a fight and try to stay in the U.S., so many of them ended up in detention a lot longer than immigrants who didn’t have any legal status. I met people who’d been locked up for years while they were fighting their cases. Even if you can afford a lawyer, a lot depended on which judge heard your case and if you got sent to a prison in a remote town far from your family.

But no matter where you landed, your chances of winning were still unpredictable. I met a guy who’d been in the U.S. legally since he was a baby – he was arrested in a bar fight when he was twenty-one and immigration agents picked him up eleven years later, even though he’d never been in trouble again, was married to a U.S. citizen and had three U.S. citizen kids. He lost his case and was deported to Belfast, which was devastating for him and his family. So I know I was lucky and that’s partly why we wrote this book – to show what happens inside these systems that cost a lot of money and cause a lot of pain.