Books for a Better Life Award Finalist • LitHub Best Book of the Month
When Susan Stellin asked Graham MacIndoe to shoot her author photo for an upcoming travel book, she barely knew him except for a few weekends with mutual friends at a summer house in Montauk. He was a gregarious, divorced Scotsman who had recently gotten sober; she was an independent New Yorker who decided to take a chance on a rough-around-the-edges guy. But their relationship was soon tested when Susan discovered that Graham still had a drug habit he was hiding.
From their harrowing portrayal of the ravages of addiction to the stunning chain of events that led to Graham’s arrest and imprisonment at Rikers Island, Chancers unfolds in alternating chapters that offer two perspectives on a relationship that ultimately endures against long odds. Susan follows Graham down the rabbit hole of the American criminal justice system, determined to keep him from becoming another casualty of the war on drugs. Graham gives a stark, riveting description of his slide from brownstone Brooklyn to a prison cell, his gut-wrenching efforts to get clean, and his fight to avoid getting exiled far away from his son and the life he built over twenty years.
Beautifully written, brutally honest, yet filled with suspense and hope, Chancers will resonate with anyone who has been touched by the heartache of addiction, the nightmare of incarceration, or the tough choice of leaving or staying with someone who is struggling on the road to recovery. By sharing their story, Susan and Graham show the value of talking about topics many of us are too scared to address.
Praise for Chancers
“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. . . . 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. . . . [Chancers] grabs in a voyeuristic way and propels page-turning to find out what happens next in a saga no soap opera could create.”—The Buffalo News
“Emotionally resonant and evenly structured, their tandem chronicle resists overly romanticizing their bittersweet interactions to focus on the dedication and devotion necessary to make their already-complicated relationship survive the fallout of critical hardships. An emotionally complex and intensely personal binary memoir of addiction and sustainable love.”—Kirkus Reviews
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|Publisher:||Random House Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.90(w) x 8.60(h) x 1.50(d)|
About the Author
Graham MacIndoe is a photographer and adjunct professor of photography at The New School’s Parsons School of Design. Born in Scotland, he studied painting in Edinburgh and earned a master’s degree in photography at the Royal College of Art in London.
In 2014, Stellin and MacIndoe were awarded a fellowship from the Alicia Patterson Foundation for their series “American Exile,” documenting the stories of families divided by deportation. They live in Brooklyn.
Read an Excerpt
When Graham and I first met, in the summer of 2002, it definitely wasn’t love at first sight. We were both part of a group of loosely connected friends who shared a beach house in Montauk, which at that point was still the affordable, laid-back alternative to the Hamptons. As one friend put it: In the Hamptons, you wore a sweater draped over your shoulders; in Montauk, you tied a hoodie around your waist. In either case, it was a way to escape New York City when the heat became oppressive.
About a dozen of us rented a house just uphill from the beach, alternating weekends according to a schedule plotted out at the beginning of the summer—and then promptly abandoned. I had signed up for four weekends, thinking I’d overlap with my sister and a few friends, but as everyone’s plans shifted, I ended up spending two of those weekends with people I didn’t really know.
That was partly the point of doing a share house—mixing it up a bit, maybe indulging in a summer romance—but our group was pretty tame by beach house standards. Most of us were in our thirties, working in advertising, media, photography, or film. I was thirty-three and doing well as a freelance writer, but I wasn’t having much luck finding a partner.
The memories I have of that summer are like slides clicking around a circular tray in an old projector, images that are a bit fuzzy on the screen lit up in my mind. But the first time I met Graham, there’s no doubt he made an impression. A thirty-nine-year-old Scotsman, he was gregarious and self-confident, if a bit cocky about his success as a photographer. Lean and energetic, he talked practically nonstop—funny anecdotes about the people whose portraits he’d taken and frank opinions about American culture. His girlfriend, Liz, was twenty-five and much more aloof, so they struck me as an odd match as a couple.
That weekend, I remember staying up late with Graham and his English friend Tom, empty beer bottles on the kitchen table outnumbering the housemates who had drifted off to bed—including Liz. At first glance, the scene might’ve seemed like typical Saturday night excess, but their banter had a bittersweet context. Tom’s wife had died of cancer a few years earlier, leaving him to raise their young son, and he was moving back to London to be closer to his family. Graham was divorced and had an eleven-year-old son who was spending the summer with his grandparents in Scotland. It was one of the last weekends Graham and Tom would be together on the same side of the Atlantic.
I lingered long after I stopped drinking, just taking in the intensity of their friendship—laughter that brought tears, a crescendo of voices competing to make a point, a shared history weighed down by the ballast of pain and parenting. I had a wide circle of friends, relationships nurtured in the absence of kids or a husband, but this raucous expression of affection felt foreign, a brand of British boisterousness I hadn’t been exposed to reading novels by Jane Austen and Virginia Woolf. It reminded me of the late nights my old boyfriend Ethan and I spent with friends when we were living in Argentina—that unfiltered passion I associated more with Latin America than Britain.
When I finally left the table, it felt like stepping away from a campfire, their voices receding but not quite fading as I walked down the hall. Even after I settled into a twin bed with damp sheets, I could still hear Graham and Tom in the kitchen, arguing about politics or art or the details of some long-ago road trip. It was the soundtrack of an impending end, when suddenly everything and nothing else mattered.
Later that summer, my friend Scott and I tagged along with Graham and Liz to an art opening in East Hampton, riding in Graham’s red Volkswagen with music blaring. The Guild Hall gallery scene was a blur of cocktail party mingling and art-crowd conversation, all the high heels and sundresses making me self-conscious about my jeans and flip-flops. Afterward, the exhibition curator invited us back to the house where he was staying, a stately colonial overlooking Town Pond. We had more drinks on the deck of his garret apartment; other people stopped by and left. I was starving, but eating didn’t seem to be on anyone else’s agenda.
By the time Graham was ready to call it a night, it occurred to me that we were all too drunk to drive, but I was too tired to raise the issue—all I wanted to do was sleep. On the way back to Montauk, the car windows rolled down to let in a sobering, exhilarating rush of air, I knew that it was a reckless ride, that I was throwing my usual caution to the wind. But by that summer after 9/11, my concept of danger had shifted: After a year of reading and writing about the survivors and victims of that attack, I didn’t really see the point of calculating risk. It was the kind of thing I did as a teenager in Michigan, riding in cars with boys who shouldn’t have been behind the wheel.
The last scenes I remember from Montauk are actually captured on film; Scott took pictures Labor Day weekend and gave me copies of his prints. It was cold and windy but Graham’s son, Liam, was back from Scotland and they decided to go for a swim, so a few of us followed them down to the beach. We were wearing fleece jackets and sweaters, but Graham and Liam stripped to their shorts, diving into the foamy fury of waves. As soon as they popped up, the current carried them in a line parallel to the shore—two slim bodies no match for the rough sea. They paddled and splashed back to land, ran toward us, then dove in again. Over and over, their bare feet slapping the wet sand as they ran past.
I grew up around lakes—swimming ever since I was two—but I never quite embraced the ocean. On a windy day, I found the unpredictability of the waves unnerving. But Liam seemed to be loving it; he and Graham were both laughing and trying to get the rest of us to join in, but none of us were tempted to leave our perch on a dry berm of sand. We were content to be watching; Graham and Liam were living. There was a part of me that envied them, that adrenaline rush of getting carried away.
Graham had bought Liam a kite, and later that day, Scott took a photo of me helping them put it together on the beach. The string was horribly tangled and I offered to straighten it out, suggesting that my female fingernails would slide more easily between the knots. But Liam quickly grew bored and Graham soon sided with him: It was a cheap kite, it wasn’t worth the effort, they’d find something else to do. Long after they gave up, I was still hunched over the tangled mess—I always thrived on having a challenge to complete.
Eventually, my persistence paid off: The kite flew. There’s a photo of Graham with his head thrown back, his arms spread wide along the string, guiding the kite against the wind. It must’ve been late in the day because Graham is silhouetted against a cloudy sky, a dusky shadow as the sun struggled to announce its descent.
And that’s it. Like clicking through the slides of my 1970s childhood, it feels like there must be more, that surely other images are buried in a box, waiting to summon memories that are missing.
Graham insists that I wore a red bikini that summer, but I’ve never owned a red bikini; in the photos Scott took, I’m wearing a red hooded sweater with denim shorts, my legs tan after a summer in the sun. Graham remembers the party in East Hampton, the late nights with Tom, and swimming with Liam that stormy Labor Day weekend. But I barely made a dent in his consciousness—one admittedly clouded by liquor—and after September, I can’t say that I thought much about him. He had a girlfriend and I was interested in someone else by then.
At some point that fall, Scott told me that Graham and Liz were getting married; Scott was invited to their wedding at Graham’s brownstone in Brooklyn. My initial reaction was, “How come you got invited and I didn’t?” But that sentiment was short-lived. Scott had been friendly with Liz, and with me she always kept a cool distance, although I did wonder if she was going to regret what she was getting herself into. Graham’s drinking was in that zone approaching problematic—maybe fun to be around when he was the life of the party, but not so pleasant to deal with day after day.
Scott was not one to gossip or make catty comments about the odds of a marriage lasting, so his report on the wedding was characteristically succinct: It was a fun party, Graham’s parents and his brother flew over from Scotland, his sister and her family came from Ireland, a few friends from London made the trip. The closest he got to dishing was a comment about how much everyone drank.
The only other contact I had with Graham was the cc list of a few group emails: messages to settle unpaid bills and a couple of invites to parties that Graham and Liz didn’t attend. There was some talk of organizing another rental for the following summer, but it never came together. Prices in Montauk were starting to creep up, a few housemates had moved away, and others had lost interest in the group dynamic—including me. After three summers of dealing with the personalities of different share houses, I’d had my fill of negotiating room assignments and dinner plans.