Sandra Adell was many things, but a slot machine queen? Come on.
She was a respected member of the UW-Madison faculty and an accomplished actress. She'd been on the Madison Area Technical College board of directors and given tours of Ten Chimneys, the Lunt-Fontanne summer home in Genesee Depot that has become a national theater museum.
And yet, on Feb. 4, 2007, Super Bowl Sunday, this accomplished, smart and self-reliant woman interrupted her drive home to Madison from St. Paul - where she was artist in residence at the prestigious Penumbra Theatre - to play the slots at Majestic Pines Casino in Black River Falls.
She stayed two hours and lost $1,500.
Adell stopped next at Ho-Chunk, near Baraboo. She cashed a check for $500. She sat down at a slot machine. When she got up, she had won $1,300.
She'd almost broken even on the night, but that didn't matter. By 2007, she'd been in the grip of the slots for two years. After gambling, Adell often felt worse - nervous, scared, dirty - when she won than when she lost.
On the drive home to Madison from Ho-Chunk that night, Adell lost consciousness. Her car ended up in a ditch.
"I hit bottom," Adell said Thursday. We'd met for coffee Downtown to talk about her remarkable memoir, "Confessions of a Slot Machine Queen," that has just been published by EugeniaBooks, her newly minted publishing company.
The book is an unflinching examination of her descent into gambling addiction, but it's more than that. It's the story of Adell's life before coming to Madison in 1983 for graduate school. She grew up in Detroit, the daughter of a parking lot attendant. She was bright but vulnerable, pregnant at 14. She eventually took her infant daughter and left home.
"My boyfriend arranged for me to stay with a woman who sold moonshine out of Gerber baby food jars and was in the numbers racket," she wrote.
Adell eventually reunited with her parents, married, divorced, earned a high school equivalency degree and enrolled at Wayne State University in 1971. She came to Madison to study for a Ph.D. in comparative literature. She was hired at UW-Madison as a literature professor in Afro-American Studies in 1989.
On April 30, 2005, a friend of Adell's called and invited her to Ho-Chunk. Her immediate reaction was negative. She'd been in a few casinos and disliked the noise and smoke. But she'd also recently ended a long romantic relationship. Company sounded good. She went to Ho-Chunk, played the slot machines, and won $1,100. Five weeks later, Adell went back and won $6,000. She was hooked.
She was not alone. The best thing I've ever read about slots, prior to Adell's book, was a 2004 New York Times Magazine piece that analyzed their addictive allure.
The Times piece noted that the slots are often called the "crack cocaine of gambling" and quoted a professor of psychiatry: "The slot machine is brilliantly designed from a behavioral psychology perspective. No other form of gambling manipulates the human mind as brilliantly as these machines."
They make billions for the casinos. Adell wrote: "Economists who study the gambling industry estimate that about 70 percent of the more than $48 billion casinos rake in annually comes from slot machines."
It makes sense that when Adell, a writer and academic, found herself becoming addicted, she studied the subject. She began keeping a journal of her casino visits, with the idea of writing a book. Now she believes that even that was insidious, enabling her to gamble while assuring herself she was there for a higher purpose.
Adell will launch "Confessions of a Slot Machine Queen" with a discussion and book signing Feb. 27, at the South Madison Branch Library,
She's written a brave book, holding nothings back. Therapy helped her recover, but she had a relapse. It turned out the ditch on Highway 12 wasn't bottom after all.
"My family doesn't even know the last part of this book," she told me. There were tears in her eyes.
What readers will realize - and I hope Adell does, too - is that with this book, she has triumphed.