Who Is Angalia Bianca?
Heroin addict, sex worker, and convicted felon. Educator, mentor, and lifesaving hero, with a Resolution for Bravery Award from then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel to prove it. Mother, wife, and grandmother. Speaker, author, and “violence interrupter” for Chicago-based Cure Violence Global, which was previously known as CeaseFire.
Angalia Bianca is, or was, each of those things. Today she is much more—though still not enough, in her eyes.
“I’m not a big deal,” she once told WGN TV. “I’m just a person trying to save the world.”
The memoir she co-authored with Linda Beckstrom, In Deep: How I Survived Gangs, Heroin, and Prison to Become a Chicago Violence Interrupter, was published in October 2018. The street violence she chronicled, however, remains, though the city’s efforts to stop it have new and controversial twists: the Chicago Police Department’s Gun Offender Dashboard, more emphasis on street-level interaction between police and residents, and citywide anti-violence programs.
In Deep is personal. It’s concerned with the minutiae of violence, not the panorama. The book tells this harshest of stories in a disarmingly matter-of-fact way, often revealing more than we might need or want to know. Yet the sheer volume of detail is part of the book’s appeal. It takes the reader into the streets, where Bianca spent most of her life, and into the rock-and-a-hard-place positions of those who choose to follow Bianca’s path or find themselves too far along to stop.
As a private catharsis for Bianca, the amount of detail seems to be exactly right: “I’m brutally honest… I can’t help someone if I don’t tell the truth.” But the book is also a terrible, cautionary tale for the rest of us and anyone we care about.
The photo of Bianca’s face on the cover hints at a hard-lived life. In her writing, her personality comes across as endearing, soft-spoken, even charming—someone you can’t help but like. Reinforcing that feeling is her “guess-what-happened-to-me today, honey” style of storytelling: at heart, she’s just a nice person who wants to do the right thing. Yet she readily admits that she used that disarming personality to exploit just about everyone she’s known since she began “getting high [on alcohol] at nine years old.” Along the way—all along the way, for thirty-five years, she says—her highs came mainly from heroin, the usual pharmaceutical suspects, and of course, alcohol.
In Deep describes Bianca’s privileged childhood in west suburban Oak Park and, beginning in her teens, a downward spiral through drugs, homelessness and crime before—after some forty years—an inspiring turnaround. The spiral follows many twists and turns, including cross-country journeys with rock stars (Keith Moon of The Who, for instance), con artists, and a motorcycle gang as her companions. Lots of movement, little direction.
Bianca shows her unending penchant for getting into and out of high-risk trouble. Prostitution, for example, is a continual source of cash and even comfort. Her near-death heroin overdose at an Arizona mansion doesn’t surprise the reader. A step-by-step explanation of an ingenious, lucrative, airline-ticket scam she runs is almost nostalgic. The ploy makes use of sleight-of-hand paper trails and time-lag hacks impossible to imagine today.
Bianca eventually returns to Chicago for good, but without direction, again falls in with the wrong crowd. Soon enough, she proves herself by surviving a violent female-administered beat-down (yes, like those you see on TV and in the movies) and, according to the book, becomes a well-compensated, drug-dealing gang member in Humboldt Park.
Then, despite having eluded imprisonment for most of her career, the bottom falls out. She spends twelve years of revolving incarceration at the Cook County Jail and the Dwight Women’s Correctional Center in Central Illinois. In nearly every circumstance, Bianca instinctively befriends the right people and avoids breaking the wrong rules to come out on top (as much as that’s possible behind bars).
When her father died about nine years ago, however, Bianca abruptly changed direction and found some purpose and stability. Her father had been a functioning coke addict, though well-heeled and well-connected. Ironically, he tries throughout the book to keep his daughter in line.
Bianca checked into ten months of rehabilitation at A Safe Haven, a homeless shelter and addiction treatment center near Douglas Park. She had tried and failed at rehab before, but this time was different. The experience was apparently as transformative as her four decades on the street. She claims no come-to-Jesus moment, but does acknowledge a spiritual component—“a moment of such clarity as if a door had been opened…and I could not turn away.” She made a “deal” with God: if “you’ll take the taste of heroin and the streets from my mouth I will help people until my last dying breath.” That was in 2011.
After that, Bianca returned to the streets in a much different role by becoming a trained “violence interrupter.” On its website, Cure Violence explains that violence interrupters are trained to “prevent shootings by identifying and mediating potentially lethal conflicts in the community and following up to ensure that the conflict does not reignite.”
They also can do a lot more. The incident for which Bianca received a Resolution for Bravery from the city is an example.
Four years ago, a car stopped in front of Bianca at Harrison and California on the Near West Side and began backing up. She threw her car into reverse to avoid being rammed, heard gunshots, and then, she writes, “Three gunmen are leaning out the car windows and shooting directly in the crowd of kids on the corner… I see the shooting go down right in front of me and watch as a teenage boy hits the ground. I know he’s been hit, and I have to help him.” After the shooting, she went to the boy, located the bullet hole, and stopped the blood flow until emergency medical help arrived—saving his life.
Early last March, at age sixty, her journey took her to another community of privilege at the Evanston Public Library. Bianca and co-author Beckstrom read from the book and took questions from about thirty people. Interest was evenly split between Bianca’s personal experiences and insights and how the book was developed and written. (Bianca told her story to Beckstrom, who recorded and transcribed it. They shaped and edited the final version together.) Her responses were practiced and reflected material in the book closely. Nonetheless, there was no question about her sincerity.
The book’s tight focus is on Bianca’s story up to her rebirth, which finally provided the direction she never had. But the story stops short of answering questions we do want answered: What’s happening in her life today? What does she hope will be happening tomorrow? And what can be done about the violence in her city?
Angalia Bianca with Linda Beckstrom, In Deep: How I Survived Gangs, Heroin, and Prison to Become a Chicago Violence Interrupter. $27.99. Chicago Review Press. 272 pages
Scott Pemberton is a Chicago-based writer and editor. This is his first contribution to the Weekly.