Cameron Douglas: I can’t go back and undo all the destruction I caused

Cameron Douglas. Photograph: Harry Eelman/New York Times
IN HIS NEW MEMOIR, LONG WAY HOME, MICHAEL DOUGLAS’S ELDEST SON WRITES ABOUT THE ‘DEMENTED DEATH WISH’ THAT DROVE HIM TO DRUGS AND CRIME, SHINING A LIGHT ON HIS FAMOUS FAMILY ALONG THE WAY

On the day in 2009 when Cameron Douglas was arrested at a New York hotel for possession of crystal meth, he was given a choice. As he recounts in his new memoir, Long Way Home, a Drug Enforcement Administration agent told him he could either be taken out of the front door, kicking and screaming, or, “for your family’s sake, we can take you out the back way, put you in a car”.

The subject of family permeates Douglas’s book, which is published on Tuesday, and it remains prominent in his life, even after he served almost eight years in prison for possessing heroin and selling drugs. He is the eldest son of Michael Douglas, the Academy Award-winning actor and producer, and a grandson of Kirk Douglas, the venerated Spartacus star.

Long Way Home is Douglas’s unsparing account of being addicted to heroin and liquid cocaine, shaking off rehabs and interventions, and nearly getting himself killed numerous times before turning to drug dealing to support his habit

Although the thought of living up to either one of their reputations would seem paralysing, Cameron Douglas is clear that he does not expect anyone’s sympathy for squandering his privileged upbringing. Nor does he blame the burden of his surname for sinking him into a mire of hard drugs, crime and punishment.

“There was nothing anybody could do to get through to me at a certain point,” he says. His voice is tentative, and although he has been a free man since 2016, he speaks like someone who is still getting used to seeing daylight on a regular basis.

Douglas takes a breath and continues, “All those years that the book is based on, all the pain and destruction that a lot of my behaviour caused, is done. I can’t go back and undo that.” But maybe he can be useful to others by sharing his experiences and ruinous decisions, he says, “in the hopes that other people won’t have to make them”.

Cameron Douglas with his father, Michael Douglas, in 2018. Photograph: Axelle/Bauer-Griffin/FilmMagic/Getty
Cameron Douglas with his father, Michael Douglas, in 2018. Photograph: Axelle/Bauer-Griffin/FilmMagic/Getty

Long Way Home is Douglas’s unsparing account of how he pursued what he calls his “demented death wish”, chasing addictions to heroin and liquid cocaine, shaking off rehabs and forcible interventions, and nearly getting himself killed numerous times before turning to drug dealing to support his habit.

That’s part one of the book. Part two is the story of his arrest, indictment and incarceration, during which he was shuttled among a half-dozen federal penitentiaries and spent nearly two years in solitary confinement.

In telling his story Douglas cannot avoid shining a spotlight on his illustrious if enigmatic family. With the same scrutiny he applies to himself, Douglas writes about his exasperated father, Michael; his press-shy mother, Diandra (who divorced Michael in 2000); and the combative generational dynamics that came with the Douglas name.

Allowing me to tell my story, which inevitably is connected to my family, it’s a very selfless act. It’s like the ultimate way of saying I love you

Even so, Long Way Home is a book that both Michael and Diandra Douglas say they understand their son needed to write, to make sense of his struggles and to keep him focused. And Cameron Douglas says he recognises the sacrifices his parents have made to let him do this.

“Allowing me to tell my story, which inevitably is connected to my family, it’s a very selfless act,” he says. “It’s like the ultimate way of saying I love you.”

Douglas is 40, with a quiff of reddish-brown hair and his father’s distinctively narrow facial features. On this day he is dressed in a long-sleeved T-shirt that covers an assortment of tattoos across his chest, and he wears a wristband held together by a charm shaped like a ship’s anchor. “To me they represent the explorer – a man’s man,” he says. “Somebody that’s travelled and been through some stuff.”

As Douglas recounts in Long Way Home, he, too, has been to some places and seen some things: the lavish homes in New York and Santa Barbara, California, where he grew up; the elite private schools that admitted and later expelled him; the fountain where he crashed a sport utility vehicle after snorting crank and fleeing a Secret Service agent; the liquor stores and motels he stuck up as much for the illicit thrills as for the money; and the prison cells where he watched inmates fight each other with padlocks attached to shoelaces.

Cameron Douglas with his mother, Diandra Douglas, in 2003. Photograph: Jim Spellman/WireImage/Getty
Cameron Douglas with his mother, Diandra Douglas, in 2003. Photograph: Jim Spellman/WireImage/Getty

But the author is not the only one on display. He writes tenderly of how his parents met in 1977, when Michael was 32 and Diandra was 19, and how they were married eight weeks later. He describes a childhood populated by his father’s celebrity pals – Jack Nicholson, Danny De Vito – and he has fond memories of seeing “beautiful grown-ups doing the things that beautiful grown-ups living lives of excess do”.

The euphoria soon dissipated. As Cameron Douglas writes in the book, his mother learned in the mid-1980s that his father was having “a fling” with Kathleen Turner, his Romancing the Stone costar, and she threatened to end the marriage. In the early 1990s, after being caught in another act of infidelity, his father checked into an Arizona clinic for drug and alcohol treatment. Finally, in 1995, his mother hired a private investigator, who returned with surveillance photos of his father in a hotel with another woman, and soon afterwards his parents separated for good.

As he grew up, Cameron Douglas was acutely aware of the conflicts between his father and his grandfather: Michael was determined to stand outside his father’s shadow, and Kirk resented Michael for replacing him with Nicholson in the film version of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest – which Michael produced, and which Kirk had starred in during its original Broadway run.

Cameron Douglas with his grandfather Kirk Douglas, in 1991. Photograph: Ron Galella Collection via Getty
Cameron Douglas with his grandfather Kirk Douglas, in 1991. Photograph: Ron Galella Collection via Getty

Similar tensions emerged in Cameron Douglas’s relationship with Michael, and sometimes, as Cameron describes, they even fought physically. Cameron worshipped his father but resented having to share him with his many fans. As he writes in the book, “Every son admires his own father, but everyone in the world admired mine.”

Cameron Douglas says that estrangement worsened through his years of drug use, as he felt he saw his father pulling away. “A lot of the anger that I felt was really towards myself, because I was failing at making him proud of me,” he says. Michael Douglas, whose half-brother Eric died of an accidental drug and alcohol overdose in 2004, said in an interview that he had resigned himself to the belief that Cameron would meet a similar fate. “I thought I lost him a couple times over those years,” Michael Douglas said.

Even before Cameron was released from prison, his father encouraged him to write a memoir. “I thought in telling the story, if he was able to make a book deal, it might make him really try to understand what the hell happened and where it all went,” Michael Douglas said.

Cameron Douglas kept journals and wrote poetry during his incarceration, as a kind of mental regimen to get himself through each day. After his release he began writing what would become Long Way Home, collaborating with Benjamin Wallace, the author and journalist.

Douglas says he recognizes that “99.5 percent of the people don’t have the opportunities that I had when I came home” and that the advantages he returned to obliged him to do something meaningful. The book gave him a sense of purpose as he readjusted to life on the outside. “It was something I was clinging to,” he says, “something solid that I could count on, that was productive and people seemed to be interested in.”

Cameron Douglas. Photograph: Harry Eelman/New York Times
Cameron Douglas. Photograph: Harry Eelman/New York Times

Throughout the book Cameron Douglas tries to be candid about moments he cannot completely recall, where time and addiction have made his memories unreliable. (There are also the usual contradictions in the historical record: to this day his mother and father continue to disagree about whether Cameron was allowed to see Basic Instinct when he was 13.)

Michael Douglas says that he read “a couple of drafts” of his son’s book and identified “a couple of places” where he “took issue of his interpretation of a moment here or there and said, ‘Excuse me, au contraire.’’’ Overall, he says, he was impressed. “It was not a book that was solely based on how his parents let him down. There’s always going to be an element of criticism, which I certainly accept and understand. But, no, it wasn’t combative.”

If I told you all the rehabs I’ve been to, and court hearings and visitations and driving 950 miles every other weekend to prisons, it’s really consumed, I would say, a large portion of my life for 24 years

He adds that he and his family are accustomed to being on display. “You learn how to balance between that public exposure and maintaining your own privacy,” he says. Diandra Douglas, a documentary-film producer and philanthropist, says that it was difficult for her to read Long Way Home, having already lived through its harrowing details herself. “If I told you all the rehabs I’ve been to, and court hearings and visitations and driving 950 miles every other weekend to prisons, it’s really consumed, I would say, a large portion of my life for 24 years.”

Although she says that Cameron had not specifically sought her approval before writing the memoir – “I think it was really Michael and Cameron that decided they were going to write this book” – she adds, “Certainly, I’ve tried to be as supportive as possible.”

She read parts of an earlier manuscript but did not know “the ultimate outcome” of the book, she says. “Why, should I be worried?” Even after being told that Long Way Home discussed intimate details of her marriage to Michael Douglas and its dissolution, Diandra Douglas expressed confidence that Cameron would strike the right tone. “As a human being, placing blame is very easy,” she says. “Taking responsibility for one’s actions is a lot tougher.”

Since his release Cameron Douglas has moved back to Los Angeles, where he lives with his girlfriend, Viviane Thibes, and their daughter, Lua. He is pursuing an acting career, plugging away at some screenwriting projects, having occasional breakfasts with Kirk Douglas, who lives nearby, and volunteering at the Los Angeles Mission, a homeless shelter.

Cameron Douglas with his daughter, Lua, and dog, Tank. Photograph: Harry Eelman/New York Times
Cameron Douglas with his daughter, Lua, and dog, Tank. Photograph: Harry Eelman/New York Times

If his days feel overdetermined, it is a sensation that he much prefers to prison, where he had nothing but time and few opportunities to use it as he wished. “I used to say to myself, How does anybody get anything accomplished, out in the real world, in such a short amount of time?” he says. “I can barely get these four things done.”

Beyond the family he has built for himself, Douglas says, his principal responsibility is establishing a record of diligence and consistency, so that his name will mean something aside from his past crimes. He says he knows it will be a slow process, but he faces it with some optimism. “A lot of it is digging myself out of this hole and proving to people that I’m reliable,” he says. “Once some people start to see that, then the rest will follow suit.” – New York Times

Long Way Home is published by Knopf