When Cameron Douglas began scrawling down memories from his past on paper — touching on everything from the pressures of growing up in the twin shadows of his father (Michael Douglas) and grandfather (Kirk Douglas) to the heroin addiction that destroyed nearly every aspect of his life — his main objective was to stay sane in the solitary confinement wing of the Federal Correctional Institution in Loretto, Pennsylvania. Life in general population was brutal enough throughout the course of his seven-year stay for distributing methamphetamine and possessing heroin, but it grew even worse when he was tossed into solitary for 11 months after flunking a drug test.
“Usually if you’re in general population you have a pen and a notebook,” he says, explaining how he managed to write while in solitary. “But if you’re in the box, you get this little mini-pencil. To get it sharpened is a real exercise in persistence and patience. You have to get the attention of a cop, and some are nicer than others. They may bring it back [sharpened] in an hour. They may bring it back in a day. What I was trying to do in there was gather as many recollection as I could from as far back as I could remember.”
Those recollections eventually led to his new book, Long Way Home (out October 22nd), which he co-wrote with Vanity Fair Contributing Editor Benjamin Wallace. It’s a gripping work, but Douglas, 40, had no real intention of creating it until his father convinced him it might be a good idea. “My family has always been very private,” he says. “Privacy is important to me as well. I was having trouble trying to understand where he was coming from. But it gave me something to think about. And then as I got closer to [my release], it gave me something productive to work on and focus on.”
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The cathartic exercise of writing made him understand why his father encouraged it in the first place. “It was his way of letting me know how much he loves me,” he says, “and saying, ‘You have a story to tell and I want you to tell it regardless of how that infringes on my privacy.’”
Long Way Home begins in 2004, when Cameron is with his father at their vacation home in Mallorca, Spain, and the news comes in that Michaels’s half-brother Eric died of a drug overdose at 46. Eric’s life was marked by the impossible expectations that come when your father and half-brother are two of the most successful actors in Hollywood history. Despite the endless attempts by Michael and the rest of the family to straighten him out, it seemed like Cameron was headed towards a similar fate.
“I’ve been using drugs since I was 13,” Cameron writes of the time. “My current addiction is particularly nasty: I inject coke as often as three times an hour when I’m on the run. My once-promising career as a DJ has been destroyed by my irresponsibility. I’ve had opportunities to make a life in acting and squandered them. I’ve hardly given my family, or myself, reasons to feel proud. When Dad looks at me, recently, I don’t see love; I see concern and sadness and frustration. When we talk, it’s usually a tense interaction about money or the latest way I’ve disappointed him. Maybe I really am like Eric. But I don’t want to die the way he did. And in the grip of a young man’s sense of immortality, I’m not afraid that I will.”
The next few years played out in the pages of the New York Post with headlines like “Douglas’ Son Taken to Jail” and “Cameron Douglas is no Victim — He’s Just a Spoiled Rich Kid.” None of them did much to generate sympathy for his plight. After all, Douglas was born into a world of wealth and privilege that few can even imagine. He may have become a heroin addict like so many others of his generation, but he had the means to enter the best rehab facilities in the world and to hire the best lawyers once he got caught with large quantities of drugs.
“Life is a series of decisions and choices and then we live with the results,” he says. “There are millions of kids all over the world who have it way tougher than I had it as a little boy. I handled it the way I handled it and I paid the price for it. It’s nobody’s fault but my own.”
That said, he does feel that his last name caused him to feel enormous pressure as a child to be seen as his own person, not just an extension of his famous relatives. “The impetus for a lot of my behavior as a youngster was trying to prove that I was worthy of that last name,” he says. “To me, that meant pushing everything just a little bit further than whoever was willing to push it furthest.”
After being sent to boarding school against his will in the sixth grade, Douglas discovered a fondness for marijuana that soon lead to harder drugs — and his expulsion once school authorities discovered his stash. Soon enough, he was pulling off petty robberies and getting into nasty street brawls. Incidents like those lead to long stints in juvenile hall and a “wilderness program” in which he had to march across the desert in southern Idaho with other troubled teens, barely given enough food to get through the day without passing out. In that case, his last name was more of a curse than a blessing. “I used to go into those places under my middle name because they felt like I’d be a target if they knew my last name,” he says. “Eventually everyone would find out, but I would have like two weeks of anonymity and I knew I had in those two weeks I had to really build a reputation for myself so that when people did find out what my last name was, I was okay.”
Everything spiraled out of control once he began using cocaine heavily during his days as New York-based DJ in the late 1990s. It took over his life once he began injecting it directly into his veins. “I became a slave to the needle,” he writes. When his frustrated relatives cut off all his funds, he began dealing large quantities of coke and other drugs across the country in order to support his habit. He was busted in 2009 and sentenced to five years in prison, with another four and a half years tacked on once he was caught sneaking drugs into prison.
Life in adult prison was unlike anything he’d experienced, and Long Way Home vividly describes brutal fights with other inmates, a prison rape he overheard right outside of his cell, the agony of going through heroin withdrawal behind bars and a horrifying incident where he severely broke his leg during a game of handball and wasn’t brought to the hospital for four days. (Press reports at the time said he broke it in a prison fight, but he insists they aren’t true)
Worst of all were his multiple trips to solitary confinement for relatively minor infractions, like being caught with a tiny amount of marijuana. “I got 11 months because of a dirty urine test,” he says. “That means I was in a little box 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It took everything I had to not lose my mind.”
Douglas was finally released in August 2016 after serving seven years of his sentence. He says that beyond a little weed, he hasn’t used drugs since early 2014. He spends most of his time in Los Angles with his girlfriend Vivian and infant daughter Lua Lizzy. He’s writing a couple of screenplays and considering the possibility of turning his book into a movie. He remains extremely close with his father, and spends at least two days every week with his 102-year-old grandfather, Kirk. “I live just 15 minutes away from him and I’m teaching my daughter to swim in his pool,” says Cameron. “Having this opportunity to spend time with him is extremely special.”
Douglas wants to get back into acting, but only if the parts are right. “I have been offered roles that are essentially what people think I am and that’s not interested in doing,” he says, “at least now right out of the gate.”
He’s also had time to reflect on America’s prison system and the routine use of solitary confinement as punishment. “Most men and women in prison are eventually coming home,” he says. “But they’re being treated like animals and then they treat each other like animals. Then they have to go home and live normally? It’s just not working. It almost begs the question: Is this by design? Many of these are private prisons. Human lives are traded on the stock market to keep these places filled. It is heinous. Personally, I think the system is designed to keep these places filled.”
His focus now is on keeping clean and being a positive role model for his daughter now that all of his wild days are behind him. “She’s provided me with a level of inspiration that I never knew even existed,” he says. “It’s a motivating force that’s stronger than any I’ve ever known in my life. By the time my daughter is old enough to know what her father has been through, I’d like to be in a place where she can be proud of me.”