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This story first appeared in the May 8 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
In 2009, Jennifer Ridha, then 33, was a promising young criminal lawyer with a degree from Columbia and a job at a prestigious firm when she was assigned to the legal team defending Cameron Douglas, then 31, the troubled son of Michael Douglas who was facing 10 years in prison for dealing meth. In 'Criminal That I Am' (Scribner, May 12), her candid memoir, Ridha opens up about how she fell in love with her client, committed crimes at his urging and had her life upended by their illicit relationship. — ANDY LEWIS
Allow me to introduce you to my co-conspirator. His name is Cameron Douglas. He was arrested in New York City in July 2009 on a nonviolent drug offense — distribution of methamphetamine, commonly known as crystal meth — that subjects him to a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years.
In certain ways, Cameron fits the statistical profile for many nonviolent drug offenders. But for his stint as a dealer, he has some, but not much, of a criminal history: a couple of petty misdemeanors. He has spent some time in juvie. After being removed from private school, he attended a public high school in a working-class community in Southern California that has poor graduation rates. Cameron is among those who failed to graduate with his class. And for most of his life he has been a drug addict — at the time of his arrest a severe heroin addict.
These are where the similarities end. Cameron Douglas' father is a film actor. You may recall him from popular movies such as Wall Street and Jewel of the Nile or the critically acclaimed Traffic, in which he plays a government drug czar. But if you were a child of the 1980s, you perhaps know him better from a trilogy of sexually imbued movies, each of which was released at a pivotal moment in your pubescent development: just prior to undergoing puberty (Fatal Attraction), during the prime of your adolescence (Basic Instinct) and just after reaching adulthood (Disclosure). As a college student, you study this trilogy of sexy films in a women's studies class. You are taught that they epitomize Hollywood's misogynistic depiction of independent women, that when a woman steps out of her conventional role, she is no longer worthy of the audience's sympathy.
This assessment doesn't make you think particularly highly of Cameron Douglas' father. Nor do the quotes attributed to him in Susan Faludi's Backlash, in which Cameron Douglas' father announces he is "sick" of feminists and that "guys are going through a terrible crisis right now because of women's unreasonable demands." This quote perhaps leaves you with the impression that Cameron Douglas' father is kind of disgusting.
But when you find yourself representing his son, you are relieved to find that the chauvinist themes evinced in his films do not appear to be easily attributable to Cameron Douglas' father himself — and his avid interest in the well-being of his son is enough to make all of your prior impressions fade.
Cameron Douglas has not only a famous father who has starred in sexy films but also a grandfather who is an old-fashioned film legend. Cameron is often described with words like "scion," "heir" and "descendant."
You might come to wonder if Cameron's famous lineage helps to explain the DEA's avid interest in his case. This certainly could explain why so many resources were expended on uncovering drug dealing that was short-lived and, by the time of Cameron's arrest, long over. I do. I often tell Cameron that I bet that if he had been some run-of-the-mill pill pusher in a well-to-do neighborhood, none of this would have ever happened. But he isn't. And it did.
Cameron Douglas, in a January photo taken at the federal penitentiary in Cumberland, Md., where he is serving a five-year sentence.
I join Cameron's legal team in the fall of 2009. He is a resident of the Metropolitan Correctional Center (MCC), a maximum-security prison in downtown Manhattan. Our meeting takes place in one of the prison's dingy attorney rooms. In keeping with the surroundings, his outer exterior is rough — his athletic frame is covered in thick brown canvas and his forearms are inked with tattoos. But his rugged appearance is mostly a misdirect. He has the manner of a shy child, his face usually flushed with red and perpetually bearing a look of bewilderment. I, too, am reserved in his presence. When the other lawyers leave the room for a moment, we are left on our own, staring at one another in silence. The moment is so awkward that we simultaneously burst into nervous laughter. That's when he knew, he later tells me, that we would be bonded together.
I'm unable to reconcile what I see in my client with what I presume of his fancy lineage. Cameron Douglas appears to be a young man of paradox. While he comes from unimaginable means, he has not experienced some of the most basic trappings of middle-class existence. Acting is his birthright, but he has never seen a play. He has lived in residences reserved for the highest echelons of society but also in shabby hotels. He has traveled the globe but has spent as much time locked in a room with a needle in his arm.
He suffers from an untreated learning disability, one that is so severe that I find it more efficient to read everything to him. Yet he possesses an instinct for human behavior that allows him to see through any ruse, even the stock lines that sophisticated clients usually accept from their attorneys without question.
He is both prince and scourge, at once loved and hated. I observe the alternating adoration and contempt that is piled upon him by MCC's corrections officers. In his prison unit, he is so well received that some inmates gratuitously prepare his food, buy him gifts. But others display ire at his presence, rendering him familiar with physical altercation. Prior to his arrest, he was chronically surrounded by a gaggle of adoring women, and yet when he is required to provide an inventory of his physical scars, almost all of these can be attributed to instances of female rage.
Cameron (left) and Michael at the 2005 premiere of 'A Father ... A Son ... Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,' a film about Michael and his father, Kirk.
I privately wonder whether walking away from the family business and into the dicey field of drug trafficking allowed Cameron to demonstrate a perverse but rare fortitude among men, allowing him to step out of an otherwise endless shadow. One time, I joke that it's probably best that Cameron go into his dad's business rather than the other way around. He doesn't laugh. "My dad could never do what I did," he tells me. I'm not certain, but his tone seems to be one of pride.
It takes me more than a reasonable amount of time to admit to myself that I have developed romantic feelings for my client. What I do allow myself to see is a silent connection that develops between us. We share a goofy sense of humor, an affinity for the same movies, the same restaurants, the same silly reality TV shows. As I get to know him better, I quietly recognize that we share some similar afflictions. We both have an unflagging need to make others feel good about themselves. We both likely have this need because deep down we long to feel better about ourselves. Perhaps relatedly, we both have led lives that have caused us to end up in places where we don't want to be.
Despite these shared woes — or maybe because of them — there is something about being around Cameron that makes me feel better about being in the world. I catch myself thinking about him at the oddest times and in the oddest ways. When I go to see a movie, I wonder if he might like it. When I cook dinner, I wonder if he would enjoy it. When I'm spending time with friends, I wonder what it would be like if he were here, too. Once in a group meeting, our legs serendipitously touch. When I reflexively pull mine back he uses his ankle to still it in place, the inside of his calf leg now pressed purposely against the outside of mine. The surreptitious tangle of our legs is like everything that comes with Cameron: I know I shouldn't, but I do.
The Douglas clan at the 1991 Red Cross Humanitarian Awards when Cameron was 12. Cameron (center) is flanked by, from left, grandfather Kirk, mother Diandra, grandmother Anne and father Michael.
In January 2010, Cameron had agreed to plead guilty, but since he had not formally entered his plea before the trial judge, his legal team petitioned for bail. He was provisionally granted bail, secured by a $1 million bond from his parents. The hearing was supposed to be sealed to protect others from learning that Cameron, at the urging of his father, was cooperating with the government as it pursued other prosecutions in the case.
Cameron Douglas' mother, who is present at the hearing, signs the bond and goes home. But this is not enough: Cameron Douglas' father must sign it, too. In the four months that I have been on the case, I haven't had much occasion to communicate with him. He receives regular telephone updates on the case from the legal team, but this will be the first time I will meet him in person.
Cameron Douglas' father is not one for remaining under the radar. He walks with purposeful strides and greets every person he encounters, each of whom is outwardly excited by the recognition. I wonder what it's like to affect someone by simply saying hello. It appears exhausting. But I notice that the relationship might be symbiotic: Just as the strangers are touched, Cameron Douglas' father seems touched that they are touched. Perhaps in the end, like everyone else, he just wants to be liked.
After he's done with the receiving line, Cameron Douglas' father walks toward me and extends his hand. I'm struck by how he simultaneously manages to resemble his son but also look so different. While Cameron exudes a rugged masculinity, his father's appearance is more manicured, almost delicate.
My stargazing is cut short by the reality of the circumstances. Co-counsel is quietly explaining what happened in court when a man inserts himself into the discussion, joining the circle as though he has something to add. He introduces himself by name to Cameron Douglas' father and asks what he is doing in the courthouse today. Cameron Douglas' father looks wary but is polite. "I'm sorry, who are you?"
"I'm with the New York Post," the man says.
So much for a closed courtroom.
Douglas’ 2009 mugshot after he was arrested in the Gansevoort hotel in New York City in possession of a half-pound of methamphetamine and charged with intent to distribute.
I'm awakened early the next morning by the telephone — first my cell, then my home phone, then my cell again. Cameron Douglas' parents have seen the New York Post [suggesting that Cameron was cooperating with the prosecution], and they are beside themselves. Cameron Douglas' mother calls me sobbing. She is terrified that something will happen to her son. I try to comfort her as best I can without mentioning that deep down I am worried about the same thing. She insists on meeting immediately with the legal team. What seems like moments later, she appears perfectly coiffed in our office lobby. I extend my hand to greet her, but she refuses to take it. When we sit down for the meeting, she asks that we conference in Cameron Douglas' father by telephone. He is out of town and has been pulled off a ski slope in order to participate. The meeting begins as one might expect. There is ample yelling, both from the Douglas in the room and the Douglas on the phone. The Douglas in the room manages to cry and yell at the same time.
At learning that this [a transfer to the Special Housing Unit] is a protective measure, he Douglases then change their tone from anger to worry. "I just don't want him to get hurt," Cameron Douglas' father says. "How do we even know he can make it through the weekend?" Cameron Douglas' mother exclaims through tears. "He can't even call us to tell us how he is."
The drama is a bit unbearable to me; I want only for this meeting to end. After a moment, I say: "I will go and see him this weekend." Cameron Douglas' mother grabs my hand with both of hers — perhaps compensating for the lack of her hand at the start of the meeting — and looks at me with big, wet eyes. Due to the pervasiveness of her crying, her voice is that of a little girl. "You will?"
My offer seems to calm her down. The phone is silent, and I take this to mean that Cameron Douglas' father has calmed down, too. I'm anxious to get out of the room. I quickly try to tie up any loose ends. I ask Cameron Douglas' mother if there is anything she'd like me to relay to Cameron. She asks for a piece of paper and begins writing him a letter. The phone is still silent, and so I ask the same of Cameron Douglas' father. He doesn't respond right away. It takes me a moment to realize that this is because he is crying.
"Please send him my love," he manages.
Michael Douglas leaving Manhattan federal court on April 20, 2010, after Cameron was sentenced to five years in jail for his role in a drug deal.
Ultimately, Cameron was not granted bail. His legal team petitioned MCC officials to allow him to have his physician-prescribed antidepressants and anti-anxiety medicine while he was awaiting sentencing and a transfer to a federal prison. With his request caught up in bureaucratic red tape, Cameron became increasingly desperate for relief.
"Please, Jen. Please. I can't take this." He begs me over and over again.
"It could never be traced back to you," he presses. "I wouldn't tell a soul."
I don't say anything but shake my head.
"Jen, even if I did get caught, I would never let anyone come after you." He presses his hands to his chest for emphasis. "It'll be all on me."
That night as I lie in bed, I find myself thinking about what Cameron has asked me. Breaking the law is not something I regularly contemplate. Why am I still thinking about this? I can't help but think about the pointless hoops I have jumped through over the last several months for MCC officials. Two different voices in my head: the rational part of my brain, which tells me to stop thinking about it and go to sleep; and the less rational part of my brain. I begin to drift to sleep, but one last thought escorts me to unconsciousness. How would anyone ever know?
The next day I slip two small Xanax pills in my jeans pocket. MCC security requires going through a sensitive metal detector. Should the detector be activated — and it always is due to the underwire of my bra — the guard is required to use a wand. But today this process provides me with a plan.
By placing the pills in my pocket, I feel sure that they will go unnoticed. The guard will be so preoccupied with his comprehensive tour of my chest region that he will not pay any attention to my jeans. I'm right. It turns out I am quite the criminal mastermind.
I'm directed by an officer to an attorney room precisely behind him. As I often do, I put down my papers and pen and walk out of the attorney room to survey the vending machine. I purchase the regular fare: water for Cameron, Diet Coke for me and a bag of pretzels that we share.
Once I'm back in the attorney room, I open the bag of pretzels. I put my hand in my pocket, put the pills into my cupped hand and then put these into the bag.
As I wait for Cameron to arrive, I'm perfectly calm. Perhaps too calm. I'm stunned by my own conduct, incredulous at the ease with which I have completed this set of acts. It isn't too late, I tell myself. Just throw out the pretzels and this will have never happened. But I don't.
When Cameron enters, I tell him, "I bought you some pretzels."
"Thanks, Jen," he says flatly.
"No," I say. I nod my head toward the pretzel bag and change my wording. "I brought you some pretzels."
He looks at me for a moment, confused. I nod my head toward the pretzel bag again. He opens the bag and sees the two pills. He looks up at me, his face full of shock.
The Federal Correctional Institute in Cumberland, Md., a medium-security prison where Cameron was transferred in May 2013 to serve out his sentence.
After a second successful smuggling operation, Ridha began to worry more about getting caught. She told Cameron she'd only make one more run, and he pushed her to make it count.
"I was thinking, why can't you just bring me enough medicine until sentencing all at once, just one more time?"
By asking me to bring him a dozen pills — three days' worth — he is changing the game, turning my role of makeshift nurse into a smuggler. But he is insistent that it's better for me to do it this way.
"How would you even take the pills from here to your unit?" I ask.
"You just put them in a balloon." He says this like the answer should be obvious.
"And what, Cameron? You're going to swallow it and poop it? If it doesn't explode in your stomach first?"
"No," he says, matter-of-factly. "I will just put it up my ass."
"Cameron, this isn't an episode of The Wire. This is real life."
"Please, Jen —"
"Look, I think you should have your medicine. But not like this. You could get caught, I could get caught. You could get sick."
"This is better for you," he pleads. "You just bring it once, and then I won't ask for it again."
I sit in silence.
"Jen, please, this is it. I won't tell anyone. Please. It'll be all on me. It would never come back to you. I promise."
More than any other, this is the portion of the story I wish I could write differently. I wish I could write that I leave MCC that day, pack my bags and move to an ashram in one of India's lower provinces. But I don't. Instead, I convince myself that this is not much different from what I've done before, and that while I am taking a sizable risk for Cameron, by agreeing to take the fall he is taking an even bigger risk for me.
I purchase a bag of balloons from the dollar store. I measure out 12 pills, enough for three days. When the last tablet has been dropped, I tie the end with a secure knot and observe my handiwork. I have packed the balloon so tightly that its green skin is taut against the curve of the pills. It is about a quarter inch in diameter, two inches in length. Though I have no point of reference, I decide it will suffice in size and shape for Cameron's butt.
When Cameron arrives, he tells me to go to the restroom so that I'm not a witness to what is about to transpire. In the grimy prison bathroom, there is a faint stench of urine in the air. As I stand there, my shoes sticking to the tile floor, I already seem to know that I have chosen the wrong path, a path almost certain to cause harm to someone whom I ostensibly love.
New York’s Gansevoort hotel, where Cameron was arrested in 2009.
In May 2010, after his sentencing, Cameron was transferred to the federal penitentiary in Lewisburg, Pa. Before he left, Cameron and Ridha shared a single kiss in an attorney room at MCC during one of their final meetings. Two months later, Ridha was arrested for providing contraband in prison. Cameron had shared the pills she smuggled in with some prison buddies. One of those friends was a government informant.
Like many unconventional romances, ours is over far too soon. Unlike many unconventional romances, ours is cut short due to our having collectively committed a federal offense.
The government refers to 10 weeks' worth of emails and phone calls following Cameron's transfer out of MCC as evidence that I committed my crimes out of love.
I don't think that it was love that motivated me to turn to a life of crime, at least not exclusively and certainly not in the moment. The government doesn't seem to care about the distinction, and I suppose in the end I don't either.
My lawyer asks me about my relationship with Cameron. "Don't be embarrassed," he tells me. "I just need to understand it for when you are asked about it."
"I'm not embarrassed," I tell him. In truth, I am still not quite sure which part of having feelings for Cameron is supposed to be embarrassing. The fact that I started a relationship with a client? The fact that he is the son of a celebrity? The fact that he has dabbled both personally and professionally in the narcotic arts?
In an appeal for leniency, my lawyer will explain to the government that my personal circumstances contributed to my feelings for Cameron and my decision to commit crimes on his behalf. He will explain that I had recently undergone a painful breakup; that I was miserable both personally and professionally; that I was planning a career change in the hope of finding a more rewarding existence. These statements are all true. What they imply, however — that had I not been an unhappy mess when I met Cameron, I would not have developed feelings for him — is probably not.
At the same time, I do not posit that ours is the greatest love story of all time. Or even, really, a love story at all. I labor under no misapprehension that had my crimes not been discovered, we would in any real sense have remained together. I am not the one who got away. I am only the one who got arrested.
In 2011, Ridha's case concluded without her having to serve prison time. Meanwhile, Cameron was caught with a "heroin-like" substance and had 54 months added to his sentence, including a year in solitary confinement. He is eligible for release in 2017.
Cameron is released from solitary confinement in the spring of 2012. I learn this one evening when my cellphone rings, the number listed as "unknown," the caller on the other end a recording by the Federal Bureau of Prisons.
I haven't heard Cameron speak in close to two years. His voice is quiet and flat, almost despondent. The telltale bravado seems far away.
I suppose there is a moment that exists between all co-conspirators when they finally meet again. On bad days, I fantasize about screaming at him and perhaps punching him in the face. On better days, I want to tell him that we owed each other better. But now that he is on the line, I have no idea what to say.
He doesn't seem to know what to say either. When the awkwardness becomes unbearable, I finally say, "How are you holding up?"
He begins to talk. Just as I did long ago in an attorney room, I silently listen as he tells me about the atrocious conditions of solitary, about his new lawyer, about his appeal. He tells me about his new correctional facility, that it is rougher than his old facility, that he is playing flag football. As he talks, I feel a seeping unhappiness. Speaking with Cameron reminds me of everything that's happened, everything I've done.
Ridha used her lawyer ID to visit Cameron in jail.
His voice softens. "I was really worried about you," he says.
I feel tears forming, the kind that arrive when the moment is otherwise too overwhelming to endure.
"Oh," is all I manage to say.
"I miss you," he says.
"Oh," I say again.
There is silence. I swallow.
"So much has happened," I say.
"I know," he says. He does not elaborate.
"I'm glad you're doing better," I say.
"And it's nice to hear your voice," I say.
"Yeah, you, too," he says.
He pauses. "Jen?" he asks.
"Yes?" I say.
"Do you think that when I come out I could come live with you?"
At first I think he is making a joke. But then I remember reading an article about long-term solitary confinement, how it can cause inmates to develop delusionary thoughts. I remember, too, the psychiatrist's recommendation that Cameron never be placed in solitary. I proceed with diplomacy.
"Cameron, I don't know if that's such a good idea," I say.
"Why not?" he asks.
"Well, don't you think you should focus on getting out first?" Though he is challenging his sentence, his release is otherwise set for 2017.
There is not much time left on the call.
"Hey," he says. "I love you."
By this time, I have come to terms with the fact that this can't possibly be true, at least not in any conventional meaning of this phrase. But Cameron often uses "I love you" as a proxy for words he does not want to say. Being on the receiving end of Cameron's proclamations of love is like being in an Albee play: Tones bear more meaning than words. In the brief romantic time we spent together, I learned to decipher the difference between an "I love you" that means "I am sorry"; an "I love you" that means "you are going to hate what I am about to say"; and an "I love you" that means, to a certain degree, "I love you." When I hear the expectant tone in his voice, I know that he probably is asking whether or not I forgive. It is finally my chance to say my piece. As I search my thoughts, however, I discover I have no piece to say. I know by now that our collusion is necessarily equal parts of him and me. I know that I am not a wronged party as much as I am a party in the wrong. I know that the forgiveness he seeks is not really mine to withhold.
My answer is thus preordained. "I know that," I say. And then, before the phone cuts out, I add, "I love you, too."
Jennifer Ridha is currently a graduate student in urban anthropology and criminal justice at New York University. She's also a member of the bar in New York and California.
Excerpted from Criminal That I Am by Jennifer Ridha. Copyright © 2015 by Jennifer Ridha. All rights reserved.