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Daddy dearest: The son of a self-help guru reveals all

As his absent father made millions preaching feel-good self-help, Oran Canfield spiralled into a life of drug-fuelled self-loathing. But can his contentious new memoir of a troubled childhood really be good for the soul?

Nick Duerden
Sunday 07 February 2010 01:00 GMT

Thirty-four years ago, Oran Canfield's father Jack, a man who would go on to become the hugely successful author of the US self-help book Chicken Soup for the Soul, left his pregnant wife and one-year-old son, and moved in with a masseuse. Judging by what is happening on a Berlin stage right now, it is probably safe to suggest that Oran has yet to entirely forgive him.

It is some time past midnight at a venue called West Germany in a particularly gritty part of the city, and Canfield's band Child Abuse are halfway through a set one can only describe as pure noise terrorism. They've already played the songs "Wrong Hole" and "Preemptive Priapism", and are now on to "I Hate Me", a deeply unpleasant mess of satanic howl and jarring keyboard jabs, while Canfield pounds away tirelessly on his drums. A crowd of maybe 60 watch with clear bemusement and, in some cases, incipient horror.

By most measures, Child Abuse make horrid music, though deliberately it would seem, for Canfield isn't the only one with issues: singer Luke Calzonetti was a model, but after turning 30, the bookings dried up. Consequently, he is not a contented man, gurning as he screams into the microphone and regales the crowd with a list of people he loathes. At the moment, he tells us, he particularly hates the Bavarian police (for matters undisclosed), London's Time Out magazine (for daring to suggest that Child Abuse made for an unpleasant band name), and Mark, whom they met a couple of nights ago in the Czech Republic. "Asshole," is how he puts it.

The audience doesn't quite know what to do with this information – none has ever met Mark from the Czech Republic, after all – and several drift to the bar area in what is perhaps the most dilapidated music venue in all of Europe, a decomposing room beneath some train tracks in which it's not hard to imagine asbestos falling from what remains of the ceiling tiles. But the band's noise follows them, getting progressively louder, a torture of Guantanamo proportions.

Afterwards, Canfield and I go to the only place open around here, a 24-hour kebab shop. He orders an open sandwich of chopped meat and diced peppers. "I guess I've always been drawn to playing really loud music," he reasons. "It's therapeutic, cathartic. And I needed the outlet, because I don't express anger all that well."

This isn't entirely true, for he has just written a memoir entitled Freefall, in which he details not just his devastating descent into heroin addiction but also the sustained anger he felt for the father who abandoned him, and a mother who he feels was somewhat negligent. "That's true," he concedes, shrugging, "but I still have a lot of... aggression, I guess you'd call it. Banging away at the drums every night helps me release it."

Kebab finished, he yawns loudly. Not just because it is late, but because throughout the first two weeks of Child Abuse's month-long inaugural European tour in support of their imminent second album Cut and Run – the band has hit all the high spots: Ljubljana, Freising, Bydgoszcz – they have had to make do with sleeping in squats and on people's floors, and have been driving through Arctic conditions in a 20-year-old van that breaks down daily, and whose heating system doesn't work. Consequently, the poor man is exhausted. "I'm 35 years old," he sighs, rubbing a hand across his face. "Sometimes I think I may be a little too old for all this."

The drug confessional has long proved a fertile ground for people – invariably American – to suddenly, and all too keenly, unload their demons in literary form, treating the page much as they would the stage at an AA meeting. But Oran Canfield's is far more entertaining than your average heroin memoir. Though it details his years-long relationship with drugs – he started out on pot before progressing to acid, crack cocaine and heroin – it also recounts what was a bizarre, and at times barely believable, upbringing.

After his father left to reinvent himself as one of America's foremost motivational speakers, his mother went through some issues of her own – sensitive ones he can no more explain to me now than he could in the book for, he relays with a heavy frown, "legal reasons" – so, as he tells it, he and his younger brother Kyle were offloaded on to a succession of friends and relatives, commune dwellers, libertarian boarding schools and the occasional travelling circus, where a young Oran learnt to juggle while balancing on a unicycle (he's won prizes for it).

He was introduced to drugs aged 13 by some crazy Mexican cops, and a year later was dropping acid with the daughter of the Grateful Dead's frontman, Jerry Garcia. By the time his father had authored several self-help books, all national bestsellers, Canfield was addicted to heroin, ' regularly stealing from his friends to fuel his habit – if only because stealing from friends was easier than asking his estranged father, whom he saw every couple of years, for handouts. Nevertheless, when things got bad, which they frequently did, that is precisely what he did do. This prompted new waves of self-loathing, which he dealt with the only way he knew how: by getting high. Though his family made several attempts at intervention, packing him off to rehabilitation centres (seven in total), he remained as mistrustful of AA as he was of his father's books, which he considered a scam.

"I have never had any faith in any of that self-help shit," he deadpans. But what did he think of his father's own books, the first of which was dedicated to him? "I refused to read them."

It was only when, as a last resort, he turned to an experimental treatment using a psychedelic drug called ibogaine that he began to see light at the end of the tunnel. Illegal in the US, he underwent the $12,000 treatment at an exclusive retreat in the Bahamas. In the book, he recounts how it gave him the most vivid nightmares, but also numbed him to the wretched experience of withdrawal. He flew back to California convinced that drugs were at last behind him... and the next day promptly shot up again. This time, however, the heroin didn't have quite the same effect, and wouldn't again. Agreeing later to give AA another go, he finally began to win his battle against addiction.

But what really cemented his continued abstinence to this day, he says, was deciding to write a book about it. "I'd never written anything before but friends kept telling me to try. At the time I started seriously thinking about it, I was probably in the darkest period of my life." He was 31, recently clean and relocated to Brooklyn, where he was working as a bike messenger. "I was living pretty much hand-to-mouth while my dad was this millionaire. Let's say I was feeling low. I needed to do something positive with my life, so I gave the book a go. Hardest thing I've ever done, but also the best."

The morning after the Child Abuse show, I meet Canfield in an upmarket café on the other side of town. It is a freezing Sunday, and a fresh layer of snow lays on the ground. He looks cold and still tired, and tells me that he slept badly once again, and that he is feeling ill. He orders a coffee and a bowl of yoghurt, but what he really craves is a cigarette; his tobacco pouch sits beside his cutlery on the table in front of him, and he glances at it longingly.

Canfield makes for unexpectedly genial company, a mordantly funny guy with a hangdog expression that makes you sympathise with everything he says. Despite his age, he still dresses like a teenage slacker, in a jeans, T-shirt and jacket combination that he likely slept in last night and will again tonight. Our conversation feels awkward at first, and he admits he finds being interviewed slightly unsettling, not least, perhaps, because since his book's publication in America last autumn, it has had a divisive effect on his family. Anything he says subsequently can only fuel the fire.

Presumably, Jack Canfield was the one with most to lose here: the first Chicken Soup book, published in 1993, was followed by many others – Chicken Soup for the Prisoner's Soul, Chicken Soup for the Volunteer's Soul, even Chicken Soup for the Ocean Lover's Soul – each filled with stories that extolled the virtues of goodness. They proved astoundingly successful worldwide: there are now 100 million copies in print, and they have been translated into 54 languages. So one would imagine his reputation to be somewhat dented when it was revealed that his own family life was riven with problems. But Canfield insists that his father has actually been supportive, unexpectedly so.

"He has always said that making mistakes is part of being human, so..." He smiles wryly. "So I guess he is human, right?"

But it must have made for painful reading?

"It hurt him, of course it did, because I don't think he ever realised just how bad things got. But then he was never really part of my life. Since he has read the book, we have actually started talking a lot more than we ever did. He even talks about my book at his seminars now." Laughing incredulously, he adds: "Hey, it's great publicity."

It hasn't gone down quite so well with his mother, however. "Basically, she is not happy with it." Why? "Well, she doesn't remember things in quite the way I do. And she is unwilling to accept that I may have had a different experience."

Is she suing him? "No, but it's complicated. She's made certain complaints. There have been letters. From lawyers."

His mother – who works in a similar field to that of her former husband and insisted Oran refrain from mentioning her name in his book – recently went public, suggesting that much of Freefall was pure fantasy. "It is one story after the next," she said. "It is false- memory syndrome."

So which one of them is telling the truth? Canfield exhales, and shakes his head sadly. His fingers reach for his tobacco pouch. "What can I tell you? The book's all true. It is."

He maintains that he does not regret writing it – "it was mine to write" – and that its publication represents a high point in his life. "In my time, I've been a visual artist, a musician, a juggler... but this is the first creative pursuit that has ever generated any money for me. That's important."

And it has made his father proud of him. "I don't think my father had any particular expectations of me, but he is glad I'm doing things I like to do, even if he doesn't necessarily get it. He came to see the band play a few months back. It was probably the worst thing he had ever heard, but he saw me in my zone, and that was enough for him."

What did he say to you after the performance? "He said to me, 'That was really something,' and he said it with the kind of enthusiasm to make it seem like a compliment, but it probably wasn't. I can't say I'm surprised. I mean, the guy likes Kenny G."

Breakfast over, we wander out into the snow and back towards the tour van, which he will drive later today on to Hamburg. Hamburg, he says brightly, promises slightly better weather. It is currently -5C in Berlin, but it was even colder in Poland. "I haven't seen the sun for two weeks," he laments. "I miss it."

Nevertheless, he is enjoying the tour, even if it isn't making him any money, and despite the fact that being on the road is hardly conducive for a former junkie wanting to remain a former junkie. Every night, he has to watch his two fellow band members getting merry with newly made fans, while he turns down every offer of a drink that comes his way. "I know I could so easily say yes to a beer," he points out, "but the trouble with me is that if I have just one beer, I'll be doing heroin shortly after. So I ride out the temptation, and then I'm fine." He gives a theatrical cough. "Well, I say fine, but that's all relative, isn't it?"

The most common misconception of the reformed addict, he says, is people believing that, once they have kicked the habit, all is rosy. "It's what always happens in drug memoirs, isn't it? They stop using eventually, they find God, and it's happily ever after. Thing is, it never is, is it? Not really. Right now, that's what I'm having trouble coming to terms with: that even though I'm sober, I'm simply now in the same headspace as everyone else. I still get depressed, though the self-loathing isn't quite as bad as it used to be. And I still have all sorts of issues: with responsibility, with paying the bills, with maintaining a healthy relationship. It disappoints me that I'm not better at that. But then I guess that's part of my chemistry. It's who I am."

When he turns 40, Canfield will come into some money – about a quarter of a million dollars – bequeathed to him by his late grandmother. But until then, he says, he'll have to continue living the perpetual wolf-at-the-door existence that has come to define him. "I have about a month's worth of savings left right now, then it's back to job-hunting."

I ask him what he would like, ideally, to do with his life. "I wish I knew. My father thinks I should keep up with the writing. He says I should try fiction next. I told him I wasn't sure I could write fiction, and he says, 'Well, I don't think your mother would agree with that.'" He thrusts his hands deep into his pockets, tucks his chin in to protect his neck from Berlin's cruel chill, and chuckles drily. "Hilarious, right?"

'Freefall, The Strange True Life Growing Up Adventures of Oran Canfield' is published by Ebury, priced £11.99

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