Damien Echols was one of the West Memphis Three, though he asks to not be classified under that title anymore. He'd rather be known for any number of other things, and once his book, Life After Death, hits shelves on September 18th, I have no doubt he'll become known as an eloquent author.
The book is about his life, starting from childhood, spanning his eighteen years in prison, and touching on the freedom he's had since being released last August. It is deeply personal, with emotions riding right under the words you read and excerpts from his extensive journals peppering the book.
He's very funny and light-hearted at times:
- "Last night I dreamed that a bunch of rednecks burned me at the stake in a
Walmart parking lot."
- Joe Biden and John Kerry sent letters, asking Damien for money so the
Republicans don't violate his civil rights. "I considered writing back and
informing him that my entire existence has been violated, but could he help
by donating a few dollars to my fund. I decided against it. The last thing I
need is to be on some Secret Service watch list."
realistic and (understandably) depressed at others:
- "Just about every time I do an interview they ask me what I miss most. When
they do, a hundred things flash through my mind - the memories giving me
that free-fall feeling in the pit of my stomach. ... if you rolled all the deprivations
into one thing, it would be this: I miss being treated like a human being."
- "The dreams are coming fast and fierce. Dreams of freedom. It hurts so much to
wake up. Time is coming apart for me. At some moments I can no longer feel a
past, any past, trailing behind me like a snakeskin. At other moments it feels
like the past is all that's real. Today I was two people, one laughing at the other."
The narrative flows beautifully, weaving his childhood and teenage years into descriptions of life in prison. For example, a mention of a rosary hanging in his cell segues into a memory of the first rosary his grandmother gave him, and moves on from there.
Because this is the story of his own life, Damien doesn't talk much about the case. If you're interested in the facts, I highly recommend Devil's Knot by Mara Leveritt, the Paradise Lost trilogy of documentaries, and WM3.org.
I first learned about the case twelve years ago, and could relate to being "different" in a Southern high school. Back then my biggest injustice was being pulled to go through the metal detectors for wearing a shirt with a skull and crossbones. I can't imagine the shock of being arrested for a crime you didn't commit, then going to trial as a teenager, naïvely thinking that everything will work out right because there is justice in the world. Spending eighteen years in prison, ten in solitary confinement, sounds unbearable. HALF of his life has been spent in prison! Then there is the shock of coping in the drastically-changed real world after just as suddenly being pushed to freedom.
It's incredible to me that such a book, where the outcome is public knowledge, can still have suspense. But as I got closer and closer to the end, my heart was pounding. I knew Damien got out of jail, but he didn't know; by reading his words you're so inside his world that you forget everything else. It was an amazing, all-consuming reading experience. I still find myself thinking about it, days after devouring the last page.
I'm interested to hear how people react to this book, especially the non-supporters. No one can deny that Damien is highly intelligent. He spent his time in prison reading, taking community college classes, writing, meditating, and working out. He was trying to better himself despite his restrictions, when most people would give up and rot.
I'm also interested to see him speak at the Southern Festival of Books in Nashville. I loved hearing Jason Baldwin's perspective last year after a screening of Paradise Lost 3, so it will be nice to hear from Damien.