Review: Damien Echols – “Life After Death

Life After DeathLife After Death by Damien Echols
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“I regularly receive letters now from people who had not even been born the last time I saw a sunset.”

Reading this book is akin to reading tomes from survivors of the concentration camps during the Second World War. Echols was abused by the law (both in jail and out of it) and by other adults, tortured, his eyesight was ruined for life due to spending years in solitary confinement, not to mention the fact that he was wrongfully imprisoned and his seemingly demented parents’ upbringing. Despite this, he has written a quite beautiful book with loads of disgusting, fulfilling bits, e.g.:

In the movies it’s always the other prisoners you have to watch out for. In real life, it’s the guards and the administration. They go out of their way to make your life harder and more stressful than it already is, as if being on Death Row were not enough. They can send a man to prison for writing bad checks and then torment him there until he becomes a violent offender. I didn’t want these people to be able to change me, to touch me inside and turn me as rotten and stagnant as they were. I tried out just about every spiritual practice and meditative exercise that might help me to stay sane over the years.

The book has been written over his entire jail term, and then a little. His journals have been stolen and even destroyed by the prison guards, which means that a lot of stuff has probably been rewritten just for this book.

Echols seems to have been an intelligent, seeking kind of child, who wanted to live life to the full, and hence, experience all types of things. Living in Arkansas, USA, as he did, must have provided a real strain on him, seeing that his neighbours and the police deeply frowned upon anything other than the ordinary (of course, that’s found anywhere that you also find people who love the word “normality” and desperately believe that being normal, whatever that is to them, is being Perfect). His own words:

If a man is a little too intelligent for the taste of the locals, he will soon find himself ostracized. Most don’t have either the self-discipline or the self-respect to better themselves, and they despise anyone who does, because it makes them feel small and inadequate. Unless you want to be the target of resentment you have to keep your head down and shuffle your feet along with the rest of the herd. The one thing above all else that is not tolerated is magick. Any trace of wonder or magick must be snuffed out at all costs. Then instead of mourning its loss, they’ll pat themselves on the back. Nothing can be mundane enough to suit the herd. Bland country faces in bland country places.

Yes, he was a seeker. And wanted excitement, just like any kid. He read a lot, partly because he was intrigued, but also because his family was extremely poor and referred to some people who lived in trailer areas as “rich people”:

Oddly enough, that same children’s book was where I first encountered Aleister Crowley. Now I know it was all propaganda, but at that young age I was amazed that someone could be so brazenly hedonistic and “sinful.” I’ve read much about this man and his life’s work over the years, and it’s incredible how people have misunderstood him. One of my favorite examples is his “How to Succeed / How to Suck Eggs” wordplay. It comes from chapter sixty-nine (wordplay: get it?), in which he talks about sexual practices; anyone not reading closely won’t pick up on the “suck seed” reference. His words have been misconstrued, twisted, taken out of context, and misunderstood continuously. If you don’t know the key with which to decipher him, then you’ll never understand what you’re reading. Others don’t even want to understand, and would rather use his name or image to sway and scare the ignorant, just as the prosecutor did during my trial.

He is today a catholic and zen buddhist, among other things. He writes the following about correspondence from idiots that he has received while in jail:

Most people who spew hatred aren’t very intelligent or motivated. They tend to be lazy, and if for some reason they are coaxed into picking up a pen, their messages are mostly incoherent and largely illiterate. Their spelling and sentence structure tends to be atrocious, so it’s hard to take offense at anything they’d say even when they do write. After all, if they’re not motivated or intelligent enough to research the simple spelling of a word in a dictionary, then you know they certainly aren’t going to take the time to research the case. Still, all in all, hateful people just don’t seem to like writing, I guess. Either that or there simply aren’t many people in the world who wish me anything but good fortune.

[…]

Perhaps it’s just me, but I don’t think Jesus’ words were meant to be tied to a brick and chunked through your neighbor’s window at midnight. Anytime you drop a picture of Christ in the mailbox while muttering a self-righteous “This’ll teach ’em,” something has gone terribly wrong.

And while in school, suddenly a magazine meant a change of things, like music, friends and a little of a way of life:

One day a week during study hall we were allowed to spend thirty minutes in the school library. It was on one of these excursions that my life was drastically changed when I came across a superior literary publication called Thrasher. For those who don’t know, it was the skateboarding magazine. This was the first time I was exposed to the world of skateboarding. It wasn’t just an activity—it was a culture. I don’t remember seeing any skaters in our school, so I don’t know how the magazine found its way into those humble archives. That magazine became my bible. All I could think about was skating, and after months of begging I received my first skateboard for Christmas. It was a cheap, heavy thing, with no nose and very little tail. It was piss yellow, with a Chinese dragon graphic on the bottom. Definitely not the best of equipment, but it gave me my start. Day and night I did nothing but practice tricks and read Thrasher. I would stare at the ads for the new decks like a sex fiend in the porn section. I also became acquainted with a different world of music I’d never before heard of, and discovered The Cure, Dinosaur Jr., Primus, Black Flag, Circle Jerks, and many other classics.

His words on momentum in jail are beautiful:

I can vaguely remember life in what I call the real world. It seemed to be a chain of events that flowed one into another, not always seamlessly but at least naturally. There is nothing natural about my current situation. Nothing flows—or even moves—without someone applying a tremendous amount of willpower to one of reality’s pressure points. Even then, it’s like trying to keep a beach ball aloft just by blowing on it. Life without momentum is not truly life. A person needs movement, or they eventually begin to forget that they even exist.

His school life progressed more:

I completely quit skating and became what people now call “goth,” though I had never heard the word, and there were no goths in our school. I did what I did because it was aesthetically pleasing to me. In addition to Slayer, Testament, and Metallica, my musical taste expanded to include things like Danzig, The Misfits, Siouxsie and the Banshees, and Depeche Mode. All the old skateboarding posters disappeared from my room and were replaced with old prints I found in odd books. Most of them looked a great deal like images from Goya’s etchings and sketches. I caught a couple of filthy, vindictive pigeons and allowed them to fly around the room as they pleased.

He’s really funny at times as well:

My sister could not sing to save her life, but that never stopped her from trying. The problem was that every song sounded the same as the last one when it came from her mouth. My mother said it was because she was hard of hearing, but I have my doubts. I’m more inclined to believe it was simply a lack of talent, but no mother wants to tell her daughter she sounds like a bag of cats being beaten with a stick. Michelle was allowed to join the school choir only because the policy was to refuse no one who signed up.

A police named Jerry Driver continually harassed Echols, ddeperately trying to get him to feel uncomfortable, trying to pin various crimes on him, and actually got him admitted to a mental institution. Later, Echols was imprisoned for being in an abandoned bus, and was sent to jail:

I was chained and shackled for the entire trip. When we arrived, the other patients were quite disturbed by the sight of me. Some later confided that they had believed I must be a madman of the highest order to require all the restraints. You know you’ve hit rock bottom when mental patients question your sanity.

Still, he was a seeker. And he tried to check out christianity:

I turned to leave and heard someone call out, “Hey! I want to talk to you for a minute!” The preacher was staring at me without blinking as he approached. He stood before me with crossed arms, not offering to shake my hand. “What’s that?” he asked, pointing to a pin on my jacket. It was the iron cross from the cover of the Guns N’ Roses album Appetite for Destruction. “That some sort of satanic thing?” I told him it most certainly was not, but he still looked dubious. “I don’t want you coming here making people uncomfortable.” He looked like he was working himself up into a state of anger. “Don’t worry, I won’t be back.” I walked away, still trying to figure out what it all meant.

When the three children were murdered:

Instead of conducting a real murder investigation and checking the forensic evidence, the police started immediately chasing stories of black-robed figures that danced around bonfires and chanted demonic incantations. Beginning that day, that’s all anyone talked about. The entire town was petrified because they were convinced hell had broken loose in Arkansas. Every redneck preacher in the area was preaching sermons about how we were in the “end times,” so you better get right with God or else the devil would come for you, too. You must keep in mind that this is a state in which one out of every four people can’t read above a fifth-grade level. Ignorance breeds superstition. People believed these stories and helped them grow. After being shown my picture, one man swore to the police that I had caused him to levitate. Another swore that the police told him they had found body parts under my bed. These sorts of stories passed for investigation. The constant harassment continued to escalate. Within days, instead of coming to my house they were taking me to the police station. It was easier for them to play good cop, bad cop there. One of them (usually Sudbury, whose breath smelled as if he ate onions morning, noon, and night) would get in my face and scream, “You’re going to fry! You may as well tell us you did it now!” The other cop would then pretend to be my friend and act as if he were rescuing me from Sudbury’s “wrath.” I was only a teenager, and the whole thing looked pretty pathetic even to me.

And in the middle of it all, Echols spews forth the following weird phrenological thing, that seems to be from Hitler’s 1940s:

He had no neck, and his nose was turned up like a snout. I’ve learned over the years that sooner or later a person’s physical appearance comes to resemble whatever is in their heart.

On his court-appointed lawyer:

The same court that was putting me on trial was also paying my lawyer. Look at it this way—are you going to employ someone who makes you look stupid and rubs your face in your own mistakes? No. You’re going to pay the guy who knows his place and sticks with the program. These guys get paid the same amount whether they win or lose, so why try too hard? Later, during the trial, when I asked why they didn’t push a point or challenge a ruling, they answered, “We have to work with the judge on a daily basis and don’t want to piss him off.”

[…]

“Beyond a reasonable doubt” disappeared, and “Innocent until proven guilty” had left the building. Once they go through all that trouble to accuse and arrest you, you’re going down unless you’ve got a couple million dollars on hand to hire some real gunslingers to come to your aid. I was a fool back then, though. Still wet behind the ears. I thought the purpose of the justice system was to see that justice is done. That’s the way it works on TV. While I was counting on divine intervention, they were plotting my demise.

Yes, on the importance of reading:

My father or grandmother would bring me five paperback books from a local secondhand bookstore every week, and I’d usually have read them all by their next visit. I had always loved reading, but at that point those books became my only way to forget about the nightmare of my life. I would hide in them and go someplace else for hours at a time. The other guys were amazed by how much and how quickly I could read. It was a trend that has continued to this day. I’ve read a few thousand books over the time I’ve been locked up. Without books, I would have gone insane long ago.

He doesn’t write much about the details of the crimes or his case, which is intelligently put:

It would be redundant to go over every detail, because the murder case and the trials have been documented at length in four documentaries and several books—in fact, you can read more about the proceedings at damienechols.com, wm3.org, freewestmemphis3.org, or at my publisher’s website. Many of the details that came to light during the trial I wasn’t informed about until much later, and much of the evidence (or lack thereof) that finally established my innocence was not found or introduced until many years after this time.

After being sentenced to death row he ended up in prison:

Gene was a remarkable artist, and I once saw a canvas he had painted to look like a giant dollar bill. If you looked closely, you’d notice it wasn’t George Washington in the middle, it was Jesus. Look even closer and you’d realize Jesus had a penis for an ear..

He told me everything I needed to know in order to move and operate within the system. He also sold me my first radio. After not hearing music for a year, Lynyrd Skynyrd sounded like a choir of angels.

On people caring about his case:

On a daily basis I started receiving letters and cards from people all over the country who had seen the film Paradise Lost, and were horrified by it. The overwhelming sentiment was, “That could have been me they did that to!” If you are to understand the impact this had on me, you have to understand that up until that point I had received no sympathy or empathy from anyone. Everywhere I turned, I found nothing but disgust, contempt, and hatred. The whole world wanted me to die. It’s impossible to have any hope in the face of such opposition. Now I was suddenly receiving letters from people saying, “I’m so sorry for what was done to you. I wish there was something I could do to help.” A single letter like that would have been enough to kindle a tiny spark of hope in my heart, but I received hundreds. Every day at least one or two would arrive, sometimes as many as ten or twenty. I would lie on my bunk and flip through the letters, savoring them like a fat kid with a fistful of candy, whispering, “Thank you. . . . Thank you,” over and over again. I clutched those letters to my chest and slept with them under my head. I had never been so thankful for anything in my entire life.

On which people have actually been sentenced as murderers and their mental skillset:

I’ve never come across a single murderer who possessed the mental faculties required to fully comprehend the horror of what they have done.

…and of some of the actions of these people:

Nu-Nu shot and killed a man in a coin-operated laundry. When the cops came to investigate they found a security tape with footage of Nu-Nu break-dancing around the body.

…and of how the state actually tried to make people sane enough in order to legally murder them:

Another potentially dangerous schizophrenic was recently executed after spending twenty-two years on Death Row. He was here so long because he had been judged too insane to execute. The state finally medicated him so that he would be sane enough to appreciate the fact that he was about to die. There was no question about his insanity for those who met him. I’d known it since the day he spit in my face and accused me of giving him ingrown toenails. He was still screaming at me as the guards took him to the hole.

Quotes:

One of my favorite quotes of all time comes from Oscar Wilde. When someone asked him if he believed in God, his response was “No, I believe in something much bigger.”

[…]

Someone sent me a letter that had one of the best quotes I’ve ever read. It said “What is to give light must endure burning.” It’s by a writer named Viktor Frankl. I’ve been turning that quote over and over in my head. The truth of it is absolutely awe-inspiring.

On prison regulations:

Many people have asked me why I cut my hair. The answer is because I didn’t have a choice. One day the prison decided it was a “security risk” if my hair were to touch my ears or my collar. If I refused to let them cut my hair, I would be thrown in the hole for thirty days, my visits would be taken for one year, and I would not be allowed to use the phone for one month. Same deal with facial hair. Sideburns that extend beyond mid-ear are “detrimental to the order and discipline of the unit.”

There is much to this book. It is among the better autobiographies I have ever read. Even though there is a tinge of “I’m better than you”, it’s still not like that. Echols has experienced so much in his relatively short existence, and he seems not to be filled with hatred or bitterness, but has in fact tried to change his life to one of enjoyment. I know he wants to move on and leave the past behind him. I hope he can succeed at that, and live a long and healthy life – and finally get exonerated by the state of Arkansas, where a terrible injustice still brews, until Echols and his two companions are declared completely innocent from the murders they are sentenced for.

Highly recommendable for all.

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