Echols of ‘West Memphis Three’ fame reveals prison experiences in new book
There are few people out there who have lived lives as notorious as Damien Echols. At 18, he was one of three teens convicted of murdering three second graders in West Memphis in 1993. His goth-outcast persona was only used to fuel the fire against him as members of his community deemed him a unruly individual of the Satanist persuasion. But after new evidence and much support, including that of Johnny Depp and Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder, the three men were officially released in August 2011 with Echols having spent half his life on death row.
From the time of his arrest, the now forty-something Echols has been a figurehead for many topics, including judicial injustice, occultism and even white trash. But his new memoir, “Life After Death,” offers details that go beyond the public facade while providing insight into death row that deems it a modern classic in the captivity narrative genre.
Though it is hard to judge a piece of work that’s bursting with such extreme aspects of the human condition, Echols succeeds in giving a heartbreaking account of his life on death row. Apt, colorful storytelling makes for vivid scenery enveloping a man dealing with internal demons while the public eye is turned to his small concrete hovel. He chronicles alleged abuse by guards and employees in a unique fashion, balancing the horrors of the Arkansas Department of Corrections with humorous accounts of convicts who have the oddest of quirks.
However, there are rays of light that seem to break through the blackness. During his time in prison, Echols devoured many books and chose to explore a variety of beliefs, which culminated into a reasonable stash of literature as well as a 1999 Buddhist wedding with architect Lorri Davis . This gives “Life After Death” a refreshing, spiritual autobiography-oriented facet that may seem surprising to those who have followed or studied the West Memphis Three case over the last two decades. His stories regarding his choice of belief and lifestyle are told in a positively appealing light that’s capable of leaving the reader satisfied.
But while Echols’ account is every bit as gripping as one would expect, there exist portions of his language that are hard to get past. A very down-to-earth account sometimes gives way to pure melodrama, with “art for art’s sake” passages stifling stories that need no embellishments. His concept of “magick” is easy to understand, as he chooses to make it synonymous with beauty instead of Pagan practices, but it is one that he abuses. He often peppers his speech with the word magick, which suggests a gung-ho spiritualist in lieu of a death row prisoner. These bad habits detract from the seriousness of his autobiography and make some portions lighter — and unintentionally funnier — than they should be.
Fortunately, it is Echols’ handwritten entries that appear during the last quarter of “Life After Death” that seal the deal with the reader. The journals reek of the personality and desperation felt in his later years in prison, but for those familiar with the case, it was merely a hitch in what would later become his freedom. After years of failed appeals, he filed an Alford plea, which offers a defendant the opportunity to assume innocence despite the evidence against him. Once freed, he was again planted in a new environment. But instead of being rushed into a life of cruelty, he was greeted with a happier kind of mayhem: entering a luxurious hotel with amenities and nutrition he had not experienced for 18 years, all with his wife by his side. For audiences who adore happy endings, this conclusion is gratifying at best.
“Life After Death” is the ultimate literary testament that one would expect from someone such as Damien Echols. It bridges the gap between true crime and sensationalism to create an enticing book that’s hard to put down. While I would recommend that most should familiarize themselves with the case prior to picking up this behemoth, it also suffices as a piece of entertaining literature for the casual reader interested in deeper aspects of the human experience.