Over centuries, prison literature as a genre has been shaped by such vastly different writers as Malcolm X, the Marquis de Sade, Martin Luther King, Jr., Mumia Abu-Jamal, Jean Genet, George Jackson, and (next spring) Lil Wayne, producing books that veer between the elegantly crafted and the utterly rage-filled. Whether fueled by political resistance (King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”) or driven purely by the need to survive the ordeal of incarceration, the lonely struggle of putting a narrative to one’s life tends to coincide with the search for a greater order. Within the realm of prison literature, Death Row memoirs occupy a distinctly American subset (if only for the fact that the United States’ peers in execution -- China, Iran -- tend to brutally suppress freedom of speech), and most, of course, are headed toward a common tragic ending.
Fortunately Damien Echols’s "Life After Death," out this week, subverts that subgenre. The nutshell back story, if you haven’t heard it before or seen it in HBO’s Paradise Lost documentaries: Damien Echols is the most famous member of the West Memphis Three, who, as teenage boys, were put on trial and charged with the brutal 1993 murders and mutilations of three young boys in West Memphis, Arkansas despite an astounding lack of evidence. The only thing directly linking Echols and his co-defendants Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley to the murder was a forced and questionable confession by the mentally low-functioning Misskelley. The crime was characterized as “Satanic,” and Echols, with his long, naturally black hair and long black trench coat, along with his love of Metallica and horror movies, presented an obvious fit for the part of lead killer.
All of the Three were convicted and sent to prison in 1994; Echols alone was handed three death sentences, and, once HBO and celebrities like Johnny Depp and Peter Jackson took an interest in the case, emerged as its “star.” Three documentaries, numerous books (including Echols' self-published earlier memoir), and eighteen years later, on August 19, 2011, the West Memphis Three were freed by entering an unusual plea known as an Alford (by which they can publicly profess their innocence but are barred from suing the state of Arkansas). A year after that fact comes Echols’s raw and riveting memoir, drawn from his prison journals, told in chapters that alternate between his childhood, growing up so poor that a trailer, with running water, was a move up in the world; and his more recent past -- moving into a cell decorated with the outline the previous inmate had traced of his own body, sleeping in that dead man’s bed.
When I first called Echols, I could barely understand him. “We’ve been homeless for a month,” was all I could make out. He sounded exhausted. Minutes later, his wife, Lorri Davis (a landscape architect who spearheaded the legal fight to free the West Memphis Three), called back. “I’m literally hanging out a window to get cell reception,” she said. Both of them had been up since four in the morning, moving into their new house in Salem, Massachusetts, finally realizing a dream that Echols mentions in his book. When we spoke a day later, about the writing of the book and his first year out of prison, Echols was open, friendly, his accent bearing all the traces of his West Memphis upbringing.
Place is such an important part of "Life After Death," particularly your understandably conflicted feelings about your hometown. There’s a great section where you describe listening to the cicadas outside your cell, and you go on to talk about how fear and place are connected. “People in West Memphis don’t like anything that stands out," you write, "including intelligence and beauty." But elsewhere in the book you confess a real love for the place, even the scummy green trash-filled lake of the trailer park where you lived.
That’s it in a nutshell, that’s exactly how I feel about where I grew up, the parts of it that meant a lot to me. Now it feels tainted by everything they put me through. It’s like they took my favorite food and sprinkled poison on it. Everything you loved is ruined.
I miss the people, the places. I miss the public library. Reading was always a huge part of my life; I started going there in about fourth grade. But I know I could never walk down the street in West Memphis again. All I would be able to think about now is what they did to me.
Do you think what happened to you and Jason and Jessie would have happened if not for geography? Or was it on account of the accidental fact of being teenagers in West Memphis?
You have to remember, this all happened back in 1993. The whole Satanic panic was pretty widespread in the country at that time, but even more so where we lived. For some reason in that spot of the world, the ignorance and superstition ran high. There was so much conjecture. People there actually believed there were Satanists behind every tree and rock. They would see roadkill, tire tracks and all, and blame it on devil worshippers.
You’ve been befriended by people like Johnny Depp, Eddie Vedder, Marilyn Manson, Henry Rollins, and so many others who’ve rallied for your cause while you were on Death Row. They must have seen something of themselves, or their past outsider selves, in you.
That’s what they’ve all told me, that they were drawn to the case after seeing the documentaries or reading books -- that they identified with me. But first and foremost I think they reached out to help not only me, but to help keep something like this from happening to anyone else.
Do you feel that kind of responsibility yet yourself, to help prevent this from happening to others? Or is it just too soon?
Honestly right now, it’s just a hundred percent about trying to survive in this world, and it takes every ounce of everything I have in me in order to do that. When I was released, I was in such a state of deep shock and trauma; not only had I been in prison for eighteen years, I had been in solitary for ten of those. So going from that hell to being tossed back on the street -- to say that it’s overwhelming doesn’t even come close to describing how psychologically shattering it’s been.
I don’t think I came out of shock for at least three months. I can tell now that I’m making progress: the things that initially threw me into a state of panic I’m learning to get used to. Going to the bank, going to a restaurant and ordering a cup of coffee and something to eat and then paying for it with an ATM card -- I had never done anything like that. I hadn’t been anywhere in twenty years. I didn’t even know how to navigate, to find my way from point A to point B. People would have to lead me around at first. I was like a handicapped person.
What surprises you most about your life a year after being freed? What surprises you most about yourself?
Really, the amount of anxiety I still have. I didn’t have any way of gauging what a jolt to the system being reintroduced back to the world is. For so many years, all of our attention -- mine and Lorri’s -- was focused just on me getting out. All of our energy, all of our time. I didn’t even think about how hard it might be, that getting out was just the beginning, the tip of the iceberg.
Recently, though, I did this thing called “The Moth,” [released this week; listen here] which is a live storytelling show that’s podcast through NPR. You have ten minutes to tell your story, and you’re supposed to memorize only your first and last line beforehand. The idea is to let the whole thing evolve and change and grow in the telling. So for me the challenge was to compress those eighteen years into ten minutes. I didn’t think I was going to enjoy it at all. Before I went on, all I could think about was how I didn’t want to have to talk about this stuff yet again, how I just wanted to leave it all behind. And while you’re up there, they tell you, you’re supposed to really engage with the audience and make a connection. I did the opposite. I didn’t look at anyone when I was talking. I stood up there and I shut everything else out and I turned a hundred percent of my attention inward.
But when it was over, it was like an enormous weight had been lifted. It was better than a hundred therapy sessions; I truly felt like I had left behind some of the trauma. I received what they told me was only the third standing ovation in the history of the show, and it was so rewarding. In that moment, it felt like everything I went through had not been in vain.
Was writing "Life After Death" as cathartic an experience as that? How did the book come about?
Well, I wrote eighty-five percent of it while I was still on Death Row, so I couldn’t get rid of it in the same way, because I was still living the experience. But I kept a journal the whole time I was in prison and much of the book was taken from those writings, some of it lifted straight from the journals. I don’t remember who first approached me about doing this book, because I was still in such shock at the time. Those days are a blur for me now. I do know that when we met with Blue Rider Press, everyone felt so focused on the book, so clear, and right away I knew I wanted to work with them.
I’m curious about your writing process. How did you arrive at the structure -- the chapters that move back and forth between your childhood, and the more recent past?
I essentially have a ninth grade education. I write whatever needs to come out, whatever is weighing on me or haunting me that day. I don’t think about it beforehand. The closest way to describe it would be automatic writing. I started writing when I was twelve; for me, writing was something that scratched an itch I felt deep inside.
I think you’re maybe not giving yourself enough credit. You did read thousands of books when in prison.
Reading is so important to me. I would not have survived all of that without books. My favorite writer in the world is Stephen King; I’ve read everything he’s ever written, some books up into the double digits. Recently I read some reviews of my previous book, and one woman said that she kept having this nagging feeling that she’d heard this voice before, in Stephen King’s writing. And it’s true, I can fall into an instinctive mode of writing in the rhythm of his sentences. It’s like creating a new feel of a classic song, like a beat that takes over.
What was the hardest part for you to write?
The case, definitely. Anything about the trial. Some things I’d already written in the journals, my editors asked me to return to, to flesh out certain parts. But I don’t want to talk about it anymore, I don’t want to write about it anymore. I’m tired of it. I’m sick to death of it. It’s incredibly draining, and I want to move on.