It’s been a year since Damien Echols was released from Death Row. He, along with Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley, were convicted 18 years ago of murdering three West Memphis, Arkansas, boys in what was declared by prosectors to be a satanic ritual. Damien Echols, as the purported ringleader, was sentenced to death. All three are now free, although their struggle for exoneration continues.
Pending the publication next month of Damien Echols’s memoir, Life After Death (Blue Rider: Penguin. See LJ‘s review here), I was glad to have a brief email conversation with him.
Reading and writing were two endeavors that kept him going during his years in prison. “Without books I would’ve lost my mind,” he says, reminding me that “Death Row inmates were never allowed to visit the prison library….Luckily, I had friends and supporters who kept me stocked with plenty of reading material over the years.”
The friends and supporters multiplied after an HBO documentary, Paradise Lost, aired in 1996, with celebrity participation underwriting the cost of appeals and forensic testing toward seeking to overturn the murder convictions. The appeals were denied; ultimately Echols, Baldwin, and Misskelley, the so-called West Memphis 3 (WM3), were released under the seemingly illogical terms of an Alford Plea, by which they stipulated their innocence while pleading guilty and being sentenced to time served.
Echols explains that Life After Death is a mixture of materials he wrote in prison—those that he managed to preserve in the face of frequent shakedowns—with parts of a memoir self-published in 2005 titled Almost Home, and new writing he undertook since his release. With grace he says, “Fortunately, I had an amazing editor in Sarah Hochman. She would take the material I provided, and spin it into a beautiful web. She knows how to take my words and stories, and arrange them in a way that showcases them better than I could ever have done.”
Since his release, Echols and his wife, Lorri Davis, whose crucial role in Echols’s life you can read more about in his book, have spent most of their time in New York City. If you follow Echols on Twitter (@damienechols) you’ll know how much he loves New York, its energy, the downtown art scene, the diversity. “I love Manhattan whole-heartedly,” he tells me, “but soon it will be time to move on. My ultimate goal is to live in Salem, Massachusetts. Otherwise, I just say that my home is with my wife….Salem is an incredible place, full of vibrant, magickal energy. I love it there. I could easily spend the rest of my life there, enveloped in its history and energy. It is the epitome of magick for me.”
“My interests,” he continues, “now lie in energy work and the tarot—the same things that I was passionate about in prison. By energy work, I mean reiki, chi-gung and ceremonial magick. It’s what allowed me to survive in the harsh prison environment without medical treatment. I believe I’ve barely begun to tap into its potential, and I look forward to what is yet to come.”
So it’s not simply because of his illogical persecution similar to that of the 17th-century Salem witch trials that Echols is drawn to Salem; he remains steadfastly drawn to the very concepts of the supernatural, of ceremonial magic and pagan spirit, that were noted and twisted against the women of Salem and against him as a West Memphis loner who dressed in black and listened to heavy metal music. Prison did not change that.
Learning these details from Echols, I think of Nathaniel Hawthorne, a native of Salem and descendant of one of the witch trial judges. Hawthorne was forever reckoning with what he considered his own and Salem’s inherited burden of guilt. In The House of the Seven Gables, his protagonists include Clifford Pyncheon, newly released from prison after spending 30 years confined for a murder he did not commit. Clifford is virtually destroyed by his years in prison. What is so remarkable about Damien Echols is the strength of mind by which he survived.
“In many ways I’m the same person I always was,” he says. “I still have a deep love of the magickal, and a disdain for the monotonous and mediocre. I still believe a person’s daily life should be as rich and decadent as a fairy tale, or else there’s no point in living. However, I think that all I’ve been through has deepened my appreciation for beauty and magick more than otherwise would have happened in ‘normal’ circumstances….I’ll just say I’m hungry—hungry for new experiences in this new world I find myself.”
In September and October, Damien Echols will be signing his book at locations in Los Angeles, Arizona, Seattle, Minnesota, Nashville, Denver, Texas, and Tulsa. A new documentary on the fight to free the WM3, West of Memphis, co-produced by Echols, Lorri Davis, Peter Jackson, and Fran Walsh, is scheduled to open on Christmas Day.