Author Interview: Damien Echols On "Life After Death" And Surviving Death Row
Damien Echols was wrongly convicted of murdering three young boys in Arkansas in 1993, when he was 18 years old.
He, his best friend and another young man spent the next half of their lives in prison, with Echols awaiting execution on Death Row.
Hounded by the West Memphis police for being a weird kid in a deeply Christian town, Echols was labeled a Satanist who killed the boys as part of a satanic ritual.
Echols and the two other young men, known as the West Memphis Three, began to receive enormous support from influential people like Johnny Depp, Pearl Jam lead singer Eddie Vedder and film director Peter Jackson.
After spending years trying to get a new court date, the West Memphis Three and their support team arranged a deal that would get the three men, now in their late 30s, out of prison.
They gave an Alford Plea, which means that they pleaded guilty based on the notion that the court has enough evidence to convict them—(they don’t, by the way)—while maintaining their personal statement of innocence.
Last year, the West Memphis Three walked out of prison.
Echols joined his wife, Lorri Davis, whom he had met and married while on Death Row, and worked on revising the memoir he’d written while in prison.
Life After Death isn’t dark and beautiful only for its subject matter, but also because Echols is a writer and poet who spent years relying on the outlet to express himself always as if he were saying his last words.
He was a victim of those who hadn’t learned from the past, and he found hope in trying to understand the “magick” (his spelling) of the world.
Echols and Davis recently bought a house in Salem, Mass., the site of the Salem Witch Trials.
I talked with Echols over the phone while he was in a hotel room in Tempe, Arizona, on a stop for his book tour.
His spelling of the word “magick” has been used in the transcription of the interview.
How much of the book was written when you were on Death Row versus when you’ve been free?
Probably 85 percent of it was written when I was still on Death Row. I wrote it over the years while I was there. I think I started writing it about eight years ago actually, seven or eight years ago. Somewhere in that timeframe. Probably only 15 percent of it was written since I’ve been out. A lot of it was to go back and finish little things that I had written while I was in—sort of bridge things together to make them more coherent, make them fit together into a whole. But the vast majority of it was written while I was still in prison.
Do you have any more of the journal entry parts? Is there any plan to release some more of the journals?
I have, I would say, probably fourteen, fifteen entire journals filled, and I would like to, I think. I think the main thing is whether people want to see them or not. If people want to see them I would love to put them out there because some of it…I actually don’t believe that my best writing, the stuff that I’m most proud of and the stuff that’s most personal and means the most to me…most people have never even seen it. So I would eventually like the chance to be able to put that out there.
Have you kept a journal since you’ve been out?
I try to, but it’s harder than it was when I was in, just because life has been so hectic since we’ve been out. We [Echols and Davis] just got a place to live about a week ago, but up until then, almost for the past month, we were basically homeless, just staying with friends who could take us in or staying in hotel rooms when we could or whatever it was. It’s kind of hard, living on the road like that, living out of a suitcase, to maintain a strict, disciplined approach to things like that. But hopefully now, soon, I’ll be able to get back into the swing of it.
You’re on Twitter now. I’m wondering if you’ve thought about if the Internet was around like it is now back in 1993, when the West Memphis police were hounding you…I’m wondering if you could’ve kept a blog and gotten help.
You know, that’s probably a good idea, but it’s kind of hard to say…even now, with the proliferation of social media now, there’s just so much of it out there that it’s just hard to draw attention with something like that, even if you really do need help. In a way, for me, I really do love Twitter, though. I’m not big on the other things. Matter of fact, I don’t even know how to use the other things, like Facebook or any of that. But Twitter, to me, it really does almost feel like I’m keeping a journal in real time. I don’t ever want it to be a lot of the boring stuff that people write about like, just for example: “It’s Saturday night and I’m bored.” I don’t ever want it to be like that. Whenever I do it, I try as much as I possibly can to keep it in the vein of poetry. That’s how I try to approach it, that’s how I try to look at it. I want it to be something that when people read it, they feel like it means something to them, it touches them in some sort of way, it makes them see something in a way they normally wouldn’t, it makes them appreciate something that they normally wouldn’t think twice about. I don’t want it to ever become this monotonous, mediocre, mundane thing. I want it to be magickal in one form or another.
You kept such a vigorous literary and spiritual practice going when you were in prison. I’m wondering if you’ve had to do that since you’ve been free, or if there’s been enough magick out there in the fact that you’re free now.
Well, it’s a little bit of everything. When I first got out, I had been in solitary confinement for the better part of a decade, so I went from that to just being ejected back out into the world all at one time, and I was in a state of complete shock and trauma. I mean, to my core, for a good two to three months. And it was impossible for me to try to articulate much of anything back then. I was just sort of running on autopilot, putting one foot in front of the other. I’ve been out about a year now, and as time goes on I’ve come out of it more and more and I’m kind of back to myself. I found myself more and more every day just wanting to settle back down into that routine. I still write everything by longhand. I never type, unless it’s on Twitter. So I just want to sit back down and have that familiar feeling again of pen in hand and the journal open before you—just the normal daily routine of writing. I’m just really looking forward to that.
The best part of the book, to me, was when you talked about that quote somebody sent you: “In order to give light, one must endure burning.” To me, it seems like the whole driving force behind your writing now is giving courage to people who must be enduring burning.
That’s what I want to do. When I was in prison, there were times when I didn’t think I was going to make it, when I would get so sick. I mean, there were times when I’d literally get so sick I thought I literally was not going to make it to the morning. And they’re not going to give much time or energy or money or effort or anything else to medical care for someone that they just plan on killing. So I had no alternative but to turn to meditation, to turn to Qigong, to turn to Reiki, these things to keep myself as healthy as I possibly could and as sane as I possibly could. And what I would like to do is take those things that I learned in there, that helped me survive, and maybe just have a small meditation center somewhere where I can pass along those same things to other people who are in horrendous times in their own lives and have need of them and can put them to use. I think Jason—Jason Baldwin, the guy that went to trial with me—I think he’s kind of thinking along that same vein, only he’s going at it from a legal perspective. He’s in college right now. He wants to eventually get a law degree in hopes of helping innocent people in prison. Kind of the Catch-22 of it is, though, even once he gets his law degree he still can’t practice the law because he has a criminal record. That’s another one of the reasons we need this complete and absolute exoneration.
Throughout the book another one of the themes is between summer and winter, and how much you love winter and how hard summer was, especially on Death Row.
Oh yeah, there were parts of the prison that at certain times of the year the temperature could reach up to 120 degrees in there.
And all the crickets…
Oh god, yes.
So how was this past summer for you…that we’re just escaping now?
(Laughs) Oh it was horrendously brutal! One thing that helped me make it through it was the fact that we got to go to New Zealand for a month during the hottest part of summer. You know, their seasons are the exact opposite of ours. So while the U.S. was in the absolute hottest heart of summer, I was in the coldest part of winter over in New Zealand. So I love that, just being able to get away from it for a little while. For me, that’s always felt like home and it’s one of the reasons we moved even further north. We now live up in Salem, Massachusetts. Just having a real winter up there, real snow—that’s one of the things that I love most in all the world. You know, whenever I go and get tattoos, it always feels to me that I’m putting on armor. It provides a layer of protection or a buffer zone between you and the rest of the world, so I always get tattoos of things that I love, things that mean something to me, and a lot of them are just things like, you know, I have the Chinese calligraphy for the word “winter” and one for the word “snow.” So it’s like I carry a little bit of that around with me all the time.
Have you gotten all your tattoos since you’ve been out or did you have some before?
I had some before, all the way back. I think I got the first one when I was like 16, but it was just a horrible thing I’ve covered up now, like an old ex-girlfriend’s name (laughs). You know, just some ridiculous teenage mistake.
(Laughs) I understand. To me, the book really shows why capital punishment shouldn’t exist, but you never really come out and definitively say that you’re anti-death penalty, I don’t think, in so many words. I’m wondering if you’ve thought that the people who actually killed the boys—the crime you’ve been convicted of—have you ever thought that they’ve deserved death?
It’s kind of hard for me to even answer stuff like that just because I’m so close to it, and I imagine that’s the way so many people must feel, like victims’ families and things like that must feel whenever thinking about it. I guess the reason I’ve never really come out on either side of it is because I feel like there is no easy answer. It’s not an easy question yet to answer. It’s so much more complicated than either side, that are for it or against it, wants to make it appear like it is. It’s a very, very complicated and disturbing issue. As a whole, if I just had to make an out, over-the-board statement, I’d say I’m against it, just because you have people…you know, the average IQ of a guy on Death Row is 85. They say it’s illegal to execute the mentally handicapped, to execute the insane, to execute what they call a “mentally retarded,” but they still do it, all the time.
When I was reading the book, I thought, Well if this is happening and if innocent people like you are being sentenced to death, then why even have this thing.
You also have to take into consideration that when I was in prison I would see these guys that were serving far lesser sentences—a 10-year sentence, a 20-year sentence—who had done far worse things than the people who had been sentenced to death had done. The difference between whether you get the death sentence or you get something lighter can be as simple as a slow media day. If the media doesn’t have anything to report on on a particular day, they’ll pick out some case somewhere and blow it up all over the TV and start pushing it down people’s throats. Where you may have a guy who’s done something far worse than the guy who gets the death sentence, and say that day the stock market has fell or something—that’s what they’re all going to be focused on, that’s what they’re all going to be talking about, so he’s going to slip beneath the radar, and even though he committed a far worse crime he may be out in five years.
I wanted to ask you about nostalgia, because you make a big case for it in the book. It was very important to you when you were in prison to have those memories. I’ve noticed that in society a lot of people look down on nostalgia and say that it’s not right to dwell on things. And I’m wondering if it’s only because you had to rely on a sense of nostalgia to sort of keep human, or if you think nostalgia in general is linked to some sort of freedom.
I think really what it comes down to is that looking back is the way we learn in life. A lot of times, we don’t take things in fully as we’re experiencing them, just because we’re constantly moving forward into the next moment, and into the next moment, into the next moment. And it’s really about looking back and it's by mulling things over and turning them around in our minds that we really learn from them. We see the intricacies, we see the subtleties, we see things in hindsight that we didn’t see when we were going through it. So it is a tremendous source of learning and wisdom and knowledge to be able to look back. And you don’t want to cling to the past, you don’t want to try to relive it over and over, but you do want to look back and learn from what it is you’ve done. And for me, I wasn’t having new experiences in there. I wasn’t moving forward. I was living in a vacuum. So all I really had was what had already happened to me. So I would relive things over in my mind and my heart and my soul that had happened to me from the time I was seven years old that I would just look at from every single angle, over and over and over, just trying to suck any sort of nourishment or sustenance or anything else out of it that I could get to keep me going. It’s all I had. It was all I had.
I think too many people think that you should just leave the past behind. I don’t think that’s right.
Oh no, there’s always been that saying about "those who forget the past are bound to repeat it." If you don’t learn from it, if you don’t examine and if you don’t bring it up, then in the end you’re going to screw yourself.
One of the things that struck me the most when I was reading the book, and one of the most interesting things I’ve ever read was when you talked about seeing what you think is your own ghost when you were a kid. You saw a shirtless guy in the doorway and that was you later when you were 18.
I’m wondering if that’s happened to you again since you’ve written the book or since you’ve been free, if there’s anything like that.
No, you know, stuff like that in life—those really hardcore, unexplained things, things like that that throw you a loop—they tend to be few and far between. Probably thankfully so or they’d drive us all nuts. That’s another one of those things that you look back on later and you wonder what exactly does it mean. I read in—I can’t remember what book it was—it was talking about things like haunted houses and things like this, and it called them “miracles without a meaning.” And you see these things and you’re like, Okay, this shit happened, I just experienced this, but why? What does it mean? And it’s like some random little thing that you really don’t get much out of. Without an explanation, without a key that goes along with it, then it really doesn’t seem to mean much of anything. It’s sort of like a blip on the radar and then it’s just gone forever. So it’s one of those things—you don’t really know what to do with it or where to put it or classify it or anything else.
What have your dreams been like since you’ve gotten out versus when you were in prison?
I never really ever dream that much. Dreams are really rare for me. When I first got out, the first two or three months I was in a state of really deep and profound shock and trauma, and I used to wake up screaming at night, but then not even remember why I was screaming whenever I woke up. I couldn’t remember whatever it was that I was just dreaming. I didn’t even dream that much when I was in. It’s really a rare thing. I don’t know if it had something to do with being in solitary confinement for so long and having no outside source of stimulus or what, but I just haven’t been a big dreamer in a long time.
You have that line—I think it was in the intro or the prologue—that you “have no need for Freud and his theories” because there was “no 100-dollar-an-hour therapy sessions” for you in prison. I’m wondering if you’ve thought about therapy.
I have. A few times since I got out I went just to see if there was anything to be gained from it, but I find that what I gain from the most is—I don’t know if you’ve heard it or not yet but I did this show called The Moth in New York, and they released a podcast of it recently. It’s this thing where you get on stage and you tell your story. You memorize the very first line and the very last line, but everything in the middle is supposed to be sort of straight-from-the-heart. You memorize the first line so whenever you get up there you’re automatically going to panic whenever you’re looking out at the crowd seeing all these people but you say the first line and it triggers you into keeping talking. So I did that, and I didn’t think I would like it. I thought just beforehand it was a big hassle. I really wasn’t looking forward to it. I didn’t want to have to relive this stuff yet again. But I got there and I did it and whenever I left the stage, I felt tremendously lighter than whenever I walked on. I literally felt like I had dropped a big chunk of the trauma that I’d carried with me for the past 18 years on the stage and I left it there when I left that venue. I just found that I got so much more out of that than from any sort of therapy session you ever could go through.
I’m wondering about since you’ve been out, what areas have you found magick where you weren’t expecting to find it, and also things you dislike about our society since you’ve been out.
Well, I guess it really does come back to the same thing—what I like and what I dislike or what I’m finding magick in or what I’m not—it really comes down to technology. I didn’t think I would ever use any form of social media. I still don’t use most of it. But what I’ve discovered is that I was introduced to Twitter by my publishers. They’re saying, You really should get on here, it would be really good to help get word about your book out—things like this. So I said, Okay I’ll do it. And I started doing it, and for me it almost feels like keeping a journal. It’s a nice feeling. You can communicate with people, but I don’t want to do it in a way…you know, you have so many people on there who are just putting out this mediocre, mundane, monotonous—you know, “It’s Saturday night and I’m sitting at home bored.” I don’t want to ever do stuff like that. I want to keep it magickal. I want to keep it like poetry…The flipside of it is that you do just have a lot of horrible people on there who aren’t really doing much of anything with themselves other than trying to hurt other people.
Do you get a lot of crap?
Every so often you’ll come across somebody that doesn’t seem to have anything better to do. It’s one of those things where you starve your enemies. You don’t give them any of your energy and eventually they’ll die out and fade away. I said that one time and--it’s kind of funny--Dave Navarro said, "That or just press the block button." (Laughs)
Has it been hard for you to trust new people that you’ve met or, you know, you’ve gotten a lot of support from people who really had nothing to gain out of it on a surface level—I’m wondering which of those is prevailing for you: if you have a hard time trusting new people or if you believe in the general compassion of people.
I generally try to take it on a person-by-person basis and go with what my instincts, my intuition and my gut tells me about each person in each situation. You come into a lot of situations with people who have been generally touched by the story in some sort of way. They feel a genuine sense of connection to you. You also come across people now and then that just want to either use you for something, some means of their own, or they don’t really care about what you’ve been through, they just want to gawk at it for a little while. But thankfully usually those are really few and far between. It’s mostly just good, from what I’ve experienced since I’ve been out, where there’s people coming up to you on the subway or people approaching you on the street or whatever it is. It’s usually always good.
Which books or writers informed the writing, the sort of style that you chose for this?
Definitely number one, first, foremost and by far would be Stephen King. I read his books over and over and over pretty much all my life. You know how whenever you listen to music you hear the beat of the music and you could sit down and write a song, write your own song, but it would still follow the beat of the song that’s stuck in your head? To me, that’s sort of like what writing’s like too. Whenever I read Stephen King’s books it’s like there’s a beat to them. And I loved them so much and read them so many times that that beat just got stuck in my head over the years so whenever I sat down and started trying to write I would write to that same beat. For a long time I figured nobody would know what the hell I was even talking about by that till one day I looked up the first memoir that I self-published while I was still in prison and just wanted to see what people had written about it, the reviews. I read this review by this woman who says, “When I was reading this book I kept having this nagging sensation that I had heard this voice somewhere before and I kept trying to figure out what is it, why this is so familiar, and I realized it’s Stephen King.” To me that was like the ultimate compliment.
Which books or writers or spiritual texts have helped you the most in terms of finding your current perspective on what your life has been?
(Takes a deep breath) There have been so many over the years. One guy, John Michael Greer. He writes books that pretty much cover the spectrum on hermetic esotericism, magick, energy work, whatever you want to call it. A lot of his stuff I would go back and read over and over. There’s another woman named Michelle Bellinger who’s written several in the same vein. One called The Psychic Energy Codex—what it does is take eastern traditions, like Qigong and Reiki, and breaks them down and explains them using western terminology, making them more familiar to the western mind. Stuff like that is what really saved my life in prison, just because they’re not going to spend a lot of time and money and energy taking care of someone that they plan on killing. So there were times when I was really sick and I was in really bad situations and that’s all I had to rely on and that’s all that moved me through. There’s also a lot of Zen material, like Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Shunryu Suzuki, or anything by this Korean Zen master named Seung Sahn. Over the years, it got to the point where I started to lose my eyesight, so I had to decide what I was going to use it for, because it became almost like suspending the last of your money, just that precious. So what I gradually narrowed it down to was all I read was books on meditation, books on energy work, and books on spirituality. Another one was a book by a woman named Barbara something. I can’t remember her last name [Ed. Note: Barbara Brennan], but the book was called Hands of Light, and once again it was basically Reiki and Qigong, only from an eastern perspective and in much more detail. When I found that, it was like finding an instruction manual. Or Seventy-Eight Degrees of Wisdom by a writer named Rachel Pollack. She writes about the tarot. When I first discovered that book, it was like, Oh my god, this is one of the greatest things I’ve ever read in my life, just amazing. She takes each of the cards and breaks them down almost Joseph Campbell style.
Have you been able to read again? Have you gotten some eyesight back since you’ve been out or no?
I can’t tell. Some days it seems like maybe I am and some days it’s like I’m taking two steps back for every one forward. I don’t read nearly as much now as I did in prison. When I was in prison, sometimes I would read anywhere from three to five books a week, just because that was my life in there. Here there’s so much more you have to do. We’ve been doing sometimes 14 interviews a day. One day this past week we did 12 straight hours of media, from seven o’clock in the morning to seven o’clock at night with a 10-minute break for lunch. So there’s not a hell of a lot of time for anything whenever you’re on a schedule like that.
Well, sorry to pile on then (laughs).
(Laughs) It’s alright.