Damian Echols writes in the prologue of his new memoir that he doesn’t want his life to be a car wreck that people stop to gawk at. But it is that. As a writer and a thinker, Echols is a deeply interesting person, and you have to admire and gawk at what happens to such a person when he is subjected to unimaginable horrors.
Echols is one of the West Memphis Three, three teens who were convicted in 1994 of a murder they did not commit. Two were given life sentences. Echols was sentenced to die and spent 18 years on death row before prosecutors agreed to a deal that let all three go free. Much has been written about the case. HBO produced a three-part documentary. Life After Death is actually Echols’ second memoir — he self-published the first one while he was still in prison. The cause of the three teens was championed by Johnny Depp and Metallica.
The title suggests the book is about how Echols has learned to be free again, but little of Life After Death is devoted to his life since prison. Instead, he tells his side of the criminal case, reflects on his impoverished childhood and ruminates on the daily indignities of prison. And there are many.
His thoughts on life inside prison are some of the most interesting parts of the book.
“There is no time in prison unless you create it for yourself,” he writes. “People on the outside seem to believe time passes slowly in prison, but it doesn’t. The truth is that time doesn’t pass at all. It’s an eternal vacuum, and each moment is meaningless because it has no context. Tomorrow may as well be yesterday.”
A lesser writer could have written this story, and it would have been interesting. And you can’t help but imagine what you or I would do if someone imprisoned us in solitary confinement for a decade. How would we respond? Would we survive? Would we find something deep within ourselves that helped overcome the daily trauma?
Echols explains more, reaching — and sometimes not grasping but reaching all the same — for universal truths, while providing insights into his traumatic life.
“A person can starve to death in prison, and not through lack of food,” he writes. “What I’m talking about is the withering and death of the human spirit for lack of decency or love for fellow human beings. The talking heads on television project the image of prisoners as animals, and it’s true. It’s true because the spirit that once made them human has been starved to death.”
This book is haunting, admirable and infuriating, like Echols’ life story. The simple fact that three innocent kids, one of them mentally handicapped, could be locked up for almost two decades while the real murderer went free is maddening. How Echols handled his plight is fascinating — and sometimes beautiful.
“For a split second today I could smell home,” he writes. “It smelled like sunset on a dirt road. I thought my heart was going to break. The world I left behind was so close I could almost touch it. Everything in me cried out for it. It’s amazing how certain shades of agony have their own beauty.”
To channel the time, Echols read widely, meditated, studied and exercised.
There are gaps in this story, breaks in the narrative arc that are confusing and hard to bridge. Echols explains that some of his journals were taken from him in prison. And some of the journal entries he includes are so esoteric they’re a bit confusing. But many of the journal entries reveal a mind that is creative and probing and also spinning out of control.
“For many people in prison their worst fear is going insane, because once you do all hope is lost. You will be locked up not only within these walls, but also within your rapidly degenerating mind. . . . You would sit in a cell playing with feces and screaming at phantoms that no one else could see,” he writes. “This is not the place you want to lose your marbles.”
Remarkably, he didn’t.
Susannah Nesmith is a writer in Miami.