Damien Echols’ Life After Death Is a Heartbreaker

I had never heard about Damien Echols and the West Memphis Three before reading the memoir Life After Death. Somehow I completely missed this case in the 1990s when three teenagers were sentenced to life—and in the case of Damien Echols, to death—based on no real evidence to speak of except for a coerced confession. This is the case that started a slew of reactionary stories in the media about cults and satanic worship among teens. This was just not true, though, in the case of the West Memphis Three—Jessie Misskelley, Jason Baldwin, and Damien Echols—and these guys lost almost twenty years of their lives behind bars, not to mention suffering the unspeakable torture that occurs in jails.

Echols starts his memoir with two definitions of magick, which appear to have been the guiding principles for much of his life. He says, “The first is knowing that I can effect change through my own will; and the other meaning is more experiential—seeing beauty for a moment in the midst of the mundane.” Echols’s view of life was probably his saving grace in jail, and he describes how much of the population there was batshit crazy—if not before they went in, they came to that point after a few years behind bars.

Echols had simple memories of the eighteen years of free life he experienced before he was sentenced to death. He grew up mean poor—not a little poor with family meals of Ramen noodles, but really poor with no running water at times or heat. Despite that, he carried treasured memories—the feel of the different seasons and an appreciation for nature, the meaning of music in his life and what it felt like, and real affection for his friends and family. In jail, he had to ration his memories and only take them out every once in a while so they wouldn’t get used up. Often, he talks about having to deny himself things while in prison, because otherwise there was nothing to break up the monotony. He had to keep experiences from himself so they would remain special.

I’ve never had a clear picture of what jail is like, I don’t think, until reading Life After Death. The idea I had probably came from Stephen King’s novel and novella The Green Mile and Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, and in those stories, there are saving graces—a mouse that becomes a pet, decent guards who look out for their prisoners no matter what they’ve done, and adequate access to books. Echols’s experiences in jail have destroyed whatever notions I might have held, and I believe he could school Stephen King (who Echols learned the art of writing from) in giving a more realistic portrayal of what life is like behind bars.

Echols is taken off his antidepressant cold turkey once he’s on death row because there’s no point in fixing a guy who’s going to die anyway. When he’s beaten by guards and his teeth sustain nerve damage, he’s given the option of having them pulled out and replaced by dentures because fixing them is too much trouble for a guy who’s supposed to die anyway. Echols is never allowed outside to see the sky. He’s in his cell most of the time, and when he’s allowed to walk, he must be shackled and can then pace back and forth in something akin to a grain silo.

The list goes on and on, but what seems most cruel is when the author is suddenly slapped with something he did not realize he had lost. With startling comparisons, Echols writes, “God, I miss the sound of cicadas singing. I used to sit on my front porch and listen to those invisible hordes all screaming in the trees like green lunacy. The only place I hear them now is on television. I’ve seen live newscasts where I could hear them screeching in the background. When I realized what it was I was hearing I nearly fell to my knees, sobbing and screaming a denial to everything I’ve lost, everything that’s been stolen from me. It’s a powerful sound—the sound home would make if it weren’t a silent eternity from me.”

Damien Echols.

 

What scares me the most about this story is that it ever happened at all. After reading Life After Death, I became obsessed with the case and watched the documentaries that brought the West Memphis Three to the public eye—Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills, Paradise Lost: Revelations, and Paradise Lost: Purgatory. The footage taken of West Memphis during 1993 makes the town look like a doppelgänger to the one where I attended high school; it’s eerie how similar the landscapes are. The teenagers put on trial for a supposed satanic ritual murder of three children could have been the friends I hung out with in high school with their long hair, Metallica T-shirts, and taste for horror movies and literature. And it just seems crazy and impossible how these trappings of youthful rebellion, heavy metal/goth style, could be twisted into a case about cult ritualistic murder.

 

All three were convicted of the crime based on the flimsiest of evidence and served seventeen years before somebody finally overruled the original trial judge, David Burnett, who shut down all of their appeals, and the Arkansas Supreme Court agreed to allow new evidence that could set them free. Thank God, those materials still existed. With the amount of bungling that happened in this case, I would have expected for the evidence to have been destroyed or “accidentally” thrown away. But it didn’t, and during those seventeen years in jail, Echols taught himself how to write so he could give us this dark jewel. I’ve gobbled up everything I can read and watch about the case and now just have to wait for the Peter Jackson-produced documentary West of Memphis to come out at Christmas to put a cap on this. Echols is a powerful writer, and I’m curious to see what he puts out next now that the West Memphis case is over. I’m hoping for a horror story—a fictional horror story.

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Victorian Girls Go Wild in A Great and Terrible Beauty

I got a Great and Terrible Beauty as a birthday book, but because of my reading backlog, I’ve just now finished it. Gemma Doyle is an English girl living in India when the book opens. She’s supposed to be celebrating her sixteenth birthday, but instead she’s bitterly wishing that she were in England, going to a boarding school and learning to be a proper Englishwoman. She gets her wish almost instantaneously when she has a vision of her mother being killed. After mother and daughter are separated in a busy Indian market street, Gemma’s mother dies tragically.

Gemma is shipped back to England and escorted by her snobby brother to Spence, an elite boarding school for young ladies in Victorian England, when she experiences her second vision as she sees gypsies alongside the carriage they are riding in. She has an inappropriate response (a very bad thing in Victorian England) but is able to cover it up, and now she knows that there’s definitely something wrong and different about her. At school, Gemma finds out that she’s rooming with Ann, a scholarship student who also happens to be the Victorian version of a cutter. Soon, Gemma is introduced to the in-group at Spence, consisting of Felicity, the leader, Pippa, the beauty, and a few random others who fall off once Gemma infiltrates the group after blackmailing Felicity.

A mysterious diary appears on Gemma’s bed that was written by a Spence student many years ago, detailing her time in a mysterious, magical circle that she called the Order. Gemma and her newly organized in-group decide to bring back the Order, though Gemma resists at first and denies her supernatural powers. As the girls form their friendships and petty rivalries ensue, I was reminded of a modern version of this story, The Craft. After the ladies meet, drink, and witch, they find their corsets restricting and discard them to go swimming. From the minute they wake up in the morning until they go to bed, these proper young ladies are encased in corsets that cinch their waists to as small as sixteen and a half inches, in the case of Pippa. The restrictions reflect society and remind us all, “We’ve come a long way, ladies.” For some reason, this makes me think of the video montage in The Craft that’s become a cliché in teen movies at this point: teen princesses fully tricked out with hair and breasts swinging as they walk down the school hallway as if it were a red carpet. I’d love to see a Victorian version done of this, and A Great and Terrible Beauty is in production right now, so I hope the moviemakers do me proud.

Eventually Gemma reveals her abilities and finds that she’s able to transport herself as well as her friends to a magical fantasyland, where each girl is able to fulfill her most fervent wish. These young ladies are expected to become perfect wives and helpmates, and they must carefully guard their reputations before the advent of this. Unlucky Ann does not have even this to look forward to, being poor, plain, and with no family to speak of. She’s destined to become a governess, but what she wishes for more than anything is beauty. Pippa, on the other hand, is a raving beauty whose chances for a happy marriage are crippled by her father’s gambling debts. She’s been auctioned off to the highest bidder, and he ends up being twice her age and quite boring. Pippa wishes for the romantic love that she’ll never know. Felicity and Gemma have their own wishes too and find them fulfilled in the fantasy world. This fantasyland reminds me of the one created by Peter Jackson in Heavenly Creatures, but so far these girls (this is the first book in a series) don’t seem to be as devilish, maybe because there’s more than two of them. The girls find that they’re able to bring the magic back with them to the real world, though they have been warned not to do so, and serious consequences follow.

I like seeing some strong heroines from the Victorian era who are interested in more things than catching a husband, which seems to have been women’s great sport in the Victorian literature I’ve read. I think these ladies are way more wild than most that I’ve found in Victorian literature. Libba Bray’s series recently appeared in the top 100 Teen Novels list put out by NPR, and future English majors may be surprised later by the females they encounter in Victorian literature.

Libba Bray