Wednesday, 7 August 2013

Review: Life After Death: Eighteen Years on Death Row, Damien Echols

Life After Death: Eighteen Years on Death Row

Damien Echols

Blue Rider Press, 2012

I first found out about Damien Echols and the 'West Memphis Three' case a few years ago, after watching the film Paradise Lost for the first time. There is a lot of information about the case on the website,, but in the briefest possible terms: in 1993, Echols and two other teenage boys were arrested and charged with the murder of three young boys in the Arkansas town of West Memphis, despite incredibly flimsy (or fabricated) evidence against them, through which they were broadly labelled 'Satanists'. (This seems in part to be related to the long-black-hair-long-black-trenchcoat look adopted by Echols, which makes me despair for humanity if that's all it takes.)

A second film was made a few years later, which I also watched, and in 2011 the three men (now in their mid-thirties) were finally set free. When I saw that this book had been published, I put in an immediate request at the library.

The book doesn't focus on the case particularly, at least not the particulars, and I would recommend watching the film first if you want that background before you start. This book focuses on Echols' incredibly poor childhood, his fractious family relationships, and his difficult time at high school, leading up to the time that he was arrested for murder. Much of the book is centred on his time on Death Row, detailing the horrific conditions, the brutality of the prison guards, and Echols' attempts to overcome the threat of spiralling into insanity. He does this through a mixture of things: spirituality, reading, exercise, and developing his own rituals and timetable. I hasten to say 'religion', because it does seem much more like a spiritual journey, and one that he goes into quite a lot of detail about, but I wouldn't say it was preachy - in the circumstances it seems entirely understandable.

There are some snippets from Echols' journals (some typed, and a couple of photocopies of actual pages, as well as some photographs), and the last couple of chapters deal with the final appeal and the release of Echols, alongside the other two men who were convicted (but not put on Death Row), Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley. The core of this book is really the horrors of Death Row, and the trauma of spending eighteen years there for a crime he didn't commit. Echols is a decent writer, and there are some interesting and thoughtful passages on his conflicted feelings towards 'home', and how the South is a place he both can't go back to (and never quite fit in with), yet still has a powerful, nostalgic hold over him.

I have read a few reviews of this book on Goodreads, and the criticisms of this book seem to fall into four main categories:

1) Echols overuses the word 'magickal' and his discussion of such things. This is perhaps true, but at the same time one of the fundamental aspects of the book is his development of his spiritual thinking.

2) He's been misrepresented and judged unfairly, and yet in his book he is mean about other people. This seems like a strange criticism - I am actually surprised that he is not more angry, given what has happened to his life.

3) He doesn't talk much about the case, and there is no discussion of the boys who died or how Echols feels about this. Again, I find this an odd criticism - given that he had no involvement in the case, surely it would be stranger to talk about the murders and give his opinion on them? The connection between Echols and the murdered children is erroneous, and this book is meant to be able Echols' own experience.

4) Maybe if he hadn't worn those clothes and listened to that music and associated with those people, he would never have been suspected. At which point, I say: that is why this book is important.

Overall rating: 8/10

Book source: Borrowed from the library.

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