This is a rarity for Written By….. as we have yet to post a book read by two (2) of our contributors with commentary from the third. However, this book was a must read for us on many levels. Not the least of which are that one (1) of us was 16-17 at the time of the arrest. Some of us practice alternative religion, medicine and spirituality. We like metal, have tattoos, and love to wear black so this case is important to us.
For those who were not alive in the 90’s or who don’t watch the ID channel or the News, Damien Echols is one of what was formerly the West Memphis Three. (We say formerly because he clearly states at the end of this book that he doesn’t want to be called that anymore because it “reminds him of hell”) The West Memphis Three were Damien, Jason Baldwin and Jesse Miskelley, three (3) teenagers who were convicted of the murders of three (3) eight-year-old boys in West Memphis Arkansas in 1994. For many, the editor of this magazine included, it was a wrongful conviction based on factors such as musical and dress preference, religion, or just plain corrupt police work performed based on prejudice and ignorance. We aren’t going to delve into the case as that has been covered by Paradise Lost I, II & III, West of Memphis and most recently Devils Knot. Not to mention facts about the case abound on the internet, with a notable web site being http://www.wm3.org.
In Life after Death, Damien attempts to paint a picture of not just his life before the conviction, but after.
He splits things up by talking about prison life and the characters he has met there. He relays stories of the criminally insane, the terrible living conditions, and the abusive guards. He discusses the travesty of justice that is his appeals process and ultimately the process by which they were freed, but not exonerated.
Then he will talk about how he grew up. How he found religion (not the religion everyone thinks he is, he was Catholic by choice at the time he was convicted. He talks about being a child of divorce, of a religious zealot, of poverty. He talks about teenage angst and love. He talks about finding an identity and trying to be himself. He talks about the people who persecuted him, placing false labels of Satanism and Witchcraft on him and ultimately forcing him into psychiatric care against his will.
He also talks about hope, love and peace. He talks about meditation and healing. He talks about forgiveness and honor. He talks about his favorite holidays and the things he misses in prison. He talks about the strong bonds of friendship that can develop in teenage years and that carry through to adult hood, no matter what.
And how Lorri, the love of his life, kept him from becoming another lunatic waiting for death. She gave him hope and a reason to live. Things to do to keep the crazy at bay. She brought his family together, his son to see him. She was his humanity and his faith. How she was cat like but full of “monkey mischief” and that monkey was his saving grace.
How Lorri ultimately became his knight in shining armor. She pulled everything together, became a cat with claws when needed, a pussy cat at other times, courting, coaxing, beating, hounding and clawing for there to be some recognition on the case. She found the lawyers, pulled the deals and coordinated the funding efforts. She handled the press, the celebrities, the sceptics, the haters, all of it; to bring about the freedom of all three (3) of the boys.
How through Lorri, people that heard about his case and reviewed the facts. They plead for him. They brought publicity to the case. They funded investigations, research whatever ti too. They kept him from being executed and finally freed him and the others.
All of this is done in such a rhythmic poetic prose that you can actually almost see a paint brush on a canvas painting a baroque style painting, or hear an orchestra conducted and written by Beethoven being played as he speaks. With such phrases as:
“My life has taught me that true spiritual insight can come about only through direct experience, the way a severe burn can be attained only by putting your hand in the fire.”
“Down here in the deep, dark South we know and live with the real world. Candy-Land idealism is quietly suffocated in the relentless humidity.”
“At home I used to walk through emotional wastelands where the lines on craggy faces were so deep that the wind whistled through them.”
Cheyenne, heard a bit if it when she got in the car and the audiobook was playing one day. Brandy was so wrapped in the words that she forgot perhaps a younger person shouldn’t be hearing this. Still when Brandy shut it off, Cheyenne said, “I have never heard anyone talk like that it’s almost musical mom.”
She is not wrong. Damien makes you laugh, cry, feel, care, grieve, and want to listen. He can turn a phrase and his story is compelling, the injustice is compelling, the hope that pervades the entire book is compelling.
You HAVE to read this book!