“If I start to believe that the things I write cannot stand on their own merit, then I will lay down my pen. I’m often plagued by thoughts that people will think of me only as either someone on Death Row or someone who used to be on Death Row. I grow dissatisfied when I think of people reading my words out of a morbid sense of curiosity. I want people to read what I write because it means something to them—either it makes them laugh, or it makes them remember things they’ve forgotten and that once meant something to them, or touches them in some way. I don’t want to be an oddity, freak, or a curiosity. I don’t want to be the car wreck that people slow down to gawk at.”
I first learned about Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley Jr. back in 2007 through the documentary Paradise Lost. For those who are unaware of the unimaginable and yet remarkable journey these three men have been on I shall shed some light, but only briefly as this is a literary blog. I will post websites at the end where you can obtain more information if you wish. 1993 in West Memphis, Arkansas Damien, Jason, and Jessie were arrested for the brutal murder of three elementary school aged boys. Even though they held fast to their pleads of not guilty, the town banned together behind coerced and false confessions, insufficient evidence, and the words of a few men who had their own agendas. Three teenaged boys were arrested and ultimately convicted for a crime they did not commit. They all three spent eighteen years behind bars, Damien Echols on Death Row, until a very rare plea bargain set them free. Not exonerated, but free.
First, I must say that Life After Death is one of the most beautifully written books I have ever had the pleasure to pick up. You get lost inside your own head seeing the things that he describes, which means that you can sit for hours reading and it only feels as if a few moments have gone by. He describes what life is like on the other side of the bars and yet that is only one very small fraction of the journey that you go on.
This book is ultimately a look into the life of one of the most fascinating and inspirational people that I have ever met. He says early on in the book that he wants people to read what he writes because “it means something…makes them remember things they’ve forgotten and that once meant something to them.” While reading I couldn’t help but remember my childhood, my first heartbreak, or the house that I grew up in. He writes in such a way that awakens the soul and makes you feel. He gets you thinking, not only about his life and what he has been through, but about your own as well. It reminded me of when I first read Anthropology of an American Girl (one of my favorites, please read it if you have not already). That book spoke to me on a level that I can barely express. It changed my life for the better and I am forever grateful to the person who donated it to our local thrift store. This book is also nothing short of an inspiration.
I had the pleasure of “meeting” Mr. Echols a few weeks ago at a book signing. I say “met” because when I finally got to the front of the line I clammed up and barely said two words to him. I think all I actually got out was “how are you liking Chicago?” I tend to get a sort of verbal diarrhea when I finally find myself with the opportunity to meet someone that I admire. I was determined not to “pull an Emily”, as my boyfriend so lovingly calls it, and say something that I would instantly regret. For example; “I’m a HUUGE fan!” or just begin gushing about,well, just about anything. When I met Hilary Thayer Hamman, author of Anthropology of an American Girl, I went on and on about how I loved the feeling of the pages of the first publication and how I felt as if she was speaking directly to me and my life while reading. I never know if this is something that authors are just sick of hearing or not…Either way, I was determined not to get ahead of myself and I did the complete opposite. I wish I would’ve said a little more than just a simple question about the city that I call home, but alas that is all that came out.
I’m glad that I got the opportunity to hear him speak before I began reading the book, it was a nice companion. Also, if you have ever heard him speak you will know that he has a southern accent, a very melodic accent. I couldn’t help but hear his voice while reading and he writes that same way he speaks. The book takes on a very specific rhythm, one that I found hard to break. (Another reason I couldn’t put the book down.) He is also very funny. In his interviews and in his writing, the fact that he came out on the other side of this with his sense of humor still intact is inspiring in and of itself.
Someone asked him if he was angry about what has happened to him. He said that he was, but he isn’t anymore. He then quoted/paraphrased Buddha “Anger is like swallowing poison and hoping that it kills the other guy.” He described being angry like “drinking acid”, it will just tear you up inside. I relayed this to my boyfriend while I was rehashing the nights events and just yesterday he said that he was trying to live life that way. Damien Echols inspired me and I in turn inspired someone else. The domino effect of inspiration. Please pick up this book, it is a wonderful read and will, I can almost guarantee, make you see the world just a little differently.
“Good things are always coming; sometimes we just forget it.”
For more information on the case please go to:www.wm3.org
Or check out the Paradise Lost documentaries:
Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills
Paradise Lost 2: Revelations
Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory
A new documentary West of Memphis comes out in select cities on 12/25/2012