Book Review: “Life After Death” by Damien Echols

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Since Mara Leveritt’s Devil’s Knot was released in 2002, I’ve consumed every last word I could find on the murder trials of Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jesse Misskelley. It was a discouraging eight-year course on the brokenness of our legal system and the gross extent to which justice can be miscarried. The truth of their innocence was beyond obvious, with what seemed like the entire world fighting against the obstinate Powers That Be. For the longest time, the idea of their exoneration looked to be a tragic non-starter, which is why I found myself completely stunned last August, glued to a computer as I followed the coverage of their release. Suddenly, out of nowhere, the impossible became a reality:  the West Memphis Three walked free.

If you know me, you know I eat true crime. The “greatest hits” repeat themselves over and over again on my bookshelves:  Bundy, Gein, Dahmer, Manson, Ramirez. I know the cases of the famous and the obscure. Damien Echols spent eighteen years on Death Row for the murders of eight-year-olds Michael Moore, Christopher Byers, and Stevie Branch, but he is the one exception in my library:  Damien Echols is innocent.

Echols’ memoir is not another re-hashing of his trial; it’s not a presentation of evidence or a debunking of the misinformation perpetrated by police. Instead, Life After Death is much simpler – it’s a story about growing up.

Through flashbacks, letters, and journal entries from Death Row, Echols lays out his childhood and adolescence as a poor Southerner, bouncing from house to shack to trailer park, from state to state, from family to family. He details the major relationships in his life:  his parents and grandparents, his best friend; his first love and the mother of his child. Juxtaposed with these recollections are scenes from his life incarcerated – the repetition, confusion, and absolute loneliness of an innocent inmate.

Echols’ love for the printed word is obvious, as is the education he managed to provide for himself while in prison. His prose is simple, elegant, and evocative; when he isn’t narrating a specific story or experience, he lapses into artful rumination on life, the universe, and everything. His Buddhist faith and practice are explored in great detail, as is the trajectory of his against-all-odds relationship with his wife, Lorri Davis.

While he does reflect on his innocence in regards to his arrest, the subsequent trial, and his incarceration, these subjects are incidental and organic to the narrative, and never feel forced. Echols doesn’t touch on these issues to continue to plead the case for his exoneration; instead, he addresses the major fallacies of the case as they relate to his life at the time. Through this, it’s easy to see how grievous a mistake his arrest really was, and how unaware he was of the proceedings in the time immediately following the murders.

Echols’ writing is striking and humbling, expressing pure awe at things so often taken for granted by the world at large, and he describes his fame in the terms of both a blessing and a curse. While the ubiquity of the case provided overwhelming support and was the mechanism by which he was eventually freed, he talks openly about his dehumanization as a famous prisoner. Visitors to the prison would gawk at him as if he were a zoo animal, whispering about him as if he wasn’t aware. Mountains of letters arrived in his cell from “the vultures”, rubberneckers dying for scraps of information straight from the source. Through this, Echols patiently worked to keep his private life private, in an atmosphere that allowed for nothing of the sort.

His insight is refreshing and especially touching to those like myself who have followed the case from its bleak early days. Echols’ voice is a beautiful thing to see made manifest on the page, and his autobiography seems to function as his own monumental sigh of relief, finally granted the ability to turn his back and walk away from the prison cell that made him famous. There is nobody that this book won’t touch – whether you’re a long-time follower of the case or a newcomer; whether you’re an author or a reader – if you’re a human being, Echols’ words will speak to you, and what he’s saying is only made more amazing by the fact that he’s finally free.

Rating: 4.5/5 ★★★★½ 

“Life After Death” is due for release on September 18, 2012 by Blue Rider Press. Pre-order your copy here.

Here’s where you can follow Damien Echols on Twitter. Get updates on the WM3 exoneration effort here and on Facebook.

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About Kara_E

Kara is a Senior Office Assistant for the Center for Genomics and Bioinformatics at Indiana University. A past English major and lifetime writer, she has also served both as an actress and behind-the-scenes assistant for several projects with our friends at Clockwerk Pictures. Kara lives with her husband in Bloomington, Indiana. In her spare time, she is a freelance editor/proofreader for international students at Indiana University, and serves as an organizer of the Dark Carnival Film Festival (www.darkcarnivalfilmfest.com).

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