Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Life After DeathLife After Death by Damien Echols
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have been following the story of the West Memphis Three since the beginning. I was a teenager during the mid-90s Satanism scare, and I remember clearly when Damien Echols became the wide-eyed face that symbolized it. He looked like my friends and I never could believe he was guilty.

After watching the Paradise Lost trilogy on HBO I was certain he wasn't guilty and couldn't believe that he remained on death row for a crime he didn't commit. Now that I have read his memoir, “Life After Death” I am in awe of the railroading of his case.

I didn't have high expectations for a memoir written by an (unwilling) high school drop-out, but Echols totally delivered. His writing is lyrical, honest and very evocative. He describes the grinding poverty in which he grew up in such stark detail that I felt like I was experiencing it myself.

As his story comes closer and closer to his arrest it becomes clear that Echols was a victim of zealous, perhaps even mentally disturbed police and a corrupt court system. He was harassed for years by the police, incarcerated and even placed in a mental institution with little to no grounds. His arrest on the Robin Hood Hill murders seemed almost inevitable – like the police had been cultivating him as a suspect. And his family were so ignorant and complacent, that they did nothing to defend him or protect him from the harassment.

His journals from his years in prison are heartbreaking. Echols leans heavily on spirituality, mysticism and meditation. Given no other option, he retreats deep into his own psyche. Much of his journal entries are filled with his struggle to attain deeper and deeper meditative states.

The other major theme from his prison journals was about his wife, Lorri. Echols is deeply in love with her, and keeping their relationship healthy was a great focus of life while he was incarcerated. He praises her for all of her tireless work on his case, and credits her for giving him a reason to keep on living while he was hopeless on death row.

“Life After Death” is a terrific memoir. It leads the reader through the perils of poverty in the Deep South, teenage angst, the terrors and helplessness of the justice system, and the absolute gray numbness of prison. If you are looking for an incredible story, Echols has one that is an absolute page-turner.

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