First book of the new year! This year my goal is 60 books. I think it’ll be doable; my final count for 2012 was 61.
After I finished Life After Death, I read a few reviews. The ones in which people didn’t like the book, I have a few bones to pick…
In order to enjoy Life After Death, you need to buy into Echols’ personality, and yes, it is a little different. He was different before he was accused and convicted of murder, before he spent almost twenty years on death row, and he’s especially different now.
He was a devout Catholic for years, became Buddhist in prison, was married in a Buddhist ceremony, believes in “magick”, and practices meditation and a number of other esoteric practices. But I would argue that this diverse spirituality is probably all that saved him from insanity. I think it’s a credit to his spirit that he found constructive outlets in order to get through his ordeal.
You also have to accept that this book is not about the West Memphis 3, or the boys murdered on Robin Hood Hill. By his own admission, Echols wasn’t very involved in the crusade for his release; it was too frustrating, and took much more effort from those on the outside. He also didn’t know much about the murders; after all, he didn’t commit them. He heard about the murders from the tv, like everyone else in West Memphis. He wasn’t aware of his charges when he was first arrested and arraigned, and by the time he was aware of what really happened, he was so disgusted and frustrated at being ridiculously accused of a crime he so obviously didn’t commit. So if you are expecting an outline of the trial, an overview of the murders, watch the documentaries. They are very interesting, very well done. Read this book if you care about Echols and his experience.
And what a horrible, tragic experience. There’s something about it, about all those chapters before he ever gets arrested, that I think are relatable and really bring you in to his story. Poverty, sadly, is familiar. Many of us have known poverty, personally or through working at soup kitchens or homeless shelters, even just from walking down a city street. And there is something so heartbreaking in getting to know the poverty of a child, in really understanding what life was like for Echols for 18 years. There are so many other relatable moments, too: his first job, his first love, his experiences at school, his love for music. I think in bringing us into his life, we are that much more shocked when it changes, that much more bereft when what we know will happen actually happens. And it is the antithesis of familiar. We might think we know from movies or tv, but we know nothing; Echols makes that perfectly clear.
I also think that Echols does a great service for the justice system. He airs the dirty laundry, and someone has to. From the mistreatment of prisoners to the execution of mentally ill and handicapped, he gives us a real picture, if not of America’s prison system as a whole, then definitely of the Arkansas system. As Echols says, he doesn’t know what the answer is, but it has to be better than this. Beating prisoners for giving interviews, medicating the mentally ill until they are lucid enough to understand their impending executions, throwing people in the hole for sharing food with poorer prisoners. Not to mention the creepy zealotry with which Damien was pursued, first by the juvenile detention officer, and then by the investigators and officers around the Robin Hood Hill murders.
I think that Echols’ story is so important because, let’s face it, he is not the only one wrongfully accused. He is not the only one with inept attorneys, vindictive prosecutors, sentenced to death for a crime he had nothing to do with. Echols is just one story that we know. He says he personally knew three people on death row with him that were innocent. Three out of the possible hundreds, that might not seem like a lot. But I would argue that it is; it is too many for a justice system that prides itself on equality, fairness, thoroughness. There was nothing equal or fair or thorough about Echols’ situation, and there certainly wouldn’t have been anything equal or fair or thorough if he’d been executed. He wasn’t, but others were, in Arkansas, and probably around the country.
It was clear to me by the end of the book that something drastic needs to change, from the beginning of an investigation all the way through to sentencing. A task force that was being investigated for money laundering probably shouldn’t have been in charge of investigating high-profile (or any) murders. Investigators, and officers not even assigned to the Robin Hood Hill murders, should not have been able to harass Damien, interrogate him endlessly, and hold him without charging him. He should have been read his rights, and he should have been informed of the charges being brought against them. That judge should have read Misskelley’s “confession” when Damien was charged…
Honestly, it goes on. It’s hard for me to recount it all, to think about it all, because it’s just so disturbing. I think there are so many social issues that need to be dealt with in America – education, poverty, prisons, mental health – and I just pray that it happens before there are more like Damien Echols, before we kill one of them.
I think another thing that I was impressed with was Echols’ candor. He talks a lot about people invading his privacy: tour groups staring at him in his cell, even while he showers; people writing letters, asking him specific questions about his life and incarceration. You’d think that someone concerned with privacy, the last thing they would want to do is write a book. He says that writing is cathartic, it helps him heal, and I don’t think that’s an unusual form of therapy for people who have gone through traumatic experiences. But I also think that a great deal of good can come from him publishing his story. I really hope that he continues to write, personally or from a social/public policy point of view. I think he has an easy, articulate way with words that not many have, and he could really do a lot of good.
Final verdict: 5 Stars