Life After Death
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In 1993, teenagers Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley, Jr.who have come to be known as the West Memphis Threewere arrested for the murders of three eight-year-old boys in Arkansas. The ensuing trial was marked by tampered evidence, false testimony, and public hysteria. Baldwin and Misskelley were sentenced to life in prison; while eighteen-year-old Echols, deemed the "ringleader," was sentenced to death. Over the next two decades, the WM3 became known worldwide as a symbol of wrongful conviction and imprisonment, with thousands of supporters and many notable celebrities who called for a new trial. In a shocking turn of events, all three men were released in August 2011.
Now Echols shares his story in fullfrom abuse by prison guards and wardens, to portraits of fellow inmates and deplorable living conditions, to the incredible reserves of patience, spirituality, and perseverance that kept him alive and sane while incarcerated for nearly two decades.
In these pages, Echols reveals himself a brilliant writer, infusing his narrative with tragedy and irony in equal measure: he describes the terrors he experienced every day and his outrage toward the American justice system, and offers a firsthand account of living on Death Row in heartbreaking, agonizing detail. Life After Death is destined to be a riveting, explosive classic of prison literature.
- The trial and imprisonment of the West Memphis Threeand the years’ long effort to free themhas generated a great deal of attention in the media, through two documentary films, Paradise Lost and West of Memphis, as well as Echols’ 2005 memoir, Almost Home. How much did you know about the case before you read Life After Death? How did reading the book change or deepen your view of the case and of Damien Echols?
- What is the effect of Echols moving back and forth between his life in prison and his life before prison? In what ways do his past and present intertwine?
- What challenges does Echols face as a child and teenager, from his family, his school, the police? Why do the police, Jerry Driver in particular, persistently harass him? Why do his parents have him committed to a mental institution? How do these experiences affect him?
- Echols frequently talks about the importance of “magick” in his life. What does magick mean to him? Where does he find it? In what ways does the culture of the Southa culture where “all shrines are built to honor the great spirit of mediocrity” [p.209]try to suppress any manifestation of magick?
- How does Echols come to be convicted, in the absence of any real evidence against him? What motivates the police and the court system to convict him?
- Of his fellow inmates, Echols writes: “The people here are all mentally defective in ways that range from mild retardation to extreme schizophrenia.... Nearly all lived in absolute poverty, and most were abused in one way or another. Not a single one of them is capable of functioning normally in society, and it’s not a skill they’re likely to learn when locked in a cell among others who are as bad or worse. I’ve yet to see any sign of ’rehabilitation’, or any program designed to bring about that aim” [p. 280281]. In what ways can Life After Death be read not only as a memoir of Echols’ life and the wrongful imprisonment he endured for 18 years, but also as a searing indictment of a corrupt judicial system and a brutalizing prison culture? What are some of the book’s most shocking revelations about life in prison and on death row in particular? What purpose does imprisonment seem to serve?
- Echols is profoundly affected by a letter he receives that contains a quote by Viktor Frankl: “What is to give light must endure burning.” “All my life,” Echols writes, “I’ve heard people say ’Why would God let this happen?’ I think it’s because while we can see only the tragedy, God sees only the beauty. While we see misery, Divinity sees us lurching and shambling one step closer to the light” [p. 342]. In what ways is Life After Death a testament to the truth of Frankl’s statement and Echols’ interpretation of it?
- How does Echols manage not only to keep his sanity but in many ways to transcend all the injustice, pain, and suffering he experiences in prison? What spiritual practices does he develop? How do these practices, and the extremes to which Echols pushes them, transform him?
- Early in the book, Echols writes: “I learned a long time ago that you have to experience something for yourself or you never really comprehend it” [p. 55]. His statement is no doubt true, and yet Life After Death gives us a way to understand what Echols himself went through. To what extent are we as readers able to comprehend Echols experience?
- Echols writes: “The thing about the prison administration is that they will abuse you as long as you’re quiet. The only way they can’t hurt you is if someone is paying attention” [p. 259]. How is Echols able to bring attention to his case? Who are the people who most help to free him?
- “For a split second today,” Echols writes, “I could smell home. It smelled like sunset on a dirt road” [p. 206]. Why does Echols feel such nostalgia for home despite growing up in poverty, the cruelty of his stepfather, and the many difficulties of his early life?
- What makes the writing itself in Life After Death so engaging? What are some of the book’s most affecting and beautifully written passages?
- Echols concludes Life After Death by writing about the moon water ritual he and his wife Lorri shared for years, how they would fill a container with water, let it soak in the light from a full moon, and then take a sip every day for a month, until the next full moon, establishing a kind of mystical connection between them. “For every way the system attempts to separate us, we can’t help but seek out new ways to pull ourselves together. In the end, hatefulness and ignorance always fail in the face of intelligence and love. The proof is in the moon water.” Does the book support this surprisingly optimistic view? In what ways has Echols’ own intelligence and love triumphed over ignorance and hate? Why is it poetically appropriate that he should find proof for this sentiment in “moon water”?
- What makes Echols relationship with Lorri so extraordinary? In what ways is it karmically fitting that Echols should find the love of a beautiful, caring woman in the midst of his hellish imprisonment and that he should develop friendships with some of his heroesEddie Vedder, Johnny Depp, Henry Rollins, Axel Rosebecause of what he was forced to endure?
- In his blurb for the book, Eddie Vedder writes that Damien Echols “teaches us how to live.” In what ways is this true? What lessons can we learn from Echols’ experience and, more importantly, from how he responds to his experience?