The Half Light: The Beautiful Life of a Death Row Inmate

Books Features
Share Tweet Submit Pin

“When I was a kid, somehow a story started circulating in West Memphis. I can only guess at its origin, but something about it horrified me. In fact, the whole town was pretty on edge. People were claiming to have a seen a dog with a man’s head. It was rumored to have escaped from a traveling carnival freak show that had come through the area. Neighbors stood on their lawns in the evening with the same facial expressions they wore when scanning the skies for tornadoes. “Get back in the house,” they would snap at the children who were drawn out by the hovering sense of excitement. I’m certain I wasn’t the only one who began having bad dreams about the dogman. Eventually people seemed to forget about it, and it faded from the conversations. The feeling never left, though.”—Damien Echols, from Life After Death

Witch-hunts are not a relic of the past. They still exist, in our modern America, complete with all the crude elements we recoil at in history books. They may seem to originate from some horrific act, like the murder of three children in Arkansas, but the true root is the fear and suffering and the desperate need to blame something extraterrestrial. Hysteria is a key ingredient, because without a mob mentality, good sense might prevail. And of course the people need their scapegoat; inevitably it’s someone a little bit strange to begin with, someone who doesn’t fit into the obvious social order and has been cast as an outsider for many years. Immense public pressure weighs down on this person, who is usually subjected to psychological torture by the authorities and often coerced into a false confession. There is no space for logic or questioning to empathy to prevail, and the sacrificial villain is burdened with guilt and sentenced to some form of death—social, political, spiritual, physical.

Damien Echols was the so-called ringleader of the “West Memphis Three,” a group of teenagers accused of the ritual Satanic murder of three eight-year-old boys in 1993. Anyone remotely familiar with “Satanic panic” murder, from abnormal psychology classes or news stories, knows that they almost universally stem from the fevered, deranged imagination of the victim or a community. While individual psychopaths exist in every culture and will continue to do so as long as human existence moves forward, it is rare to the point of nonexistence to find actual devil-worshipping cults committed to obscene violence against innocent people. Just as it was rare to find actual witches, capable of supernatural evil, in colonial America. Or subversive communist spies in 1950s American government. But the patterns of history never seem to dissuade the accusers; it’s almost as if it’s a purely sociological reaction that can’t be prevented, the inevitable, momentary triumph of the worst demons of human nature.

Because Echols was seen as the leader of the trio, he received a sentence of capital punishment and was sentenced to death row. The details of the case and his incarceration can be found with a simple search, but the broad outline is that an HBO documentary made at the time of the trial made it achingly clear that he and his two alleged accomplices were the victims of false accusation, legal-judicial incompetence, and police abuse. He spent 18 years in prison, married a living saint named Lorri who took his case on her broad shoulders, and received support from celebrities like Eddie Vedder, Henry Rollins, Peter Jackson, Natalie Maines, and Johnny Depp. He endured unthinkable abuse from prison guards while the Arkansas judicial system ignored, delayed, and denied his appeals. Finally, in 2011, the West Memphis Three accepted a deal whereby they would enter an official guilty plea to the state while maintaining their innocence and be released for time served.

The details of his case are fascinating, but even more fascinating is Life After Death, the memoir he released this year and which I discovered through an online excerpt a month ago. The book came in the mail last week, and it took me approximately two days to devour it in three sittings. I’ve read some excellent memoirs, but I can honestly say I’ve never read a book like this, where the subject is a natural-born writer with the skill of a novelist and a poet. While reading, I couldn’t shake the thought that Echols was somehow destined to suffer his fate so he could produce this book, which is a work of art and beauty and the best treatise on the meaning of being imprisoned I’ve ever come across. He might be annoyed or outraged by that thought, since his suffering went beyond what any human should have to experience, but the strength of his spirit was forged in his cell and shines through in this transcendent piece of literature. For me, it even surpassed the work of Solzhenitsyn, who suffered in the Soviet gulags, due to the beauty and power of the language.

Echols alternates the story of his life, lived in extreme poverty in Arkansas, with tragic-comic details about life in prison and poetic passages about the spiritual struggle that comes with incarceration. As an example, take this excerpt about his escape into his mind, or what he calls “psychic rabbit holes,” and the attendant pain that never leaves:

“Ghosts can haunt damned near anything. I have heard them in the breathy voice of a song and seen them between the covers of a book. They have hidden in trees so that their faces peer out of the bark, and hovered beneath the silver surface of water. They disguise themselves as cracks in concrete or come calling in a delirium of fever. On summer days they keep pace like the shadow of our shadow. They lurk in the breath of young girls who give us our first kiss. I’ve seen men who were haunted to the point of madness by things that never were and things that should have been. I’ve seen ghosts in the lines on a woman’s face and heard them in the jangling of keys. The ghosts in fire freeze and the ghosts in ice burn. Some died long ago; some were never born. Some ride the blood in my veins until it reaches my brain. Sometimes I even mistake myself for one. Sometimes I am one.”

The pure aesthetic pleasure, haunting and gorgeous, of passages like these exists alongside a riveting story. When he’s not focused on his own life, he casts an observant eye on the world of the penitentiary. Sometimes it can be brutal, as in the stories about guards who destroy his personal property—for prisoners, the last vestige of their humanity—and abuse him physically in ways that grow more severe as it becomes clearer and clearer that he is innocent and will soon go free. Other times it can be hilarious, as in stories about an inmate who temporarily solved his loneliness by attaching live crickets to his body and making them chirp at will, or another who made surgical masks out of cologne samples from magazines to combat the hideous smell of an adjacent prisoner.

Every element of life is present in Echols’ narrative, and the most redemptive aspect is that he’s able to hold on to “magick”—a phenomenon he describes as “seeing beauty for a moment in the midst of the mundane” through an almost unbelievable series of soul-breaking injustices. He’s a modern Job, enduring difficulties that would break most of us, and nearly broke him—soon after his verdict came in, he attempted to kill himself with an overdose of antidepressants. The fact that he lived, and thrived, and has overcome the anger and bitterness that nobody could possibly begrudge him, is a miracle. Echols doesn’t believe in a traditional God, embracing a larger spirit instead, and in Life After Death he’s made himself a channel for the cosmic grace that touches even the weary and condemned.