Wednesday, June 19, 2013

April Book Review: Life After Death

Book Review: Life After Death, by Damien Echols
My rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

I have a lot of catching up to do here on the blog. I'm way way way behind on my reading and reviewing, as evidenced by the fact that it is now June and I'm writing a review for my April pick. Still, I'm determined to tick them all off the list. I've finally read Life After Death by Damien Echols, and I let it sink in a little before writing the review. It was my book for April, but I'm so glad I waited until June to read it.

From April 5th through end of May I only read scientific journals and alternative medicine articles about Pancreatic Cancer. I spent hours researching different treatment centers, and writing update emails on my dad's status to his family and friends. I sort of only had a head for cancer. I find it very interesting that I selected this book unaware in January "for the month when many people contemplate salvation, redemption, and forgiveness [because of Lent, Easter, etc]," as I stated in my Book List post, yet had no idea that I would actually be contemplating all those things and more in April, myself. I'm not sure I would have been able to appreciate this book for what it is, had I read it according to schedule. My own life tragedy was too fresh in April. Since then, I've found - as I'm sure many victims of Cancer do - that tragedy has a way of creating communities and commonalities. I still have no idea what it's like to spend nearly two decades in a concrete cell as punishment for something I did not do, but I understand what a cruel turn of events can do to your whole life. I have a much bigger heart for people who've been dealt an unfair hand, and my concept of compassion and understanding of empathy are radically more mature.

Sometime late last year I caught an interview on NPR with this death-row prisoner-turned-author about his autobiographical work and was instantly fascinated. After being convicted for the "satanic" murder of three 8-year-old boys in West Memphis, Arkansas, and serving 18 years on death row (most in solitary confinement), Echols and two co-defendants were released in August 2011 on the Alford plea agreement. The agreement allowed all three to maintain their innocence while pleading guilty, and the judge converted their sentence to time served. Over those 18 years in prison, their controversially mishandled case received the publicized support of celebrities like Johnny Depp, Eddie Vedder, and Natalie Maines (of the Dixie Chicks). Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh filmed a documentary about the case titled "West of Memphis." Damien's wife, Lorri Davis, who discovered him by watching "Paradise Lost," married him five years into his incarceration and has organized and championed his case ever since.

So that's a little of the background, now on to the book review. First of all, this book is not a historical account of the murders or the trial. If that's what you're looking for spend some time googling all the various audio and video clips that have been made public, and read the documented evidence provided on many readily available websites. Apparently "Paradise Lost 1, 2, and 3" (an HBO documentary series about the case), and "West of Memphis"are fairly one-sided documentaries, but I haven't seen them and I'm not reviewing them here. My point is that there are plenty of resources out there if what you're looking for are facts about the crimes and trials. This book is not one of those. 

The book is Damien's account of his tortured childhood, misunderstood existence, encounters in prison, and spiritual journey. Even if none of it is true or it severely manipulates the truth, it's still a fascinating concoction. Read it with a grain -- or two -- of salt or read it as if it were pure fiction. But, I think the read is worth it simply to imagine yourself in Echol's position. I spent a lot of time wondering what type of person I would have become, had I witnessed the injustice and experienced such persecution as Echols claims. He creates an inspiring pocket of hope for himself inside a concrete cell, by using Buddhist practices, sustained meditation, and ritual ceremonies, as well as writing in his journal (much of which is used in the book) and fighting constantly for his freedom.

I flew through this book. I can't help myself when it comes to conspiracy theories or "train-wrecks." It was an easy read, but I admit I sped through because I hoped for a revelation. Once I realized that there is no real answer or closure provided and, thanks to the police bungling much of the evidence, unfortunately for the victim's families and the suspects there might never be, I was sort of disappointed. Not sure what I expected: Echols to admit guilt in his own memoir? Point the finger firmly at someone else? I did certainly expect there to be more of his "Life After Death" experiences, as the title implies and now that he is a free man, but the book abruptly ends with his release and subsequent celebration. It's much more about his terrible childhood and time on death row, than his life since his release in 2011.

This was a highly publicized and extremely well-known and documented case. However, I knew absolutely nothing about it before picking up this book. The fact that the murder and trial took place in 1993 (I was only 8 myself), means that it passed completely under my radar at the time. I spent several hours watching interviews, even with the man himself, and reading available evidence since I finished the book. I still don't know what to think -- except that it's worth reading.

★ - Hated it. ★★ - Didn't like it. ★★★ - Liked it. ★★★★ - Really liked it. ★★★★★ - Absolutely loved it.

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