January 8, 2013

Filthy Book Review - 'Life After Death'

Life after Death (2012)

Damien Echols

Review by Jude Felton

The case of the West Memphis 3 is probably one of the most heartbreaking and shocking stories of recent times. Not only did three young men spend 18 years behind bars for a crime that they did not commit, which to me is unfathomable to comprehend, but also the horrifying fact that the murderer, or murderers, of the three young boys are still out there. The case was covered in incredible detail in the three Paradise Lost documentaries, and also the recent West of Memphis but, with Life After Death, Damien Echols tells us a far more intimate picture of his life, and almost death.

Sentenced to death in 1994, one can only try and imagine what it must have been like for an 18 year old boy to face this penalty knowing that he was innocent of the crime he was convicted. Of the three convicted, both Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley received life sentences, it was Echols that received the most attention, due in part to his sentence. However, in 2011 they were all released from prison, although maybe not in the manner which they should have been.

Life After Death is Damien Echols autobiography, if you will, in which he writes about not only the injustice of which he is most famous, but his childhood, his family life and more. It really is an inspiring and emotionally devastating read, which I read in two sittings, although written in a very matter of fact manner. It is not a book that intends to invoke sympathy in the reader, which would have been incredibly easy to do. Instead, Echols is far too intelligent to play that card; he tells his tale, which also includes writing from his time behind bars, in a style that should inspire the reader.

Of course, much of the book does focus on his time behind bars as he did spend half of his life in prison, a good portion of which was in solitary confinement, and some of the stories are quite horrific. He paints a brutal picture of being behind bars, most of which is utterly impossible for most of us to get our heads around; the violence, depravity, filth, depression and seasonal extremes are all covered. But also, Echols tells us of his incessant need to learn, to improve himself and to grow as a human being. It could have been all too easy for him to get sucked into the harsh existence of prison, instead he devoured books and strove to stay mentally strong; a fact that in itself is quite amazing.

The case itself is unsurprisingly not given too much coverage here, as we all know the basic details, and the book takes a very personal approach. Even if you don’t know too much about the Robin Hood Murders I would still recommend reading Life After Death as a purely inspiring piece of writing; it is a quite incredible book.

On the same hand, even if you have seen all the films, read books on the case and know all there is to know about the case, you should still read this book. Not many of us, if any, have lived the life that Damien Echols has lived, and here he tells us as best he can how it has been up until now. Things that we wouldn’t even think of, such as the deterioration of vision (due to being in a tiny cell for years on end), not being able to walk properly because of the constant restraints and again, tiny cell. Things we all take for granted are things that were stripped away from Echols for almost 20 years.

The writing is incredibly fluid and makes this an easy read, even if sometimes the subject matter is incredibly gruesome, and ultimately an incredibly good read. It’s a book that is not intended to invoke pity or sympathy, instead a book of strength, determination and the will to live from a quite remarkable man.

Life After Death is available now from Blue Rider Press.

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