Damien Echols Interview with Dave Navarro, September 26th, 2012
If you have never heard of the West Memphis Three, do yourself a favor and get thee to Google IMMEDIATELY. Watch all three Paradise Lost documentaries released by HBO. Read the books Devil’s Knot and Life After Death. Then come back and read this.
Or at the very least, know the basic story and you’ll still be able to get a lot out of this interview. I’ve been following the case for nearly fifteen years and when WM3 were released last year, I cried tears of joy. Last week I had the honor of hearing Damien Echols interviewed by Dave Navarro. It was an experience I will never forget. I recorded audio of the interview and transcribed it here…
Dave Navarro: I’m Dave Navarro. Firstly, I just want to say what an incredible honor it is to be here to talk with you, Damien. Thank you so much for inviting me to do this. I have been following the case since the mid 90’s and have been moved by it, been frustrated by it, been emotional about it since then, since that time. And it’s, it’s truly a gift for us to be here, for me to be here so I want to say thank you first and foremost. Damien and I met recently, actually, as a result of mutual friends and our love of the art of tattooing and I was invited to come down to a shop in New York City and get tattooed by Damien, which is pretty great and it’s right here [shows hand to audience] this little “x” and in the process of that experience and that meeting we began talking and began sharing about trauma and I am a survivor of murder in my family. My mother was murdered in 1983 and her killer was sentenced to death-death row- and we began to share about trauma and our experiences and as different as they were, there was a real connection and a real honest exchange that didn’t feel pressured, that didn’t feel awkward or uncomfortable and that’s how we became friends. And that’s why I’m here now and I have to first off start by saying again that this book, Life After Death—I am not a reader, [to Echols] as I told you backstage-I don’t like it. I have ADD. I read a line and start thinking about something probably self-centered and I couldn’t put this book down and before we get started here with a line of questioning I just wanted to ask you, how did you become such a gifted, incredible writer?
Damien Echols: Even before I answer that I just want to say thank you to Dave for coming here and doing this tonight. This is a scary thing but it does take a lot of the jitters out of it and a lot of the anxiety just having him here and easing that so thank you for doing this and thank you to everyone coming tonight. Really in essence, the way I learned to become a writer, as crazy as it sounds, is by reading Stephen King novels. I started reading Stephen King when I was ten, eleven years old and was immediately hooked and when I was in prison I would read them over and over and over so much so that a lot of the characters started to feel like friends that you miss when the book ends and when I read his writing, his stories—-when you listen to music you always hear a beat to the music and you can pick up a pen and write a new song to the beat of the one you’re hearing in your head so that’s what I did when I started writing. I would hear the beat that was in his books and then I would try to match that beat while I was writing and even though the stuff we write isn’t even remotely similar- he writes fictional books about monsters and the end of the world and things like that and mine is a non-fictional account of the things that have happened to me- I still always try to match that beat and whenever I got out one the first things I did is—- I had self-published, or Margret Cho had published, a memoir when I was in prison of letters that she and I had been writing back and forth and I looked up the reviews of that, what customers were saying online and I read this…this woman had written this one that said, “While I was reading this book I kept having the nagging sensation that I had read this, that I had heard this voice somewhere before and about three quarters of the way through the book I realized it’s Stephen King!” And to me that was like the highest compliment.
Navarro : Yeah, there are moments in the book that were, for me, incredibly touching of course, incredibly frustrating, incredibly sad, but of moments that I found humorous just in terms of the way that your descriptive writing ability comes across and I don’t know if that’s something that can be…I don’t know, emulated from, I mean… that’s YOUR voice. It’s really an impressive work and I just congratulate you so much on it.
Echols: Thank you. I didn’t want it to be completely dark and morose and foreboding the whole time, you know? I wanted it to be something that when people read it they didn’t come away from it completely traumatized. I wanted it to be something that was some sort of enjoyment and so there where parts of it that when even when I was writing about really horrific things I tried to keep it really light-hearted.
Navarro: Yeah, it comes across and just… Trauma being a key word there and your whole story really is an incredible story of hope, ultimately. And with that let’s get into some of the stories in the book and your experiences there, for instance, when you were born. Can you talk a little bit about your upbringing and your childhood?
Echols: The family I came from is beyond dirt poor. You know, when we did finally move up to a trailer park, to us that was really moving up in the world. We had electricity, we had running water. To us that was the lap of luxury. I have a 9th grade education. I dropped out of school in the 9th grade and that’s more than anyone in my family has. My mother had me when she was fifteen years old; my father was sixteen years old. I don’t believe I ever saw either one of them read a book so we were like the epitome-almost a caricature-of like the illiterate, poverty-stricken, white trash southern family.
Navarro: Wow. Talk a little bit about your maternal grandmother who raised you when you were very young and your memories of her.
Echols: When I was about three years old my sister was born and my mother felt like she couldn’t raise me and my sister, I mean, she was still really young at that time. She would have been eighteen years old and she felt like she couldn’t handle two kids so she gave me to my grandmother. So from a very early age my grandmother was a big maternal figure in my life, she was like my mother. I lived with her for most of my life. She died while I was in the county jail waiting to go to trial and whenever she died it was like my family died because I never really did have that strong connection with anyone else in my family. My father left when I was seven years old; He didn’t come back until I was seventeen and even then he only stayed a couple months so my grandmother is all I had and she could be, um, unbalanced at times. You know, a little off, a little trigger-happy, quick to drag the gun out of the closet but at the same time she was the source of stability and structure and everything else in my life.
Navarro: I can see that even at those early, early years of feeling different and outside of the community just based on circumstances alone.
Echols: Oh absolutely. You know, we didn’t have money when I was growing up for things like the latest shoes or whatever it was the other kids were wearing or whatever video game it was they were playing so it’s really hard to fit in when you don’t have anything in common with the people around you based on something as simple as your financial situation.
Navarro: Sure. And in addition to that you moved around so much.
Navarro: So fitting in was probably very difficult to do based on what you said and the fact that you weren’t even anywhere for very long. How did that affect you?
Echols: Sometimes we would only live in a place for like two weeks before we’d move again. By the time I was ten years old I had already lived in Arkansas, Texas, Tennessee, Mississippi, Louisiana… we were constantly moving as a kid and when you’re only staying in a place for two weeks there’s no real time to even meet other kids much less grow any sort of relationships or anything like that so I never really had any close friends in my early childhood development years.
Navarro: Now, your grandparents Nanny and her husband Ivan. You talk a lot about them, particularly Ivan, some great stories about him as this Southern scoundrel. Tell us a little bit about Ivan.
Echols: Ivan was the-even though he wasn’t my biological grandfather- he was the person that I knew as my grandfather just because I was so young whenever my biological grandfather died, that Ivan was really all I ever knew. He was kind of crazy, too, though he fit really well with my grandmother. He would tell me these outrageous things sometimes that would probably warp a little kid in certain ways. I can remember he used to go around and dig things out of people’s garbage and fix it up in some sort of way and sell it at the flea market- he was a flea market vendor- and one time he got his hands on a giant box of tube socks somehow. So he was selling these tube socks at a flea market and I’m sitting there with him and the whole time I’m realizing all these white people are coming through and they just turned their nose up at the socks and walk by like they’re not even remotely interested. I noticed every single time somebody stopped and bought socks it was a black family so I asked him, “Why is it only black people are buying the socks?” And he said, “Because if their feet get cold, they’ll die.” You know to me that was like this stunning revelation. I took it- I believed it 100% because it’s your grandfather telling you this. To me it was a horrible thing, it was horrifying. It leads to other questions too like, “Well, will white people die too if their feet get cold?” You know, he doesn’t answer me he just sits there staring at me, drinking his beer, smoking his cigarettes like, “I can’t believe you’re this stupid”. When I would tell guys about that in prison that years later they’d stop for a minute like, “Not only was your grandfather racist but he was fucked up!”
Navarro: That isn’t your only experience with socks. In general socks seem to be a reoccurring theme for you. You used to sleep in socks with your pajamas tucked into them and what was the reason for that?
Echols: I don’t know but now that you mention…I didn’t think of that or realize that until you said it just now.
Navarro: It’s from reading the book!
Echols: It makes me think even now Lori and I have discussions where there’s a there are a few things in my life I just don’t like people messing with and one of them is my socks. We have a rule, you know, I caught her several times wearing my socks it’s like, that’s the rule: you don’t wear my socks. (Laughs)
Navarro: God that’s funny. Let’s move into your experience in prison, if you would. You talk about prison being clearly an environment of cruelty, brutality. Tell us a little bit about some of the abuses that you experienced, that some of the other prisoners experienced, if you would.
Echols: It started almost as soon as I got there, as soon as I walked in the door. The guards decided they were going to just welcome me to the neighborhood so they took me to the part of the prison called “the hole”. It’s completely dark, a filthy cell in the back of the prison in complete isolation where they can do anything they want to to you and in the summer it gets up to 120 degrees in there. You can’t breathe, it feels like someone is sitting on your chest and I come in at midnight, one o’clock in the morning and was chained to the bars of the cell and they would beat me with nightsticks. At one point they had beaten me severely enough that I started to piss blood. Still to this day I have a lot of kidney issues from that, resulting from that. It went on for eighteen straight days; they beat me, they starved me, they tortured me and it was like it was nothing personal it’s just, “Welcome to the neighborhood”. What happened is eventually word of what they were doing started to leak out into the rest of the prison and this deacon of a catholic church heard about it that used to come and give communion to the inmates and he went to the warden and said, “I know what you’re doing. You’re killing this guy and if it doesn’t stop I’m going to go public, I’m going to start telling people about it.” So they let me out, put me back in a normal prison cell and other prisoners told me later they all knew what was happening and expected to see me carried out in a body bag or on a stretcher any day and I think they probably would have if not for that guy, if not for the prison realizing they were being watched. And it wasn’t just me, it was everybody there. There was this guy, this one guy that had had catatonic schizophrenia and if you have ever seen anybody with that sometimes they’ll freeze in one position and not move for hours. The guards would make a game of it and when this guy would freeze they would slap him, kick him, punch him, just to see if they could make him move. To them it was nothing but a game it was like he wasn’t even a person, a human being. At the time that I got out of prison the warden in our prison, he had been a guard in another prison and had beaten an inmate so bad he had lost an eye. The local newspapers found out about it, wrote a few stories and the prison administration were like, “Well we have to get this guy out of here. He’s bringing too much attention onto this prison.” So instead of firing him they promoted him to warden and sent him to my prison.”
Navarro: Wow. Is there any action that can be taken? I mean, you were released a little over a year ago is that correct?
Navarro: Were these kinds of things happening just as recently as that? Did you see all that stuff happening?
Echols: The physical violence wasn’t happening that much towards the end. What started happening over time as technology progressed, they started putting cameras in the prisons. When I first got in there were no cameras anywhere in the prison system and over the years gradually they crept in. Even then they knew where the blind spots were and they’d get you there but they couldn’t do it blatantly like out in the open the way they used to. They used to beat somebody half to death in the hallway with twenty inmates there watching because who are they going to tell? Who’s going to care?
Navarro: On the outside of course we hear stories about prisoners receiving more cruelty based on crimes that involve children. Do you think any of that was directed at you because of the charges or was it just a general abuse that was inflicted upon anybody that came in?
Echols: With the guards it was a general abuse. Every single time I was in fear of losing my life in prison due to violence it was always guards. Every single time. It was never another inmate. And maybe that would have been different if I was just in general population, if I was doing a twenty year sentence or something like that but I was on death row it’s like you have a common enemy. You can’t squabble and bicker amongst yourselves when the state is trying to kill you. Then it becomes divide and conquer, you know, you have to put up a sort of united front so it doesn’t really matter what you’re there for on death row. People may not like you, you know, the guy in the next cell may hate your guts but if it comes down to making a choice between standing with you or taking the side of the prison guard he’s gonna take your side every time just because he knows whatever they do to you they can also do to him.
Navarro: So is there more unity in Death Row?
Echols: Exactly. Yeah, exactly.
Navarro: The conditions of course at Varner super-maximum security, in Arkansas… tell us a little bit about the conditions. You write that prisoners have been driven to insanity.
Echols: Yeah. For almost the last decade that I was in prison I was in complete and absolute solitary confinement. That’s what super-maximum security is: You are ALWAYS in solitary confinement. I would see guys in there that would snap one day- this one guy starts beating the wall with both his fists, just as hard as he can until both his fists are just busted open and broke and bloody and he’s screaming that the devil is in his cell and they’ll just take him out and just bandage him up and just throw him back in his cell. You know there’s no sort of…there’s nothing in there.
Navarro: So they don’t take you out to the yard, like you hear about, to run around-
Echols: No. No, it’s all- In the first eight years that I was there we had some of that just because we were in a different prison but in the last ten years, no. Some of the other prisons in Arkansas had things like that-going outside- but none of the super max’s and that’s part of what ruined my eyesight. I didn’t see sunlight for almost a decade. That and just being closed in a tiny space you never get to see anything more than a couple feet away from you so your eyes gradually lose the ability to focus on anything that far away and you can’t see anything more than four inches in front of you.
Navarro: Wow. I took a trip to Alcatraz a couple years ago and in solitary there they were sharing about how one of the ways to stave off insanity, he would pull a button of his uniform in the darkness , throw it somewhere, and then search for it as a way to pass time and stay focused. What kinds of things would you do in order to save your mind from complete exhaustion?
Echols: For me it was meditation. By the time I was released I was doing meditation anywhere from five to seven hours a day. When I first went in the first two to three years that I was there I got extremely angry. From the time my eyes opened in the morning I would be furious. Whatever your going through whether it’s torture, whether it’s starvation, being beaten, whatever it is, not only was there physical hell but there was also just this internal hell of knowing I was never supposed to be here in the first place. These people don’t have any right to do this to me. And I read this quote by the Buddha where he said holding on to that is like drinking poison and hoping it will kill the other person and that’s exactly what it it’s like. It doesn’t hurt the other person. I knew I had to find some way to cope with it to deal with it because it was eating me alive inside and that’s what turned me to meditation in the first place. Eventually as the years progressed I received ordination in the Rinzai tradition of Japanese Buddhism which is the same tradition they used to train the samurai in ancient Japan. And then also there’s no medical care on death row. They’re not going to spend a lot of time and money and energy taking care of someone they plan on killing. So that sort of forced me to turn to energy work, these techniques like reiki, chi gong, things like that because that was all I had. There were times I got so sick I didn’t think I was going to live through the night and that was all I had to turn to so for me that’s what it was, that’s what I dedicated my whole existence in there to, was just mediation.
Navarro: Where there other inmates doing similar techniques, taking similar paths? Because in the book you talk a lot about this: You talk a lot about your teachers and certain rituals that you went through, certain steps that were taken to get closer to that place, which for me is just so inspiring and in the same breath hard to believe. How did you get to that place of willingness? Because you talk about the anger, you talk about the resentment and certainly being there unfairly and unjustly….I don’t that I would have it in me to look anywhere else other than my own anger. How did you get to that place?
Echols: Sheer desperation. That’s what it all comes down to in the end. If I were out here and I could have just went to the doctor or to maybe to a therapist or something like that to talk out my problems or to get my physical symptoms treated then I probably never would have turned that way either but for me it was like I was drowning: I was drowning in despair, I was drowning in anger, I was drowning in sickness, in pain and that’s all I had so if I hadn’t experienced that I probably would be saying the same thing that you’re saying right now. There’s just no way that I would have dedicated so much time and energy to it but I really just did not have a choice. The other inmates…it’s few and far between. What introduced me to Zen Buddhism was another inmate who was there on death row that the day I got in he sends me a package down there that had a stamped envelope and some paper so I could write to someone and let them know where I was, shaving cream and a razor, basic necessities, things that I would need. As soon as I walked in the door he gives me these things and he said that he tried to do that for everyone who came in just because he knew how traumatic and horrifying it is coming into this situation. An act of kindness like that is something you don’t forget. When you walk into this cold, hateful, soulless place and somebody does something like that for you, it’s something that stays in your mind forever. So I started trying to do the same thing. After they executed him that’s when I met his spiritual advisor and he became my spiritual advisor after that but I tried to pick up where this guy left off and every time I would see somebody new come in and I would try to do the same thing he did for me. Most inmates in there though- your average IQ on death row is like 85. So, most people in there aren’t capable of doing stuff like that …and even 85 can be relatively high for a lot of what I saw in there. In the law-I’m aware it’s become really politically incorrect to call use the term “mentally retarded”- but that’s the only thing the law recognizes. It’s like a very straight line, there’s no grey. It’s either you are mentally retarded or not mentally retarded and if you are, it’s supposed to be illegal to execute you but you would see people in there all the time who were blatantly—“Something’s wrong with this person. This person is not functioning at a normal adult level.”And they would still kill them. Probably the most horrific one that happened in the history of the Arkansas prison system was this guy who had killed his in-laws and then shot himself in the head. He survived but he gave himself a lobotomy. Whenever they got ready to execute him, they asked him what he wanted for his last meal. He says, “Pecan pie.” So they give him a pie, he eats half of it. When they come to execute him he wraps the other half up and says he’s going to save that till after the execution. So they are putting people to death who are not even capable of understanding that they’re being killed.
Navarro: Speaking about spirituality, speaking about the death penalty at this time-Damien, you reached out to me when this happened- the killer of my mother was on death row and two months ago the that ruling was overturned and he went into general population. No death sentence any more to be carried out. It strikes me interesting that you’re talking about these spiritual practices, spiritual beliefs and I just wanted to let you know that my viewpoint of that turn would be so different today had I not met you maybe three weeks prior to that and I can’t help but think there’s some kind of divine reason why we met each other. Now knowing you and how horrible… if one inmate goes down that’s innocent …so I want to thank you for that, I truly do and it’s helped me make some peace with my situation. [Echols and Navarro hug]
Navarro: Do you still have a spiritual practice? Does this continue today?
Echols: It does, but not nearly as intensely as it was in prison just due to the fact that I have been just frantically scrambling just to get a life for myself. You know, when we left Arkansas, my wife and I, we left like refugees. I did not have one single penny in my pocket. I didn’t have a change of clothes to put on. I didn’t have anywhere to go. So the past year has been scrambling frantically just trying to get somewhere, trying to start getting our feet under us. We were living like that really until we finally got our place really in the last week but the month previous to that we were practically homeless. We didn’t have anywhere to go. We were staying with friends who could take us in for short periods of time; we were staying in hotel rooms. When you’re living that sort of life it’s really hard to commit to things with a strict regimen, a sort of daily practice at the same time because you’re always on the move, you’re living out of a suitcase and you just do what you got to do. Hopefully now that we’ve got our place, once things settle down I can go back into that and that’s actually what I want to do with my time once things settle down, our life calms down a lot; I’d like to have a small meditation center somewhere so that I can share the things I had to learn in prison with other people who are in horrible situations in life and then maybe can use them to help themselves.
Navarro: I mean that’s one of the most profound things that I got from the book and we talked about backstage is having a sense— and a lot of people have a hard time understanding this but…I don’t even know if I want to go here yet …but the fact that you continue that thinking, wanting to do the meditation and stuff, have your spiritual practice because for me? I’m faced with a problem I’m like, “Please God, please God get me out of this. Thanks! See ya later!” You know what I mean? Like once I get past it, I’m out. There’s no God. Back to business as usual. So it’s pretty unbelievable to see that you’re still with this. And the other stuff I wanted to touch upon we’ll get to. Aside from the usual contraband of drugs, the weapons, the food things that we know about just through the media, through Hollywood: Pets. Pets on death row.
Navarro: You had a kitten.
Echols: It was sort of the community kitten. Somehow -I have no idea how-some guy on death row got this kitten and it would be passed from cell to cell to keep the guards from finding out where it was. It was this tiny little thing, probably wasn’t even big enough to be taken away from the mother yet and God only knows where it came from. Everybody there loved this thing. And not just the kitten; you would have these guys in there that would bring in—- sometimes snake would make it into the yard, you know, crawl through the fence-
Navarro: I don’t really want to know how those got smuggled in!
Echols: (Laughs) The most prominent pet was always rats because rats are just rampant in prison. The prison was way out in the middle of these fields, nothing as far around as far as you could see and in the winter time it would start to get cold and food would start to get scarce and all the rats would run into the prison to try to get warm and find something to eat. Guys would catch some of them, let’s say, after one had just given birth rats and they could get the little rats when they were small enough so they couldn’t bite you yet and they would grow up being handled, being pet, so they didn’t bite. There were tons of rats kept as pets in prison. When the guards would find them they would stomp them to death, throw them in the toilet, whatever. But those things would become dearly, dearly important to guys in there. It was the only thing they had, it was the only connection with any sort of…love. You had guys who’s whole family was dead, they had been there so long and that was all they had in the world. So you see even in there some spark of humanity in this person, something that makes them love something as horrible as a rat or a snake or a pigeon.
Navarro: I have to tell you, one of the most profound visuals from the book for me was picturing you on the third tier of three rows of cells, you’re on the top one, there’s nobody else in that row, solitary, death row… with that kitten. To me that was one of the most heartbreaking visuals, I mean, I could see that as a painting. The way you describe that in the book was just so moving…I can’t go on enough about this book. There’s some really typical questions in here, we can just power through them because I want to get to some of your [the audiences’] questions. Some of the things that you missed the most in prison? Probably a question you’re tired of asking and one that’s on everybody’s mind.
Echols: Well I could name a bunch of really small things but seem huge once they’re gone. When you’re out here and you see people like, when it starts raining, people start running for cover trying to get out of. You don’t realize how much you’ll miss something like that until you don’t have it anymore. You know, the way rain feels on your skin it becomes something that when you haven’t experienced something in almost twenty years, it becomes something that in your mind it’s so magical it’s almost too good to be true. You want that again so bad [inaudible] seeing the moon or the stars but really what you miss the most is being treated as a human being because you don’t experience any sort of empathy or love or anything like that in that please. That’s why they give you a number. You’re not even a name you’re a number. Really that’s what it comes down to and hopefully most people will never have to experience that.
Navarro: You think about some of the problems we all face today and how they consume our lives really this is a really powerful ,moving experience just to but then because you know because I cannot even imagine just to be able to come through the other side of something like this and I mean, here I am—We all know the case, we all know the charges we all know the stuff but I’m sitting here with a guy who loves kittens and the rain, when it comes down to it. Wrongly imprisoned for all these years- eighteen years. You talked a lot about the conditions being intolerable. Why do you think society tolerates the kind of conditions that you describe in your book?
Echols: I think a lot of times people are in this attitude if you’re in prison then you probably deserve what you’re going to get. They don’t care what goes on in there. They see the people in there as evil and they need to be punished but I think what they don’t take into consideration most of the time is that almost everybody who goes into prison will one day get out. Very, very few people are executed or kept in prison for the rest of their lives. So then you have to take into consideration things like the fact that people are being tortured in there, people are being literally driven insane. One day they are going to be back in your churches, in your schools, back in your grocery stores, back in your neighborhoods so really you have to stop looking at it as an us-versus-them situation. You have to start looking at it as by doing this you’re actually hurting yourself. It’s probably not a very good idea to drive these people stark raving mad and them have them come right back into your neighborhood.
Navarro: You’ve had a lot of supporters over the years. Your family would visit you in prison and you mention several important spiritual advisors in your book: A woman named Anna who would visit you on death row and Father Charles if I remember correctly. What did these people bring to you and why were they so important?
Echols: Anna was a monk in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition and her entire purpose, her entire reason for coming to the prison was to help men get ready to die. That’s what she did. She didn’t get paid for it. The guards would make her life a living hell whenever she came in. They did not want her to be there. They did everything they could to make her quit.
Navarro: They would make her wait for hours.
Echols: Exactly. They would make her sit outside the prison for hours and even then—-made her almost like a saint to the prison population and everybody would see this happening and want to be around her even more make you want to know, “What does this woman have that makes her capable of going through this and still not losing her desire and drive to come in and help people?” But really that’s what she brought to the prison as ghoulish as it sounds in a way; she taught people how to die a good death. You had other people—-you know, my Zen master came from all the way from Japan to this prison in Arkansas to see me. He couldn’t speak English; I couldn’t speak Japanese so we had to have a translator come with him. There was nothing to gain in it for him. He came there entirely out of selfless reasons, Father Charles, he was a catholic priest who would come there; He had a shaved head and a goatee and he rode a motorcycle everywhere he went, had a pet boa constrictor, was constantly fighting with the Bishop and he became like a—Guys in prison loved him. They would listen to things he had to say that they wouldn’t listen to if it came from anyone else just because they would think, “Okay, he comes this religious fruitcake that’s coming in telling us something we’ve already heard a thousand times before and we don’t want to hear. We don’t want religion shoved down our throat”. But this guy would come in and he was somebody you could relate to, somebody that you liked talking to. So you would listen to things from him you wouldn’t listen to from anybody else. They even made his life hell. They didn’t like him coming in there, either.
Navarro: You know it’s really interesting when you talk about these spiritual advisor and reading the book and knowing your experiences as a kid just going to different churches, going to the Protestant church with your mom and Jack and seeking out the Catholic church on your own and having your own experience there and having as we talked about backstage, a love/hate relationship with Christianity. Knowing your experiences with religion and yet seeing that you have the willingness to pursue spiritual lines in your life while inside, can you talk a little bit about your experience with organized religion versus meditation, how you found yourself to still be willing to find answers from a spiritual advisor?
Echols: I actually hate religion…or maybe “hate” is too strong a word. It doesn’t really serve us very well. It’s like a virus. It’s…you don’t get very much out of it. What you get something out of it is spirituality. Spirituality has to be an individual thing. It’s what each person has to tackle for themselves. Religion just seems to divide people, get people killed.
Echols: They tried to kill ME for religion. But at the same time I’ve always found beauty in the Catholic Church. Not amongst its teachings which I certainly don’t agree with all of them. I think some of them can be very detrimental but at the same time there’s a beauty there in the rituals themselves that can inspire you, the make you want to get closer to whatever you want to call it: the universe, the mind, God or whatever it is and that’s something that we need more of. For me though still to this day I really have a lot of trouble with religion just because of what was done to me.
Navarro: Yeah. I can totally understand that. I went to Catholic school for many, many years and I’ve since become…I wouldn’t say practice many teachings but I study them and for the most part it’s not the teachings that are what’s dangerous, it’s what people do.
Navarro: If you really read some of these spiritual principals and then you see how people twist them into ammunition-
Echols: Weapons, yeah.
Navarro: That’s the danger.
Navarro: Okay. Obviously you received a bunch of letters while inside. Your wife Lori whom you met via letter: Explain to me how that letter was different, the evolution of that relationship.
Echols: Lori and I have now been together for seventeen years. We got married in December of ’99. We met after she saw the very first documentary that was made about the case. It was made by HBO. They showed it at MOMA, the Museum of Modern Art in New York where she lived at the time and she saw it there and it had a big affect on here so she sat down and wrote me a letter and from that very first letter I knew that this was a person that was completely and absolutely unlike anyone else I have ever known. And there was something just absolutely amazing and magical about her, something that made me want more, gave me this sensation that I was just starving. I wanted to know what she thought and what she felt on everything: on every book, every movie, every situation in life and for me that was an incredibly difficult thing at the very beginning just because I’d started to die inside. When you’re in this cold, hellish place it’s almost like you’re starving to death emotionally. And that is what starts happening: You start to wither, you start to starve, you start to die. Whenever she came into my life it was almost like having to go through some sort of physical rehabilitation with a limb that has been destroyed. It just hurts a like hell to start using it again. That’s what I felt like emotionally. I would wake up in the middle of the night for the first year or so curing her name for making me fell this way. It was bad enough that I was going through this external he’ll; but then you add all of this emotional stuff to it and it made it a pressure cooker. It was just unbearable.
Navarro: Your heart had atrophied.
Echols: Exactly. Over time we just grew closer and closer. We started talking on the phone; she started coming to see me at the prison flying back and forth from New York to Arkansas which got real expensive real fast so she decided to just move down here to be with me. Eventually she almost completely took over my legal case. She did 85% of the work on my case. She did more work than the attorneys and the investigators combined. There were times whenever we couldn’t afford to pay legal fees anymore and she took out personal loans to pay off lawyers. It’s just really she’s what saved my life in there.
Navarro: How do you keep a relationship alive all those years? How did you do that?
Echols: The only thing I can compare it to is studies I’ve read about brain damage. [Laughs] I know. They say that a certain part of the brain is damaged; other parts of the brain start to compensate for it. They start sending out these branches to sort of make up for the parts that have been damaged and that’s sort of the way I started to look at our relationship. We didn’t have the things that normal people have, that they get to rely on. We didn’t get to go to dinner together, we didn’t get to go to the movies together, we didn’t get to sleep in the same bed every night. We had to forge other connections, we had to constantly push ourselves, strive to find ways to connect with each other. One of the ways, just one of them was something described in the book is we would make “moon water”. Before I went into solitary confinement I had a window in my cell and whenever the moon was full I would be able to see it outside so we’d fill up these glasses with water and set them on the window to catch the moonlight on them and each night after that till the next full moon we’d each take a drink out of this glass each night at the same time till the next full moon we knew we were doing the same thing, we were connected in that moment every night and now that I’m out we have all things that everyone else does and we still have those connections we had before which makes it an even closer, more powerful bond.
Navarro: Wow. Every woman in the audience just went, “Aww! Moon water!” [Laughs] Okay let’s go to—-thank God, you‘re released August 20011. You’re here today. Why in God’s name did you have to enter a guilty plea?
Echols: Whenever all the DNA evidence started coming back in the case…they’re able to do DNA testing now that they weren’t able to do in 1993 when I was arrested- the science has progressed quite a bit- so they started doing all this DNA testing and it showed that none of the DNA at the crime scene matched me or the other two guy in prison. Instead it matched one of the step-fathers and the man who was providing the step-father with an alibi. Also one of the victims’ step-father’s had always said- the same on the DNA matched-had always said he never saw the victims that day. Three eye-witnesses came forward who said they saw him with all three of the victims within an hour of the time they were murdered. These things plus all sorts of other evidence started to come in—
Navarro: Which, which—-let me interrupt you —- to ME and I think everybody in here… slam dunk. Not guilty. Like, what is the problem?
Echols: Right. Well the state of Arkansas would not just make that ruling. They said, “Okay well we’re going to have a hearing and hear all this new evidence.” The prosecutor realized that meant there was going to be another trial so when this deal was hammered out the prosecutor—-basically what it came down to, the prosecutor says, “We can drag this out for another five years, another ten years. Yeah, you’re going to get out, when we go to court, you WILL win this case, but we can keep filing for extensions, we can keep appealing every decision the court make. We can drag this out forever. Or you can sign this paper and you can go home today. You can go home before the week is out.” And I knew like I said my health was deteriorating rapidly. I weigh 60 pounds more right now than I did when I got out of prison. I was losing my eyesight; my health was really, really bad. Like I said, there were times when I was so sick I thought I was going to die before the night is up. So, I also knew that we have a documentary coming out in December called ‘West of Memphis’ and in the documentary one of the prosecutors says that one of the considerations made in this deal, probably the biggest consideration was the fact that me and the other two guys collectively could have sued the state for sixty million dollars. I knew they could have had me stabbed to death for $50 at the end of the week- it happens in prison all the time. It’s nothing out of the ordinary. So I knew whether it was due to me getting sick and dying or due to something happening to me in prison, if I didn’t take this deal, there was no way I was ever going to see the outside of these walls. I knew I didn’t have another five years. I didn’t have another ten years.
Navarro: Can you fight that verdict?
Navarro: Now. Like say, “Give me that paper!” sign that fucking thing and then now appeal for…because I think it’s…after this road it’s gotta be important for you to have public record of innocence.
Echols: Exactly. And that’s one of the reasons we’re here doing this now. This isn’t easy to talk about. It isn’t something I want to be living over and over and over but for us it’s like a necessary evil because it’s the only way we’re ever going to have a sense of closure. Yeah, we can keep fighting but “up-hill battle” doesn’t even BEGIN to articulate what it’s going to be like. As far as the state of Arkansas is concerned this case is closed. Everything now rests on us. We have to do everything or nothing is going to happen.
Navarro: Leads me to wonder in terms of the book, Life After Death, is there something in particular you want to readers to take away, after having read this book?
Echols: I guess the main thing would be just an understanding and an appreciation of how short and how precious really life is and to come away with not being traumatized, that it’s a horrible story, but coming away from it and wanting something more out of life. Coming away from it with the feeling that they don’t want to settle for a mundane, mediocre existence, that they want to do something that creates magic in their lives and in the world in some sort of way. That’s what I would want them to come away from it with.
Navarro: I certainly got that from it. I also got, you know, our society at large generally speaking-certainly in the United States- is pretty entitled. People kill themselves for less reason than losing a loved one, or a break up, or an extra ten pounds or whatever the fuck it is and their entire life collapses and for me this book, and your attitude, and what you’re doing now and the strength you’ve shown is so inspiring. And for me it’s kind of proven to me that there’s no circumstance that can’t be overcome or at least one can’t adjust to in a positive way.
Echols: That’s what I hope everyone comes away with. It means a lot to whenever hear something like that because it means that everything you went through wasn’t in vain, gives some sort of meaning to it, that it’s not just all random chaos and misery behind it, that there’s some sort of beauty behind it and that would be the ultimate reward.
Navarro: We’ve talked a little bit about this before… I’ve said to many people in my life that when my mom was killed, when I was fifteen, [it was a] horrible experience for me, for my family. That sent into motion a series of events and actions on my part that led me to where I am today and had it not been for that event, as horrific as it was, I wouldn’t be here and I wouldn’t have the life I have today-which I like. Are you able to have any of that kind of experience for yourself?
Echols: Absolutely. Lori and I wouldn’t be together now if not for this. There have been a lot of blessings come out of this situation, big, small and in-between, some of the friendships I have. I wouldn’t have met you if not for this. There has been so many good things come out of this. I will say the number one thing that makes us grow as human beings is also the thing we hate the most, the thing we try to avoid the most, which is pain. Nobody wants pain. We all try to avoid it at all cost but it’s the number one thing that deepens us as human beings, makes us appreciate life more. So even that, even the horror and the pain is in some ways a blessing.
Navarro: I couldn’t agree more. I want to get to some of the audience’s questions here if you don’t mind.
Navarro: So “what’s your favorite color?” we won’t use [Laughter]. Wow there’s so many great ones here and I think that we’ve actually touched upon plenty of these things. Yeah, that’s a good one. How do you feel—-‘cause this is interesting and we have talked about this a little bit before… actually I underlined here a line in the book. We were talking about an experience you had as a kid and you say “I was dumfounded and my feelings were hurt. I expected to be fussed over. Instead, no one took my trauma seriously.” Which, really hit home to me. And that was when you were a kid. Fast-forward to now, how does it feel knowing thousands of people believe in you and support you?
Echols: There are really no words you can articulate. When I was in prison, after seeing how corrupt the system was, I no longer had any faith in it whatsoever, any belief in it. I knew if my fate rested upon the system, they were going to murder me. The only thing I didn’t lose faith in, the only thing that kept me going, what gave me hope that I was going to see outside those walls again were the people in the world that I would hear from in a daily basis. I would receive tons of letters, people were wearing t-shirts with our pictures, with our mug shots on them, these websites dedicated to getting us out, the media doing stories about it…that’s what kept me going: Just knowing that people out here cared. So it’s almost like in sports when they describe the people in the crowd as being the extra man on the team, and that is exactly what it was for us in this legal case. It was like the world and the love and the support and everything else that people gave us became the extra person on our legal team.
Navarro: I guess emotionally is more what I’m asking. Going from that little kid that wasn’t getting considered for the pain that he was in to going from having the masses care deeply about the pain you’re in. That’s gotta be a bizarre transition.
Echols: It is. The only thing I can say it’s pretty nice.
Navarro: Okay lets go for one more here. Yeah, this is interesting and something I’ve wondered: How’ve you been handing the whirlwind of publicity from being in from, being out and now on the book tour I mean I would imagine for someone who’s spent so long isolated to be in the most unbelievable tornado of attention, media people, lights, I mean, how does it feel? Are you overwhelmed at times?
Echols: Yeah. Thankfully we don’t have a lot of time to watch it. I do interviews now that we don’t even see a lot of times just because the next thing, and the next thing and the next thing but it is overwhelming. It’s sensory –overload a lot of times. I wasn’t prepared for this world out here whenever I came out. For the first three months that I was out I was in a state of deep and profound shock and trauma. I almost had to be led around like a blind person. I would walk into doors. I had to learn the simplest things over again like how to walk because I hadn’t walked anywhere in [almost] twenty years without chains on my feet. So I was stumbling, tripping over my own feet just learning to walk again. The last thing in the world I was ready for was TV cameras and newspaper reporters and things like that. In a way it was easier in the beginning just because I was in such a deep state of shock; I could sort of be led though it. The more I come out of it, the more I dislike it, the more I want to move on into a life of little more calmness, a little more peacefulness. But like I said, what it all comes down to at this time in our life it’s a necessary evil. The state isn’t going to do anything to correct this case. The burden now falls entirely upon us and the only way that anything is ever going to happen is if people continue to care, if people read the books, if people will watch the documentary if people still will write to the politicians in charge and let them know they’re being watched, let them know that we are not just going to fade away and let them get away with this. So even though it’s not fun, even though I don’t always like it, it’s sort of what I have to do right now.
Navarro: I understand and I could talk to you all night long and I’m sure everybody could listen all night long… [Looks and speaks to offstage] Do you want us to wrap it up? Are you giving us the hook? The man was in prison eighteen years, leave him alone. [Laughs] I just want to say thank you so much man. You’ve become an incredible, important think and teacher for this generation. I mean, truly this book is a life-changing experience for me to read and I’m sure for everybody who does. I just wanted to thank you so much for sharing and being open with everybody and with me and letting me in as a friend. Damien Echols, everybody.