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Damien Echols, one of the West Memphis Three, spoke to us about his self-education in prison, tattoo adventures with Johnny Depp, and why he was surprised Laura Bush liked his book.

How Damien Echols Learned to Write By Reading Stephen King

Last Friday, the documentary West of Memphis was released nationwide. The movie is the fourth documentary made about the disturbing story of the West Memphis Three, the three teenagers who were sentenced to death for the brutal murder of three young boys in a small Arkansas town in 1993. The three teenage suspects all loved heavy metal, showed interest in the occult, and the resulting trial made them out to be Satanists who killed the boys in a brutal ritualistic sacrifice.

The first three films revealed the trial of the three teens as a kind of modern day witch hunt that led to wrongful convictions. And because of those films, the West Memphis Three became folk heroes, their story garnering the support of many celebrities and musicians who identified with accused teenagers. After seventeen years on death row, the three were finally released in 2011, but not because their case was overturned. Rather, a legal technicality allowed the state of Arkansas to release the three without admitting culpability.

Now that they are out of jail, one of the three wrongfully convicted, Damien Echols, has co-produced a new documentary, West of Memphis. Unlike the previous movies, the new film represents the most extensive forensic investigation of the case to date. West of Memphis not only puts to rest the innocence of the wrongfully accused, it casts damning light through new evidence on who the likely killer.

We spoke to Echols, who has also written about his ordeal, as well as his wife Lorri Davis, whom Echols met in prison and who was also a co-producer of the new film. They spoke about life after prison, Echols’ self-education through reading and eastern meditation practices, his tattoo-fueled friendship with Johnny Depp, and working with the Lord of the Rings’ Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh, also producers of West of Memphis.

FrontRow: What is like to have to do these press interviews? While the movie brings attention to your cause, it also forces you to continue to relive it. Is that difficult.

Damien Echols: I mean for me to be honest this is f*cking miserable. You know I always tell people, “imagine the worst thing that’s ever happened to you in your life and then you have to talk about it every single day, over and over and over for the rest of your life.” It’s not fun, it’s not pleasant, it’s like being trapped in a rerun of hell or something but the only way we’re ever going to be able to do what you’re just saying is to move and start a new chapter in life is if we keep doing this right now. If we don’t keep basically begging people to please watch the documentary, please read the book, please look the case up on the internet the state of Arkansas will get away with what they’ve done. We’ll never be exonerated, the person who did this will never be imprisoned, and they’ll never be held responsible for what they did to us. So doing all this right now is like a necessary evil.

And it’s also, the way we look at it is this case or this documentary isn’t just about our case, every single person who watches this is a potential jury member in the future, so this is also a way of making sure that they don’t do this to someone else.

You know in Arkansas they have never in the entire history of the state of Arkansas had an exoneration. Never. They still say, because we had to take this deal. So they still say to this day we’re never filing briefs in our cases. The state would actually claim, would actually make the statement, “we have never sentenced an innocent person to prison in Arkansas.”

FrontRow: How has your relationship changed or grown after your release from prison?

Lorri Davis: It’s actually been an easy transition for us because we’d been through so much over the last 17 years. And you have to learn how to get through those hard, really hard, times. It was almost actually seamless when Damien came out. What wasn’t was the fact that I didn’t understand what he was going through daily with anxiety and fear and because everyone expects Damien to be superhuman and everyone thinks he is. And he’s not. I mean, he’s pretty amazing but not… you know. We’re flying to New Zealand within a month of his release and working on the film and Fran [Walsh] and Pete [Jackson], of Lord of the Rings, and it’s just, you work! You work whether you’ve got PTSD or not!

DE: If you lost a limb you put a Band-Aid on it.

LD: Yeah, that’s Fran and Pete. They’re lovely, the most really truly, one of the most loveliest people, generous people I’ve ever known. They work hard.

DE: We love them dearly.

LD: But they work.

DE: No mercy.

LD: As a matter of fact, here’s Damien, and it’s really a month out of prison and Pete’s strapping a parachute on him and we’re paragliding off, jumping off a cliff.

DE: I’ve been out of prison for a month, suffering severe posttraumatic stress disorder and Peter’s like, “Looks like we’re having an adventure today!”

LD: But it was learning that. Because he wouldn’t say he just wouldn’t come out and say “I’m suffering.” He was trying to deal with it on his own, and once I had a better understanding – I’ll never understand, no one will of what he was dealing with – our lives changed drastically and I was better to assist him and help him through it instead of kind of being in the dark.

FR: What were those first months like out of jail. The movie shows a taste of it, but I imagine there’s a whole other movie to be made about that ordeal.

D: For the first two to three months that I was out, you know not only had I been in prison for 18 years, I had been in solitary confinement for almost a decade by that point. For the first two to three months out I was in a state of shock and trauma so deep that I couldn’t do anything for myself or by myself at all. And then you add up all these other things that most people don’t think of that I’m having to learn again- old things and new things at the same time. I hadn’t walked in almost 20 years without chains on my feet so I’m having to learn to walk again with out tripping down stairs or tripping over my own feet. You haven’t used silverware – they don’t give you silverware in prison, that would be considered a weapon. So you’re having to learn to use stuff like that again.

Then you dump on top of that, you know, cell phones and computers and ATM machines. I remember almost having a panic attack the first time I got an ATM card. I’ve never used it yet, I go to the grocery store and I see this grey box at the side of the thing with all these different color buttons on it and numbers. I’m like, “What the hell do I do with this? This is like some sort if super computer.” You know the last time I saw a computer before I went into prison was 1986. And it was basically a glorified type writer for rich people. You know there was no internet, nothing like that. And I mean, things like, I had never been anywhere in almost 20 years, I’d been sealed up inside a box and then suddenly I had to figure out how to navigate you know from point A to point B, whatever it was, however simple it was. And I couldn’t do it for the first several months. It starts to fade over time. I’ve been out for about a year and three months now and it’s faded a lot. I come back to myself a little bit more and a little bit more every day, but there’s still a lot of anxiety about just making it through the day sometimes.

FR: When you were in prison, what did you do to stay sane?

DE: For me it took a lot of meditation. By the time I got out I was spending anywhere from five to seven hours a day in meditation. You know, like I said about the health care thing and how sick I was getting I had to learn things like reiki and qigong, energy techniques just to keep myself going in there, just to keep from going insane. It was the only way I could preserve what little of my health I had, and it was something I became really, really passionate and excited about. Eventually over the years I received ordination in the Rinzai tradition of Japanese Buddhism. It’s the same tradition that used to train the samurai in ancient Japan.  So a lot of my time that’s where I went towards. I would also read a lot. I wrote a lot.

FR: What did you read?

DE: If they send you books. You’re not going to get you much of anything from the prison library. Lori would send me books; supporters would send me books, things like that. And I wrote a lot. You know I had a book come out in September called Life After Death, I wrote probably 85 percent of that while I was in my cell on death row. A lot of art work. I would go through periods where I would just try to exhaust something, you know. I would star of doing collage and then move to painting and move to the next thing or just reading. I had a ninth grade education, and that’s probably more than anybody else in my family had. If you look back through our family tree, I doubt you’ll ever find anyone with a higher than a high school diploma. I don’t think I saw my mother or father ever read a book in their entire lives. My adopted father actually could not read or write a single word other than his own name.  Someone taught him to trace his name so he could sign his paychecks – that was it. So, I wanted to have the same frame of reference that everyone else in the world had and know what other people were talking about when they talked about things.

I would just exhaust a subject.  I would read everything by Sigmund Freud and then move over and start reading everything I could get my hands on about, you know, the history of the civil war and then move on to world novels: Dickens, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky. And then eventually I realized, “I don’t care. All of this stuff I’m taking in doesn’t mean anything to me. It’s nothing impersonal to me.” When people talk about it I don’t really care what they’re talking about. So it made me move back to things that did mean something to me, things that I loved. And that’s what I would surround myself with. Meditation and just reading, if I read, for pleasure. I probably read Stephen King novels in the double digits. I actually did an entire interview with the Village Voice in New York just about Stephen King because if somebody asked me, “You’ve only got a ninth grade education, you’ve never been to school or college so where in the hell did you learn to write?” And I said, “I learned to write by reading Stephen King novels over and over and over.”

When I did get out, I looked up reviews online to see what people had said about the first book that I put out while I was in prison, I wanted to see what people said about it. And I read this one review where a woman said, “While I’m reading this book I kept having this nagging sensation that I’ve heard this voice somewhere before. And about three-fourths of the way through I realized, it’s Stephen King!” That was like the ultimate compliment.

FR: Are you concerned with how your writing has been received or has any of the reception surprised you?

DE: You know one of the weird things to me that kind of blew my mind was one day my publicist tells me, “Laura Bush just told people to read your book.” And I was like, “Wait. What? What?” They sent me a link to the interview where she was telling people, they’d ask her like what’s the top ten books people need to read and she told them about the book. And we did a book signing in Austin and she was telling people, “you should probably go here and talk.” And I was like, “That’s pretty amazing,” especially when you take into consideration her husband’s stance on the death penalty and all of that.

FR: It’s amazing because had this not happened to you, you have to wonder if you would have had the same kind of education, have fallen in love with reading and writing in the same way. Do you ever think about that?

DE: Only because people ask me.  It’s one of those things I think, every since I was a kid, I always felt like I didn’t belong there, I didn’t fit in, I felt like an outcast, a freak, just like, the only way I can describe it is I felt like I was made out of difference substance than everybody else around me, like I just did not belong there. And I would think all the time, I would look around me, I can remember being really young and looking around me and thinking surely there’s got to be something better than this, somewhere. There’s got to be somewhere more magical than this. There’s got to be something more meaningful than this. So I would like to think in some way I would’ve found a way to get out of there or somehow, but I mean, in the end, it really is an impossible question to ask.

FR: Tell be about your tattoos.

DE: First, the reason I get them is because it’s physically painful, but there’s something about it that’s also very psychologically and emotionally soothing to me. I’ve actually fallen asleep getting tattoos before. When I get them, it really does feel like you’re wearing something, it’s like putting on a suit of armor. It gives you a level of protection and a buffer zone between you and the rest of the world. I put on a suit of armor of things I love, things that mean something to me.

This one, for example, this is one of the ones I went and got with Johnny Depp. We got four or five of them together now and this one is from the I Ching, in Chinese, it’s the hexagrams that mean “window” or “heaven,” and what it represents is whenever you’re facing the huge obstacles you don’t focus on that, he said, you just focus on putting one foot in front of the other – that’s the way you eventually get through the huge obstacles. Well when I was in prison, I wrote about that in one of my journals. And then whenever they had the concert to get me out of prison and Johnny [Depp] read that journal entry on stage, so it was something that meant something to both of us.  And also this hexagram, the I Ching, is nicknamed “the small,” and that’s also Lori’s nickname, so it was something that tied all three of us together in a way, so we got that one.

Or like these, you know, winter and snow, you know there things that mean something to me. That’s the time of year when I always feel the most alive. It’s something that I loved my entire life. You know if somebody said “What is heaven like to you?” I would say it’s a place where it’s always December. This one is for the archangel Michael. These are all Viking runes.

This is another one I got with Johnny. We got it in Toronto when we went to the film festival up there, and it turned out to be a nightmare. First we’re in this hotel room and Johnny says, “Anytime were together, we’re almost always going to find out way to a tattoo parlor.” So we can’t go to one there, so he says, “Let’s call around and find somebody that’ll come to the hotel.” So he starts calling around to these places, and they’re saying, “You know we need you to come to this hotel at a particular time and we can’t tell you who you’re going to be tattooing.” And most people said “Hell no!” You know, “I’m not walking into a situation like that.” We finally found a lunatic whose exact words were, “ Who is it? Obama? The Pope? F*ck it, I’ll go.” He shows up at the hotel room with his equipment. This was actually supposed to be a crow modeled on Johnny’s head dress in the Lone Ranger, the Tonto movie they’re making now. Mine ended up looking like a seagull, Johnny’s ended up looking like a humming bird, and now were talking about ways of getting it covered up.