Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Alice's Review: Life After Death

Summary:  In 1993, teenagers Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley, Jr.—who have come to be known as the West Memphis Three—were arrested for the murders of three eight-year-old boys in Arkansas. The ensuing trial was marked by tampered evidence, false testimony, and public hysteria. Baldwin and Misskelley were sentenced to life in prison; while eighteen-year-old Echols, deemed the “ringleader,” was sentenced to death. Over the next two decades, the WM3 became known worldwide as a symbol of wrongful conviction and imprisonment, with thousands of supporters and many notable celebrities who called for a new trial. In a shocking turn of events, all three men were released in August 2011.  Now Echols shares his story in full—from abuse by prison guards and wardens, to portraits of fellow inmates and deplorable living conditions, to the incredible reserves of patience, spirituality, and perseverance that kept him alive and sane while incarcerated for nearly two decades. In these pages, Echols reveals himself a brilliant writer, infusing his narrative with tragedy and irony in equal measure: he describes the terrors he experienced every day and his outrage toward the American justice system, and offers a firsthand account of living on Death Row in heartbreaking, agonizing detail. Life After Death is destined to be a riveting, explosive classic of prison literature.

Review: It’s no secret I thoroughly enjoy memoirs. I love fiction but there is something about reading someone’s story from his point of view that truly moves me. Life After Death did just that. What compelled me to read this book was my own morbid curiosity at the horror of Mr. Echols’ life. How were the workings of prison? How could he have possibly survived the terror that happened to him? How did he have the will to survive knowing he was innocent? What made him go on? I am weak and I want to know what makes others strong. This story is a testament of a man who could have given up. Everything was against him and yet he chooses to fight. He was strong.

My favorite reviews to write are the ones I can’t find the words for. Maybe it’s because it’s too soon, I haven’t finished processing what I read. I finished this book over a week ago and I ‘m still as perplexed as I was when began writing this. I have a feeling this is the kind of book that no matter how much time passes; it will always be too soon to write.

My biggest struggle is that I am having difficulty separating the memoir with the reality of what happened. I have written and rewritten this several times over. Each time I try, my thoughts and opinions turn to the merits of the case, of whether or not Damien Echols and the rest of the WM3 are innocent. In doing that, I look at how gifted Damien Echols is as a writer. He writes as if this is what he was born to do.

When I first began reading Life After Death, I didn’t like Damien Echols. I still can’t quite articulate what it was that troubled me. Normally I would stop reading, why would anyone want to read a book about someone they didn’t like? What compelled me to keep reading was Damien Echols himself. I may not have liked him, but I was completely captivated by his story. Here was this kid: black hair, black clothes, listening to heavy metal. I believed he would have an attitude. He would despise all authority, rebel against laws and rules. He would be jerk. In reality, I am the jerk because I convicted him without knowing the facts. I didn’t know the truth about him and who he was. I was no better than the West Memphis Police Department, the people of West Memphis, the victims’ parents, family and friends, and well almost everyone.

As I kept reading and researching this case on my own, my opinion about him changed. I realize that I am not here to debate the merits of the case and whether or not Damien Echols and the rest of the West Memphis Three are innocent. I will stop now. And that’s the thing about Life After Death, it’s difficult for me

to separate the two. He had me hooked, not only in what happened to him, but in the way it is written. The words flowed brilliantly; it was pure “magick.” Mr. Echols did such an incredible job describing his ordeal. Ordeal is almost an insult compared to what actually happened to him. It’s a tragedy, a horror. What's truly inspirational is how he overcame it.

I’m not sure if Life After Death is for everyone but I do believe it is one everyone one should read.

Final Take:  5/5

A special thanks to Eliza Rosenberry of Blue Rider Press for sending me this incredible memoir.



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