Damien Echols spent nearly two decades as a death row inmate after being wrongly convicted of the murder of three boys. He wrote a New York Times best-selling book after being freed on an Alford plea, an unusual deal which allowed Echols to maintain his innocence if he accepted there was enough evidence to find him guilty.
“Life After Death” is a memoir detailing both Echols’ harrowing childhood and time in prison. He writes of people who have felt compelled to tell him of the darkest points of their lives, who lay divorce and death on him so he may carry their trials along with his own.
“It can be odd just because it’s hard to compare pain,” Echols said in an interview with The Summit before his Common Read Lecture at Rocky Mountain College. “Nobody has experienced the same level of pain, but everyone has experienced something that was the worst thing that’s ever happened to them. So, I think in a lot of ways people compare the worst thing that has ever happened to you to the worst thing that has ever happened to them. You just have to listen to them, keep moving, and keep going about your business.”
While Echols hesitates to criticize people who wish to compare pain, he does seem to worry at the motivations of readers. In his book, Echols explains that he grows dissatisfied when thinking of people reading his words out of a morbid sense of curiosity. That level of fear related to interpretation presents questions as to why he is motivated to write at all.
“I think it is for the same reason as any artist of any genre does anything,” Echols said. “It’s trying to express something in a way, it’s trying to take something that is inside of you and get it out.”
He went on to say that the individual person is the “art piece,” and any creative content that comes out of the individual is a side effect of growth. This growth is what he wishes to share with readers.
“It’s about trying to take something that’s internal and manifesting it in the outside world, to be able to share it in some way,” Echols explained. “You always have that fear that the only reason people will want to look at your work is because of your past, because you were in prison, because they saw a documentary about you, instead of the art speaking to them in some way outside of that context. It’s a very real fear.”
Fear, it seems, is a concept that Echols has found impossible to pass on to his loved ones for want of sparing them pain. In “Life After Death,” he writes of the urge to tell his wife and son of how hard life can be, lamenting that the re-telling never works the way he wishes it would.
“I learned a long time ago that you have to experience something for yourself to really comprehend it,” wrote Echols.
The realization that second-hand knowledge cannot replace first-hand experience has not seemed to diminish the value of story-telling for Echols, but has rather redefined it.
“Writing and storytelling are our greatest ways of passing on knowledge,” Echols said. “Stories are a way of holding people’s attention in a way that you may not be able to otherwise. If you’re giving people a random list of dates and facts, they will zone out. Stories help that knowledge stick with them.”
Still, Echols acknowledges the role of perspective in the act of passing down knowledge through stories.
“Things are a lot messier in the real world than they are in stories. Stories make everything black and white,” said Echols. “I tried not to make my book do that, but at the same time, it’s almost impossible not to. For example, say there’s a cop on the police force that knows I didn’t do it. He knows it, absolutely knows it, but he’s still willing to see me put to death because he has a promotion on it. Now, when I say that the way I just said that, it’s very black and white. You’re dealing with that most people would call evil.”
Echols paused, considering his next words.
“But then you ask his child – is your father an evil man? The story isn’t quite as black and white anymore. It becomes a little grayer, a little more human. I don’t think anything is really that straight or black and white, but in stories they become so. That’s what I mean. Life is messy, stories are black and white. Stories have a nice, straight edge to them. You can try not to do that, but it’s almost impossible not to.”
Echols’ description of perspective paired with the value he places on knowledge could be seen as encouragement to read broadly and seek knowledge in multiple places. Echols himself read over a thousand books during his incarceration.
“I think the number one most valuable thing in this world is knowledge,” Echols said. “I think if you have knowledge you can compensate for pretty much anything.”
Echols holds on to the hope that increased knowledge leads to increased empathy.
“I believe there are only two unstoppable forces in this universe,” Echols wrote in his book, “one is love, and the other is intelligence.”
Perhaps, through storytelling, writers seek to share their own versions of both.