Standing in a light rain among fall blooms, Damien Echols is placing his Ray Ban blue blockers over my eyes. He wants me to view the world how he sees it these days from the black framed glasses he has been photographed in countless times over the last few weeks by national magazines and newspapers.
The glasses are a necessity since he went a decade without daylight, says Echols, who spent half his life in an Arkansas State Prison on Death Row. Echols and I were both born in 1974 about four hours apart on opposite sides of the Missouri and Arkansas line. Today, we live on opposite sides of Salem Common.
It’s early October, the day before the city-wide parade, tourists queue at the Witch Museum and most Salem residents share dreams of weekends in Maine. But Echols is in heaven. He moved here only weeks before, loves Halloween and hasn’t gotten to spend much time settling in, what with the national book tour for his bestselling memoir Life After Death.
During our hour with Damien, sandwiched between his interviews, we take the pale skinned man and his now famous tattooed arms to the Ropes Mansion for his first visit. He excitedly looks around in childlike wonder and says he wants to bring his wife, a landscape architect by trade, back here to explore the beautiful garden. We pass the First Church and mention that they fly the LGBT flag. He doesn’t know what LGBT is.
“Sounds like a sandwich, doesn’t it?” laughs our photographer, trying to make him feel better.
“If it was the confederate flag, I’d know what that is,” Echols says begrudgingly.
We explain the acronym with a “Welcome to Massachusetts!”
Like so many things in Salem, this feels foreign to someone who went to prison in Arkansas as a teenager and came out an adult in their late 30s.
This is an easy media day for the man who has become the central figure of the West Memphis Three. He only has four interviews. In recent days, he has spent hours on the phone to reporters and on flights around the country on tour, following the September release of his memoir.
The reason he continuously tells his gruesome personal story of torture in prison, on places such as The Moth, the hugely popular public radio show and podcast, Echols says, is to let people know of the injustice that took place.
“It’s like a wound that can’t heal,” he says, “because you’re constantly ripping the scabs off.” Still, he feels he must find who is responsible for the murders he was accused of. Reward money has been offered. “The state of Arkansas is not going to lift a hand,” he says. “It’s up to us now.”
While moving boxes into their new home and answering calls from reporters, Echols and his wife Lorri Davis are planning another trip to tell his story and promote the book. He is nervous about visiting the south, but looks forward to some November engagements closer to their new home, which include an Amnesty International sponsored talk at Harvard Book Store on Nov. 9 and a talk on Nov. 7 at the New York Public Library with Henry Rollins.
As we chat, Echols brings up the famous Barnes and Noble book signing, the one chronicled in September in The New York Times, when Johnny Depp appeared with him in Union Square. His publicist, says Echols, called to say that his book is now wedged there between Joel Olstein and Fifty Shades of Gray, the perfect irony not lost on a southern boy.
It’s strange to look over at Gulu-Gulu Cafe and see Echols chatting with the staff like he’s been in town for years. It’s almost unnerving to hear this incredibly charismatic man in black, whose story has been dominating the media, list off his favorite Salem restaurants and what he orders there. He loves the cappuccinos at Gulu, the burritos at Howling Wolf and takes shots of green goodness at Life Alive after being deprived of fruits and vegetables for so long.
* Sometimes the beauty he finds is “too big,” says Echols. “I can’t take it in. My heart’s going to explode.”
* “Once we get settled, Johnny (Depp) says he can’t wait to visit.”
* He can’t get over how bustling the restaurants are at night, how much seems to be happening here at all times. “It’s like there’s something in the air…people are excited.”
And excited is the way Echols likes it. He goes on a tirade about bored people and how he has “no tolerance for the mundane.” In prison, he painted and made collages, but says that now he realizes that people shouldn’t just make art, but rather “We should be art and help to make the world a little more magical.”
The magic Echols would like to create in Salem, he of all people can probably pull off with the help of his supporters, Johnny Depp and Peter Jackson. He calls this attraction “performance art,” the concept of an underworld experience that could remind people of their mortality. There, they could leave behind the things they no longer need in life, like feelings of anger or resentment.
At the suggestion that this is sort of like what he went through, Echols exclaims, “Exactly!”
The book gives a glimpse at how rural Arkansas can border on third world poverty and how something akin to a witch hunt and a subsequent mishandling of justice can land three teenagers in prison and keep them there for nearly 20 years. How they can be bound together as the West Memphis Three, only to be released one day by pleading guilty and agreeing not to sue the state of Arkansas. In August of 2011, the West Memphis Three were let out on DNA evidence. The plea set them free, but does not acknowledge their innocence in the murder of three young boys in the mid-90s.
They can thank an odd pairing of the extremely rich and famous — Johnny Depp, musician Eddie Vedder and filmmaker Sir Peter Jackson of The Lord of the Rings movies, who relentlessly kept their story alive. Three documentaries have been made. A feature film, The Devil’s Knot, starring Reese Witherspoon and Colin Firth, is in production. This Christmas is the release of West of Memphis, produced by Jackson, Echols and Davis.
Davis married Echols in 1999 while he was in prison after the two exchanged thousands of gut-wrenching and beautiful letters, shared in a New York Times Magazine story in 2011. She even moved from New York City to Little Rock to be near him. In addition to writing letters and the extensive journal that became his book, Echols found Salem while in prison, through a list he made of things to do if he ever got out. Visiting the Witch City was at the top.
Since his 2011 release from prison, the couple had been living in Peter Jackson’s apartment in Manhattan. Echols loved New York when he got out, and says after years of enforced isolation in prison, the city “fed him.”
“New York is the center of the universe,” Echols says. “It’s modern day Egypt or Rome. Everyone should be able to live there at some point and just feel the energy. You don’t get that on Teevee,” he twangs in his Memphis drawal.
When he finally made it here to Salem and found friendly people everywhere who recognized his name and knew his story, he and Davis were determined to stay in the Witch City.
In addition to reading countless books and writing in his journal, it was meditation and a commitment to Buddhism that got him through physical pain and torment in prison, says Echols. It has been written that Echols and Davis meditated at the same time each day. A mediation center is another thing he would like to open in Salem, to join all the other alternative spiritual things he loves here, including the fact that he can get acupuncture across the street from his new house, he says.
Salem’s dark past, the 1692 killings of innocent people accused of witchcraft, is not lost on someone who went through what Echols has. With his black hair and clothes, Echols may not get a second glance in Salem, but as a teenager in the South things were different.
Walking back toward downtown on Essex Street, we inform him that not only is this known as the Witch City, but also the City of Peace.
Fitting for someone searching for just that. “I can’t wait to settle down,” says Echols. “I want to spend the rest of my life here.”
Dinah Cardin is Editor-in-Chief at North Shore Art*Throb.