Damien Echols, 38, said his return to Arkansas on UCA’s campus for the first time since his release from prison was a “welcoming experience.”
As artists in residence, Echols and his wife, Lorri Davis, were asked by UCA’s College of Fine Arts and Communication to describe the influences behind his book at 7:30 p.m. Nov. 11 in Reynolds Performance Hall.
After his residency at 10:38 p.m. the night of his UCA appearance, Echols tweeted: “Tonight at UCA was amazing. My first trip back to Arkansas was all that I could have hoped for.”
Writing professors Francie Bolter, faculty sponsor for Echols’ residency, and John Vanderslice moderated the event.
“Echols read voraciously while he was in prison and wrote thousands of words,” Bolter said. “I think he would agree that it kept him sane and human.”
“Life After Death,” his New York Times bestselling book, was published in 2012 and describes Echols’ abusive childhood and prison life.
Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley – the West Memphis Three – were convicted of murdering three, 8-year-old West Memphis boys in 1993. The boys – Steve Branch, Michael Moore and Christopher Byers – were found in a wooded area off a service road.
Echols was sentenced to death row, spending 18 years and 78 days in the high-security Varner Unit located 28 miles south of Pine Bluff. In following years, public speculation and advances in technology led to new evidence that distanced the West Memphis Three from the gruesome incident.
The Arkansas Supreme Court in 2010 ordered a lower judge to consider the evidence as well as possible misconduct by jurors during the 1994 trial.
Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley were released in a 2011 Alford plea with Arkansas, asserting their innocence while pleading “no contest.”
Students from two UCA writing classes asked questions to Echols and Davis in a Q&A format at 3 p.m. and 4 p.m. the afternoon of his UCA visit. The sessions in College of Business 111 focused primarily on Echols’ writing style but, at times revealed deeply personal accounts from his time in prison.
“The last thing I want to do to people reading my work is depress the hell out of them,” he said at the evening event. “I never wanted people to come away from it, close the book and say, ‘Man, life sucks.’”
Instead, Echols said the book was more about giving people hope and explaining how he endured hardships.
Echols said he started writing at 12 years old and that described it as “God-awful poetry.”
While writing in prison, Echols said he became accustomed to writing while laying down using a thin straw of ink from a pen. He said the custom of laying down followed him after his release and he continues to write without a computer to transcribe his thoughts.
Echols and his wife fell in love as a result of his writings in prison. Davis first wrote to Echols in 1996 and the couple married in 1999. Davis said writers are often haunted by something and that Echols was haunted long before he met her.
The two are writing the tentatively-titled book “Yours For Eternity,” a collection of letters written by Echols, exchanged and even snuck out of prison for a personal record of his experiences. Davis said the book is scheduled for release in June 2014.
Echols and Davis live in Salem, Mass. after negative public opinion from many in Arkansas who viewed him as a Satanist during his trial and was criticized by Arkansans for his return to the state.
More than two years after his release, Echols said he continues to mend the fractured relationship with his 20-year-old son, Seth.
“It’s almost like [being]complete strangers,” he said.
Spirituality helped Echols escape the brutal beatings using nightsticks he endured while chained to a wall in prison. He said at certain points, the beatings would be violent enough for him to pee blood. Echols said a deacon threatened to go public with the mistreatment of him if prison officials continued to inflict violence.
Echols said he questioned at times whether the practices were actually effective, asking “Am I really doing something here or is this mental masturbation?”
He practiced a form of Japanese Buddhism known as Reiki, a technique similar to acupuncture that is based on the flowing of unseen “life force energy,” according to the International Center for Reiki Training’s website. Echols is now a Reiki practitioner and tattoo artist.
Terry Wright, College of Fine Arts and Communication interim dean, said Echols’ appearance placed value on the open exchange of ideas.
“Echols overcame extreme adversity by using the agency of writing as a kind of witnessing,” he said. “Writing was the only way he had of making meaning out of his prolonged captivity and isolation.”
Although security was tight for the event, the audience was welcoming to Echols. Attendees stood up on multiple occasions and clapped as he explained what his visit to Arkansas meant to him.