"People think that survival is a matter of strength, but I don't necessarily agree. I think survival is about being adaptable," says author and ceremonial magician Damien Echols. "It's like the metaphor about the oak tree and the reed. The oak tree is the strongest tree, but if a strong hurricane hits, it can snap the oak in half easily and throw it blocks away. The reed, however, being significantly less strong than the oak, is flexible. It bends, it lays down, it goes with the motion and that's what allows it to survive."
Echols is expounding on these topics one sunny May morning from his apartment in New York City. He's just returned from California, where he was leading an "Introduction to High Magick" workshop at the Joshua Tree Retreat Center. As he speaks, his measured, thoughtful tone is compassionate and almost professorial — belying the unimaginable, horrific experience that led him down his current path of self-discovery and spirituality: spending 18 years on death row for a crime he didn't commit.
In 1994, Echols, then just 18, along with Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley, Jr., was arrested, charged and eventually convicted of the 1993 murders of three eight-year old boys from West Memphis, Arkansas: Steve Branch, Michael Moore and Christopher Byers.
The ghastly details of the crime and sensational trial — during which the prosecution produced limited physical evidence and instead asserted that Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley committed the killings as part of a satanic ritual and focused on Echols' penchant for wearing black clothing, love of heavy metal and interest in Wicca as indicators of guilt — resulted in widespread national media coverage of the trio, dubbed "The West Memphis Three." The trial fueled a frenzied moral panic within a certain conservative segment of the public, while generating an equally fervent public outcry from others who felt the WM3 were caught up in a modern-day witch hunt.
But it was 1996's Paradise Lost: Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills — the first film in directors Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky's HBO documentary trilogy — that ultimately seemed to shift much of the public's feelings regarding the guilt of the three men. The documentary brought to light countless inconsistencies during the investigation and trial process, and questions of corruption within the local police department.
Paradise Lost also marked the first time Metallica ever allowed their music to be used in a movie and garnered the attention of many other celebrities, including Johnny Depp, Eddie Vedder, Marilyn Manson and director Peter Jackson (Jackson later made his own documentary on the case called West of Memphis), who began speaking out on behalf of the West Memphis Three. There were also WM3 benefit albums released, including 2002's Rise Above: 24 Black Flag Songs to Benefit the West Memphis Three that featured contributions from Lemmy Kilmister, Henry Rollins, Tom Araya, Mike Patton and Corey Taylor, among others.
Finally, in 2011 — after years of appeals, accusations of potential juror misconduct, the appearance of new DNA evidence and more — Echols, Misskelley and Baldwin were released after entering Alford pleas, in which the defendants asserted their innocence but acknowledged prosecutors had enough evidence to convict them. While this was, of course, a tremendous victory for the three men, there is a great tragedy at the core of this case that remains unresolved: the fact that the real killer, or killers, are still at large — and Arkansas shows no interest in pursuing the case any further.
In the years since Echols was freed from prison, he's had to rebuild and learn new ways to survive in the world — an ongoing process that has not always been easy. "I was released, and it was as if I was shattered," he recalls today. "I remember almost nothing from those first two years of being back in the world. If you add it all up, I'd say I have maybe two or so hours of memories."
"I could not take care of myself," he continues of his first years of freedom. "I could not do anything to ensure my survival whatsoever. If it wasn't for other people taking care of me, I probably would have sat somewhere in the street corner homeless until I died of exposure or starvation or God knows what."
Echols eventually reconnected with himself, and the world, through the same practice of magick that helped him survive his many years of captivity. He's continued to deepen his spirituality and he's written several books on his experiences, including The New York Times bestseller Life After Death, and his new book High Magick: A Guide to the Spiritual Practices That Saved My Life on Death Row. He also regularly conducts seminars on ceremonial magick and tarot. I first became acquainted with Echols in 2016 when he was a guest on my podcast The Indie Spiritualist and have since co-facilitated two "Healing Through Adversity" seminars with him. Over the years I have come to know him as not only a true survivor and friend, but also someone who embodies integrity, compassion, wisdom and service.
PEOPLE OFTEN TURN TO MUSIC AS AN AIDE IN GETTING THROUGH TOUGH TIMES. I KNOW MUSIC WAS A BIG PART OF YOUR TEENAGE YEARS. IS IT STILL AN IMPORTANT TOOL FOR YOU?
DAMIEN ECHOLS I usually have music on all of the time, whether I'm in the shower, or doing my practice, sometimes as I fall asleep, even if I'm not actually listening to it, I like it as background noise. When people think of me, they think of metal, but my musical taste has changed. I haven't listened to metal in maybe 15 or 20 years. What I started to realize as I got older is that the saying, "You are what you eat," has greater significance than just referencing food. I think it means everything you ingest. The environment you place yourself in. The people you surround yourself with. The music you listen, too. The movies you watch. I think all of that contributes to the energy that you are feeding into your system and in one way or another, it's going to reflect outwardly in your life. For example, if you listen to depressing music all the time, you're probably going to be a depressed person. So I try to find things that are actually inspiring, things that make me feel good, or reflect on things in a positive way. For the most part, I listen almost exclusively to country music, like Sturgill Simpson, Dierks Bentley and Keith Urban. There is very little that I listen to that's outside of that genre. The two main ones I'd say are Bruce Springsteen and U2, because they make me feel positive in some way, or reflect on my life in a positive way. It doesn't dredge up memories from the past that automatically make me sad or angry. So I pay a lot of attention to what I take in and I try to make sure that it's compatible with the kind of life that I want to live.
I UNDERSTAND WHAT YOU'RE SAYING. BUT I'M ALSO WONDERING ABOUT THE PEOPLE, LIKE ME, WHO READ YOUR BOOKS AND WHO HAVE SPIRITUAL PRACTICES, BUT ALSO HAVE A PENCHANT TOWARDS "DARKER" TYPES OF MUSIC. DO YOU THINK PEOPLE INGESTING THESE DARKER THINGS CAN STILL MAKE SPIRITUAL PROGRESS?
Absolutely. What usually happens, though, is that when you do start to develop a spiritual practice in a deeper way, you tend to change as a person. So I'm not saying don't listen to a particular type of music or watch a particular genre of movie, don't read a particular type of book … As we grow and change in our spiritual practice, and our consciousness expands due to that practice, we change as a person. If you're doing a sincere spiritual practice consistently in a way that it's changing your consciousness, what you're doing is increasing the vibratory rate of your consciousness.
What we're trying to do in magick, which is my spiritual path, is called "Rising on the Planes." You are trying to approach Divinity as closely as you possibly can. Gather its rays, and then disseminate those back to humanity. So everything in magick is about rising, increasing your vibratory rate, coming up on the planes, refining consciousness, and as you do that, you will become a different person. As you change, you'll find yourself moving towards different things. I don't believe in restriction. Like [Aleister] Crowley said, "The word of sin is restriction," meaning that if something is your nature, then that's your nature. You don't pretend or repress it. But as your nature changes, so will the things in your life. I don't think music in itself is good or bad. What matters [is] the energy and message behind it.
WHAT'S YOUR CURRENT SPIRITUAL PRACTICE LIKE? WOULD I BE CORRECT IN EQUATING IT WITH PART OF YOUR SURVIVAL?
Absolutely. I think spiritual practice is like going to the gym. If you go there doing the same exercise the same amount of times every day you'll hit a plateau — so you have to push yourself and change it up. A huge part of what we call suffering comes from constantly putting our attention on the outer world. That attachment is what leads us to becoming more miserable. When I was in prison, 99 percent of the people there focus only on prison. They're only thinking about if and when they're going to get out, or some sort of drama that's going on in the prison, who has a feud with someone else, things like that. What I noticed about those people is that they stopped developing as time went on. Ten years later they were the exact same person when they first came in and that was horrifying to me. I didn't want to stagnate. I wanted to continue developing and growing, so essentially what I did was withdraw my attention from the outside world of the prison and turn it inward towards myself. And that's where my spiritual practice really began, and I eventually found magick, which works in a way that the more you do it, it continuously flushes negative things out of you and raises your vibratory rate. That's what I was doing in prison consistently.
DID YOUR PRACTICE CHANGE WHEN YOU GOT OUT OF PRISON?
Definitely … My release shattered me. I went from doing magick eight hours a day to barely being able to do it for even eight minutes a day when I was released. This changed, however, when I did an interview with Tami Simon [founder of publishing company Sounds True]. When we got off the call, she asked if I'd like to do a book with them about magick and I said absolutely. But the thing was, I couldn't write anymore. So Tami suggested that they fly me out to their studio in Colorado and have me just record whatever I felt I needed to say, which is what I did. I had no notes and just spoke from the heart. During that experience, it forced me — out of fear and necessity — to start doing magick again. And a week later, I had spoken this book, High Magick, into existence.
Having been forced into that situation, one of necessity, fear and pain is what truly began to heal me, and when I got back home I was doing magick again for hours a day. The result of which was I finally began experiencing the complete disintegration of what we call "self." Everything I thought I was for my entire life began to disintegrate. It wasn't some blissful experience that those who read spiritual books often hear about. To be honest, it was fucking terrifying. You think you're dying. You see yourself coming apart, but what happens is eventually you realize, well, if I'm disintegrating, what's watching the disintegration process, and when you realize that, the fear dissipates. You connect with that which is much deeper than just the physical manifestation of our bodies.
A LOT OF PEOPLE ASSUME THAT ONCE YOU WERE RELEASED FROM PRISON IT WAS A COMPLETELY JOYOUS EXPERIENCE. BUT AFTER ALL THAT TIME INCARCERATED, I'M SURE YOU ALSO HAD TO LEARN HOW TO SURVIVE AGAIN IN THE OUTSIDE WORLD. WHAT WAS THAT PROCESS LIKE?
I don't even know where to start with that just because most people don't have anything in their frame of reference that's going to allow them to comprehend that magnitude of trauma, shock, and how absolutely crippling prison is. When I was released, I was an invalid, a cripple being carried by people who loved me … I was absolutely incapable of taking care of myself, to the point that I probably had one, possibly two nervous breakdowns just trying to learn to adapt and adjust to the outside world again.
When I look back on my life, though, I don't see horrible things. A lot of people like to focus on that because ego is morbid in a way and often feeds on ugliness and pain. ... I don't see myself with a victim mentality. ... I didn't see it like that at the time. I wasn't grateful for it at the time. Back then, I was in hell, but whenever I look back now, from the way that I've changed, I'm grateful and see that I would not have progressed to where I am if I'd not gone through those experiences.
Taking it to a very base level, when I was in prison, one of the main things that pushed me so hard in practicing magick was the amount of physical pain I was in. I was constantly looking for new techniques that would allow me to, if not alleviate the pain, at least cope with it. Pain from being beaten, starved, horrendous amounts of pain of every kind. If I was out here, I would have gone to a doctor, dentist or maybe gotten therapy. But I did not have those options. I had to constantly keep exploring and pushing myself. My survival didn't have anything to do with strength, it was more about constantly reaching out ... exploring new topics that led me from one step to the next until eventually I came out of the other side ... with a better understanding of my true self, and with that has come great peace, gratitude, contentment and the opportunity to serve others.
YOU LIVE IN NEW YORK CITY, A PLACE NOT KNOWN FOR ITS PEACEFULNESS: FROM CRIMINALS TO COPS AND EVERYTHING IN BETWEEN. CONSIDERING WHAT YOU'VE BEEN THROUGH, WHAT'S IT LIKE WHEN YOU SEE A GROUP OF ARMED POLICE? DOES IT EVER BRING UP OLD TRAUMAS OR FEARS?
For the most part, it just is what it is. I don't pay a great deal of attention to them. Every now and then something would happen. For example ... you walk down into the subway tunnel and all of the sudden you run into, like, six or eight cops dressed in riot gear carrying M16s — there will be a moment of a fight or flight response.
One of the things I love about New York is that cops here have real crimes to attend to so they're not walking around looking around for some kid on a skateboard. These are people who are dealing with things that are a hell of a lot bigger than small-town cops, like in Arkansas, have to do, which is usually just driving around looking hour upon hour for ways to fill their day. One of the great things about New York is that it affords you the opportunity to be invisible. When I was in a small town, everybody knows who you are. Everybody is always talking, gossiping, but in New York you're free to be invisible ... You can pass through the crowds and nobody cares where you're going or what you're doing. Just like the cops have bigger things here, so do the citizens. They're focused on their own selves. That's one of the things that made me realize this is where I belong. To me, New York is home. I'd only been out of prison for about a few weeks and [my wife] Lorri and I were on the train in New York and I looked out the window and said, "If anything ever happens to me, make sure they bury me right here."