In New Zealand, "Peter was trying to make me make up for 18 years of lost life in a month," Echols says. They went luge sledding. They went jet boating ("People have died doing this!"). They went up in a WWI fighter jet ("Basically, this plane is made of Irish linen and cables"). They went on a helicopter flight into an active volcano ("You could literally see the ground boiling while we're sitting there eating sandwiches"). Jackson provided the pair with more than just adventure: when Echols was released — with no home, no clothes, no money — Jackson offered up his New York apartment for a year. When they moved to Salem, he bought them a bed.
This is not a life Echols could've imagined for himself, so alternately cursed and charmed. And yet Echols has long had a sense that he would be remembered. "It's something I don't talk about with a lot of people," he says. "It's that I don't feel like my life is pointless. I feel like there's meaning behind it." It's something he talks about in the HBO documentaries: a teenage Echols tells the camera that he's had a sense that he would be remembered. He'll have another documentary to be remembered by, West of Memphis, opening Christmas Day, which he and Davis co-produced with Jackson.
Here's a story: Davis and Echols are hanging out in Patti Smith's recording studio. She's making her new record. The three of them are talking together about Echols's life. "I try to tell Damien that this isn't normal life," Davis says to Smith.
And Patti Smith says, "Yeah? When has he ever had a normal life?"
In his new book, Life After Death, written largely in prison, Echols looks back at the small horrors and daily details of a "white-trash" childhood in a provincial place: a cruel and bullying stepfather; living in a shack for a time with no heat, no running water; a grandfather who chuckled and sipped his beer as Echols's flesh was chewed by fire ants; a first love; a teenage girl he got pregnant; watching horror movies; catching snakes; listening to Iron Maiden, Anthrax, Metallica. He writes about his life in prison: an executed man who left him his dentures as a memento; a fellow inmate who taped crickets to his skin, called them his "babies"; mental discipline; meditation; marrying Davis in a small Buddhist ceremony in prison; and the annual watching of It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown.
He often writes about late fall and winter, pumpkins and scarecrows, and maintains a childlike reverence and excitement for the stretch of time between Thanksgiving and Christmas Day. He is someone to whom Victor Hugo's definition of melancholy — the pleasure of being sad — might appeal. He writes of the wind now and then carrying a radio signal for a country station to the prison: "It's like drowning in some kind of beautiful, velvet pool of despair."
For 18 years, Echols was told where to go, when to eat, what to eat, what to wear. He witnessed depravity and insanity. He was beaten, assaulted, chained. He watched men walked off to die. He has seen things that most of us will never, never see.