Inside the Prison Journal of West Memphis Three’s Damien Echols

Damien Echols shares how 18 years in prison changed his worldview.

Lisa Waddell/The Commercial Appeal, via Sony Pictures Classics

Speaking about my experience is torturous and psychologically traumatizing. It’s near impossible to heal when you must incessantly relive the worst time in your life and continuously tear open the wounds. However, it’s necessary and critical in our continued fight for justice.

West of Memphis, directed by Amy Berg—the documentary my wife, Lorri Davis, and I coproduced with Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh—gave me the opportunity to tell my own story in my own words. As a producer with a hand in the process, for the first time I could participate in my story. For the first time, it was told from the inside instead of the outside looking in.

More and more these days I’m looking toward the future and exploring new ways to live ferociously. I have no interest in remaining angry or resentful, because the people who did this to me don’t deserve another 18 years of my life. In reflecting on my experiences, I’d like to share my approach to life which was solidified behind bars and carries me through today. The stream of consciousness you’ll read below are never-before-published thoughts I kept in a journal in my cell.

Someone once asked Oscar Wilde if he believed in God. He responded by saying, “No, I believe in something much bigger.” I feel much the same about reality.

Philosophers have argued about reality for as long as there have been philosophers—what it is, how it is experienced, etc.—yet they are no closer to agreeing now than they ever were. Anyone who untangles themselves from all the theories, counter-theories, and general jibber-jabber can then see the obvious: if mankind were capable of thinking its way to enlightenment it would have happened long ago.

I still remember the exact moment that I ceased to believe in the existence of reality. It was when I discovered that scientists had proved it was absolutely impossible for the human body to run a mile in less than four minutes, yet despite the fact that it’s impossible, people still do it on a regular basis. Suddenly there were two realities—the one in which it is impossible to run a four-minute mile, and the one in which it is done. A third alternative is created by rejecting both, so that there are then three realities. It was then that my bones began rustling and whispering to me that reality is an outdated concept that has outlived its usefulness.

There have always been those who sought to penetrate the illusion of mundane reality. The Buddha used meditation. Whirling dervishes use ecstatic trance. Hermetic esotericists use magick. Shamans consume consciousness-altering chemicals such as peyote. What they all have in common is the reliance upon direct experience to step beyond the boundaries imposed by the intellect.

One of the most famous hermetic esotericists, Aleister Crowley, said that when a person seeks to discover the true nature of reality he should do so “with the aim of religion, and the method of science.” In other words, seek unity with the First Cause, yet believe in nothing. If something is true, it does not require belief to remain so.

Through rigorous adherence to hermetic practices it’s possible to communicate directly with the intelligence behind what most perceive as reality, and in doing so we can become co-partners in the act of creation. We can discover that behind such outdated concepts as reality there lies only an eternal field of unlimited potential. The universe (and everything beyond it) becomes a computer that’s more than willing to accept whatever programs we enter into it. Anything becomes possible. Anything. However, before it’s possible to bring about external manifestations of our chosen reality it’s necessary to undergo a series of internal initiations. Alchemists say that any outward manifestation of transmutation they perform is secondary to the inner evolution that made it possible. My own experiences have taught me the truth of this, and I have made it my mantra and my prayer—“As above, so below. As within, so without. As in Heaven, so on Earth.”

I’ve come to view the Tarot card labeled “The Magician” as the perfect symbol of what is possible. Artists and mystics of all sorts have come to identify with The Magician, and I have taken him as my personal patron saint. The Magician faces the viewer, his right hand raised above his head and pointing a wand at Heaven. His left hand is extended to point at the ground. In essence he is acting as a lightning rod, drawing down the fire of Heaven and passing it through his body so that it can manifest on Earth. He has taken on the responsibility of shaping reality (or the outside world) to match the beauty he finds within himself. He is trading the mundane for the magickal. It’s the same thing artists do when they give shape and form to their inspiration. Through that act the world becomes a more magickal place to live. I’ve had several encounters with The Magician, and he always tells me the same thing: “Live ferociously.” I try to follow his advice, even trapped in this cell. It’s not that he encourages me to push beyond my boundaries; it’s more that he causes me to see they were never there in the first place.

Accepting a concept such as reality reeks of defeat to me. It means settling for less. Submitting to any form of reality is the opposite of living ferociously. Either I can accept reality, or I can storm the gates of Heaven and make off with its treasures. I have chosen the latter.

One of the most common questions I get is “what can we do to help?” We’re asking everyone to call the prosecutor on our case, Scott Ellington, to keep pressure on him to reopen the case. We’re asking you to see the documentary West of Memphis, read my book Life After Death, educate yourself on the case, and inspire others to do the same. Everyone we touch with this story is a potential jury member who can help make sure this type of injustice is not perpetuated.

Get The Beast In Your Inbox!

Daily Digest

Start and finish your day with the top stories from The Daily Beast.

Cheat Sheet

A speedy, smart summary of all the news you need to know (and nothing you don't).

By clicking “Subscribe,” you agree to have read the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy
Thank You!
You are now subscribed to the Daily Digest and Cheat Sheet. We will not share your email with anyone for any reason.

West of Memphis is in theaters now in New York and Los Angeles and opening nationwide Jan. 11. The soundtrack, West of Memphis: Voices for Justice, will be on sale Jan. 15. Life After Death is on sale now.