Recently I watched James Cameron’s Titanic. One of the twists of the film’s story is that Jack, the protagonist, was not supposed to be on that ship. Just before the Titanic sailed he won two tickets in a poker game with two Swedes. When one of the Swedes realized that the other had bet and lost their tickets to America, he punched his friend out. This appeared to be a disaster for the Swedes, and a triumph for Jack and his Italian friend.
After boarding, Jack and his friend ran down the corridor of the great ship’s third-class compartment, and Jack shouted, “We’re the luckiest sons-of-bitches in the world!”
This makes me think of a Chinese parable: One day a farmer’s only horse disappeared. When his neighbor came to console him the farmer said, “Who knows what’s good or bad?” The next day the farmer’s horse returned accompanied by a wild horse, and the neighbor came to congratulate him on his good fortune. “Who knows what’s good or bad?” said the farmer. The next day the farmer’s son broke his leg trying to ride the new horse, and the neighbor came to console him again. “Who knows what’s good or bad?” said the farmer. When the army passed through, conscripting men for war, they passed over the farmer’s son because of his broken leg. When the man came to congratulate the farmer that his son would be spared, again the farmer asked, “Who knows what’s good or bad?”
In the movie, Jack and his friend ended up dying, and the Swedes were now the luckiest sons-of-bitches in the world. (There's a similar storyline in The Lord of the Rings trilogy: it appears to be really bad that Gollum survived until right at the end, when it turns out to be a very good thing.)
I thought of this Chinese parable while reading Damien Echols’ book, Life After Death. Mr. Echols served 18 years in prison for the infamous West Memphis murder of three young boys, although he was innocent of the crime.
It’s an amazing story of survival—an innocent man condemned to 18 years on Death Row. When I imagine something like that happening to me, I feel like I would go insane. Mr. Echols survived through extraordinary discipline: he meditated sometimes 5 hours a day, followed Zen practices for years, and read voraciously.
I read the book because I watched an interview with Mr. Echols after his release and I was very impressed at his calm demeanor. He did not seem angry or bitter.
Soon after the crime happened in 1993, an HBO producer in New York City saw a newspaper account of child murders, satanic rituals, and accused teen-agers, and suggested this as a documentary subject to two filmmakers. The resulting film, Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills, which contained a lot of footage of the original trials, cast doubt on the courts’ decision that Mr. Echols and his friends were guilty. A group of people from around the country began to work together to raise both awareness of the case and money for lawyers and appeals.
(Three films were eventually produced, the last one in 2011. I saw all three “Paradise Lost” films around the time they were released, but I have just watched all three again after reading Life After Death. The documentaries are a fascinating look at many aspects of human nature, including the propensity of people to judge based on appearances and to assume that just because someone is arrested that means they are guilty.)
After years of public pressure, combined with new evidence (including DNA) that brought the three men’s guilt into serious question, the Arkansas Supreme Court ruled that they should be granted a new trial. The men were set free in 2011 before the second trial could take place. The state of Arkansas acted shamefully in making them plead guilty in order to be released; a transparent ruse to prevent them from being able to sue the state for compensation. Clearly the prosecutors realized that they would have lost the second trial.
As horrific as those long years were, I couldn’t help but think that some good has come of this for Mr. Echols. As he amusingly recounts in his book, his background included extreme poverty and poor education. As intelligent as he obviously is, his chances of having any real opportunities in life were very slim. He probably would have ended up like his father or stepfather, doing some kind of manual labor.
Mr. Echols was accused of the murders because he was an outsider. After the murders occurred, a month went by with no arrests, and the police were under intense pressure to solve this horrendous crime. Mr. Echols was into heavy metal music, his hair was long, and he dressed differently than the norm in black trench coat—he was a rebel, poor, and expendable. The police alleged the murders were part of a Satanic ritual—you may remember rumors of Satanic cults were big in the early 1990s.
The “Paradise Lost” documentaries made Mr. Echols into a star. His personality and intelligence shone out from the screen. In the third film in the series, released in 2011, Mr. Echols says, in a 2009 interview from Death Row, “In many ways I have a truly incredible life.” How can you not be intrigued by a person who could credibly say that?
Over the years many celebrities got involved in the case—Johnny Depp, Eddie Vedder (Pearl Jam), and Natalie Maines (Dixie Chicks)—and helped raise money for Mr. Echols’ exoneration. In my opinion all this happened because of Mr. Echols’ persona; even though he was onscreen for only brief moments in the films there was something captivating about him. One of the things the people who organized the “free the West Memphis 3” movement did early on was set up a college fund for Mr. Echols.
Mr. Echols now lives in New York City with his wife (who married him while he was in prison). His friends include Eddie Vedder, Marilyn Manson, and Peter Jackson of the “Lord of the Rings” fame (who produced a fourth documentary about Mr. Echols, “West of Memphis,” released in 2012). He collaborated on a song with Eddie Vedder, called “Army Reserve” (on Pearl Jam, 2006).
Damien Echols’ story leads me to wonder, who knows what is good or bad?
One of the excerpts from his prison journal has this passage that gives some insight into how he survived:
Someone sent me a letter that had one of the best quotes I’ve ever read. It said, ‘What is to give light must endure burning.’ It’s by a writer named Victor Frankl. I’ve been turning that quote over and over in my head. The truth of it is absolutely awe-inspiring. In the end, I believe it’s why we all suffer. It’s the meaning we all look for behind the tragedies in our lives. The pain deepens us, burns away our impurities and petty selfishness. It makes us capable of empathy and sympathy. It makes us capable of love. The pain is the fire that allows us to rise from the ashes of what we were, and more fully realize what we can become. When you can step back and see the beauty of the process, it’s amazing beyond words.
All my life I’ve heard people say, ‘Why would God allow this to happen?’ I think it’s because while we can see only the tragedy, God sees only the beauty. While we see misery, Divinity sees us lurching and shambling one step closer to the light. I truly do believe that one day we’ll shine as brightly as the archangels themselves.
William Shakespeare wrote: There is nothing either good nor bad but thinking makes it so.” [Hamlet, Act II, Scene 2, Hamlet speaking]
Damien Echols has clearly learned to transmute bad into good; tragedy into beauty.