After months of working out the logistics--dates, times, locations, content--and months of media attention, public questioning, public support, pockets of alarm and even broader acclaim, Damien Echols's appearance on the campus of University of Central Arkansas is finally happening tonight. For making this all come to pass, many thanks are owed to Dean Terry Wright and Associate Dean Gayle Seymour of the College of Fine Arts and Communication; also to Associate Professor of Writing Francie Bolter--who has spent innumerable hours ironing out the many nagging details of Echols's vist. Thanks goes too to University president Tom Courtway and Provost Steve Runge for supporting this important artist-in-residence event, and to the UCA Police Department, which has taken security concerns very seriously. Very very seriously indeed. Let me just say that the University of Central Arkansas is lucky to have such a superbly trained and thoroughly professional force on its campus. (Other locations in this state are not so fortunate.) The greatest thanks of all, however, goes to Mr. Echols himself: first for surviving the ordeal of being falsely accused, absurdly convicted, and made to sit on death row for eighteen years, for surviving that and being able to tell his story as compellingly as he does in his memoir Life After Death; and of course for being willing to return to his home state for this very special visit to my campus.
A couple months ago I mentioned on this blog (follow this link to the post) that Echols's looming visit to UCA had resulted in some fervent, hateful, spitting emails from certain elements of the Arkansas public to certain people at my university. Reading those emails one could sense the mania, the literally hysterical blindness that led to the conviction of the West Memphis Three in the first place. After all, their conviction came about despite the fact that there was no physical evidence against them; none at all. And several of the key "eyewitnesses" against the Three, including the most damning ones, have long since admitted that the accounts they gave in court were complete fabrications set up by the West Memphis police either through coercion or bribery. The paper thin case against the Three was--from the start--nothing but a cage of lies and panic, and, when you get right down to it, an inexplicable fixation by authorites to "get" Damien Echols. So much so that when seven years ago DNA tests were finally conducted on hairs found on the bodies of the victims, and those tests proved that none of the Three were involved--and in fact proved that a stepfather to one of the boys was involved, a man with a history of violence toward children--the authorities in West Memphis did not feel compelled to reopen the case. They preferred to let Damien Echols rot on Death Row. To say the least, the vendetta was personal.
I'm happy to report now that those early angry e-mails to UCA have turned into a tidal wave of support. So many people have taken me aside, or emailed me, or e-mailed Dr. Bolter, to say how proud they are that UCA invited Mr. Echols, and how happy they are to see him free and thriving. The UCA Police report nothing but supportive phone calls to their office. Meanwhile, our students, most of whom have at least heard of the West Memphis Three case, are eager and curious to hear from a man who had to endure what he did and who still managed to keep on writing. Writing quite brilliantly, in fact. In terms of what a person has to fight through to keep flourising as an artist there's only one case that I can think of that tops Echols's, and that's the case of Christy Brown, the Irishman born with cerebral palsy in the 1930s and who from simple determination and the ability to control one part of his body--his left foot--made a career for himself as a novelist, poet, painter, and memoirist. (He had to type, write, and draw exclusively with that foot, a feat brilliantly mimicked by Daniel Day-Lewis in the 1989 film My Left Foot.) And this issue is crucial, because as all of us in the Department of Writing have been saying since we first thought of bringing Mr. Echols here, we aren't interested in rehashing the 1993 Robin Hood Hills murders or the subsequent police investigation. Those subjects have been rehashed to death. Instead, we are eager to meet a living man and listen to him talk about writing: about what writing can mean for a person and how a person manages to keep doing it despite the most oppressive of conditions. We are eager too to meet his wife Lorri Davis, she who meant so much to Mr. Echols while he was in prison and obviously means so much to him now, who arguably saved him, and without question is responsible for bringing the lion's share of his writing out into the world. We have Lorri Davis to thank for keeping that writing alive for the rest of us to cherish. If this seems like a perfectly innocuous, completely understandable reason to want to bring a visting writer to campus--well, it is. But if we have to employ UCA police as armed security personnel both inside and outside site where Mr. Echols will speak, we will. Because Echols has something to say, and after years of enduring brutal oppression and unthinkable prejudice, he darn well has a right to say it. I for one am looking forward to tonight.