In my lifetime I've been to scores, maybe even hundreds, of writer events: readings and craft lectures and question-and-answer sessions and presentations of all sorts. To be frank, not all of these events prove to be worth the time and effort. Sometimes the writers are dull; sometimes they are distracted; sometimes they are borderline jerky. Other times, of course, the writers are on point, engaged, animated, excellent. Attending those events proves to be quite a valuable investment. But--again, just to be frank--I can't really claim that even the most excellent of writer events is actually life-changing. Not for me; not for the writer; not for the audience. Until now. Having attended and participated in a two-hour long Q & A last Monday featuring Damien Echols and about fifty UCA Writing students, and then, later that evening, helping to moderate his public appearance at the Reynolds Performance Hall, I can tell you that lives were most certainly changed by Echols's visit, especially his own.
When Echols was released from death row in August, 2011 he and his wife Lorri Davis immediately left Arkansas, crossing the river into Memphis where they spent a night in a hotel celebrating with friends. The next morning they boarded a private plane for Seattle, where they passed a weekend and then traveled to New York, moving into an apartment that a friend graciously lent to them. There they lived for a year until problems with the building forced all its occupants out; then Echols and Davis moved to eastern Massachusetts, where they still live. Not once during this two year period did Echols consider returning to his home state, even for a brief visit. He was all but certain he never wanted to return. And who can blame him. As his puts it now, because it's literally true, "the state of Arkansas tried to murder me." (For a crime, I remind everyone, he did not commit.) During his visit to our campus he admitted that not until just a couple months ago was he sure that he'd actually be able to go through with his agreed upon gig as artist-in-residence at UCA.
I am so glad he did. He talked eloquently and graphically about the brutal beatings he endured in prison, especially early in his tenure, when no one was paying much attention to him and his case. Guards beat him so badly he pissed blood. Except for the fact that another prisoner mentioned the beatings to a Roman Catholic deacon in the habit of visiting the prison, and the fact that this deacon warned the prison authorities he would squeal to the public if the beatings did not stop, Echols would have died there. Already on death row, awaiting execution, his life held no value for anyone at the prison except to serve as a punching bag. He also talked eloquently about the challenge of keeping up a literary life behind bars: denied access to pen and paper except for gifts given to him from those on the outside; having to writing lying in bed--a concrete slab with a wafer thin pad stretched across it--because of the absence of any chairs; forced by guards to write only with the narrow ink-filled plastic tube on the inside of a pen because they removed the pen's hard outer shell; wrapping the tube with wadded toilet paper to give himself a firmer grip on it. Of course these were not the only challenges. He talked of others: the fact that prison lights are almost never extinguished; the facts of rats and crickets and mosquitoes as one's constant companions; the fact of almost unending screams, requiring him to keep a small tv on constantly as white noise; the lack of basic nutrition and medical care; the absence of physical contact with other people and the world at large. Echols related that one visitor to his cell told him that conditions there did not even meet the basic requirements of the Geneva Convention for housing prisoners of war.
The students and the evening audience at the Reynolds were spellbound and immensely supportive. At the Reynolds, Echols received standing ovations both at the begininng and end of his talk. Reading the reaction papers my students wrote in the days following I could tell how deeply affected they'd been. This was not just mere appreciation for a celebrated visting writer who said some smart things. This was respect and even awe for a man who lived through hell and survived, even flourished, as an artist. I think it's safe to say that none of the students in attendance felt they wasted their time; and none of them will soon forget Echols's visit. I know I won't. But even more gratifying was an e-mail I received on Wednesday from David Jauss, a writer and teacher who lives in Little Rock and who for years has been an adamant agitator on the behalf of the West Memphis Three. That's David on the right. (I learned on Monday night that David was the one who transcribed the thousands of pages of Damien's journal writing that Lorri managed to smuggle out of prison for him.) David and a few other advocates had dinner in Little Rock with Damien and Lorri last Tuesday night. David told me that at the dinner Damien repeatedly mentioned how moved he'd been by his reception at UCA, how glad he was that he'd decided to come. Echoing something he said to the Reynolds audience on Monday night, Damien told the dinner group that he would remember the visit for the rest of his life. That alone made me feel fantastic, assured me that we'd done a good job hosting and interviewing him. But then David said something even more important: Damien and Lorri now want to make regular visits to Arkansas. It is difficult to overstate what a profound psychological shift that is for Damien Echols and what an important step it can be for his healing, for his resurrection as a whole person, and for the cause--ongoing--of legally exonerating the West Memphis Three. As David said to end his email, "And that's all thanks to UCA." Well, it's thanks to a lot of people: to everyone who came and listened and asked and applauded. But it's also proof that sometimes literary events can matter as much as life itself.