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Book Review: High Magick By Damien Echols

Hope K

If I were to pick one word to sum up Damien Echols’ new book, High Magick: A Guide to the Spiritual Practices That Saved My Life on Death Row, I would choose “empowerment.”

And if you’re doubtful that magick is real, well, just know that Damien Echols is the only person to ever have walked away from death row in Arkansas.

The West Memphis Three

In May of 1993, three eight year old boys were brutally murdered, their bodies found in a gulley, their bicycles left on a pipe bridge in the woods of West Memphis, Arkansas. Here’s the crime scene 25 years later:

The town was traumatized by the gruesome nature of the murders. The police either could not or would not name a suspect, and they were getting a lot of pressure. So they honed in on Damien, who with his black clothes, heavy metal music, and interest in magick, stood out. He and his best friend, Jason Baldwin, lived in poverty. So too did Jessie Misskelley, who confessed to the crime.

Damien describes the confession this way:

It was a bizarre, patchwork, horror-movie story that didn’t make sense at all, and it didn’t make sense because the police had cruelly coerced it out of a mentally challenged kid from my neighborhood.”

This was all happening right when I was one county over, deciding where to go to college. I listened to the descriptions of the murders on the nightly news with shock, but when they arrested three teenage boys for Satanic ritual murders, I was truly horrified. Now we had six victims instead of three.

Then within weeks, the Magick Moon bookstore, the first one of its kind in our area, opened its doors and was quickly shut down due to pressure from local churches. About 75 Wiccans and Pagans from across the Mid-South organized a protest march down Main Street to the courthouse. Counter protesters at the Baptist church were whipped into a frenzy as one of the stepfathers of the murdered boys spoke about the evils of Satanism.

If you ever get the chance to watch Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills, a documentary about the case, you should. It’s interesting, but you should also know the way the film makers portrayed the people of my region was pretty exaggerated. Not all of us are unsophisticated, I promise you. I remember watching the spectacle downtown with my friend, and we were like, what the hell? This is crazy.

The judge who presided over the case, David Burnett, decided it would be a good idea to change Damien’s and Jason’s trial venues to the same courthouse where the Magick Moon protesters had faced down an angry mob weeks before. Oh, this was going to be bad, I knew it. And it was. Jessie and Jason got life in prison and Damien got the death penalty.

At first they weren’t called the West Memphis Three — that came later — but those of us who supported them were called murder groupies. That sure was fun. We huddled together behind the courthouse with the families as appealswere struck down by Judge Burnett. And as I was making phone calls to the Innocence Project and telling everybody I knew about the case, Damien was using magick to keep his sanity and to fight his way out of what seemed to be an impossible situation.

Eighteen years went by before a miraculous series of events happened. Damien and his wife Lorri Davis had been doing a magick ritual every day for a year. This was Damien’s daily affirmation:

May I be home, free from prison, living happily with my Lorri. May it come about in a way that brings harm to none and is for the good of all, and in no way let this reverse or bring upon me or my loved ones any curse.”

Lorri did much of his legal work, and he got support from some famous people, including Eddie Vedder, who wrote the foreword to High Magick. Eddie was there in 2011 the day my high school friend’s dad, Judge David Laser (he got their case after Judge Burnett became a state senator), let the West Memphis Three take an Alford plea to walk free.

An Alford plea is legal term for pleading guilty to a crime while at the same time maintaining innocence. It allowed the men to go free but they cannot sue the state of Arkansas for compensation.

The West Memphis Three still have felonies on their records. Jason Baldwin would like to become a lawyer, but that felony is an obstacle. The cases are closed unless somebody figures out who did it. I have some theories, so stayed tuned, folks.

High Magick

Some of you will be intrigued by this part naturally and some of you will be all, yeah Hope, whatever, and rolling your eyes. But it’s probably not what you think, so if you’re in that second category, please stay with me.

Imagine yourself in a roasting, mosquito-ridden cell with a death sentence over your head and killer guards watching your every move. How do you deal with this for 18 years and come out of it not only sane but thriving, writing books?

High Magick tells you how.

If you can transcend the kind of horrors that Damien did, you can face any challenge life throws your way. I’m talking about confidence. I’m talking about spirituality. This book can help you feel razor sharp and ready to take on the world.

For one thing, it’s beautiful. The pages are decorated with subtle but unique designs. The cover has that Halloween look that can give your coffee table elegant flair. This book is a keepsake.

Also, the techniques Damien describes can help you feel more calm and in control of your life. When he writes of these practices, he calls it “magick” with a K to distinguish it from the kind of magic that involves card tricks and pulling rabbits out of hats. It’s “high magick” because it’s about spiritual growth, energy manipulation, breath work, and visualization rather than potions or spells.

Part I begins by telling us, “First of all, you’re already doing magick.” Damien’s philosophy is that every act, thought, and feeling you have influences the world and what comes your way. The difference between a magician and any other person is intent.

Damien’s personalized techniques draw from historical practices of Buddhism, Christianity, Judaism, Taoism, and his own experiences withstanding solitary confinement and then being thrust into a modern chaotic world. Speaking of modern and chaos, the exploration of energy that permeates this book makes me think of physics. “Everything is made of energy,” Echols writes, “and we can shape and use energy to our benefit.”

The book goes through progressively more challenging descriptions of practices that start out with simply breathing in to the count of four, holding for four, exhaling for four, holding for four, and repeating this pattern. This is what psychologists tell their clients to do when they feel anxious. Nothing controversial about that.

Speaking of psychology, from the moment I heard Damien had written a book about spirituality to help people, I thought of Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search For Meaning. It’s one of my favorite books ever. Frankl was a psychiatrist imprisoned in a concentration camp during World War II. The first part of Man’s Search for Meaning is his surviving the camps, and the second part is about how to improve your life by finding your purpose. In a similar vein, Damien wrote Life After Death about his time on death row, and now he’s written his magick book to empower people.

The beginning breathing exercises go into meditations and visualizations. It took me much longer than usual to read this book because I kept stopping to do the exercises. It was great. Afterwards I felt fantastic, oxygenated and energized. I was seeing bright colors in my mind, fountains of light, and glowing orbs. Very good for creativity.

It’s also good for personal empowerment. I can’t pretend to understand how hard imprisonment was for Damien, but I would guess having everything taken away from you and given only a set of letters and numbers as identification is as dehumanizing and disempowering as it gets.

You might not conceive just how miraculous it was that he was released. During his time on death row, he lost count of all the prisoners who were put to death — 25 to 30. I do believe most people would have given up and chosen their last meal, the only time people in prison get to eat good food. But Damien never let that thought cross his mind. Instead of caving into sorrow, he just kept on practicing his magick until he got out.

And being out of prison hasn’t been easy, either. Damien does magick even when riding the subway in New York City where he lives now. A lot of the exercises in the book are about protection from external negative energy. Some people would call it composure, and after all, what is composure but drawing on your inner strength to not be overwhelmed? Call it whatever you like, but magick is useful.

I picked out a talisman to infuse with energy. It’s a raven hand-carved out of obsidian. I rubbed my hands together vigorously until they tingled with heat and friction, controlled my breathing, and visualized a golden light between them. As I held the raven in my hands, I envisioned a protective force flowing into the volcanic glass. It heated up, and maybe it was my imagination, but it felt like it vibrated just a tiny bit.

The raven sits on my bedside table now to watch over me as I sleep.

High Magick: A Guide to the Spiritual Practices That Saved My Life on Death Row will be released on October 30, 2018. It’s published by Sounds True and can be ordered online here or purchased from your favorite book store.

Winner of my high school's citizenship award.

10 Comments

  1. kara noble says

    I am pretty pissed off right now! I clicked on Manfromatlan’s link suggesting these boys may have been guilty. It discusses an earlier movie made about the “witch hunt” but barely touches on the Amy Berg documentary of a few years ago which makes a very clear case of who the murderer was. His hair was tied into the boys’ shackles.
    In the article it says this: “The rarely used Alford plea allowed the men to be released on the condition that they admit the state had enough evidence to convict them should the case go to another trial. Essentially it allowed Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley to protest their innocence for the cameras whilst officially pleading guilty to the crime.” What a crock.
    An Alford plea is all about saving face for the prosecutors and not being sued by the wrongly convicted for the hellish years they endured behind bars. They received no damages whatsoever.
    Jason Baldwin didn’t want to take the Alford plea as he was INNOCENT – but he did it to save Damien’s life, as his health was suffering so. I have been lucky enough to hear Jason speak at an Innocence weekend. Hundreds of exonerees and their families gather together to share and learn and celebrate their freedom each year. If it wasn’t for the public figures that came forward Damien would probably now be dead from Death Row rot. They were lucky enough to have such a bizarre but strong case that people with influence got behind them and didn’t give up.
    They put a child on death row. Unconscionable. This is what would have happened to my husband if he’d been a few months older. I am married to Bruce Lisker who served 26 years for a crime he did not commit. It was the passion of his private investigator, an honest internal affairs cop and the LA Times’ full investigation that magickly shined a light on this forgotten child from 1983. He has been free for 9 years now. I deeply resent the link that you posted, sir. Otherwise – I love this site – thank you.

    • okulo says

      There were three documentaries in all and having watched the first one some time ago, I watched all three about two weeks ago as I waited for Making a Murderer 2.

      Whilst I acknowledge that Damien Echols came across as a bit weird and out of it to the point that I could, at a stretch, conceive of him doing something terrible, there were more bizarre twists in the plot which pointed the guilt compass at two other people. There was nothing to suggest that there was anything satanic about the murders other than paranoid inference of forensic evidence and there were vast areas left unexplored due to the investigation’s prejudiced focus.

      I wouldn’t stake my life on Damien Echols’ innocence but the investigation was flawed by its own prejudice leaving the scrutiny of least two other suspects to viewers rather than the police.

  2. Gwyn says

    In 2007, I suffered a near-fatal brain haemorrhage. Shortly after it happened, my brother (who lives on the other side of the world, in Australia) was sitting up against a tree, in a favourite spot of his. He said that the tree communicated with him, telling him that I was going to be okay (which I have been).

    How mysterious life is. This article has reminded me that we should ignore the bogus certainty of those who believe they’ve got a handle on everything that’s going on around them. There are forces at work which we don’t understand.

    As someone recently pointed out to me, the mind is the most precious thing we’ve got. And, as someone else pointed out in a book I read many moons ago, using our minds in the way we habitually use it is like using a magic sword to open a tin of beans.

    Anyhoo, these are just some recollections inspired by the above article. I, for one, have got a long way to go before I put my own magic sword to better use than opening tins of beans. But I’m working in it…

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    • Gwyn says

      ”…in the way we habitually use them…”.
      ”…working on it…”.

      Perhaps I should start by using my magic sword to spot mistakes before I post comments. :o(

      • Rhisiart Gwilym says

        It’s called proof-reading before hitting the Post button, Gwyn. 🙂

        Another considerable master of the craft (of practical magick, not proof-reading), who got his own ‘My god, this stuff’s REAL!’ moment many years ago is John Michael Greer. He’s also a very good teacher of magickal arts for aspiring tyros. Beautiful blend of down-to-Earth realism, utter openness to all the mystifying strangenesses of reality, encyclopaedic knowledge of the relevant literatures (plural), and almost half a century of dedicated practical practice of the craft.

        Tom Campbell, though a physicist and mathematician rather than a retired Archdruid like John, also has very simple, unpretentious – but seriously powerful – advice about how to get on to good terms with these basic realities. He to, as an apprentice to Robert ‘Journeys Out Of The Body’ Monroe (q very much v), got his own ‘My god, this stuff’s REAL!’ moment in the 1970s.

        There’s that famous celestial name-list of the god-fathers of modern science, major swayers of both Western and global basic worldviews: Galileo (and co) – Descartes – Newton (and contemporaries) – Darwin (etc.) – the Quantum mechanics, Bohr, Heisenberg et al – Einstein/Bohm. I suspect these famous historical names will be joined eventually by Tom Campbell. This will be for his Big TOE (qv), and the way that it’s helping to trigger the current paradigm-shift now going on in physics; away from extreme-materialist scientism as a dogmatic religion and back – once again – towards idealism (in the philosophical sense). The ancient basic idea of philosophical idealism – Big Mind as the ground-base of literally everything – has always been more amenable to the deep realities of practical magick – “The art and science of causing changes in consciousness in conformance with the will” – than the Euro-Renaissance aberration of over-materialism. If, like me, you have direct personal experience of ‘para’normal events, then you’ll know that this shift is long overdue, simply to allow us to handle rationally the pressing list of things which hyper-materialist scientist doctrine just can’t explain, or even contemplate at all without having Dawkinsoid denialist hysterics; cognitive dissonance up to its Loki/Coyote tricks, as usual. 🙂

        See also Dean Radin, especially in his latest book ‘Real Magic’, for another admirably-rational professional practitioner of the elegant strict scientific method (actually going fearlessly wherever the experimental results lead you, no matter what), for more insights about where this is all going now. Dean is lots of fun to follow in his YouTube interviews/addresses, being something of an understated comedian, as well as both a virtuoso violinist and a meticulously good scientist…

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        • Rhisiart Gwilym says

          Speaking of proof-reading my own effing posts…! That phrase ‘hyper-materialist scientist doctrine’ in my penultimate para. above should perhaps read (for the banishing of unclarity): ‘hyper-materialist scientismic doctrine’.

          • Gwyn says

            Oh, the delicious irony, Rhisiart, gw’boi. ”Proofreading” doesn’t require a hyphen. :o)

            Thanks for the interesting info in your reply to me, though.

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