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.
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.