[private]Late on a Saturday afternoon, in March 1994, Damien Echols stood in a courtroom and heard himself sentenced to death. Within hours, he was delivered, cuffed and shackled, to an Arkansas prison, there to be held in “safe-keeping” until his appeals were over and his execution could be carried out. He was given a white prison uniform and the number SK—(for safe-keeping)—931.
He was 19 years old. And he was reviled—the convicted murderer, and presumed torturer, of three eight-year-old boys.
Today, Echols can still vividly describe his introduction to prison. But “safe” is not a word he uses. He recalls being in the infirmary, where all new prisoners are sent, and where an exam revealed that he was more than just frightened. His heart was skipping beats. He recalls “five or six guards standing around,” smirking and asking each other, “Did you welcome him already?”
“They literally planned on killing me,” Echols says. After he was moved to Death Row, he recalls getting beatings that left him with “nerve damage” and “pissing blood for a few days.” He recalls a guard holding a knife to his throat, and he recalls being thrown into “the hole”—an isolation cell—where he says he was “starved” and might have died had not a few inmate porters secretly slipped him food. This went on for a week, Echols says. “Then, before they let me out, I had to sign an affidavit saying they hadn’t hurt me or denied me medical care.”
Another time, a guard approached him with “a rolled-up, cut-up Coke can,” Echols says. “He asked me, ‘What do you think will happen if I cut myself with this?’ I said, ‘I don’t know. I guess you’ll bleed.” And he said, ‘Yeah. But I didn’t do it. You did.’” Echols took the exchange to mean that even lethal retaliation for such an “attack” would have been deemed justified.
Now, almost 17 years later, Echols sees that initial ordeal, during which he almost lost his teeth, as part of the foundation for the man he’s become in prison. “It was horrific,” he says, “but in a way, it was almost a blessing. I had to seek out ways to help me deal with what was happening to me. I needed ways to help me heal from the trauma, the stress and the abuse I’ve been through.”
Alone and injured, Echols turned to what he knew: the kindling bits of energy work that he’d discovered before his sudden infamy, the introduction to “magick” he’d gleaned from a book called “The Golden Dawn.” Echols says he found the book by Israel Regardie when he was about 12 and that he still cherishes it as the book that first exposed him to “alchemy,” “the God work,” “the principle of raising vibration”—the way of living that some adherents call “the Path of Light.”
The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn was established in the late 1880s to explore the evolution of human consciousness through a structured experience of magic. This interest in “occultism” or “the occult sciences,” as it was called, attracted many prominent thinkers and artists of the time. The poet W.B. Yeats was among them. So, as Echols dryly notes, was “the infamous Aleister Crowley.”
Almost a century later, Crowley, an Englishman, would figure in the 1994 trials of Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley, Jr., when prosecutors in West Memphis, Arkansas charged that the teenagers had murdered the children as part of an “occult ritual.” At one point, when Echols was on the stand, Prosecuting Attorney Brent Davis showed Echols a sheet of paper on which Echols had written several names, including that of Crowley.
When Davis asked who Crowley was, Echols said that he was a well-known writer on witchcraft. When Davis asked if Crowley was not also “a noted author in the field of satanic worship” and a writer who “believes in human sacrifice,” Echols did not disagree. Instead, he volunteered that he had never read any of Crowley’s books, and added: “I would have read them if I had saw them.”
Regardie’s book “The Golden Dawn” appeared in 1937, after the secret Order of the Golden Dawn had been largely disbanded. Today it is regarded as “an encyclopedia of practical occultism.” Regardie believed the secret order’s symbols, ceremonies and teaching served to complement the work of academic psychology, and particularly that of Carl Jung.
An introduction to the current fifth edition offers this observation: “Thinking through and fully understanding the usage of such terms as ‘occult’ or ‘magic’ apart from their historically negative or even lurid connotations is fundamental. The association of these words with ‘black’ magic or Satanism has uniformly been the result of hysteria, narcissistic theatrics, capitalization by the media, or psychosis.
“To truly explore the ‘dark arts’ (or in other words, apprehend the archetype of the shadow) through systematic ritual work demands not only extraordinary knowledge, discipline and training, but a great deal of plain hard work toward which would-be dabblers never seem inclined. For any of us to integrate our ‘darker’ side is a lifelong and necessary process, but a process which yields toward a more fullness of Self.” (Italics are from the text.)
Echols believes that, lacking any physical evidence connecting him to the murders, prosecutors used his spiritual interests—which were not the region’s norm—to win his conviction and death sentence. Ironically, he now says that without those interests and their corresponding practices, he might already be dead, and he certainly would have lost his teeth. “Everything had been taken away from me,” he says. “The only way I could survive and learn to heal myself was by traveling inside—journeying inside—and I absolutely love it.”
As a prisoner, Echols has had abundant opportunity to explore society’s “darker” or “shadow” side. He has used systematic ritual work based on the writing of Regardie—and by now, many others—to heal, to cope and to learn. For example, he says, “My son is almost the same age now as I was when I was locked up. If I thought about that all the time, I’d have gone stark raving mad.” Instead, the monkish life of solitary confinement to which he was condemned has allowed him, “in a way, time to focus on this energy work.”
Echols expects to be released, and when he is, he says, the magick he began to study long before being sent to prison will remain at the center of his life. “For the most part,” he says, “the more this case moves to the forefront for a lot of other people, the more it moves to the background for me.
“It’s so powerful. I get so excited. It’s one of those things that makes you want to do a flip, because you’re so glad you’ve got another day.”
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