I. Nice shot, man
It appears that Memphis Commercial Appeal journalist Marc Perrusquia is still suffering from The Blood of Innocents, his co-authored mass-market failure from 1995, which had hoped to profit from the State of Arkansas’s fictional case against the West Memphis Three.
Readers might reasonably expect that Perrusquia would have politely ignored the recent publication of Damien Echols’ memoir, Life After Death — or that Perrusquia might have even used the occasion to apologize for getting the case so wrong.
Instead, as if cornered, flying in the face of reason, Perrusquia decided to attack. To take one last swipe at the man who lost 18 years to Perrusquia’s satanic fiction, but survived, and then had the gall to write about it.
The 2800+ word result of Perrusquia’s maliciousness, which starts out fluffy as a bunny before eventually sneering and snarling through continued obligatory attempts at appearing unbiased, is, by the end, an absolute jaw-dropper. The cumulative effect on the reader is not unlike the feeling one gets when some besieged public figure decides to hold a press conference just to stick a gun in their mouth and pull the trigger as cameras roll. Indeed Perrusquia’s article reads like a sort of suicide — if presently only a literary one — a desperate and futile attempt to fight the demons in his head. (2014 Update: Perrusquia’s article has been purged from the newspaper website, apparently, since the publication of this article.)
II. Dark thoughts and angry feelings
Janet Maslin at the New York Times praises Echols’ memoir, calls it “haunting,” and notes “the story it tells is hardly over” as Echols is “living out a sequel that is no less strange and magickal than what he has already been through,” while Perrusquia wonders if Echols is “mentally ill” and declares “in trumpeting his innocence, Echols is content to echo the popular and grossly oversimplified story line advanced by his supporters.”
Perrusquia further warns his readers–those who have been fooled by the exhaustive research that went into other books and documentaries about the case–that “the truth is far more complex,” and it has been “buried” by Echols’ “deep-pocketed public relations machine.” Perrusquia chastises Echols for giving short shrift to his “baffling, often frightening behavior” as an angry teenager, while suggesting that Echols is guilty of countless other things as well, including lying about how difficult it was to spend half his life on Death Row.
Even if Echols is innocent of the murders, Perrusquia later informs readers, it was the teenager’s flair for the spotlight, rather than the utterly botched 1993 investigation, that is the reason Arkansas authorities still haven’t caught the real killer(s). Echols, says Perrusquia, “diverted valuable attention that might have resolved the murders.”
While Perrusquia admits there was a “a degree” of Satanic Panic behind the investigation and trial that resulted in Echols’ conviction, Perrusquia is far more concerned that Echols’ memoir “glosses over his [teenage] struggles with mental illness … violent outbursts and … deep fascination with the occult.”
For Perrusquia and a tiny but exceedingly vocal club of staunch believers in the guilt of the WM3, dark thoughts and angry feelings are the issues that really matter in a criminal case. Not physical evidence or lack thereof. Not the dazzling incompetence of the investigation. Not the State of Arkansas’s complete disregard for procedural law.
What matters to Perrusquia is not how Damien managed to emerge from Death Row with a remarkably mellow disposition, but, rather, why Damien was so pissed off as a teenager. What matters, Perrusquia makes clear, is the teenager’s psychological evaluations — after being shoved into a mental ward like so many other lucky teenagers at the time (cf. Pearl Jam, “Why Go,” ca. early 90s)– psych evaluations conducted by a new generation of clinicians who also believed that Satanic Ritual Abuse of children was an everyday occurrence; although, in this case, even the clinicians found Echols “friendly and non-aggressive,” Perrusquia concedes, if “other times sullen, angry and struggling with rage” and exhibiting other indisputable signs of acute, umm…. adolescence.
What matters in 2012, Perrusquia makes clear, is the endless stream of rumors circa 1993-94. Like, you know, some kid at school said that Damien was, like, a satanist, and he might’ve killed a dog, and he got in a fight at school once, and another time he yelled at his parents, and also, yeah, yeah, two girls swear they heard him bragging about killing the kids, all loud and stuff, right there at the ballfield, and “one teen told police Echols used supernatural powers to levitate him off the ground,” and then of course there was that mother who testified at trial she’d been to witches’ sabbaths with him, and her kid saw Satan-y things, too, but then she admitted she made it all up, so maybe we should leave that out and go back to what the kids at school said–like, he was a freak, and stuff.
Although Perrusquia concedes that “Echols’ odd behavior as a teen murder defendant may seem inconsequential now,” Perrusquia believes that “Echols’ behavior, omitted in national media accounts, is critical to understanding what many now liken to a modern-day Salem witch hunt.”
It’s almost an interesting perspective, although some readers might call it “blaming the victim,” and although scholars of historical witch-hunts and witch-trials tend to privilege the mental machinations and cultural contexts of the accusers, rather than the accused, as the former share many characteristics while the latter could be anyone, at any time, provided they were poor, or women, or dress funny, or are otherwise socially marginalized, and, of course, provided they they are unfortunate enough to come under the gaze of an accuser.
Perrusquia himself is a fine example, possessed of least a dozen different ways of still casting suspicion on Echols, and apparently hellbent on doing just that. If Perrusquia’s insinuations and accusations are contradictory, or if they are useless from an evidentiary perspective, or if they are nothing more than hearsay fomented in the wake of a public being made to believe that Echols was some teenage monster, or if they take Echols to task for his behavior as a falsely accused teenager, or if they take Echols to task for his behavior as a man spending a full half his life in isolation, on death row, so be it. The accusations, Perusquia well knows, are what stick.
III. Legitimate Prison Rape
Nor is Perrusquia averse to loudly doubting that Echols suffered battery and sexual assault while incarcerated, as untold numbers of inmates have suffered and continue to suffer. Echols “claimed he’d been repeatedly raped — as many as 40 times — by the man in the next cell,” says Perrusquia of the first time he met Echols–who was then still a teen, just two years after the murders. Echols also told the Jonesboro Sun “two years ago, that he was repeatedly raped by guards,” notes the incredulous Perrusquia.
Perrusquia finds it suspicious that Echols doesn’t recount the details of each of these traumas in Life After Death, in which Echols makes “a number of other accusations … including that Echols was once choked by the warden, beaten until he ‘pissed blood’ and repeatedly kept in isolation, where temperatures would reach 120 degrees.”
Damien’s decision not to make his rape trauma a feature of the book is disappointing to Perrusquia, but the decision also sets off alarm bells. Is Echols changing his story? Does this go to his credibility? Returning, inexplicably, to the failed formula of Blood of Innocents, Perrusquia decides again to look to State mouthpieces for the unvarnished truth.
“His claims are absolute nonsense, and he knows it,” Perrusquia was promptly informed by Dina Tyler, spokeswoman for the Arkansas Department of Corrections, who, amazingly, did not confirm routine battery and rape at her job, but instead ignored the claims of abuse altogether and zeroed-in on climate control. “While there is only a fan system in isolation and no air conditioning, the average high temperature … was 84 degrees,” Tyler assured Perrusquia.
Yes, prison is actually quite nice, Perrusquia’s investigative journalism reveals for readers of the Memphis Commercial Appeal. You never get beaten, never get raped, and even though you’re forced to live in a concrete, windowless room if you’re there for so much as a weed charge, or just plain innocent, the temperatures in your cell never rise above 84.
IV. That Old Hollow Stare
For this reader’s taste, the finest moments of Perrusquia’s article are those which capture the ominous tones and 8th-grade reading level of the massmarket true-crime paperback, if blended with daytime-talkshow pop-psychology.
“I’ll never forget one of the first times I saw Echols,” Perrusquia intones. “It was at a pretrial hearing in Marion, Ark., shortly after his arrest….”
He swiveled his chair to face the courtroom audience. With a smirk on his face and a hollow stare, he studied the attendees one by one, nodding to some he recognized, all the while resting his head in his hand with two raised fingers pressed to his temple — body language that screamed, “I’m in charge here.”
“I thought then we’d see an insanity plea,” continues Perrusquia. “That never came. But plenty of other revelations did….”
Whether Perrusquia is a mind-reader, or simply hasn’t entertained other hypotheses as to what the teenager was thinking, is anyone’s guess. Absent from the journalist’s scenario is the equally likely possibility that Echols was thinking about what a stunning gallery of wankers were the goggle-eyed Perrusquia & Co., who were now suddenly invested in the one-time throwaway-teen’s every move.
Or perhaps Echols was thinking about missing his favorite TV show. Or thinking about fluffy bunnies. Or that he felt a vague sinus headache coming on.
Or maybe, just maybe, he was thinking, I’d like to get up out of my seat, grab the nearest remotely sharp item, and gut every member of the prosecution. I’d like to hang their entrails from the fucking ceiling lights. Then say “Hail Satan” or something to that dopey-looking reporter over there. So he’ll have something to write about for the rest of his otherwise unremarkable life.
V. Magical Crimes in Theory & Practice
“Bad” thoughts, however, such as the prior fantasy, are different from bad acts.
At least outside of the realm of Magick.
And particularly inside a court of law, where crimes require not only mens rea (guilty mind) but actus reus (guilty act).
These concepts appear to remain indistinguishable for Perrusquia, however, along with the prosecution for whom he shills, just as they proved indistinguishable for the jurors at Damian’s murder trial, who wrote the following pithy observation in block letters, on poster paper, inside the jury room, to help them stay focused on what really matters in deliberating evidence:
That said, however, it’s also possible that the jurors were onto something.
After all, everyone from Buddha to New Agers to quantum physicists have said similar things.
And if there is one over-arching theme in Perrusquia’s article about Echols, it is not that Perrusquia is actually dumb enough to still believe that Echols is guilty of the murders.
To the contrary, Perrusquia knows to his toes that Echols is not guilty of these crimes.
And it’s driving Perrusquia batshit insane.
VI. The Curse
“What I want more than anything else is to be famous,” a teenage Echols once declared to a relative.
“I know I’m going to influence the world,” Echols once told a counselor. “People will remember me.”
This last comment came just four months before the murders, Perrusquia hastens to informs readers.
And even though it looks like he didn’t actually murder anyone, and even though Perrusquia’s book functions today only as a cautionary tale about being a lapdog for the prosecution, Damien Echols is –precisely as he predicted he would be — famous.
Indeed, if Damien possessed just a fraction of the occult powers attributed to him even a wee teenager, then perhaps we can know what he was thinking when Marc Perrusquia found himself so entranced by Damien’s “hollow stare”:
Damien was not thinking about fluffy bunnies.
He was silently issuing a curse upon Perrusquia.
“I will…” said Damien, pausing after the two most important words in the formula. “I will be famous. Now and forever more. But you, Mr. Perrusquia, shall forever remain a hack.”
Oddly, though the curse above is a mere fiction, it is a curse for which tangible evidence of its success already surrounds Perrusquia on the material plane, and in the realm of the daemons, namely Jealously and Hatred, it is a curse that already eats at Perrusquia’s soul day and night.
Sein ist die Hand die verletzt.
Sein ist die Hand die heilt.