Innocent on death row: How I survived 18 years

Meditation with a mystical edge? Don't knock magick 'til you've tried it.

Damien Echols: The true crime stuff I think it has good points and bad points; Good points because it is literally saving people's lives. When you're talking about cases where you have innocent people sentenced to death, you have innocent people doing life without parole, and it happens way more often than people have any idea. A guy named Bryan Stevenson who works with the Southern Poverty Law Center, I was talking to him one time and he said that they now estimate that maybe as many as one out of every ten people executed are innocent. Now if one out of every ten planes crashed nobody would fly anymore. Everybody would demand that something be done before they got on another plane. But most people don't know anyone and they're not connected in any way to the death penalty. So it's sort of just being swept under the rug in a lot of ways.

So the true crime stuff is bringing stuff like that into mainstream attention. It's saving people's lives. On the other hand you have the other stuff, the really tawdry—and I can't think of a case right off the top of my head—but just people like to sort of wallow in the darkness of humanity a little bit. Say people who want to read stuff about Richard Ramirez, the night stalker guy, stuff like that. That sort of goes the other route. I think whatever you focus on is going to sort of dictate the direction that your life moves. If you focus on things that inspire you, that uplift you, that raise you up, you're going to be a happier person. If you're focusing more on the basest, just bottom dregs of human activity then you're probably not going to be a very happy person. It's going to manifest in depression and despair and things like that.

So I see the good points of true crime and I see the bad points of true crime. For me personally I tend to stay away from it. I honestly have not even seen the Paradise Lost documentaries. I tried to watch them, I made it through 15 to 20 minutes of the first one, and I could understand why it had such a big impact on people because when I was watching it, it felt like being in the courtroom. It was like experiencing it again. And, for me, that was the last thing in the world that I wanted. That was—it ate up 20 years of my life, so the last thing I wanted to do was go back there. At the same time I'm grateful that so many other people did watch it and were affected by it and came to our aid, because it saved my life. But that doesn't mean I want to watch it.

The hardest parts of being in prison, the worst parts to deal with were just the sheer brutality of it. You know, there were times when I was beaten so bad that I started to piss blood. They're not going to spend a lot of time and money and energy taking care of someone they plan on killing. So it's not like you're going to see a real doctor or a real dentist. At one point I'd been hit in the face so many times by prison guards that it had caused a lot of nerve damage in my teeth, so I was in horrendous pain. Your choices are: live in pain, or let them pull your teeth out. I didn't want them to pull my teeth out, so I had to find techniques that would allow me to cope with the physical pain. That was probably the biggest thing that kept pushing me forward to learn more and more and more about magick, because I had to find ways just to survive.

Magick, spelled with a K at the end, M – A – G – I – C – K, the reason it has a K is to differentiate it from sleight of hand, you know, sawing assistants in half, pulling rabbits out of a hat, things like that. The entire point of high magick it is a path that leads to the same things that Eastern traditions refer to as "enlightenment," which is the dissolution of the self. The form that I practice derived, for the most part, from the late 1800s in London. You had a group of people, they called themselves the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn—some really intelligent people, the beloved poet W.B. Yeats was a member. What they set out to do was look into all religious traditions in the world and get to just the practices, you know, strip away the dogma, the belief systems, things like that, and get to just the practices. And they wanted to figure out what works, why it works, how it works, and how we can make it work better. And it's ideally suited to people in the West because it uses like I was saying Christian, Judaic, things of that nature iconography. So it's things that are really deeply ingrained in our psyches already.

When I was in prison I actually also received ordination in the Rinzai Zen tradition in Japanese Buddhism. It was a tradition that used to train the Samurai in ancient Japan. So I sat Zen meditation for years, and I still feel like I got more out of ceremonial magic in months than I did Zen in years just because it is more—it deals with things that are more deeply ingrained in the Western psyche than Eastern traditions do.

One of the goals of high magick is to achieve the same thing that in Eastern traditions they call enlightenment. Think of it, for example, think of yourself as a cup of water. Now if you just leave a cup of water sitting somewhere for a long period of time it starts to stagnate. It's going to accumulate debris, maybe it's even going to start to clot up over a long enough period of time. What ceremonial magick tries to do is invoke certain energies into your system. Now if you were to take that cup of water, that stagnant cup of water, and just hold it under a running faucet and just let it run until it spills over the rim and hold it there and just let it spill and spill and spill, eventually what's going to happen is all that debris, all that stagnation is going to be washed out. The same thing happens to us on an energetic level when we're constantly invoking all these energies. The reason they're planetary, astrological, elemental, they're still all variations of a type of energy that we have a name for in every single culture in the world except ours. For example, the Chinese call it chi. The Japanese call it ki. The Hebrews call lit ruach. The Indians call it prana. In the West we're the only ones who don't really have a name for it, so that's kind of why I prefer just the generic term of "energy."

You know, when it comes to resiliency I think the thing that saved my life in there was: I found what I was supposed to be doing in life. As crazy as it sounds, there were entire weeks would go by when I didn't even think about the fact that I was in prison because I was so focused on magick. You know even now people will come up to me, people who have been through horrible things, people who suffer from depression of some sort, and they say, "What got you through that? What would bring you through these things?" And the honest answer is there are only two causes of depression. One is a chemical imbalance, in which case the only thing that's going to correct it is medication, something of that nature to correct a physical problem. The other cause in one way or another is you're not doing what in magick we call your "will." In Buddhism they call it dharma. It's the thing that you're put here to do. Nature, the universe, is not going to waste a lot of energy making duplicate people, making cookie-cutter people. We're all here for a specific purpose. Now your purpose may be similar to someone else's, but it's not going to be exactly the same. Because like I said the universe isn't going to waste that energy. The cause of happiness and the cause of depression is figuring out what you're supposed to be doing in this life and then dedicating yourself to it, one hundred percent, to the best of your ability. For me that was doing magick. When I started to devote every minute of every day to doing magick while I was in prison, by the time I got out I was doing it eight hours a day. Once I started to do that everything else took a backseat. I still went through horrendous things like beatings or starvation or whatever it was, but once it's done I'd get right back up and I'd go to doing magick, because it was what I loved.

It was, you know, when I started to figure out what was possible because of this and how it was affecting me on a mental level, on an emotional level, on a physical level, I was so excited about it that everything else just faded into the background, and I was happy. Even in prison, even on death row, for huge chunks of time I was happy, because I was doing what I was supposed to be doing in the world. And still to this day the example I always give to people is Michelangelo. Whenever they asked him, "How do you create these sculptures?" he said, "Well, I just look at the block of marble and I carve away anything that's not part of the figure." That's where happiness comes from. You look at your life and you start carving away anything that's not pertinent to your life's mission. So for me for example I don't go to parties, I don't go to clubs, I don't go to concerts, I don't chitchat. For me anything that is not directly connected to magick I have gradually carved away from my life and it has made me a much, much happier person. Social media I honestly now I try to stay away from it as much as I possibly can. I think it can be useful for really down-to-earth practical things like letting people know, for example, I'll use it to let people know where I'm going to be doing a meditation class and things of that nature. But at the same time I think it is incredibly detrimental as far as what we're putting our energy into. Part of what magick is is containing our energy, containing our chi, because we disperse it constantly. We disperse it in everything we think about, everything we talk about. And I saw a study come out about a week or so ago where scientists were pretty much saying we are now practically one generation away from the extinction of humanity due to climate change, global warming and all this sort of stuff. Yet the only thing that people were talking about on social media was Kanye West at the White House!

So it really can be detrimental to our development if you let the meaningless things or if you just spend hours and hours a day combing through Instagram photos of people taking selfies and things like that. I think you really have to be careful with everything you consume, and not just in a physical way but mentally and emotionally as well, as well as everything that you put out; I always try to be as mindful as I possibly can about whatever I take in through the Internet and whatever I put out through the Internet.

  • Damien Echols was a member of the West Memphis Three, a group of young men who were wrongfully convicted of murdering three children. He served nearly 20 years on death row before being exonerated and released.
  • Some have described his plight as exploitative, in that the case became a media circus first and a murder case second.
  • While in prison, he practiced High Magick, a form of theurgical ceremonies and rituals, much in the tradition of Eastern spirituality, but retooled for the Western psyche. He credits it with helping him survive 18 years on death row.



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Freud is renowned, but his ideas are ill-substantiated

The Oedipal complex, repressed memories, penis envy? Sigmund Freud's ideas are far-reaching, but few have withstood the onslaught of empirical evidence.

Mind & Brain
  • Sigmund Freud stands alongside Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein as one of history's best-known scientists.
  • Despite his claim of creating a new science, Freud's psychoanalysis is unfalsifiable and based on scant empirical evidence.
  • Studies continue to show that Freud's ideas are unfounded, and Freud has come under scrutiny for fabricating his most famous case studies.

Few thinkers are as celebrated as Sigmund Freud, a figure as well-known as Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein. Neurologist and the founder of psychoanalysis, Freud's ideas didn't simply shift the paradigms in academia and psychotherapy. They indelibly disseminated into our cultural consciousness. Ideas like transference, repression, the unconscious iceberg, and the superego are ubiquitous in today's popular discourse.

Despite this renown, Freud's ideas have proven to be ill-substantiated. Worse, it is now believed that Freud himself may have fabricated many of his results, opportunistically disregarding evidence with the conscious aim of promoting preferred beliefs.

"[Freud] really didn't test his ideas," Harold Takooshian, professor of psychology at Fordham University, told ATI. "He was just very persuasive. He said things no one said before, and said them in such a way that people actually moved from their homes to Vienna and study with him."

Unlike Darwin and Einstein, Freud's brand of psychology presents the impression of a scientific endeavor but ultimately lack two of vital scientific components: falsification and empirical evidence.

Psychoanalysis

Freud's therapeutic approach may be unfounded, but at least it was more humane than other therapies of the day. In 1903, this patient is being treated in "auto-conduction cage" as a part of his electrotherapy. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The discipline of psychotherapy is arguably Freud's greatest contribution to psychology. In the post-World War II era, psychoanalysis spread through Western academia, influencing not only psychotherapy but even fields such as literary criticism in profound ways.

The aim of psychoanalysis is to treat mental disorders housed in the patient's psyche. Proponents believe that such conflicts arise between conscious thoughts and unconscious drives and manifest as dreams, blunders, anxiety, depression, or neurosis. To help, therapists attempt to unearth unconscious desires that have been blocked by the mind's defense mechanisms. By raising repressed emotions and memories to the conscious fore, the therapist can liberate and help the patient heal.

That's the idea at least, but the psychoanalytic technique stands on shaky empirical ground. Data leans heavily on a therapist's arbitrary interpretations, offering no safe guards against presuppositions and implicit biases. And the free association method offers not buttress to the idea of unconscious motivation.

Don't get us wrong. Patients have improved and even claimed to be cured thanks to psychoanalytic therapy. However, the lack of methodological rigor means the division between effective treatment and placebo effect is ill-defined.

Repressed memories

Sigmund Freud, circa 1921. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Nor has Freud's concept of repressed memories held up. Many papers and articles have been written to dispel the confusion surrounding repressed (aka dissociated) memories. Their arguments center on two facts of the mind neurologists have become better acquainted with since Freud's day.

First, our memories are malleable, not perfect recordings of events stored on a biological hard drive. People forget things. Childhood memories fade or are revised to suit a preferred narrative. We recall blurry gists rather than clean, sharp images. Physical changes to the brain can result in loss of memory. These realities of our mental slipperiness can easily be misinterpreted under Freud's model as repression of trauma.

Second, people who face trauma and abuse often remember it. The release of stress hormones imprints the experience, strengthening neural connections and rendering it difficult to forget. It's one of the reasons victims continue to suffer long after. As the American Psychological Association points out, there is "little or no empirical support" for dissociated memory theory, and potential occurrences are a rarity, not the norm.

More worryingly, there is evidence that people are vulnerable to constructing false memories (aka pseudomemories). A 1996 study found it could use suggestion to make one-fifth of participants believe in a fictitious childhood memory in which they were lost in a mall. And a 2007 study found that a therapy-based recollection of childhood abuse "was less likely to be corroborated by other evidence than when the memories came without help."

This has led many to wonder if the expectations of psychoanalytic therapy may inadvertently become a self-fulfilling prophecy with some patients.

"The use of various dubious techniques by therapists and counselors aimed at recovering allegedly repressed memories of [trauma] can often produce detailed and horrific false memories," writes Chris French, a professor of psychology at Goldsmiths, University of London. "In fact, there is a consensus among scientists studying memory that traumatic events are more likely to be remembered than forgotten, often leading to post-traumatic stress disorder."

The Oedipal complex

The Blind Oedipus Commending His Children to the Gods by Benigne Gagneraux. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

During the phallic stage, children develop fierce erotic feelings for their opposite-sex parent. This desire, in turn, leads them to hate their same-sex parent. Boys wish to replace their father and possess their mother; girls become jealous of their mothers and desire their fathers. Since they can do neither, they repress those feelings for fear of reprisal. If unresolved, the complex can result in neurosis later in life.

That's the Oedipal complex in a nutshell. You'd think such a counterintuitive theory would require strong evidence to back it up, but that isn't the case.

Studies claiming to prove the Oedipal complex look to positive sexual imprinting — that is, the phenomenon in which people choose partners with physical characteristics matching their same-sex parent. For example, a man's wife and mother have the same eye color, or woman's husband and father sport a similar nose.

But such studies don't often show strong correlation. One study reporting "a correction of 92.8 percent between the relative jaw width of a man's mother and that of [his] mates" had to be retracted for factual errors and incorrect analysis. Studies showing causation seem absent from the literature, and as we'll see, the veracity of Freud's own case studies supporting the complex is openly questioned today.

Better supported, yet still hypothetical, is the Westermarck effect. Also called reverse sexual imprinting, the effect predicts that people develop a sexual aversion to those they grow up in close proximity with, as a mean to avoid inbreeding. The effect isn't just shown in parents and siblings; even step-siblings will grow sexual averse to each other if they grow up from early childhood.

An analysis published in Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology evaluated the literature on human mate choice. The analysis found little evidence for positive imprinting, citing study design flaws and an unwillingness of researchers to seek alternative explanations. In contrast, it found better support for negative sexual imprinting, though it did note the need for further research.

The Freudian slip

Mark notices Deborah enter the office whistling an upbeat tune. He turns to his coworker to say, "Deborah's pretty cheery this morning," but accidentally blunders, "Deborah's pretty cherry this morning." Simple slip up? Not according to Freud, who would label this a parapraxis. Today, it's colloquially known as a "Freudian slip."

"Almost invariably I discover a disturbing influence from something outside of the intended speech," Freud wrote in The Psychopathology of Everyday Life. "The disturbing element is a single unconscious thought, which comes to light through the special blunder."

In the Freudian view, Mark's mistaken word choice resulted from his unconscious desire for Deborah, as evident by the sexually-charged meanings of the word "cherry." But Rob Hartsuiker, a psycholinguist from Ghent University, says that such inferences miss the mark by ignoring how our brains process language.

According to Hartsuiker, our brains organize words by similarity and meaning. First, we must select the word in that network and then process the word's sounds. In this interplay, all sorts of conditions can prevent us from grasping the proper phonemes: inattention, sleepiness, recent activation, and even age. In a study co-authored by Hartsuiker, brain scans showed our minds can recognize and correct for taboo utterances internally.

"This is very typical, and it's also something Freud rather ignored," Hartsuiker told BBC. He added that evidence for true Freudian slips is scant.

Freud's case studies

Sergej Pankejeff, known as the "Wolf Man" in Freud's case study, claimed that Freud's analysis of his condition was "propaganda."

It's worth noting that there is much debate as to the extent that Freud falsified his own case studies. One famous example is the case of the "Wolf Man," real name Sergej Pankejeff. During their sessions, Pankejeff told Freud about a dream in which he was lying in bed and saw white wolves through an open window. Freud interpreted the dream as the manifestation of a repressed trauma. Specifically, he claimed that Pankejeff must have witnessed his parents in coitus.

For Freud this was case closed. He claimed Pankejeff successfully cured and his case as evidence for psychoanalysis's merit. Pankejeff disagreed. He found Freud's interpretation implausible and said that Freud's handling of his story was "propaganda." He remained in therapy on and off for over 60 years.

Many of Freud's other case studies, such "Dora" and "the Rat Man" cases, have come under similar scrutiny.

Sigmund Freud and his legacy

Freud's ideas may not live up to scientific inquiry, but their long shelf-life in film, literature, and criticism has created some fun readings of popular stories. Sometimes a face is just a face, but that face is a murderous phallic symbol. (Photo: Flickr)

Of course, there are many ideas we've left out. Homosexuality originating from arrested sexual development in anal phase? No way. Freudian psychosexual development theory? Unfalsifiable. Women's penis envy? Unfounded and insulting. Men's castration anxiety? Not in the way Freud meant it.

If Freud's legacy is so ill-informed, so unfounded, how did he and his cigars cast such a long shadow over the 20th century? Because there was nothing better to offer at the time.

When Freud came onto the scene, neurology was engaged in a giddy free-for-all. As New Yorker writer Louis Menand points out, the era's treatments included hypnosis, cocaine, hydrotherapy, female castration, and institutionalization. By contemporary standards, it was a horror show (as evident by these "treatments" featuring so prominently in our horror movies).

Psychoanalysis offered a comparably clement and humane alternative. "Freud's theories were like a flashlight in a candle factory," anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann told Menand.

But Freud and his advocates triumph his techniques as a science, and this is wrong. The empirical evidence for his ideas is limited and arbitrary, and his conclusions are unfalsifiable. The theory that explains every possible outcome explains none of them.

With that said, one might consider Freud's ideas to be a proto-science. As astrology heralded astronomy, and alchemy preceded chemistry, so to did Freud's psychoanalysis popularize psychology, paving the way for its more rapid development as a scientific discipline. But like astrology and alchemy, we should recognize Freud's ideas as the historic artifacts they are.

Why are so many objects in space shaped like discs?

It's one of the most consistent patterns in the unviverse. What causes it?

Videos
  • Spinning discs are everywhere – just look at our solar system, the rings of Saturn, and all the spiral galaxies in the universe.
  • Spinning discs are the result of two things: The force of gravity and a phenomenon in physics called the conservation of angular momentum.
  • Gravity brings matter together; the closer the matter gets, the more it accelerates – much like an ice skater who spins faster and faster the closer their arms get to their body. Then, this spinning cloud collapses due to up and down and diagonal collisions that cancel each other out until the only motion they have in common is the spin – and voila: A flat disc.