Failure and Deliverance

Where were you doing from 1994-2011? Pretty much anything you say can be accurately followed up with, “…and Damien Echols was sitting in prison for a crime he didn’t commit.” If you’ve never heard of the case of the West Memphis Three, then now’s the time to educate yourself. I had seen the Paradise Lost films and the most recent West of Memphis, but it was in listening to Damien read his book Life After Death that moved me toward a deeper understanding of the injustice endured by him, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Miskelley. Damien narrates his story, and it’s one that will stay with you.  Besides being a great reader with a hypnotic voice, beautifully cadenced with the lilt of his Arkansas Delta accent, his prose is laced with intricately recalled childhood memories, descriptions of death row in all its wretchedness, and spiritual insights from someone with a staggering will to maintain his humanity. For the last year, I’ve been very interested in thinking about failure as a fruitful starting place for challenging mainstream conceptions of success (see Judith Halberstam’s The Queer Art of Failure for more). But what happens when one is failed, as opposed to being a failure? In order to fail, one has to first act. Someone like Damien was discouraged or actively prevented from doing so at many, many times in his, due to either conditions of poverty-related exclusion or the concerted efforts of those who misunderstood and feared him based on their own ignorance. It was the failure of the criminal justice system that ensured Damien would not even get the opportunity to do, fail, succeed, or anything else. And yet, he was delivered from that colossal failure in both surviving and outliving a death sentence. Somehow, there is, to use one of Damien’s favorite words, “magick” in failure.

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