Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory and the Mixing of Blessings
Joe R and I walked into Alice Tully Hall last night and I spotted him right away, on a balcony entrance above us: Damien Echols, surveying the scene. Right there, in a sharp black shirt and blue Bono shades — just right there! I gave Joe the "fame ahoy" arm-whap and pointed up. Then I stopped in the middle of the swirl of ticket-holders and looked at Damien like you look at a rainbow. I wanted to take a picture, but I knew I wouldn't need one. Damien, rocking civilian hair product and the tattoo he just got, a real one, not sausage grease and ballpoint ink. Just…right there. Unbelievable.
The movie itself is about what you expect, if you've seen either of the other Paradise Lost films or followed the case, and as such, it's almost beside the point. I would almost rather have seen the version the filmmakers had nearly in the can before the Alford plea — the ending to the story that WM3 supporters had feared, the end of the line — to see what got changed, and how they shaped a narrative that, essentially, still hadn't changed at that point. And then I would like to see, in two years' time, PL 4: Mixed Blessings, and see their lives, their workaday average lives, lizard-brain driving around on errands, dealing with customer-service phone menus and pesty housepets, their bafflement at the whole Twilight thing, just right here alongside the rest of us. The moment when "Anyone else want another beer?" happens without thinking.
Because it isn't a movie; it's their lives. I loved going to that showing, getting to sit there with them, in the same row as Devil's Knot author Mara Leveritt, right in front of defense attorney Don Horgan (Joe R does not mess around with the seat-picking, folks). I loved giving them a standing ovation at the end as they waved from the balcony, all three of them, just right there. My "Free the West Memphis Three" t-shirt is laundered as soft as chenille by now, and I can't tell you how wonderful to see the Three in street clothes. And how wonderful that a bunch of people got together to right a wrong, and didn't give up for a very long time. The charismatically weird, and now deeply congenial, John Mark Byers makes a reference in PL3 to something he read "on that internet," which is a quintessential Byers locution guaranteed to make a 9600-baud veteran like myself chuckle, but WM3.org rolled a huge boulder up the same hill many many times, and good for them. Twitter had the best info about the news feeds the day of the plea; Mr. Stupidhead and I sat riveted to my laptop during the press conferences. "That internet" can do great things.
But it can't do everything, and the "Purgatory" in the film's title still pertains. In response to a question about what went through his mind when sentence was pronounced, Damien — in a tone suggesting tears, or suppressed fury, or both — said that it's impossible to describe to anyone who hasn't gone through it, that we could never imagine. This isn't entirely true; we can imagine. On top of feeling physically uncomfortable (side effects of Damien's prolonged solitary confinement include arthritis, vitamin deficiencies, and shot eyesight), he's living with his wife for the first time. He's learning adult life for the first time. He's dealing with technologies that have reached their third or fourth generation since he went inside. The pressure of living with a death sentence has lifted, but as a result, now he's floating, untethered, except perhaps by the weight of the expectations of millions of strangers — bloggers, famous musicians and actors, donors, advocates, all invested in his life and sure of its worth. Maybe he doesn't feel that those who helped save his life now lay claim to it, but it's how I'd feel. "Every gift has its price," my grandmother used to say, and I'd feel that, too.
The movie is playing festivals for a few more weeks, I believe, before it comes to HBO in January, and as a movie, sure, I'd recommend it. It's still a great story, as painful and maddening and rich as ever. But the credits haven't rolled on it for the Three; the killer remains at large. The time is gone. I enjoyed welcoming them back, but as happy endings go, this may have neither. Best of luck, friends.
Tags: Damien Echols Don Horgan Joe R John Mark Byers Mara Leveritt movies Mr. Stupidhead West Memphis 3