Life After Death Question #12: Damien Got Letters

by Damien Echols

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Life After Death Question #12: Damien Got Letters

Unread postby fireflydances » Sat Dec 08, 2012 1:18 am

While in prison Damien received an extraordinary amount of mail -- both good and bad. Let's read his words:

Being in prison and having a case as well-known as mine puts me in an odd position. In a way, complete strangers come to feel that they know me just because they've watched me on television or read about me. It takes away their inhibitions when they approach me. I don’t mind it at all; it keeps my days interesting. Sometimes it provokes a great deal of thought, and sometimes it leaves me flabbergasted.

The letters receive from people come from a variety of mental and emotional planes. I see the entire spectrum of human life. I’m like the bartender without the bar; people just tell me their stories. Some of them just want to get something off their chests, as if they just need to tell someone. Others look at me as some sort of oracle, and ask me questions about major life decisions. People going through divorces, people losing children, people considering abortions -- they all write and tell me their personal business. Others write and ask me about mine.


There's another type of mail that Damien received:

Hate mail is the terms used to describe the letters from people who haven't actually stopped to learn the facts about my case and never get past their initial knee-jerk reaction. As a matter of fact I could count the non-supportive letters I've received on one hand, whereas I could build a small mountain out of the letters I've received from people expressing support and wanting to know how they can help.

Most people who spew hatred aren't very intelligent or motivated. They tend to be lazy, and if for some reason they are coaxed into picking up a pen, their messages are mostly incoherent and largely illiterate. Their spelling and sentence structure tends to be atrocious, so it's hard to take offense at anything they'd say even when they do write. After all, if they're not motivated or intelligent enough to research the spelling of a word in the dictionary, then you know they certainly aren't going to take the time to research the case.


There is an incredible amount here worth discussing. So we are going to take it piece by piece. Answer only that which interests you.

First, the culture of celebrity. We are living in a world that routinely focuses on remarkable difference -- stunning difference-- either raising it on high, or tearing it to pieces. The celebrity is equally the movie star, the famous writer, and also the infamous criminal, the woman who has killed her own child. We need to see them, write to them, stare at them on TV -- positive and negative energy, like a whirlwind, grabbing a single individual out of real time and either idolizes or demonizes them. What are we doing? Why are we doing it? Should we be doing it?

Intimacy. Damien talks about being the "bartender without the bar." Which is a really interesting analogy, because gets at something that is both part of the positive heart of celebrity and also exists in our everyday culture. People will open more to strangers than to close friends. And what they bring has a quality of deep sharing. If you've ever been involved in these sort of discussions, you know they draw both you and the one you are speaking with outside time. Eternal discussions of pain, loss, beauty, love -- some of the most startlingly vulnerable conversations you'll ever have. You don't forget them. Again, what are we doing in seeking out these deep connections? Why?

Hatred. Is there ever a rational excuse for hatred? If so, why? What do you think of Damien's reaction to the hate mail he received?
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Re: Life After Death Question #12: Damien Got Letters

Unread postby Theresa » Sun Dec 09, 2012 12:29 am

I guess I'll start the ball rolling on this multi-faceted question.

A bartender without a bar...that's a very interesting way of wording what Damien experienced, however I just don't understand why anyone would write a convict on death row to ask for advice on life decisions. By no stretch of the imagination would Damien ever be considered a "Dear Abby" or "Emily Post" in being able to give advice. That's just very weird to me.

Now, hate mail...I disagree with Damien's comment that those writers aren't very intelligent or motivated. After reading some of the awful things that get posted in forums or in the comment section of news sites, I can tell that many of the writers are intelligent, and the fact that they take the time to write shows that they're motivated. However, those letters and posts are a direct reflection of the writer's prejudice toward a subject rather than the truth. Hatred is an ugly emotion that consumes the hater.

Damien did have the right attitude in dismissing those who wrote those kind of letters. He had enough to worry about without accepting the small-minded hatred of people he didn't even know.

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Re: Life After Death Question #12: Damien Got Letters

Unread postby nebraska » Sun Dec 09, 2012 10:02 am

fireflydances wrote:Intimacy. Damien talks about being the "bartender without the bar." People will open more to strangers than to close friends. And what they bring has a quality of deep sharing. If you've ever been involved in these sort of discussions, you know they draw both you and the one you are speaking with outside time. Eternal discussions of pain, loss, beauty, love -- some of the most startlingly vulnerable conversations you'll ever have. You don't forget them. Again, what are we doing in seeking out these deep connections? Why?



I really don't think it is intimacy so much as anonymity. Strangers have much less power to hurt us than the people close to us. Strangers can listen without the prejudice of shared history. You can share/vent with a stranger and then go back to your real life relieved but free of having the discussion held over your head. Discussion with a stranger takes place in a safety.

And for some of us, writing comes much easier than face-to-face conversation.

I wonder how that relates to this discussion. There is an anonymous quality to the Zone in that we don't even share our own names unless we agree to do it privately away from the group. And there has certainly been deep sharing here!

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Re: Life After Death Question #12: Damien Got Letters

Unread postby Liz » Sun Dec 09, 2012 3:06 pm

I agree with both of you on why people would share such thoughts about themselves. I agree with nebraska that it is much easier to share personal thoughts anonymously AND in writing. I do get the bartender analogy. Hairdresser would be another one. However, like Theresa said, why to a convict on death row? Could it be that he was somewhat of a celebrity and one that was possibly innocent?
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Re: Life After Death Question #12: Damien Got Letters

Unread postby nebraska » Sun Dec 09, 2012 5:45 pm

Liz wrote:I agree with both of you on why people would share such thoughts about themselves. I agree with nebraska that it is much easier to share personal thoughts anonymously AND in writing. I do get the bartender analogy. Hairdresser would be another one. However, like Theresa said, why to a convict on death row? Could it be that he was somewhat of a celebrity and one that was possibly innocent?

... and a captive audience, as it were. Because of Damien's situation, he was likely to have enough time on his hands and need the distraction -- he might have been seen as someone who would "listen" just because of having little else to do in his life, and be a safe outlet because he was unlikely to run telling tales about people who wrote to him.

I think with anyone of a fame or celebrity status, we also build an image around them based on who we want them to be or imagine that they really are. I see it sometimes here at the Zone when people are commenting on what Johnny likes/thinks/does, as if we really know more about him than his public persona. Shades of Pomerance's book Johnny Depp Stars Here. :hypnotic:

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Re: Life After Death Question #12: Damien Got Letters

Unread postby Snowcat » Tue Dec 11, 2012 12:12 pm

These are such profound questions, I wanted to think about them for a while.
These are my thoughts.
First, why the fascination or interest in celebrity?
If I had spent my life as a hermit, completely apart from society and civilization as we know it, in some remote locale, with very little or no exposure to others nor media, I would not know of this phenomenon called "celebrity". So, for me, 'who stands out' started with the messages I got at home or in school when very young ie. someone's special because of his or her talents, or someone's bad because of their behavior or some silly notion, such as, they look different. Also, the exposure to the cartoons, with the super-powered heroes, such as "Underdog", and the fairy tales. The fairy tales made me fantasize about being a princess, they made it look like such a magical existence. And the fairy tale ogres, too, these were the real bad ones! Of course, to add, the associated toys that further influenced the fantasy.
I could go on about other examples, and what just came to mind are the magical figures associated with the holidays. So, my young impressionable mind was being manipulated, early!
I think, perhaps that's partly why. Someone "special" gets our attention maybe because it's a deviation from the mundane. Most of us are programmed to be interested in and compare ourselves to other people. It's part of our socialization. It's also interesting to look beyond our own little world. It has been widely communicated, too, that knowledge is power. And because people really make the world go round, knowledge of others is part of expanding what we know and allows us to make sense of the world.

In my case, it is not true that I open up more to strangers than to close friends. I quite intimately share my experiences with my closest friends, most of whom I have known for decades. We have been through each others' triumphs and tragedies together. There is an unshakable trust, steadfast loyalty and support, and non-judgement between my dearest friends and I.
However, I have certainly opened up to strangers. They can be safe sounding boards, with little or no potential consequence as a result of what you've shared. And they just happened to be there, and listened, when I needed someone to talk to. And an outsider can sometimes give a perspective you hadn't considered before when they are not as emotionally up close and personal to you. I have also been the listener and sometimes been very, very grateful to be there at the right time, particularly when admonishing a young person to be very careful, sometimes pointing them in the direction of safe shelter!! So, we are inter-dependent, really. And definitely the most precious outcome of dialogue with a stranger, is when you click with that stranger, leading to further sharing and it gels into a very cherished friendship!! :love:
This is good for the soul!!
And the reason why I keep my identity here a secret, is because I am not telling just one stranger in an intimate conversation!
I feel really bad for celebrities when aspects about them or their lives are exposed to the world, especially about things they'd rather we didn't know.
:freaked:

As for Damien's reaction to his hate-mail, I think it fundamentally comes from being hurt by it. Those letters were insult to injury because of his innocence.
Sure there's a reason for hatred. When someone has not only done something, but a string of deliberate offenses towards you, I think it's human to at least experience anger. You feel abused and if the hurtful actions or words do not stop, and there is never a apology, you are not going to like that person very much. I have learned, trying to be nice, to show them you are a good person, trying to make them see that they have no reason to be mean to you, doesn't always turn them into nicer people.
I will add that I think if you let hatred get the better of you and you take it further by doing horrible things to the one you hate, then that's something of concern. Similarly, when jealousy drives one to spiteful actions, it has crossed over from a normal human emotion into being immature.
He said, "Wow, Very Nice!", and signed my painting. TIFF 2015.

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Re: Life After Death Question #12: Damien Got Letters

Unread postby Liz » Tue Dec 11, 2012 3:05 pm

Both nebraska and Snowcat have good points.

Nebraska, it is definitely true that we tend to build an image around a celebrity based on our own imagination. And it can veer to the positive extreme or negative depending on our like or dislike for the celebrity and by how that celebrity is painted by the media. I have been guilty of this myself.

Snowcat, you got me thinking more on the idea of celebrity. And I don’t think there would be this phenomena without the media. Without movies, radio, TV and now the Internet, it would not be at such proportions. And then there is how that celebrity is painted by the media that influences us.

I wonder if it is also related to the idea that there is a global interest, which links us all together, which brings us back to the “socialization” that you speak of, Snowcat.
You can't judge a book by its cover.

The only thing that matters is the ending. It's the most important part of the story.

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Re: Life After Death Question #12: Damien Got Letters

Unread postby Liz » Tue Dec 11, 2012 3:12 pm

I need to add that I was appalled by the letters from Joe Biden and John Kerry asking for money. This could go under one of those editorial columns entitled "What were they thinking?" :please:
You can't judge a book by its cover.

The only thing that matters is the ending. It's the most important part of the story.

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Re: Life After Death Question #12: Damien Got Letters

Unread postby nebraska » Tue Dec 11, 2012 5:19 pm

Liz wrote:I need to add that I was appalled by the letters from Joe Biden and John Kerry asking for money. This could go under one of those editorial columns entitled "What were they thinking?" :please:

The beauty of mailing lists. :cool: Who knows how Damien got on one? My daughter received mail for a good eight years after she was dead and I frequently read about pets receiving offers of credit cards and such. Mailing lists and robo calls, the unsavory side effects of modern technology. :banghead:


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