Lorri Davis found love — and justice — through 5,000 letters
Almost 20 years ago, Lorri Davis went to see a documentary on the West Memphis Three, and was so moved by the story of Damien Echols that she wrote to him. Today, he is out of prison, they are married and a book of their correspondence is being published.
Seattle Times columnist
The one letter that Lorri Davis can’t find is perhaps the most important one. The first one.
The one she wrote to Damien Echols in April 1996, not long after she saw “Paradise Lost,” the documentary film about how he and two friends went to prison for the rape and murder of three young boys — a crime they maintained they didn’t commit.
Davis had no reason to care about a guy on death row, to reach out to this dark-haired young man with hollowed eyes and a bent toward something he called “majick.”
And yet, the landscape architect with a nice New York apartment and a wonderful circle of friends couldn’t help herself.
“I felt such empathy for Damien,” Davis said the other day from her home in Harlem. “It was grief that hung on for a couple of weeks, and I thought, ‘What’s going on? Who is helping him?’ ”
Her first letter to him “pretty much poured out on the page,” Davis said. “I wanted to let him know that I knew that he was there and what happened to him was horrible and that it was a grave injustice for everyone involved and that the film was being seen.
“And then I put a stamp on it.”
Five thousand letters, 18 years, two vows and an Alford plea later, Davis, 50, and Echols, 39, are living together as man and wife — and co-authors.
They have published “Yours for Eternity,” a book of their correspondence that will bring them to Seattle’s Town Hall at 7:30 p.m. Friday (June 27).
(The book follows Echols’ “Life After Death,” published one year after his 2011 release from an Arkansas prison.)
Their appearance is titled “Keeping Love Alive Behind Bars,” which is covered in the letters — not only their thoughts and feelings, but the actions they took to ameliorate their separation until 2011. That’s when Echols entered an Alford plea — maintaining his innocence, but acknowledging there was enough evidence to convince a jury otherwise.
They read the same book. They watched movies at the same time. They had a “moon water” ritual in which they captured the light of the moon in a glass of water and drank it at an agreed-upon time.
And even though she didn’t tell her family or employer about her relationship with Echols for four years, Davis barely considered whether she was in too deep.
“I am sure those thoughts crossed my mind, but I probably didn’t heed them at all because it was such an adventure writing to him and so much fun,” she said. “It didn’t feel like I was writing a guy in prison. It was a guy sending me out to buy books that we would read together. It was a fantasy world that we were both partaking in and it was fun.”
It only became less so when Davis moved to Arkansas to be closer to Echols, and to take up his cause more seriously.
“Then it became real, and I realized this huge responsibility I had taken on,” she remembered.
She didn’t tell anyone that she was leaving New York to be closer to Echols, and once in Arkansas, didn’t tell anyone why she was there.
“No one in Arkansas knew what I was doing, and it wasn’t good for my health,” she said, declining to elaborate. “When you live a lie, it is going to show up one way or another.
“But I loved him and there was no quitting.”
Over time, she became Echols’ voice to the outside world, working with musicians like Eddie Vedder and Natalie Maines and director Peter Jackson to help fund his legal defense, and eventually get him out.
Not long after, The New York Times Magazine published a piece about them, including some of the letters. Davis was mortified.
“I felt like hiding, I felt so exposed,” she said.
When it was suggested they publish a book of their letters, Davis resisted at first, then decided she wanted people separated from their partners to see how to keep their relationship strong.
“I just wanted other people to see what we went through,” she said.
They started by having their letters transcribed, and then went through them with their editor. The idea was to span the arc of their relationship — even including some of their so-called “sex letters.”
“I had a problem with them,” Davis said. “And Damien wanted them in.”
They both agreed not to include letters with more personal things about their families. Her grandparents being “kind of racist.” That sort of thing.
“I left some of the sex letters in there because this is the story of a relationship and relationships have everything: sex and phone bills and jealousy,” Davis said. “And if you don’t have a bit of everything it is not going to ring true.”
It was a difficult process, though, for both of them.
“It was that feeling when you move and you’re uprooting everything in your life and you see these memories and you have to go through them,” she said. “Damien was traumatized. He just put the book down and said, ‘I can’t do it.’ ”
Davis struggled with recording the audiobook, reading her words out loud.
“It took us through a lot of emotions and brought back a lot of pain,” she said. “But also things from the beginning that were really great.”
Almost three years since Echols’ release, they are still adjusting. Davis estimates it will take him two more years “to finally get comfortable in the world.”
Echols, who went to prison at age 19, has post-traumatic stress disorder and some physical problems from being incarcerated for so long. Spatial development. He can’t read a map. Trains and planes are difficult, tight spaces and all.
“He’s gone through hell, but he has had some extraordinary experiences and is finding his way in the world,” Davis said. “He amazes me over and over.”
They meditate for an hour every morning, and then Echols works out.
But he won’t let her cook for him.
“He just goes around the city and eats,” she said. “How can you not, you know?”
It’s strange to think now that Davis almost didn’t go to see “Paradise Lost” that night.
It was a Monday and raining, so you know there would be no cabs. The three-hour movie didn’t start until 9 p.m., and she had work the next morning.
But she went. And it turned out to be a decision that changed her life.
“It could have been some subconscious voice,” she said. “I believe in all kinds of things, in all kinds of energies in the world. I went, and I don’t know why.
“But I am glad. I am glad for whatever it was.”
Nicole Brodeur: firstname.lastname@example.org
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