Like most people, I am surprised when I receive a letter in the mail the old-fashioned way: with a postage stamp, delivered to my front door. It took me a few moments to realize that a recent letter was from a young person I hadn’t seen since 2004 and have thought about a great deal over the last several years.
At 16, Cyntoia Brown took the life of a 43-year-old Realtor she met at a Murfreesboro Pike Sonic and who took her to his house. Whether this was a sexual transaction gone awry between a 16-year-old girl desperate for money and scared of being killed or, as friends and family of the victim have claimed, the slaying of a good Samaritan, we will never know.
What we know is that Johnny Allen was found in his bed, naked and shot in the back of the head, and Cyntoia was tried as an adult, convicted and is facing life in prison.
I first met Cyntoia when she was 15 at Woodland Hills Juvenile Detention Center, where I was teaching a life-skills class using video. The intent of the program was to prepare young people with employment interview skills, but my personal goal was limited to one thing per session: reflecting back to them one positive strength about themselves they could not see. Anything beyond was
considered a bonus.
Cyntoia was fiery, sarcastic, smart and desperate for attention. The first time we scripted scenes that would be videotaped, Cyntoia made a point of informing the group that some day she would star in a movie — about her.
Getting to know her over several months was fascinating, and every meeting was like the first. One day she was lively, engaging and funny, the next sullen, distracted and uncommunicative — hardly a remarkable description of adolescent behavior.
What was striking and distinctive about Cyntoia was her keen intelligence and high level of compassion, and how often it all seemed buried under chaos and confusion. That she was damaged was clear, but how and why I never knew.
A year later, Cyntoia’s face appeared on television, only it wasn’t a starring role in a film but one chapter of her life. From that first news report, the worst moment of her
life would now define her. A 16-year old girl became known as a ruthless killer.
Last month, during the Nashville Film Festival, an award-winning filmmaker named Dan Birman held a preview screening of a documentary (a work in progress) called Me Facing Life: Cyntoia’s Story. The film is not about retrying the case or implying innocence or guilt. It is about Cyntoia and the complex and convoluted physical and emotional circumstances that resulted in her mental illness and one man’s untimely death. And perhaps it raises an eyebrow about trying the most vulnerable of youths in an adult system.
Along with numerous scientific studies, a National Institutes of Health study suggests that the region of the brain that inhibits risky behavior is not fully formed until age 25, and that until the brain is fully developed, youth are not capable of making decisions rationally. Add on a history of mental illness and it is even more troubling.
The revealing interviews with Cyntoia’s adoptive mother, a forensic psychiatrist and the girl’s former attorney unearth a side of her that was never portrayed in the media. Interviews with Cyntoia’s biological mother and grandmother reveal an extended family history of emotional instability, including drug and alcohol abuse, addiction and suicide.
It is difficult to listen to these women expose their most personal and vulnerable struggles without wondering how Cyntoia’s life might have differed with more stable beginnings. And for some it raises the question: Why do we continue to endorse, tolerate and even vote for those involved in criminal justice who deem a young life — especially one mentally unstable — so disposable?
Before the film festival screening, Birman got permission to show Cyntoia the film on a laptop computer. As she watched footage of herself as a 16-year-old using off-color language in a manic moment, Birman said she placed her hand over her mouth and said, “I was such a potty mouth. I can’t believe I used to talk like that.”
Six years later, as I read the neatly typed words on the letter she sent, inquiring about my health and offering prayers for my cancer recovery, I am struck not only by the compassion and concern but also the excellent composition and use of language. She has been taking classes through Lipscomb University, and it is evident she is still some version of the intelligent teenager I remember.
I am still moved by the dreams of a troubled young girl who predicted she would star in her own film, even though it’s not the movie she had in mind.
Secours is a writer/filmmaker/speaker and co-host of “Freestyle” on WFSK-88.1FM. Visit her at www.mollysecours.com