By Molly Secours
Imagine a young girl that has been abandoned early on by her biological mother and grandmother — who both share a history of emotional instability (including drug and alcohol abuse) and several generations of suicidal behavior. In spite of being adopted and nurtured by a loving family, by her teen years she begins to display emotional instability and erratic behavior and is arrested several times for offenses that land her in a juvenile facility.
By the age of 16 she is living on the street, taking drugs and running with an abuser who forces her to have sex with other men — sometimes for money. And then one day, after being ordered to bring in some cash, she goes home with a strange man she meets at a fast food restaurant parking lot and who is found dead in his house, the next day.
According to the Juvenile Justice Foundation there are at least 2250 juveniles in the U.S. sentenced to life without parole for offenses committed when they were under 18 years of age. Cyntoia Brown of Nashville is but one young person who will spend the rest of her life in prison.
Several months ago, I was surprised to 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 it was from a young person I hadn’t seen since 2004 and have thought a great deal about over the last several years: Cyntoia Brown
At 16, Brown took the life of a 43 year-old Real Estate Agent she met at a fast food parking lot in Murfreesboro (south of Nashville) and who brought 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 Johnny Allen was found in his bed, naked and shot in the back of the head and 16 year old Brown was tried as an adult, convicted and facing life in prison.
I first met Brown when she was 15 at Woodland Hills Juvenile Detention Center where I was teaching a life-skills class using video. The intention of the program was to prepare them with youth employment interview skills but my personal goal was limited to one thing per session: reflecting back one positive strength about themselves they could not see. Anything beyond was considered a bonus.
Brown was fiery, sarcastic, smart and desperate for attention. The first time we scripted scenes that would be videotaped, she made a point of informing the group that some day she would star in a movie–about her. Given her charismatic personality, there was little doubt this was true.
Getting to know her over a several month period was fascinating in that 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 Brown was her keen intelligence and high level of compassion and how often it all seemed buried under chaos and confusion. That Brown was damaged, was clear but how and why, I never knew.
A year later, Brown’s face appeared on television–only it wasn’t a starring role in a film but one devastating 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 and in 2006 she was tried as an adult and received a life sentence. Her name and the word murderer have become synonymous.
This month, on Tuesday, March 1 at 9 p.m. CST, a film called Me Facing Life: Cyntoia’s Story by critically acclaimed filmmaker, Dan Birman will be featured on NPT and PBS stations nationwide as part of the Independent Lens series. The film will also be screened in advance as part of the ITVS Community Cinema Nashville series, on Saturday, February 26 at 3:00 (reception at 2:30) at the downtown branch of the Nashville Public Library. The screening is free and open to the public.
The film is not about retrying the case or implying innocence or guilt. It is about Brown and the complex and convoluted physical and emotional circumstances that resulted in 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, the National Institutes of Health 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 Brown’s adoptive mother and a forensic psychiatrist unearth a side of Brown that was never portrayed in the media. The interviews with Brown’s biological mother and grandmother reveal their tragic struggles with mental illness, drug addiction and suicidal tendencies shed light on Brown’s propensity for self destructive behaviors.
It is difficult to listen to these woman expose their most personal and vulnerable struggles without wondering how Brown’s life might have taken a different turn with more stable beginnings. And for some it demands 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?
What is most striking in the film is the recent footage of Brown living at the Tennessee Prison For Women. She has grown into what some might call ‘a lady’ who is composed and somehow, seems at peace.
Before an early screening, Birman got permission to show Brown the film on a laptop computer. As Brown watched footage of herself as a 16 year old using off color language in a manic moment, Birman said she said, “I was such a potty mouth.”
Six years later, as I read the neatly typed words on the page that inquire after my health and offer prayers for my cancer recovery, I am struck not only by the compassion and concern but the excellent composition and use of language. She has been taking extension courses through David Lipscomb University in Nashville and it is evident she is the intelligent teenager I remember.
As I fold the letter I am moved by the dreams of a troubled young girl who predicted starring in her own film — even though it is not the movie she had in mind.
Molly Secours is a writer/filmmaker/speaker who has used her artistic talents to effect social change and public policy regarding inequities in health care, education, criminal justice etc. In addition to being a Huffington Post writer, Secours’ writings have appeared in mainstream and internet magazines and newspapers and she has appeared on local and national television and radio talk shows including CNN’s Paul Zahn Now and is a weekly co-host of “Freestyle” with veteran Nashville journalist Ron Wynn. As a Cancer survivor, Secours writes about many issues from a healing perspective and draws the parallels between battling a deadly disease and confronting and disrupting systemic and institutional privilege–a symptom of an imbalanced and unhealthy society.
Through her film company “One Woman Show Productions” and her documentary films, Secours has earned national recognition in the world of social justice. Molly has produced videos for Death Penalty Institute and her health care documentary “Faces Of TennCare: Putting A Human Face On Tennessee’s Health Care Failure” is currently being aired on The Documentary Channel. Casting a national spotlight on Tennessee’s health care crisis, the film has been praised by members of the United States Congress including representatives John Conyers, Jesse Jackson Jr. and from Senator Edward Kennedy.-
A version of this essay originally appeared in The Huffington Post.