On the afternoon of August 6, 2004, Johnny Allen (43) picked up Cyntoia Brown (15) at a Nashville fast food joint and drove her to his home for an $150 evening of statutory rape (she initially asked for $200). By the end of the night, he was dead. Why he died became the question and controversy keeping Cyntoia, now 30-years old, in prison despite unprecedented mass efforts towards her just and merciful parole.
Unfortunately, someone lost his life to gun violence and I have respectful sympathy for that. Unfortunately, the shooter was not a police officer who, as case after case shows us, is allowed to fear for his life to get away with killing people who have no guns at all.
So a jury did not believe fear for her life was possible for Cyntoia: 15-year old driven to a strange neighborhood without her own transportation (she initially encountered Allen because she ventured to the gas station seeking a ride to a high-traffic area rife with prostitution customers, because her pimp threatened her to make more money or else). A jury saw this 15-year old girl as a robber who had sex with a man, waited for him to fall asleep and then shot him dead for his truck, gun and cash. Cyntoia had no prior criminal history.
Most Americans and lawmakers are estranged from the realities of teen parenthood cycles, foster care system maladies and the hideous effects of substance abuse on developing fetuses. Most Americans and lawmakers do not know infants in the care of addicts, and how harrowed their tiny psyches can become. For those individuals, she was not seen as a 16-year old child in the home of a strange man committing statutory rape.
Perhaps if she had been a child bride in a foreign country or a sex-trafficking victim promised smuggled entry to the U.S. in exchange for sex, more sympathy would have existed for her. Instead, Cyntoia’s half-Black racial identity in America (along with her admission to being a “hoe”) contextualized her in a swamp of unfair, lingering stereotypes about Black sexual deviance and criminality.
Some years ago, I wandered to news and television show excerpts regarding young girls in prison. Cyntoia’s story was buried within that, with snippets from her documentary and news reports revealing an outspoken spunky girl who could have gone places. I’ve taught young people since I was a young person; while all are valuable, some just sparkle with potential waiting to be harnessed and motivated by people who care. And, potential has to be protected. I could see Cyntoia’s adoptive mother did her best. The laws failed.
I discovered several online petitions to retry her or reverse her life sentence without possibility of parole. I signed them and I waited. I never saw any news reports saying she was released. I only saw more petitions. Despite once shaving her hair and eyebrows to become “unpretty” ( because attractiveness attracted “craziness” in her wise estimation), I saw her as remarkably pretty still. I know a plight she spent her girlhood fighting against. I remembered the young Black boys’ obsessions with light-skinned mixed girls. I confronted the fetishization of Black “girls” by grown men of all races when I grew up.
In any direction she may have looked, Cyntoia was a trophy of male sexual sport. Ultimately, she became the only person punished for the common hypersexualization all this objectification can lead the most stabilized young women to.
At a time, there was hope for a better life for Cyntoia.
She lived most of childhood with a loving, albeit informally set, foster home headed by a truck driver father and local schoolteacher Ellenette Brown. The African-American couple agreed to keep Cyntoia when Cyntoia’s mother Georgina Mitchell, one of Ellenette’s students, proved to be unfit. The 16-year old teen mom made a few attempts to hold on to Cyntoia in her infancy, but she was arrested several times for drug and alcohol-related offenses. Georgina was friends with the Browns’ son, and through him the upstanding couple intervened with long periods of keeping Cyntoia.
The arrangement became permanent. Yet, Cyntoia most certainly harbored confusion and a sense of abandonment by her biological mother. Georgina later re-appeared, somewhat sober but still troubled, to blame herself for Cyntoia’s heartbreaking fate.
The documentary Me Facing Life: Cyntoia’s Story presents the variety of empathetic child welfare workers and psychologists who met with Cyntoia, to help her through the time after her arrest leading up to her conviction. These mental health professionals posit that Cyntoia’s early abandonment by a mother who was an alcoholic while pregnant with her altered Cyntoia’s abilities to mature and think critically.
Undoubtedly, this is why Cyntoia remained so oddly hostile and rebellious to her adoptive mother, a beautiful and highly articulate woman. Throughout several of her tearful monologues Me Facing Life depicts, her punishing pain over the outcomes of her good deed is palpable. Ellenette operated as a surrogate mother for a host of children who saw her as someone to talk to and her home as a hangout spot. Perhaps it was this common overextension of the most upstanding members in troubled areas, where children are so hungry for safe role models, accounting for why Ellenette remained unaware of Cyntoia’s drug use and sexual activity.
It does not matter now. Mother and daughter made their peace, with the burning rage Cyntoia once expressed towards her sense of Ellenette’s indifference now cooled into forgiving acceptance. Unfortunately, those realizations and understandings did not happen before Cyntoia ran away repeatedly and fell in with a drug-pushing pimp called “Kut-throat.” She only met Johnny Allen because “Kut-Throat” put her on the stroll.
Cyntoia came of age in the new millennium era of widespread home internet use, which came to include widely-available internet porn. While my Generation X peers and I were shielded from contraband our parents may have picked up in the adult section of the video store or banned from watching certain stations late at night, Cyntoia is of the generation where first impressions of sex do not come from sappy Judy Blume novels and big brother’s girlie magazines. Technological zeniths makes it so that self-made sex ed classes can come online in real time and often with live broadcast visual depictions.
Cyntoia described her interpretation of pornography and its effect on her as seeing: “when men came up to guys and start taking off girls’ clothes and the girls just lays there or does whatever, screams and all that stuff. And I figured that’s what was supposed to happen…I felt obligated to do it.”
This observation led her to accumulate “a sex list” she documented in her journal. The list included a healthy roster of 36 male partners in scenarios Cyntoia recalls as happening largely without or before her consent. By her own calculation, only nine of these encounters included a condom. This devaluation accounts for her willingness to let Johnny Allen haggle her down from not only her initial asking price for her body ($200) but her stated preferred location for him to use it in (the hotel room where she stayed).
Boys are also seeing what girls see, so two generations of boys have been motorized by repetitive images of just going up to girls to take off their clothes. Cyntoia’s mindset was cemented even before Tinder dates or sex partners stopped talking and began to primarily relate through lines on screens or emojis. The language expanded to account for our need to signal behaviors such as “sexting” and “ghosting” into modern parlance.
I am unsure what my experiences would have been if I hadn’t grown up in the age where an R-rated HBO movie with brief love scenes was as far as it went for my giggling friends and me. Pornography disempowers the female body into operating as a male vessel and toy in willing disposition– without prior sensitivities, affections or even communication to the female shown first. This, and drugs her pimp loaded her up on, may have been behind Cyntoia’s weakness to not just ask the victim to take her back to her hotel.
Never mind during her taped admission to shooting the man she became afraid of (she used his gun he kept showing her), the interrogating officers promised to do everything to help her. They emphasized they would “work with the DA” if Cyntoia was honest. Without an attorney present, Cyntoia suffered a bait and switch; her honesty set the stage for a first-degree murder conviction.
By stroke of luck, a psychologist commissioned to interview Cyntoia knew filmmaker Daniel H. Birman. Birman was looking for something to film for the PBS Independent Lens Series. Without Me Facing Life: Cyntoia’s Story, we would have no live images to see just what a baby Cyntoia really was at the time all this happens- to know just how mentally compromised the men who used her, including her late victim, must have been.
Cyntoia’s native intelligence deduces it was not sexual need driving those men to use, abuse and demean her. She said all the men wanted to be “admired.” This was most men in her life, even her truck-driver father who constantly reminded the family how hard he worked to provide for them. They felt her purpose was to make them feel “great.” Cyntoia alleges this is what Johnny Allen wanted from her- delusions of grandeur unto signs of poor sanity Cyntoia feared.
She should not have been there; I know this much is true. She had a home and people who loved her, more than many children do. But, I have lived a lot of years and seen a lot of young girls; this world owed her more.Of course, there should be some punishment for crimes like drug use and prostitution. However Cyntoia’s punishment for 12 adults’ skepticism, cynicism and failure to see her as a scared little girl at the time is egregious.
The oldest profession in the world has detoured to grounds for sanctioned violence against sex-trafficked women in America and around the world, until a 15-year old woman of color received what female slaves may have if they refused their master’s sexual advances: death sentences at worst, and more tortured lives at best.
Recently renewed hope for Cyntoia’s freedom came from female celebrities who learned, haphazardly as I did, that the American justice system allows for grown men with criminal records to receive less time for taking a life in some states than a girl received for defending hers in Tennessee. Social media activism has proven to be an impotent throttle to end most inhumane realities, particularly when mass digital action concerns Black people. I almost wish a reality star had just quietly visited the White House about Cyntoia before the masses knew much about that top-level advocacy. This strategy recently proved to be a win-win PR stunt for reality stars and an overdue pardon for Alice Marie Johnson from a life sentence for drug charges.
Cyntoia’s story is the opposite of that now: viral all over the world and in national news headlines, while her Black body remains in a cage, and her rights to life and liberty are crushed in a political demolition derby where choosing sides matters more than choosing decency.
PETITIONS TO FREE CYNTOIA AVAILABLE AT CHANGE.ORG.