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 it was from a young person I hadn't seen since 2004 and have thought a great deal about over the last several years.
At 16, Cyntoia Brown took the life of a 43 year-old Real Estate Agent she met at a fast food parking lot in Murfreesboro Tennessee (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.
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. 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 incommunicative-- 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, Cyntoias 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. Last month, during the Nashville Film Festival, a critically acclaimed filmmaker name Dan Birman held a preview screening of a documentary (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 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. Interviews with Brown's biological mother and grandmother reveal an extended history of emotional instability including drug and alcohol abuse, addiction and several generations of suicidal behavior. 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 Cyntoia 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 the Nashville Film Festival screening, Birman got permission to show Cyntoia 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.