Cyntoia Brown-Long Answers Questions About Her Emotional New Memoir And What's Next
'Free Cyntoia: My Search for Redemption in the American Prison System' is out now.
Two months fresh out of prison, 31-year-old Cyntoia Brown-Long has just released her memoir Free Cynotia: My Search for Redemption in the American Prison System. It is a one-of-a-kind coming of age story with 24 chapters narrating her journey to atonement. Cyntoia takes readers through her childhood as she reflects on the various experiences that sent her down the path of juvenile crime, eventually leading to her life sentence for first-degree murder.
After 15 years of serving a life sentence, the outrage around what many deemed an unfair punishment for a young sex trafficking victim coupled with the hard work of activists and lawyers led to her clemency.
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Free Cyntoia starts readers off with a trip down memory lane, set in Cyntoia's early childhood home in Tennessee.
The early chapters offer details that ease readers into the events that led to Cyntoia meeting her abuser, with titles like "The View From The Outside" and "Tales of a Displaced Princess." Cyntoia recalls being told that she was adopted when she was only in kindergarten, though her parents had actually adopted her at eight months old. She remembers being teased for not looking like her parents due to her lighter complexion and their darker skin tone. Not knowing where she fit in among her peers, Cyntoia hated that the boys and girls would call her white. Her struggle with identity would follow her up into adulthood.
Troubled Teen Years
Chapters "Damaged" and "Powerless" were some of the more difficult sections to read, partly because of the sensitive nature of Cyntoia’s sexual and physical abuse, with intense, honest, heavy accounts of rape as a teenager. According to Cyntoia, her adoptive parents never taught her about sex, and running away from her mother’s strict upbringing led her into bigger problems, including meeting the abuser who forced her into prostitution and ultimately led her down the path that would land her in prison, a man named Kut Throat.
Cyntoia met Kut at a gas station and admired his looks and charm. Not long into their relationship, he began raping her regularly and pimping her out to his friends and strangers, like 43-year-old real estate agent Johnny Allen. When Allen picked then-16-year-old Cyntoia up from a Sonic drive-in restaurant, a life-altering chain of events followed.
"Everything that happened at his house plays in my memory like a movie out of order," Cyntoia said in her memoir.
After Allen drove her to his home, feeling threatened by his behavior, Cyntoia fatally shot him.
The Case That Shocked The Internet
In the tearjerking, goosebump-inducing chapter titled "Facing Life," Cyntoia shares what she and her family went through while awaiting her hearing that determined if she would be tried as an adult or juvenile. After being tried as an adult, Cyntoia was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison.
Although her story got the attention of various celebrities and advocates, Cyntoia was amazed that her case was getting nationwide recognition. In the chapter “Going Viral,” her candidness regarding all the attention offered some lighthearted relief to the book.
“How in the world was this lady from Keeping Up With the Kardashians, this lady who regularly blew up the internet with her photos, now posting about me like I was something?” Cyntoia wrote.
She was pleased that the attention put a spotlight not only on her own trial, but also the injustices that Black and brown men and women experience throughout the court system.
Growing Into Adulthood And Out Of Prison
During the last few chapters, Cyntoia continues down her road to redemption, discussing her educational and spiritual milestones reflective of the significant extent of her growth. Impressively, Cyntoia received her bachelor's degree and mentored troubled young girls through her capstone project called GLITTER while in prison.
Eventually, Cyntoia Brown-Long was released from prison on August 7, 2019. Today she's married to former Pretty Ricky member turned Christian rapper Jamie Long. However, the newlywed only briefly touches on their relationship, in her memoir.
Free Cyntoia is a straightforward transformation story that touches on the act of forgiveness and the necessity of healing past traumas. Overall, I rate the memoir a seven out of 10. It is crafted nicely, with well thought out chapter titles and easy to follow language, I was left wanting more.
So what's next, now that Cyntoia is free and where does she see herself in the future? In addition to getting a sneak peek of her memoir, Cyntoia was gracious enough to discuss her experiences and what inspired her to write the book with the Blavity fam.
Blavity: What first inspired you to write your book? How did you approach writing the difficult parts?
Cyntoia Brown-Long: I actually started writing several years ago, but kept getting stuck. It wasn’t until I was at a prison church service, in 2018 that a minister told me that the Lord said, “Write the book.” So I started, and it just started to flow out of me.
As far as the difficult parts, a lot of prayer! Once I began to work with writer Bethany Mauger, it became harder to explain those moments to someone who continued to peel back layer after layer, detail upon detail. It forced me to reflect and process on an even deeper level than I had ever done before. It was just a matter of allowing myself to go back to those difficult moments and relive them on the pages.
Blavity: So much related to the issue of incarceration centers around Black men. What do you want people to know about the reality of being incarcerated as a woman of color? Can you share if the "Exonerated Five’s" story has impacted you, and if you have plans to collaborate with them on any prison reform [initiatives]?
Brown-Long: In my experience, incarcerated women in general face many hardships when going through the court process and while serving out their sentences. I can’t tell you how many stories I’ve heard, how many women I know whose voices were simply drowned out in the process. I think when it comes to women, in particular, there’s a higher level of infantilization that happens that makes it harder for women to advocate for themselves and to have their truths spoken.
I have not had a chance to watch the "Exonerated Five's" story. I haven’t been home from prison long, and I didn’t have access to it at all while I was incarcerated. My husband told me some of the story, but I look forward to watching it myself.
I have, however, had the pleasure of hearing Mr. Anthony Ray Hinton tell his story, and I was absolutely captivated. It saddens me to no end that we live in a country when men and women are wrongly convicted and lose years of their lives behind bars.
I look forward to seeing reform within our justice system on many fronts, and I am committed to doing what I can to contribute to the cause.
Blavity: How did you use your degree while in prison and how do you plan to use it now that you're free? Do you have any further plans for your GLITTER capstone?
Brown-Long: While in prison, opportunities to use my degree we’re limited, but now that I am free I plan to put it to good use, as my husband and I run our nonprofit organization The Foundation for Justice, Freedom, and Mercy (JFAM Foundation). Once we are fully operational in 2020, we plan to launch the GLITTER Project as our first campaign. For now, I continue to teach GLITTER to girls that I mentor in groups here in the Nashville area.
Blavity: Your case got lots of support from celebs and advocates. Are there any that have helped you through this writing process or that you're now connected with?
Brown-Long: At this moment, I have not met or spoken with any of the celebs or advocates who supported me other than close friends and family, but the support from everyone from all walks of life has been greatly appreciated. I can only hope the advocacy continues for all of the other people who are still fighting their way through the system.
Blavity: What has been the biggest adjustment since your release and what do you want readers to take away from your story?
Brown-Long: I have been really blessed and that my adjustment to being free has been seamless. I can’t think of anything that has taken a huge adjustment to get used to. In my opinion, it’s being confined that was the biggest adjustment. Finally being free comes to me as naturally as breathing. What I want readers, above all, to take away from my story is that God is full of grace for all people. He’s very real, and there is true freedom in Jesus Christ — all glory to God!