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Book: 'Free Cyntoia'


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: He was reaching for something.

CYNTOIA BROWN LONG: Yeah. I thought he was reaching for a gun. So I'm, like, [expletive] and so that's what he's doing. He - murder me or rape me or something.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: And what did you do?

BROWN LONG: I shot him.


That was Cyntoia Brown from a 2011 PBS documentary by filmmaker Daniel Birman. At the age of 16, she was sentenced to a minimum of 51 years in prison for the 2004 murder of a much older Nashville man who'd picked her up for sex. The documentary became a rallying point for a number of activists as well as A-list celebrities like Rihanna and Kim Kardashian-West, who argue that Brown was herself a victim of sex trafficking and repeated abuse, and her actions should have been seen in that light, and at the very least, her status as a juvenile should have been taken into account by the courts.

Well, after serving 15 years of her sentence, Brown was granted full clemency by Tennessee's governor in January, and she was released in August. Now, Cyntoia Brown Long - she's married - has written a new memoir that tells her story in her own words. It's called "Free Cyntoia: My Search For Redemption In The American Prison System." It was written with journalist Bethany Mauger. And Cynthia Brown Long is with us now from our bureau in New York.

Welcome. Thank you so much for being with us.

BROWN LONG: Thank you for having me. It's good to be here.

MARTIN: And this is where I want to offer a warning to some listeners who may be sensitive that some of the things we may talk about here may be difficult for some people to hear. So that being said, Cyntoia, you've been freed for a couple of months after 15 years in prison. That's half your life. I mean, so many changes - you're a newlywed. You're on a book tour. I have to ask you - what strikes you most? What's been the most remarkable thing about all this?

BROWN LONG: Just being free. It just feels good not to have someone breathing down my neck and criticizing every single thing I do, trying to give me direction for every single thing I do. Just - it's just great to be free, you know?

MARTIN: Did you think at some point that you would be free?

BROWN LONG: I was constantly thinking about it, dreaming, daydreaming, imagining it in my mind. I had always believed that I would be free someday.

MARTIN: And why - is that because you felt in your heart of hearts that you had not done anything wrong? Or is it that you felt in your heart of hearts that at some point, someone would see a deeper purpose to your being here? What do you think it is that gave you that hope at your core?

BROWN LONG: You know, I always knew that there were going to be consequences for what I did. But the consequences that I got - 51 years, life in prison - I just - it just didn't seem right. It didn't seem fair. I didn't feel that I was listened to with what happened. I had always known that, you know, what happened with me - that was more - if anything, it was manslaughter.

Of course, at the time, I felt I was defending myself. But it definitely wasn't first-degree murder. It wasn't what they said it was. So I had always hoped that some court somewhere would side with me. Somebody would see me, see things from my point of view, and I would get some type of relief.

MARTIN: The reason - I think, you know, your book and your story is so fascinating to many people because I think many people will wonder - like, how is it that you went from being in gifted and talented classes, to people seeing that you were very bright and that you were - obviously have intellectual gifts, right? That that was identified early. But how did you go in a really short time from being in gifted and talented classes, then to being in juvenile hall and, you know, being sort of in and out of the court system? What would you say it was that kind of triggered that behavior?

BROWN LONG: Yeah. I think that really speaks to the fact that, you know, it can literally happen to anyone. Like, anyone, anybody's child is subject to being swept up in the justice system. At that age, I wasn't making decisions as any other adult would. I wasn't capable of making really informed decisions. Most of my actions were based on impulse. They were based on just things that I felt that I needed for validation, for acceptance. It - I was just lost and just really trying to find my way. And I started in the system at a young age. So 12 years old was when I had first got my charge.

And then after that, it was like I kind of had this label on me. And, you know, I was labeled as the bad kid, and the school would constantly try to find reasons to put me somewhere else. And I actually started to feel, you know, safer in communities of so-called bad kids and just started doing one thing after another. I started drinking alcohol. I started stealing from stores just because. And, you know, before you know it, I was in state custody, and I ran from a facility in state custody, ended up on the streets of Nashville and started hanging with adults, started smoking weed. Just - it was just one thing after another, so it was kind of just this - just big snowball effect that happened.

MARTIN: A number of people who have heard your story will remember a person that you identify as Kut-Throat (ph), who's essentially your pimp. What is it - what hold did he have on you?

BROWN LONG: You know, what he sensed was vulnerability. He sensed something that was easy for him to exploit. I was walking around. I - No. 1, I didn't want to go home. And it's not that I was running from anything, but it's just that my parents were very strict. I definitely couldn't smoke weed or have sex or any of that when I was staying with my mother. And those were the things that I wanted to do. Those were the things that made me feel OK. Those were the things that the people that accepted me - that's what they were into, and that's what I wanted to be around.

But those people also taught me unhealthy behaviors. They taught me that I could use sex to get the things that I wanted, the things that I needed. I can use it to find places to stay. It can help me make sure that I eat. It can help me make sure that I can get money from men - and not exactly in any situation where I was being overtly propositioned for sex for men but more along the lines of having sugar daddies and just having men take care of you.

So that's where I was when I met Kut. And it didn't take much at all for him to say, you're going to do this or else. All it took was a bit of finessing.

MARTIN: Like what? Did you think it was your - I mean, did you think he was your boyfriend?


MARTIN: What did this - what did you...

BROWN LONG: Absolutely.

MARTIN: Well, I guess - but I think most people don't think of a boyfriend as somebody who tells their girlfriend to go have sex with other men for money so that he can get the money. So how did he...

BROWN LONG: But that's the thing.

MARTIN: You know, how did that work?

BROWN LONG: Yeah, that's the thing. I didn't really understand what a healthy relationship looked like. I was learning unhealthy behaviors from the woman that I was around. Here I was, thinking that this is my boyfriend, and I didn't look at myself as going out and trading sex for things. I just looked at, I'm getting money because we need money to survive. I'm contributing to the relationship. It was very subtle, like, the manipulations and the lies that we can believe.

And it took many years for me to look back and be, like, what, you know? Like, I didn't even say that I was, like, prostituting - which, of course, I don't even use that word because there's no such thing as a teen prostitute. But back when they were telling me that's what I was doing, it was, like, no, I wasn't. I was just going out. I was just getting money.

MARTIN: You know, we're gliding past a little bit, though, of a lot of the actual coercion that you did experience. And, you know, I'm not going to get into the details of it because I think that some of those are things that maybe you wanted to sit with yourself. But the fact is, of - a friend of your - who you thought was your boyfriend, a friend of your - Kut's, right...


MARTIN: ...Offering you a ride home. And then you wake up two days later not knowing what happened to you, bleeding.


MARTIN: OK. That is not something that you consented to. So when...


MARTIN: ...All of this was going on, what was going through your mind? Did you think it was - what, the price you had to pay?

BROWN LONG: You know, I had always thought, why did I let myself believe him? Like, why did I put myself in that position? I kept putting the blame on myself. So, for instance, with this friend, it was, like, why did I even get in the car with him when I saw that Kut wasn't with him? Like, all these questions - it all came back to me.

The first time I was raped, why did I believe him that we were going to go take this trip, and he was going to pay me all this money to accompany him? Like, how was I so stupid to believe that? And why did I accept that drink from him? Why did I accept that blunt? And I just blamed myself for these things. It was just, like, OK. I made a mistake here.

MARTIN: What is it that you think caused you that night to react the way you did?

BROWN LONG: You know, I've had a lot of time to just really process it and just think back. And I think so much of what happened that night - the feelings that I felt when I thought that something was going to happen to me - I can look back and think, you know, that's all that was happening to me. I was always threatened. I was always in survival mode. And so naturally, that's - I mean, it just kicked in.

There were certain cues that I had learned to recognize. There were certain signs that would pique me and help me to see that, OK, so this situation has gone bad. I need to get out of here. And I definitely think it was just that survival mode kicked in. And, you know, at the time, I felt that he was either reaching for a gun, something was going to happen. But it was just panic just went off inside of me, and I reacted.

MARTIN: What would you say, though, to people who are listening to our conversation who still don't believe that you should be free? I mean, their - I think their point of view is, you know, notwithstanding the fact that this is a 43-year-old, 40-plus-year-old man who picked you up for sex and was - you know, picked up a teenager for sex, and you clearly looked like a teenager.


MARTIN: He died, and you're still here. And I think there are those who would just say that it's - it just - it isn't right. Like, what would you say?

BROWN LONG: You know, I think that's the beauty of the country that we live in. Everybody is entitled to their opinions. I can't tell one person how they should feel or how they shouldn't feel. My thing is I'm just going to focus on what I feel God has called me to do. I'm just going to continue living my life and honoring my journey. Everyone can feel how they feel, and that's just my opinion.

MARTIN: That's Cyntoia Brown Long. Her memoir, "Free Cyntoia: My Search For Redemption In The American Prison System," is out now.

Cyntoia Brown Long, thank you so much for talking with us.

BROWN LONG: Thank you for having me, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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