Life begins at 16: ‘The 16-Year Old Killer: Cyntoia’s Story’.

Cyntoia Brown at the Juvenile Detention Centre, Nashville.

There’s always that little bit more you can get from documentaries as opposed to reality tv shows or soaps. The obvious being, the former follows the intricate workings of real life, following real people, not broadcast solely for entertainment purposes. Documentaries endeavour to both entertain and inform, providing the avid viewer with an influx of information and not just a ‘good old laugh’. So, I was intrigued (to say the least!) to see that BBC3 had decided to return to the ‘power of the documentary’ with the emotional story of 16-year old, Cyntoia Brown.

Producer Daniel Birman decided to follow the most disturbing events of Cyntoia’s teenage life that led to her trail. Cyntoia faced charges of first degree murder to 43-year old, Johnny Allen. There was no question that Cyntoia was a child prostitute. Or that Mr Allen was one of her many ‘clients’. Birman simply held the camera on her personal story as he was granted access to her history and her future.

Whilst sat glued to the television screen, I found myself drawn to the strangely mature teenager looking back at me. She reflected on her lifestyle as if she was reading from a book, each disturbing detail spoken in an unnerving tone of acceptance. Her story began as she left the home of her adoptive mother Ellenette Brown, forced to sell her body in order to survive. From an early age, engaging in sexual acts was all she knew and thus all she knew how to do. Cyntoia leads the viewer forward through her arrest, her trial and the first six years of her confinement, where I discovered that there was more to the story than murder and aggravated robbery. I started to wonder whether that was what Birman wanted me to see.

“You don’t understand what I did. I killed somebody – I executed him.” – As Cyntoia spoke to her adoptive mother, her lexical choices astounded me. She was aware of the severity of her crime and yet you could hear the innocence still apparent in her voice.

“…Because I heard the blood pour. It was like water pouring on the ground.” Spoken so bluntly, but there was no malice. No resentment. Just acknowledgement. Cyntoia Brown knew she was destined for this fate and that scared me.

Throughout the documentary, there was constant reminders that she was in fact a child and yet she experienced no true aspect of childhood. Sex at the age of 7. She comments on a list of sexual partners, reading each name as an item on a shopping list. Abandoned by her biological mother, Georgina Mitchell. Seemingly saved by Ellenette who acknowledged Cyntoia’s “erratic” and “possessive” nature but did not ponder on it. It seems Birman is probing me to answer questions I am reluctant to answer. Why did Cyntoia’s reasonable home life overshadow the horrors beneath? Why didn’t anyone suspect her emotional deterioration? Juvenile forensic psychiatrist, Dr William Bernet offers an insight into the mind behind the face of Cyntoia, offering an interesting outlook on genetics and of a history that may have been pre-determined by biology and circumstance. Ironically, history is seen to repeat itself.

I wonder if Birman had not taken the time to follow Cyntoia’s story, whether I would have taken time to listen to the background information. If in August 2004,I had simply read the article in black and white print, would I have understood what I do now. Violence is becoming increasingly common amongst the clusters of children within society and we need to stop and evaluate the possible causes. Assumptions about youth culture should be questioned, pre-determined notions altered.

As the documentary ends, Cyntoia reads a letter that acknowledges her past, present and future. As she reads, it is clear she is an articulate individual, aware that her mind is wasted. Her growth throughout the documentary is paramount.

Birman unveils prostitution at its worse, violence in its peak, abuse to the most vulnerable and drugs in its most destructive form. In doing this, I realised that there is always a story behind the face. The reality is that the face is becoming younger as time progresses. As a university graduate, at the tender age of 20, my life is just beginning. My opportunities are endless, my obstacles manageable. There was a time where I felt lost, left in the vast lands of the working environment to fend for myself. Now, I appreciate my freedom as I recall that Cyntoia’s future is defined by her confinement.

Isn’t life supposed to begin at 16?