An Essay on “Cyntoia’s Story”

For my first real post (real as in about something, other than just talking about myself), I thought it might be fun to share an essay I wrote in 2013 for a Criminology course I was taking. Since the exciting news of Cyntoia Brown’s imminent release from prison, this essay might be an interesting lil’ read for anyone with an interest in Criminology and it’s application to this particular case.

This essay should be read as an attempt to apply certain sociological/criminological theories to Cyntoia’s background and the killing of Johnny Mitchell Allen. The assignment was specifically to apply these theories after watching the documentary Me Facing Life: Cyntoia’s Story.

Just letting readers know in case you were looking for more of a summary of the case; I would recommend watching the documentary if you have not yet seen it!

23 November, 2013

            Cyntoia Brown was a 16 year old girl who found herself sentenced to over 50 years in prison for murder. It had been a possibility to try her as a juvenile, but the court opted to try her as an adult. At the time of the killing, Cyntoia had a “boyfriend,” a violent drug dealer nicknamed “kutt-throat.” The much older man turned her out on the streets to earn money through sex work. On the night in question, Cyntoia had been picked up by a “john” and taken to his home. She was uncomfortable with the situation, as she would normally be taken to a hotel. Being taken to a personal residence increases the level of risk in an already risky encounter; no one knew where she was at this random man’s house. According to Cyntoia, the man became aggressive. As he leaned over to reach for something beside the bed, Cyntoia shot him in the back of the head.

To understand what occurred here, one needs to understand more about Cyntoia herself. She came from a very turbulent background. Her mother was young and struggled with addiction. In fact, she conceded that she had used drugs and drank heavily while pregnant with Cyntoia. Because of her unstable lifestyle, Cyntoia was bounced around to many homes, always staying with different people. This put her in an extremely vulnerable position, and, unsurprisingly, she was sexually and physically abused.

Using Travis Hirschi’s social bond theory, we can clearly trace the patterns that contributed to Cyntoia’s life direction. Hirschi asserts that “…delinquency takes place when a person’s bonds to society are weakened or broken, thus reducing personal stakes in conformity…These bonds to society consist of four components: attachment, commitment, involvement, and belief” (Hagan 174). In Cyntoia’s case, we can go down the list and point out each of the ways that these attachments eluded her due to the circumstances of her life.

“Attachment refers to a bond with others (such as family and peers) and important institutions” (Hagan 174). Cyntoia’s bonds with others were consistently severed as she was bounced around from place to place. Her mother ended up in prison, cementing the sense of abandonment. With no protection from a caring authority figure that she felt she could trust, she experienced abuse at the hands of men from a young age to the time of her commitment offense. These experiences taught her not to trust or rely on anyone, making her more likely to react without thinking when she perceived a threat from the man that she killed.

In fact, her life experiences influenced everything about her life leading up to this event. Becoming involved in drugs and sex work, along with the lack of life choices presented to her, can be attributed in part to a lack of meaningful attachments throughout the duration of her childhood.

“Commitment involves the degree to which an individual maintains a vested interest in the social and economic system” (Hagan 174). Because of Cyntoia’s background and because she was so young at the time of the offense, she never had a chance to gain a vested interest in a career or “normal” position in society. She was born into an “underworld” culture that is incredibly difficult to escape without support.

“Involvement entails engagement in legitimate school and recreational activities that either leaves too little time to get into trouble, or bind’s one’s status to yet other important groups whose esteem one wishes to maintain” (Hagan 174). Cyntoia’s social circle was largely made up of violent individuals such as “kutt-throat.” Since birth, the actions of the adults around her instilled different priorities than those born into more fortunate circumstances. She was never given the option to be a part of the more positive activities that, ideally, teenagers would partake in. For example, for a tenth-grade student to be on their school’s sports team, they must refrain from criminal activities and keep their grades to a certain standard. The desire to be a part of this group creates the drive to conform to those standards. Sadly, Cyntoia’s concerns were much graver than joining the soccer team due to circumstances outside of her control.

“Belief in the conventional norms and values system and the law acts as a bond to society” (Hagan 174). Because Cyntoia was relegated to a criminal lifestyle from a young age, it stands to reason that she would not hold up “conventional norms and values.” How is one in her situation, especially one so young, supposed to reconcile such values with their own survival? She was not given the tools to even begin to live by social norms and conventions, so she did not.

Reckless’s containment theory can also be applied to Cyntoia’s situation. Containment theory “…holds that individuals have various social controls (containments) that assist them in resisting pressures that draw them toward criminality” (Hagan 173). Cyntoia experienced every “layer of social pressures” laid out in this theory, including “external pressures” which “push an individual toward criminality” such as “poor living conditions, adverse economic conditions, minority group membership, and the lack of legitimate opportunities” (Hagan 173).

She also experienced “external pulls” which “draw individuals away from social norms and are exerted from without by bad companions, deviant subcultures, and media influences” (Hagan 173).

Also present were “internal pressures” which “push an individual toward criminality; they include personality contingencies such as inner tensions, feelings of inferiority or inadequacy, mental conflict, organic defects, and the like” (Hagan 173). Cyntoia grew up being bounced around from place to place due to her mother’s instability, and eventually became part of a similar deviant subculture. The individuals that she associated with often exhibited violent and abusive tendencies, further traumatizing her. The adults around her affirmed negative behaviors by example. Ongoing sexual abuse from childhood leading up to abuse from boyfriends and associates as a teen would undoubtedly create internal pressures; it is commonplace for those who have experienced sexual abuse to have a whole host of issues with trauma, self-esteem, and other mental conflicts. Additionally, since her mother was purported to have used drugs and alcohol while pregnant with Cyntoia, organic effects on her developing brain whilst enduring such trauma cannot be ruled out as a contributor to her emotional state at the time. There is also a strong history of suicidal tendencies and actions in her family, adding even more possibilities to the mix in terms of contributors to Cyntoia’s mental and emotional issues at the time of the event in question.

She also lacked the containments necessary to reign in potential problems. “Inner containments refer to the internalization of conventional behavioral values and the development of personality characteristics that enable one to resist pressures. Strong self-concept, identity, and strong resistance to frustration serve as examples” (Hagan 173). Again, Cyntoia’s background was not conducive to the development of strong conventional behavioral values and self-concept. She, therefore, did not have a strong sense of identity or strong resistance to frustration.

“Outer containments are represented by effective family and near support systems that assist in reinforcing conventionality and insulating the individual from the assault of outside pressures” (Hagan 173). Cyntoia did not grow up with a support system that affirmed conventional behavioral values or self-esteem. Therefore, there was nothing to mitigate the negative influences that existed in her life, making it much more likely that she would fall victim to those influences.

*Author Note: at this point, I went off the theory script and ranted a bit; this case pissed me off to no end!*

When viewing this documentary, one has to wonder what the judge, jury, prosecutor, and even the defense attorney could have possibly been thinking. First of all, I cannot fathom the decision to charge Cyntoia as an adult. At the time of the killing, she was a 15 year old sex worker. The situation was treated as though the killing occurred in the midst of a consensual sexual encounter between two adults! What about the fact that her adult boyfriend was pimping her out? Or the fact that she claims to have been raped and abused repeatedly by said boyfriend and his associates? Didn’t they consider the possibility that the only reason she was out looking for “clients” was because she was doing so on orders from a violent, adult drug dealer? Why did they appear to believe that the man she killed was just a man she was sleeping with, rather than her current abuser in a seemingly never-ending string of abusers? Every single one of these questions should cast doubt as to her level of guilt based on her state of mind, her age, and the possibilities when it comes to the motives of the man she killed. If there is any reasonable doubt (there is!) as to her guilt of first degree murder, she should not have been convicted. Even with a conviction, over 50 years is an absurdly harsh sentence. They made assumptions about her based on very little information; the main assumption being that her life is worthless, and she should spend all of it locked in prison.

Any one of us could have found ourselves in the very same situation if we had been born into the circumstances that Cyntoia was. She was so young when convicted that it is impossible to say where her life may have headed if she wasn’t. She still IS young, for that matter, and, by all accounts, is an intelligent young woman who takes advantage of the college classes offered in prison. I hope for her release; she deserves a chance to lead a happy, free life; free of the influence of predators seeking to use and abuse her.

Hagan, F. E. (2012). Introduction to Criminology: Theories, Methods, and Criminal Behavior. Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications.

And that’s it! I’m so happy that all these years later, Cyntoia will get her freedom. I expect that we will see great things from her when it comes to advocacy and helping people experiencing issues similar to what she went through.

So, tell me, what do you think about this case? Any thoughts on the theories I touched on in this essay? One thing I’ve learned from studying Sociology is that no single theory is entirely comprehensive; there are always gaps to fill in.

Thanks for reading, buds!

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