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Book Review: Free Cyntoia: My Search for Redemption in the American Prison System by Cyntoia Brown-Long and Bethany Mauger

book coverSummary:
Cyntoia Brown was sentenced to life in prison for a murder she committed at the age of sixteen. Her case became national news when celebrities and activists made the hashtag #FreeCyntoia go viral in 2017. She was granted full clemency after having served fifteen years, walking out a free woman on August 7, 2019.

This is her story, in her own words.

Review:
I think how people will respond to this memoir will depend a lot on what they believe justice to be. Do certain levels of crime deserve never-ending punishment? Can people change or be redeemed? Then there’s another level of do teenagers, people who are still growing and whose brains have not fully developed (brains do not complete developing until approximately age 25), deserve to spend the rest of their lives being punished for an act committed at this age? This memoir aims to be proof that people can be redeemed and, indeed, if we want people to change, they need to have hope that an end could be in sight for them.

The fact of the matter is that no one but Cyntoia, God, and Johnny Michael Allen know what truly happened that night. Cyntoia has never denied killing Johnny but has maintained it was in self-defense. The only facts that we know are that she, a sixteen-year-old who had been being sold for sex by her pimp, was picked up by Johnny Allen, a 43-year-old, and brought home with him, and they were alone in his bedroom together. Both potential stories told by each side are possible. It’s possible he brought her home for sex, like Cyntoia says. It’s possible he brought her home in an attempt to take care of a teenager he found living on the street, like Johnny Allen’s family says. Regardless, Cyntoia ended up killing him. The memoir dances around exactly what happened, with Cyntoia describing him picking her up and bringing her home but then describing the night as a red haze with no details. Was that to protect a guilty conscience or to protect details that would hurt Johnny Allens’ family that no one really needs to know? It’s very hard to say. But in a way I think this is appropriate because Cyntoia admits that she killed him, and the true point of the story is first, how did this girl end up here and second, can she be redeemed?

How she got here contains two of the more interesting aspects of the memoir. First, the school to prison pipeline is painfully obvious in Cyntoia’s story. She originally was placed in a gifted class, acted up some (didn’t get along with the teacher) and was downgraded. She started to be told over and over again she was bad. It was all downhill from there with her hanging out with the crowd of kids who were always in trouble and being constantly told she was bad and not listened to. The police were even called on her at school for her not wanting to give the teacher her purse in detention. If we want our children to rise to their potential, having school tied to prison in the way that it is is not the solution, and treating children like they’re “bad” when they’re just children who mess up sometimes is sending them a clear message that many children will just accept or fail to.

The other issue that came up during one of Cyntoia’s trials is that her birth mother admits to drinking alcohol while she was pregnant, and some doctors have diagnosed her as having fetal alcohol spectrum disorder. This is relevant, because fetal alcohol spectrum disorder can cause poor judgment, hyperactivity, poor reasoning, and problems in school. It seems, given both doctors’ testimonies her birth mother’s admission, and Cyntoia’s own perspective that this sad tale is likely, therefore, partially entwined with alcohol abuse. Cyntoia herself states multiple times that she doesn’t know why she has tended to act so impulsively. This could partially help explain it and be another of the many tentacles of how alcohol impacts our society with poor outcomes and violence.

Cyntoia ultimately chooses to have faith that she could possibly be redeemed and decides, even if she can’t be, she doesn’t want to waste her life. She goes to a unique program available in her prison that allows her to go to college. She pursues self-improvement and mentorship of others, and she works to help young girls who have also been trafficked like she was. (It is not a question that Cyntoia was trafficked as she was underage and had a pimp). Cyntoia attests much of her self-improvement to her new-found faith that she solidified after meeting her now-husband via letters in jail. (He felt called to write to her). A spiritual practice is important for anyone to have a well-rounded recovery, and I think it is also significant that the school that offered the college program inside the prison was also a religious school. I am glad for her that she has found comfort and faith, but I also hope it’s not too entwined with her husband and is her own source of strength. While healthy relationships are important, and it’s nice to share a faith, it’s also important for that strength to come from oneself and not from relying upon another fallible human being.

Overall, I think this shows a personal look at the school to prison pipeline, the potential impact of alcohol on a child’s life, and how redemption could look. It’s important to come into this book with an open mind and a willingness to not crave more than Cyntoia is willing to share, nor to think that this book will reveal all the truth or all the answers.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Purchased

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Book Review: The Last Manchu: The Autobiography of Henry Pu Yi, Last Emperor of China by Henry Pu Yi, translated by Paul Kramer

August 16, 2011 3 comments

Small Asian boy in dragon robes.Summary:
Henry Pu Yi became the last emperor of China when he was almost three years old.  During the chaos of a post-WWI China fighting between republics and war lords, he would periodically rule, be a figurehead, or be in hiding on foreign-held embassy land.  Working with the Japanese in WWII he sought to refind his throne by ruling as the figure-head of the Japanese-held Manchuria region.  He then was held prisoner by the Soviets for five years before being turned over to the communist Chinese for thought reform.

Review:
Although the translator states that Henry Pu Yi’s life is an excellent way to examine how China survived so many upheavals in the early 20th century, after reading the autobiography I simply cannot agree.  Henry Pu Yi’s life was incredibly unique and absolutely not a reflection of what was really going on in China at the time.  If anything, he seemed to operate from an oblivious perspective up until the communists kind of smacked him in the face with reality.  For instance, during the time of chaos, civil wars, and famine in China prior to WWII, he states:

Just as food was cooked in huge quantities and not eaten, so was a vast amount of clothing made which was never worn. (location 544)

When reflecting on his past perspectives, it is evident that his past self did not understand why such wastefulness would infuriate China’s poor or make them push for a republic via Chiang Kai-shek.  Of course, one cannot entirely blame Henry Pu Yi for this short-sightedness.  He was raised from a young age being treated as a god by all those around him, being told it was his destiny to be the holy emperor.  That would mess with anyone’s mind.  However, as he became older he did have teachers and advisors who tried to enlighten him, he just refused to listen.

Eventually, Henry Pu Yi reached this odd mental compromise where he believed everything Western was good, except for their ruling system.

I also became far more convinced than I had ever been in the days when Johnston was with me that everything foreign was good and everything Chinese, except the Imperial System, was bad.  (location 2184)

His selfish mindset saw everything good he himself could garner from the west, but didn’t seek out anything positive to change or do for his people.  This self-centeredness in a ruler is disturbing at best.

This is even more evident during the time of his life when Pu Yi was puppet ruling for Japan in Manchukuo (Manchuria).  Pu Yi increasingly came to fear more and more for his life as it became more evident that Japan would lose the war.  The more afraid he was, the more he beat members of his household and staff.  Yet he simultaneously claimed to be a good Buddhist who would not even harm a fly.  It seems the only thing Pu Yi excelled at was compartmentalizing his actions.  A former servant of Pu Yi summed up his personality quite eloquently during one of the criticism sessions of the communist thought reform:

Pu Yi is both cruel and afraid of death. He is suspicious, tricky and a hypocrite. When he beat or scolded his servants, it was not for mistakes they committed, but due to his own mood at the time. (location 4020)

Pu Yi, for most of his life, was incredibly selfish.  He was obsessed with his own death and life and with maintaining his emperor status.  He cared little to nothing for those around him or for the people of China.  One must wonder how things may have been different if a strong, selfless man had been made emperor during the same time period.

Thus for most of the autobiography, we’re reading about a most unsympathetic man from his own perspective.  That can become a bit tough to endure.  The light of the autobiography comes in the last quarter of the book, though, when he recounts his time in thought reform.

The translator refers to this time period as Pu Yi being brainwashed.  I can’t say that it appeared that way to me at all.  Pu Yi was not tortured, made to starve, or beaten.  He was simply placed in prison and reformed.  Frankly, I think his time in communist prison did him a world of good.  Suddenly he was having to fend for himself.  Where before he never even had to open a door or mend a button, suddenly he did.  Slowly the communists gave him more and more responsibilities so that eventually he was on the same cleaning and work rotation as the other men in the prison.  Pu Yi says himself that he came to realize how truly useless he was at doing anything worthwhile.  Although at first he blames those who raised him, he comes to acknowledge his own bad character eventually, being ashamed for how he behaved.  When he is eventually deemed reformed by the communists, he enters society as an equal and works hard to do his fair part.  Personally I think if American prison systems could have this kind of excellent 180 result, we would soon see a much smaller inmate population.  For isn’t the purpose of prison supposed to be reform?  And one cannot deny that Pu Yi came out a better man than he went in, even if communist China has made many other mistakes, it is evident with Pu Yi things were handled quite well.  A man was reformed and made useful in society instead of senselessly killed off.

It is a bit of a wait to get to the interesting thought reform portion of the book, however.  Pretty much everything before that makes you want to attack Pu Yi through the pages.  His style is a bit rambling, although the translator claims that’s partly just Chinese culture versus Western culture.  It is an interesting read, but I do think it will only really hold the attention of those with a strong interest in China.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Source: Amazon

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