"When I looked at him, I had hearts for eyes. But when he looked at me, he just saw dollar signs..."
Cyntoia Brown-Long is wasting no time turning her test into a testimony. In light of the release of her book, Free Cyntoia: My Search for Redemption in the American Prison System, the former inmate turned sex-trafficking activist stopped by The Riverside Church in New York City, where she discussed her life journey from rebellious teen, to a righteous woman of God.
On Tuesday (October 15), the 31-year-old Brown sat down for a Q&A interview moderated by Dr. Traci E. Alexander. While there, Brown detailed her 15 year stint in prison, where she was sentenced to 51 years in prison for killing a man who soliticed a then underage Brown for sex.
Brown, who is currently married to former Pretty Ricky singer-turned-Christian artist, Jamie "J" Long, also discussed her road to redemption, her new found faith in God and gave advice to young women all over.
BET Digital was on the scene, and was sure to grab a few important highlights from the event. Check out a few key takeaways Brown revealed during her candid interview.
During a discussion on religion and what brought about Brown's decision to turn her life over to God, she credits her husband, Jamie Long, for her strength in faith.
"My husband helped me repair my relationship with God, and he helped me to understand what it meant to have a relationship with God," a blushing Brown told the crowd.
She continued, "I met my husband in January 2017, and it was at a time where all my appeals had been denied. They give you three appeals in the state of Tennessee. You get your direct appeal, you get your post conviction appeal, then after you use all those appeals, you can petition the federal courts."
Brown states that her husband would constantly speak words of encouragement to her via letters and phone calls.
"My chances [of being released] were slim to none. He wrote me around that time and he told me that God was bigger than any sentence, than any judge and any jury. At the time, I was like, 'Okay, but if God is going to do this, why didn't He open my appeal? Like, I understand what you're saying, but I can't see it.' I didn't understand that faith is bigger than what you can't see.
Brown said that during a breakdown, her husband helped her have a breakthrough.
"I remember breaking down on the phone one day, and I felt like my chance [at freedom] seemed to be gone. It seemed like I was really going to spend the rest of my life in prison. So I was crying and [Jamie] said, 'What did I tell you when I first wrote you? The Lord told me to tell you that you're going to get out. Are you going to believe in man's [word], or are you going to believe in what God says?' So I went on to tell him to teach me, 'How did you come to have this relationship with Him?'
When asked how young women and girls, who are heading down the wrong path, can turn their life around to avoid jail time, Brown says that the real prison break starts from within.
"Before I was actually in a physical prison, I was bound up in prisons of shame, prisons of anger, prisons of feeling like I needed to do certain things to be accepted by other peopl and God freed me from that," Brown proclaimed.
"There is freedom in Jesus," she continued. "The same that He did for me, He can do for each and every one of you, and He will."
"At the time that I was caught up with Kut Throat, I was in this place where I was looking for acceptance in other people, and looking to be desired. I wanted nothing more than to please him, and to make him want me, and to make him love me because I felt that's what I needed," Brown admits.
She continued, "When you're in a position like that, you're so vulnerable, and you'll do pretty much anything, to do whatever he says, or whatever he feels will make him happy. I can remember, when I was coming back [from jobs], and I'd be thinking, with money crumpled up in my pocket, 'When I get back, he's going to be so happy. This is the time that he's going to be so happy with what I've done and with what I'm bringing to the table. That I've [done work] in this relationship. This is going to prove it to him,' and of course it doesn't."
Brown then scanned the room, and warned women about the dangers of being a vulnerable individual, dealing with an abusive partner.
"When I looked at him, I had hearts for eyes, but when he looked at me, he just saw dollar signs. That wasn't love. Love is not killing yourself to please somebody. It's not giving so much of yourself that you have nothing left."
During a walk down memory lane, Brown revealed that she was adopted by a loving family, however, her internal struggle with her biracial background led to her feelings of adversity. It would be those same feelings that would lead to a young Brown rebelling at school, where she confessed to getting into fights with both students and teachers.
"I found refuge in being an outcast because I felt like I didn't have to work so hard to be accepted in other places. When the schools tried to hide me by putting me in alternative schools, or when the courts tried to hide me by placing me in [certain] facilities, I found refuge in there. I guess you would call it a society of misfits, and the more I started to surround myself in those environments, the more I got comfortable with certain behaviors," Brown admitted.
The 31-year-old detailed how her rebellous ways in school soon trickled to the streets, where her life would ultimately change forever.
"I started doing drugs, and I started living on the streets in Nashville. There I met a man, who I thought at the time was my boyfriend, but I've come to know him as my 'Trafficker' now. I started having sex with men for money, and one of the men that I met, I felt trapped and I felt uncomfortable in the situation. I [thought I] was going to be harmed and I acted to defend myself, but the courts didn't see it that way, so I was convicted of first degree felony murder and I was sentenced at the age of 16. In the state of Tennessee, that means you would have to serve 51 calendar years before you're eligible for any kind of release. So basically they told me I would die n prison, but God said otherwise."
In a recent interview, Brown expresses remorse for her victim, Johnny Allen. "You know, there’s times I wonder was I really, like, in real life, in danger? Or was that just in my head?," she told NBC News.
When asked about this sentiment at her speaking engagement, Brown explains that her traumatic experiences with abusive men is what heightened her fear of Allen, who she states had "guns in his cupboards," and also acted strangely around her.
"When I said, 'I don't know if it was in my head,' There's a lot of things that, when they happen to you, you kind of expect certain things. So at the time that I had committed my crime, I had come to expect for men to react violently to me, and so I reacted in the same way. So was it true? Or was that just my instincts?"
When asked by an audience member if there is one thing Brown would change about the justice system, she swiftly replies, "definitely the excessive sentences."
"The sentences that are handed out to people are just ridiculous," Brown begins. "Like in Tennessee with the 51 year law - how is 51 years different than life without parole? You're not even giving someone the opportunity [to change]. Then you have teenagers - kids - how are you trying them as adults? Kids and adults are not the same. You can't say that they have the same level of 'cope-ability,' so how can the sentences be the same? That definitely needs to change. That's ridiculous!"
During a discussion on life lessons, and one bit of advice Cyntoia would offer up to her younger self, she urges both "Young Cyntoia" and young women to slow down.
"Stay at home (laughs). I wish I would've just never left home. I wish I would've left men alone; I would definitely tell my younger self to leave men alone until I'm 30, and that I'm not missing out on nothing!"
Brown also reiterates the importance of self-love, adding that self-acceptance is also important as a means of not falling victim of peer pressure.
"I would definitely tell myself that I don't have to do everything that I'm doing to try and get acceptance. I spent my whole life just trying to be accepted."
Free Cyntoia: My Search for Redemption in the American Prison System is available at all major book retailers now!
Photo credit: Youtube/ NBC News