Lansing-based author Bethany Mauger's first book is getting national attention. She's the co-author of “Free Cyntoia: My Search For Redemption in the American Prison System" by Cyntoia Brown.
Brown killed a man when she was 16. Her story became national news when she was the subject of celebrity activist campaigns and later granted clemency by the governor of Tennessee after 15 years behind bars.
Mauger told WKAR's Scott Pohl that the book is the result of extensive interviews with Cyntoia Brown. Below are highlights of their conversation.
A Happenstance Connection
"I was working with an agent in Nashville on another book, which was actually supposed to be my first book. I finished the proposal for him and he really liked it. He called me a few days after I sent it to him and he said, “have you ever heard of Cyntoia Brown? I'm working with her and I think that you'd be great for this project.” The next thing I know I'm flying to Nashville, meeting her in prison. From there, we just took off."
Lansing local Bethany Mauger began working with Brown after her agent floated Brown's name to her at a meeting for another project. By then, her plight was well known after celebrities took up Cyntoia Brown’s cause in 2017, breaking her story out of prison reform circles and onto the national stage.
Writing A Book With Prison Inmate
"We did hours and hours and hours of interviews, and they were all over the phone. That was interesting itself because she was still in prison while we were writing this. She had to call me. I couldn't call her, and each interview, we could only talk for about 30 minutes and then it would cut us off and then she'd have to call me back."
Brown thanks Mauger for co-authoring the book with her in a recent appearance on the Today Show.
Editing During Visiting Hours
"It's not like she has an email address where I can just send it to her and get her okay. She was married by then, and so her husband would print out as much as he was allowed to bring in and try to get it in while he visited her. Sometimes the guards would let him, and sometimes they wouldn't. She would call me and we would go over the changes over the phone."
Mauger started writing while Brown was still in prison, complicating the editing process. Brown was released from prison after former Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslem granted her clemency earlier this year. She was released from prison in August.
Turning Away From ‘Vending Machine’ Faith
"I would say that when she first went to prison when she was arrested, she was not where she is today. I think that her understanding of God was pretty much like a vending machine, like if I just put in enough prayers or requests, that he's gonna give me what I asked for, but that's not really how it works. She came to discover that throughout her time in prison. She had a lot of time to do that."
In interviews promoting the book, Brown has spoken widely about her faith crediting it with helping her through her sentence into life on "the outside."
Casting A Spotlight On Juvenile Justice And Human Trafficking
I think it really attests to the power of God and how he can use something or some truly terrible circumstances to shed light on issues that are important. We have the issue of life sentences for juveniles and if that's ethical, and what you should take into consideration whenever you’re sentencing a juvenile. You have the issue of sex trafficking. It brings up issues of racial justice and what if she wasn't biracial, if she had been white, if she had been a white girl who shot a black man, would her case have been completely different?
Recent bills passed out of the state legislature would raise the age of defendants who are currently treated as adults under state law. Michigan is currently one of four states that treats 17 as the "age of criminal responsiblity." But, if the "Raise the Age" legislation is signed into law by Governor Gretchen Whitmer, as widely expected after passing both chambers of the legislature with bipartisan support, that would increase to age 18. Brown was sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole after 51 years served in 2006 at 16-years-old, prior to being granted clemency.
"A Voice For People Who Haven't Had A Voice Before"
I see her as a voice for people who haven't had a voice before, and someone who will bring an extremely unique perspective to the conversation, someone who's going to be speaking out for justice and for doing what's right. I see her as an encouragement to women who are in situations like what she's been in, whether it's in prison or not arrested, but entrenched in these horrific circumstances. She offers hope and encouragement to them. I think that she's going to be very busy doing all of those things.
While Brown was still in prison her story was highlighted by several celebrities including Rihanna, Kim Kardashian West, and Snoop Dogg in an online campaign marked by the hashtag "FreeCyntoiaBrown." Since then, Brown has become an unofficial spokeswoman for victims of sex trafficking, human trafficking, and incarcerated people.
What's Next For Mauger?
I have another book coming out next September with a woman named Diane Latiker. She is from the south side of Chicago, and she turned her whole life upside down to try to help youth on the streets get out of gangs and reduce gun violence. Her story's really powerful.
Mauger is a self-described "Nonprofit writer" who's next book will be out in September.
Special thanks to the Touré Show podcast for the clip of Cyntoia Brown's interview.