Kayla’s Legacy

Wednesday, January 13th, 2016

By Robert C. Koehler

She had so little and she had so much.

I didn’t know her, except for the tiny piece of her life that was revealed in the 2013 documentary Hear Our Voices, directed by David and Patricia Earnhardt, but her candid, gutsy presence in that film was sufficient to pull her into my heart.

Kayla Bryanton died at the beginning of January in a single-car accident in Murfreesboro, Tenn. Her car wrapped around a light pole. She was 20 years old. She left behind a young son.

Hear Our Voices is a film about teen mental health issues.

“It’s like I’m in a never-ending battle with my brain,” Kayla says in the film. “They called me Crazy Kayla. I have anger problems. Someone messes with me, I lose it. I was molested, raped, physically and mentally abused. I was in 127 different homes. I have a 3-month-old baby . . .”

But she also says: “It makes me feel better when I help other kids. I’ve been through a lot. That doesn’t mean you have to give up. That doesn’t mean you can’t stand up for what you believe in or move forward. So many kids are going through what I’ve been through. They need help. So if I can help them, then I’m going to do it.”

Suddenly there’s an embarrassed smile, then she bursts into tears. It’s one of the film’s deeply honest, powerful moments. You can see — you can feel — Kayla dig deep into her soul as she composes herself.

“If I give up on myself, then I’m giving up on thousands of other people. . . .

“Every person has their purpose on earth. This is mine. My God-given talent — go through things, experience the worst, stay positive and help other people. It’s the life I’ve been given.”

So when David told me about Kayla’s death, I felt such incredulity break loose — such a stab of unfairness. Of course, of course, these things happen, but . . . this girl deserved to live.

She’d been born, as David said, without recourses. Whatever mental health issues she was struggling with were aggravated by the broken conditions in which she grew up. She wanted to be a good mom.

As I wrote in my column about Hear Our Voices two years ago: “Part of the film’s dramatic narrative, for instance, is about Kayla’s attempt to attain ‘emancipation’ from her current foster-care situation and be able to live as an adult, making life decisions for herself and her young son, Eli. We see her addressing the juvenile court judge and, ultimately, holding her disappointment in check when the request is denied until she turns 18.”

She was still in that transition to adulthood when she died. She had wanted to go to college but hadn’t attained that goal yet. What she did do was get herself into a terrifying amount of trouble, which included, at one point, being kidnapped and, apparently, tortured for several days, as reported by a local TV station after her death.

Despite everything, “the vibrancy of her personality animates the film,” as I wrote two years ago.

Eli, who is now 4 years old, is now with Kayla’s most recent foster parents, with whom she had a loving, positive relationship. At least he has a home. And that’s it — the last remaining piece of her lost life. Lots of people spoke and grieved at her funeral. Her biological mom, with whom Kayla had remained in touch, paid for the funeral with a GoFundMe account, to which many people had generously donated. She was loved, she was loved.

I don’t know what else to say. But I can’t stop sitting in wonder that some people get almost no break from the hell that is part of the human condition — and have to build their lives within the downward spiral of hopelessness. This is life without opportunity, and yet Kayla made opportunity for herself anyway. I don’t know how she did it.

Not knowing this, I meditate on her legacy, which, perhaps, was captured in the film. I think again about her words. If nothing else, these words are an antidote to the domination culture of American politics, which so permeates the news right now:

“Every person has their purpose on earth. This is mine. My God-given talent — go through things, experience the worst, stay positive and help other people. It’s the life I’ve been given.”