Brittney Griner's book details harsh life in Russian prison

SAN DIEGO — On Dec. 8, 2022, WNBA star Brittney Griner was released after 10 months in Russian captivity, exchanged for Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout. From the time she was arrested Feb. 17 that year for bringing vape cartridges of cannabis into Russia, until she shook hands with Bout on a tarmac in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, she knew little of the geopolitical maneuverings to get her out, or the extent of what her wife, Cherelle, and family were going through in the United States.

Griner never denied bringing the cartridges with her but said she had packed them accidentally. After she was arrested, it quickly became clear that, while she was technically guilty, she was not going to be treated like a criminal defendant, she was going to be a hostage of Vladimir Putin’s government — as former U.S. marine Paul Whelan had been for three years at that point.

Griner was sentenced to nine years in a Russian labor camp but eventually was traded for Bout, while Whelan was left behind. She soon found out how politicized her case had become in the United States. She also discovered how post-traumatic stress would affect her long after her release.

Griner’s memoir about her experience, “Coming Home,” written with Michelle Burford, is being published Tuesday. Griner recently sat down for an interview in San Diego, where the Phoenix Mercury held their preseason training. Her answers have been edited for length and clarity, but the substance has not been changed.

Quinn: In the book, you wrote about the difficulty you’ve had in talking about what you went through. You knew the book was coming out, you knew the season was starting and you’d be asked about it constantly. What kind of process did you go through to psych yourself up?

Griner: I was like, OK, I’m going to be talking about it, I’m going to be deep, deep in it for a while. I was talking to my counselor about it. She was just saying, “You know, you’ve done the hardest part, now the world gets to see and read and hear your side and everything.”

She was like, “Just remember, you’re not writing it for the critics. You’re writing it to tell your story to the people that really want to hear it, not the people who read it so they can be like, ‘Oh, got you there!'”

You’re always going to have those people, they just look for any and everything to cause hell. You’re really writing it for the people that are still [being held] overseas, that maybe this story, somebody will hear this story and then they’ll look up, well, who’s from my state or who’s from my county, who’s from my city that may be locked up abroad, that’s on the wrongfully detained list? You’re writing it for all those people. Hearing that mindset helps me a lot right now. Helps me keep focused.

Q: You wrote about some intensely personal things you went through while you were there. For example, you wrote about how many times guards would make you take your clothes off and gawk at you, stripping away your dignity. What did it do for you to be as open as you were about everything that happened in there?

A: I mean, honestly, I’ve learned just being an open book and just putting it all out there, you don’t leave room for people to be like, “Well, what’s she holding back?” Because I didn’t hold back. Even talking about how when they took me to the men’s prison and they made me strip and they got all the guys in there and, like, I went to go put on my clothes and they were like, no, turn around — they’re taking photos with the little Polaroid. And I’m just like, well, I’m glad I played a professional sport. I’m in locker rooms. I’m always normally naked and I get physicals and I have to be naked in front of people. Those little things helped me out tremendously with, like, feeling a little bit OK with it, even though it was in a situation where it just wasn’t OK.

One thing I noticed, while I was there, I did a lot of, like, “Screw it, I’m in prison. It’s OK.” Even though I knew it wasn’t OK, I just had to keep saying it was OK, it was OK. … Or, like, I would laugh about something in the moment.

And when I’m telling people now, back [in the United States], and I might laugh about something, it’s just, it’s my coping mechanism. My counselor, she was like, “It’s OK to use those mechanisms when you’re in it, but we need to address it now.” She was like, “That was not OK.” She was like, “I’ll be the first one to tell you, that was not right. That was undignified. That was harassment. That was their way of playing mind games with you.” And that’s when it started clicking in my head and … I would break. I might just have moments of being depressed and I would go home and I would think about it, be up all night.

Q: You’re opening up about all that in the book, but it’s on your terms?

A: Yeah, on my terms. That’s what I was like, I wanted to tell it on my terms.

Q: What age would you say you were when you knew that every time you walked into a room everyone was looking at you?

A: Seventh grade? I mean, seventh grade for sure. Around 12. Because that’s when I just started growing like crazy. [Pointing to her shoes.] When I was 12, I wore size 12; I was 13, I wore 13. And every year I got older, my foot got bigger and bigger and bigger, and I got bigger and bigger and bigger. And girls are developing that hourglass and all the things that people associate with being a girl, and I didn’t fit into those molds. So I’ve always had the looks staring, go try to use the bathroom, get kicked out of bathrooms because they’re like, “You’re not supposed to be in here.” And they just don’t want to hear anything else. So, it’s like, just a lot of rerouting your life to not cause hell when I was just trying to live.

Q: But you’ve also got, I mean, up until you’re arrested, you’ve got a way to deal with that that you’ve developed. And now you’re at someone’s mercy.

A: Yeah, it was hard. Like, I mean, just being in a cell. The first time I got took to county — [in the book, Griner refers to the Moscow-area jail where she was kept through her trial as “county”] — they tried to put me into the men’s tank. And when [the guard] opened the door and I saw the dudes in there, I was just like, “No.” I just started shaking my head, and the other guard shook his head, like, “No, no, close the door.”

Q: Do you think they were [messing] with you?

A: I think they were definitely f—ing with me. For sure. For sure, 100 percent. From the moment I got to that county jail, just started messing with me.

Q: What is it like in that environment where everything they do is to show you who’s in control of your body, your life, everything?

A: They strip it really quick and really well, because, you get there, you have nothing. It’s like, here’s a toothbrush and some toothpaste and toilet paper. Just those three necessities right there. If you don’t have it with you, you just don’t have it. Like, I literally had to rip up a shirt in different pieces, one to wash myself, one to wipe myself. …

I talked [in the book] about how it was my lowest moment. Like, that’s when I really contemplated suicide as well. It was degrading. I felt less … I didn’t feel human, like, you know, like, not to put it on that crazy a scale, but, I was like, “Damn, is this what it felt like being a slave?” When you just have nothing and you’re just thrown scraps and you’re just a laughing stock, and once you make it to the penal colony, you just work. Like, you’re a labor slave at that point. Like, sun up, sun down, sickness. Don’t care. You go to work. Like, work till you drop.

Q: You describe a number of relationships you developed with other prisoners, when only a few spoke English. How did you know who you could trust over there? You wrote about the two English-speaking women who were your cellmates for most of your time there, Olya and Alena, and how they were a lifeline. And then Olya wasn’t.

A: It’s crazy because with Olya, in the beginning, she seemed OK, right? But in the back of my mind, I’m like, “You’re in prison; this isn’t summer camp.” You’ve just got to watch people, how they interact with other people. And once we moved to our permanent room, and it was me, Olya, and then Alena came in and I started to see [Olya’s] behavior change. When me and Alena would be talking, Olya would be lying down, trying to act like she was asleep. And then she would perk up and sit up. She would get up and just watch us talk. And I’m like, “Oh, what? You were sleeping? What are you doing?” Or, when we would get done talking, she would start writing in her book. Subtle. And one day, I saw her slip a note to the guard, and I was just like, “Oh, OK. You’re a spy.”

Q: A bad spy, apparently.

A: A bad spy, at that. And then Alena went through her stuff, she had, like, written down everything we were talking about, which wasn’t anything because I knew better than to talk about anything personal or crazy.

When [the guards] would call Alena into a room, and then she would come back, we would go have a smoke in the bathroom and then she would be whispering and telling me everything that they said. They were trying to get her to write stuff down about me, too. She told them no. And they wrecked our whole room right after that, that same night.

Q: There were numerous times you said guards asked you for autographs.

A: Yeah, the fact that they had me signing autographs and s— before I left for [the prison colony], I was like, “Are you kidding me?” The chef guy that would come around and put the food through the slot and drop it in, he brought some pictures of his wife and kids for me to sign. Yeah, sure, man. At this point, it made me feel normal. I mean, even though I’m in prison, that was my everyday life, leaving the game. Signing the autographs made me feel normal.

Q: When you came home, you did a number of public events and you were celebrated everywhere you went. You write about the tension and the amount of guilt you felt. What was it like for you to go everywhere and be cheered by everybody when you’ve got that on your mind?

A: That guilt, it was tough. I think that’s part of what kept me up a lot at night. I felt guilty being back, I felt guilty being here. Like, I felt guilty because at the end of the day, my dad taught me you take responsibility for what you do, whether you meant to do it or you didn’t mean to do it, an accident, whatever. You take responsibility for your actions. And that was one of the biggest, hardest things for me, was being celebrated.

Q: What did you feel guilty about?

A: Like, it was my mistake, you know? I threw my s— in my bag and went over there and didn’t check all my things. And I made this mistake which had the chain reaction of events that I had to go through. And coming back and Paul [Whelan, who has been held in Russia for more than four years] not being able to come back with me. As much as I wish I could have got him and we both would have been a part of this trade, it was out of my hands, you know? And that’s what a lot of the hateful letters are, too, [that were sent to the gym where I train] and to my old house, “How dare you come back and not bring him?” Do you not think that my team was trying to lobby for both of us? We were. We thought we both were coming back home.

But I will say, one of the biggest things that really pissed me off, honestly, was being called non-American, and that I hate America. When my dad literally fought for our country in Vietnam in ’68, ’69, took shrapnel to the head, lost a lot of his friends and went into law enforcement for 30-plus years, and I literally wanted to follow his footsteps. I had no plans on being a basketball player, I literally wanted to follow his footsteps.

And being told that I hate America, I was like, “Wait, when did I ever say that? When did I ever say I didn’t want to be here?” Like, if I hated America, I wouldn’t live in America, you know? I’m here, I want to be here. And because I protested against police brutality, apparently I hate cops? And I’m like, no, I don’t. I’m the one that was saying we should not defund our police departments. But you do one thing, and they just label you as something that you’re not.

Q: I forget exactly how you described it in the book, but I think you said that before Russia you were known in “the ESPN crowd.” Basically, people who followed women’s basketball. Then, all of a sudden, you are internationally famous. Everybody knows who Brittney Griner is. When you come back and find out now you’ve become one more element that’s been weaponized in a culture war in this country. How do you reconcile that about those people who criticize you and what they’ll probably say the rest of your life?

A: I’m kind of … I’ve just got to ignore it. I mean, you can never ignore it. You see it, I hear it, I read it in comments and DMs that people send me, I open and I see it.

Q: Your DMs are still open?

A: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. I mean, they still come in. I thought about [closing them], but then, that one DM I get from a young basketball player that’s asking me for advice or something and I see it. Because I will respond back to people when they ask me a real question or they’re like, “Hey, I’m going through this, what did you do?” I would miss that.

That could be one person that I help. I’m getting all these other people, but I don’t want to let them win, honestly. That’s why I won’t stop. They want me to just disappear.

Q: What would winning be?

A: Winning would be me turning off my comments, turning off my DMs, not using social media, being quiet, not talking, not writing this book. That would be them winning. Because now they just silenced me. I just won’t be silenced. I just won’t. I’ll do it. Somebody has to. It’s tough shoes to wear, but I guess, uh, I guess I got to wear them.

Q: You’re going to be a parent. Congratulations.

A: Thank you.

Q: You’ve got some time until you have to think about it, but how you will talk about this chapter of your life?

A: Yeah, it’ll probably be sooner than I want because, I found even if my child doesn’t have [social media], their friends have it, and so it’ll definitely have to come out sooner than later. But whatever we’re going to do, we’re going to do it completely honest, though, not hold back because they’re going to read something worse. When I was growing up, my dad never sugarcoated anything, honestly. My mom probably was cringing, but he was pretty straightforward with me. He was a little hardcore, but he was straightforward. But I appreciate him for it because it’s like I never felt babied. I never felt like they were hiding anything from me. I knew my mom would hide stuff from me because she was like, “Oh, you’re not ready.” But I would look at Dad and he would give me 100 percent. So that’s something that [my wife and I] definitely agreed on: just full honesty, transparency.

Q: What do you know about yourself now that you didn’t before this?

A: I didn’t know how resilient I was. Like, how much I could really take. You always think you have this threshold, but that whole experience broke through that and more. I didn’t know how much I really listened to my pops and all the advice he gave me growing up, in all the lectures and things.

I realized how loved I am, too, by a lot of people. Like, you know, the different people’s lives that I’ve touched that were sharing stories that I’d never heard before. I was like, “Oh, I’m surprised they remember that.”

Q: Who surprised you?

A: My opponents, honestly, a lot of my opponents, like, the whole league. Because you go up against these people so much, and sometimes you can’t talk to every single player in the league, but somebody talked about just how nice I was to them. The first time I saw this young player and I said something to them, like, “Hey, you’re doing good, keep up the work.” Something like that. Super small minimum thing in passing. You would never think that it meant anything or they were going to hold on to that. Just hearing that and just the letters that were pouring in, it was crazy.

Even in Russia. I mean, people in Russia were writing me, in support of me. And I never thought I would get a letter from somebody from within Russia that was in my support. So that was wild.

Q: Is there a point where you think you’ll be able to say, “OK, I’ve talked about it, it’s done”?

A: Hopefully I get to a point where it just doesn’t spark up the emotions that make me kind of break and crumble. It’s definitely gotten better. Because, my teammates, sometimes they’ll ask me things here and there. It’ll come up, and they’ll be like, “Is it cool if we ask you?” I’m like, “Yeah, it’s cool.” And it’s fine: In those settings, I’m not triggered. Hopefully, we get to a point where it’s just, I can talk about it and it is what it is and my day keeps going, you know? I’m sleeping at night now, so that’s good. Because that was, like, a big thing.

Q: How long did you have trouble sleeping?

A: All last year. Literally, all last year. All last season. It was hell sleeping last year. I would just be up, mind racing. Can’t go to sleep, or I go to sleep, wake up, and then I’m up all night. Go right into practice, trying to push through physically, being able to see how behind I was because I missed so much, and I thought I was at a place of, like, oh, I’m not an athlete now. This year, I definitely feel [like an athlete]. Like, I’m moving the way I remember I used to move.

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