After five years in a Cuban prison, the surprising resilience of Alan Gross

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This self-portrait by Alan Gross was posted on his Facebook page.
This self-portrait by Alan Gross was posted on his Facebook page.

UPDATED FEB. 12

Alan Gross has created a three minute fund-raising video touching on his and his family’s experiences while he was a prisoner in Cuba through his recent release. The video ends with the printed words, “Bring this inspiring story of survival to your audience. Invite ALAN GROSS to speak at your next event.”


 

At the president’s State of the Union address on Jan. 20, Alan Gross raised his hand high in the air in a sign of triumph as television cameras zoomed in. At a welcome-home event at Temple Beth Ami in Rockville that same month, the man who spent five years in a Cuban prison wore a perpetual smile and drank Champagne toasts to his freedom with more than 400 well-wishers at his side. And on his Facebook page, Gross has shared smaller joys, like visiting Starbucks for the first time since 2009, eating at Ben’s Chili Bowl and obtaining a learner’s driving permit.

Yet, it was just this summer that the District resident was giving up hope, refusing all visitors to his cell but his wife. He had lost 100 pounds and was suffering from numerous health ailments. The 65-year-old man was serving his fifth year of a 15 year sentence for crimes against the state when suddenly on Dec. 17, he became a free man.

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Gross is not speaking publicly about his incarceration in the Carlos J. Finlay Military Hospital in Havana, but at Temple Beth Ami, Gross told the crowd he maintained his sanity by composing songs, drawing, creating word puzzles and reading.

Five years is a very long time to be locked up in a foreign country, isolated from loved ones and denied the comforts of home.


What kind of psychological outcome can Gross can expect?

People who suffer acute, or short-term, trauma, tend to recover quickly. But when it comes to chronic, or long-term, adversity like Gross endured, it is harder to recover, according to several trauma experts.

“Sometimes after a chronic adversity,” a person can adjust and move on, “but it takes a while,” said George Bonanno, professor of clinical psychology at Teachers College, Columbia University. Bonanno also heads the Loss, Trauma and Emotion Lab at Columbia.

Adjusting so quickly after spending five years imprisoned in Cuba would make Gross “an unusual man,” Bonanno said. “Just to be right away OK, that’s pretty quick,” Bonanno said.

The fact that Gross was working to bring Internet access to Cuba’s small Jewish community as an employee of the Development Alternatives Inc. of Bethesda, which receives funding and contracts from the U.S. Agency for International Development, may indicate that Gross has the strength to cope with adversity, Bonanno said. Working in those difficult circumstances takes a strong person, said the professor.

There are ways to cope and adapt to adversity that enable someone to recover more quickly than others, said Manuel Reich, a Pittsburgh psychiatrist, who is Jewish. “If you have a very strong will to live, a healthy optimism, if you are able to do that, someone like that figures out how to live in prison and adapt.” Some people just know how to take lemons and make lemonade, Reich said.

Gross may have weathered the experience by finding someone to confide in there – a prison guard or one of his two cellmates – and that could have been the key to his seemingly quick recovery, Reich surmised.

Gross has displayed on his Facebook page some of his drawings, both current and ones created while in Cuba, that show him interacting or at least being with other people. Even in the drawings where he is by himself, “he is staring at someone” not shown in the picture, Reich noted.

“Engagement with others — I assume that’s how he survived. Engaging with others, keeping busy” are important, Reich said. “When someone is in a survival state of mind, they become very creative with their activities and their thinking.”

In another drawing, Gross is seen sitting on a hospital bed, a cigar in a nearby ashtray. The phrase – there is not much more time – is written in Spanish on the wall. Gross is fiercely staring out at something not in the picture frame. His arm that is holding a cane has a series of numbers drawn in black that strongly resemble the tattoo etched into the arms of Holocaust victims sent to Auschwitz.

“I think he was very deliberately trying to describe himself as a victim. A tattoo on the arm is kind of iconic in terms of 20th Century Jewish thinking,” Reich said. “Everybody cringes” when they see someone with a number tattooed on their arm.

He may be expressing his feelings on paper rather than in public. Many who have spoken with him since his release are amazed by his sense of humor.

It’s possible that sense of humor never left Gross throughout his ordeal. “He may have been joking and smiling in prison” in his efforts to keep speaking with other people, Reich said.

However, Gross may be experiencing a short-lived state of euphoria, Reich said. Not only is he enjoying his freedom, but he also has become a celebrity in not just the local Jewish community but also a wider arena in which he was featured during President Barack Obama’s State of the Union.

The incredible high that Gross may be feeling may result in “a letdown,” Reich said.

Reich sees this letdown in children who receive organ transplants. For a while they are the center of attention, sometimes their town holds fundraisers to pay for their medical needs, and then all of a sudden, they are no longer in the news and no longer a celebrity.

“Many of them become depressed,” Reich said, adding, “You see that with celebrities” no longer in the limelight.”

Pointing to the seven-day Jewish mourning period, Reich said being with others helps a person in the short term, delaying the pain caused by the death of a loved one until they have finished sitting shiva and are alone.

There also is a possibility that Gross is experiencing reaction formation, which Reich described as a defense mechanism whereby a person portrays the opposite of what he is feeling.

Without ever meeting or speaking with Gross, it is impossible for Reich to know what Gross is experiencing and it is likely he may be experiencing a mixture of many of these emotions, Reich said.

At least for now, Gross appears to be doing quite well. Steven Sharfstein, president and CEO of Sheppard Pratt Health System in Baltimore, called Gross’ upbeat attitude “unusual. Probably, he’s a very resilient person. There are people with very strong personalities who can go through a lot” and still be able to return to their normal life.

“There are a substantial number of people who are like this, but they are not the majority,” Sharfstein said. “Most people are not like that.”

Sharfstein said even if the conditions Gross lived under were not horrific, he still must have undergone “real stress and deprivation.” He may have suffered depression but “underneath it all is this real resiliency,” which Sharfstein said can be attributed to a combination of genetic makeup and prior life experiences.

If Gross is quickly returning to his old life, Sharfstein said it means Gross is naturally resilient. “He has that personality, and it is a great personality to have,” he said.

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@SuzannePollak

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