In her recently published book, 'My Story: Elizabeth Smart,' written with Rep. Chris Stewart, a New York Times best-selling author and Republican congressman, Smart describes being chained at the ankle by a steel cable that ran between two trees for two months straight. (Taylor Hill / Getty Images)
On the surface, it would seem if ever there was a young girl unlikely to emerge from a brutalizing nine-month captivity unscathed and not permanently damaged, it would have been Elizabeth Smart.
And yet, the admittedly naïve and innocent “little girl” fully ensconced in the Mormon values of chastity and abstinence not only survived her worst nightmare, she surpassed expectations, exuding uncommon grace and self-possession.
In June 2002, Smart was kidnapped at knife-point from her bed in her home in Salt Lake City by religious zealot Brian David Mitchell, who along with his wife, Wanda Barzee, enslaved her in a rudimentary camp in the woods.
In her recently published book, “My Story: Elizabeth Smart,” written with Rep. Chris Stewart, a New York Times best-selling author and Republican congressman, Smart describes being chained at the ankle by a steel cable that ran between two trees for two months straight. Deprived of water and food, her captors demanded she play “Adam and Eve,” going naked for full days. She was forced to drink alcohol to the point of passing out. She was raped daily, sometimes multiple times a day. And she was told she would be killed if she tried to escape.
With writing that spares the reader graphic details (“It is not so gruesome that it would be unbearable to read,” she recently told a reporter. “That was important to me.”), Smart explains how she went undetected, even while walking the city streets of her hometown. “Our appearance, the robes, Mitchell’s wild beard, the veils, invited distance and mistrust. It demanded we be given a wide berth. Everything about us begged to be ignored.”
In March 2003, after having shoplifted some items from a Wal-Mart, the three were surrounded by police cars. While Mitchell insisted Smart was his daughter, an officer pulled Smart away from Mitchell’s tight grip and asked her, “Are you Elizabeth Smart?” Finally she was able to say, “I am Elizabeth.”
Now 25, , Smart has chosen the life of a public figure. As president of the Elizabeth Smart Foundation, she is a full-time advocate for the prevention of child abuse, delivering some 80 speeches a year. She lobbies for legislation, specifically a bill that would establish a national registry for sex offenders, and another that would establish a national AMBER Alert. And she’s developed survivor’s guides for children who have gone through similar experiences. Her goal, is “to make talking about rape and sexual abuse not so taboo.”
Smart turned her nightmare into an opportunity. “If I hadn’t had this terrible experiences, I’m not sure I would have cared enough about these issues to be come involved,” she writes.
And she is utterly frank. Smart married Matthew Gilmour in February 2012, a man she describes “as the nicest, most genuine and most honest person” she has ever met. Recently, she told a reporter for the New Yorker: “There’s a huge difference between rape and sex. Having experienced both, I know it’s not the same thing.”
So how did she get through it? She credits her mother, who told her after she was rescued: “Elizabeth, what this man has done is terrible. There aren’t any words that are strong enough to describe how wicked and evil he is. He has taken nine months of your life that you will never get back again. But the best punishment you could ever give him is to be happy. To move forward with your life.”
Ultimately, she made a choice to get better. “I could have decided to allow myself to be handicapped by what happened to me,” she writes. “But I decided very early that I only had one life and that I wasn’t going to waste it.”
In November 2010, Smart walked into the federal courthouse in downtown Salt Lake City to face Mitchell for the first time since she’d been abducted. She had graduated from high school, received a degree from Brigham Young University in music performance and had met her future husband.
Still, she feared how she might feel when their eyes met. When they did, she returned his cold stare. “No, Mitchell, I am stronger than you,” she wrote. “I am not afraid of my future. And I am not afraid of you. Not another second will I give you. I will live and be happy. That is how this story ends.”