February 2014

MY STORY: Elizabeth Smart a Decade Later

Author: Lily Bartell

This November Elizabeth Smart made a book tour stop at Bowling Green State University, where I attend college. Her current book tour for her new memoir, My Story, about her 2002 abduction, has been creating quite the buzz. The purpose for Smart’s tour is to tell her story, educate people about child abductions, and give solace to anyone who has had a similar experience. I had the amazing opportunity to attend the speech and get a glimpse into her world nearly 10 years after her abduction.

When she entered the lecture hall, a gradual hush flooded the packed room of more than 550 students and faculty. She began humbly stating that she felt she was more like the students who sat in front of her and not as though she was a celebrity. “I have to admit, looking out, I feel like I should probably be sitting out there, not really standing up here, but here I am. I feel very lucky to be here today,” she said.

With this attitude or luck, she made it clear to the audience that her story, however horrific it may be, is only one of the numerous stories about abducted children. She pointed out that everyone has their own problems to deal with, and problems are quite possibly one of the only things that everyone in this world has in common.

Despite her painful situation, Smart had a certain confidence and uplifting demeanor about her, which made the speech seem less of a depressing tale and more of an inspiring and informative story.

Before getting into the details of her abduction, Smart gave the audience some background information. She talked about being 14 years old, how excited she was for high school, and joked about her quarrels with her four brothers and sister. She then guided the audience through the summary of events from the day she was kidnapped to the day she was rescued. From Smart’s perspective, there was no way anyone could have seen this event coming and certainly could not have done anything to stop it.

“Up until that point in my life, I really didn’t have anything to be afraid of,” Smart said of her home, which she felt was a safe haven.

She described being awakened and taken from her home in Salt Lake City, Utah while she was sleeping in her bed. Her abductor took her at knifepoint as her little sister lay in a bed beside hers. She described her lengthy trek through the mountains to her abductor’s campsite and the female accomplice she met there. Smart spoke about how her abductor led her into a tent and conducted a marriage ceremony; making them “man and wife.”

“In my mind, that was not how marriage was supposed to work,” Smart said, describing her tremendous confusion about all that had ensued within a few hours.

By this point, with hundreds of eyes set on her, the audiences’ emotions were hard to miss. It’s easy to believe that audience members’ thoughts ranged from shock, to sadness, to absolute disgust from hearing her story.

She described how her male abductor proceeded to consummate their marriage by laying her down and raping her—something he did repeatedly for the entire nine months she was missing.

“I was desperate to hold him off,” she said, but ultimately was unsuccessful.

After this horrific event, she talked about how she laid in the tent feeling broken and uncertain of what to think or do next. She tried to imagine being found, but feared that her family might not even want her back after what had happened. Her purity and innocence had been stolen from her—something she could never get back. “What is the point of anyone finding me now?” she questioned.

After a great deal of thinking, Smart realized that because of her faith and her family’s faith, despite all that had happened, her family would still love her and all would be okay. She mustered up courage and decided to live no matter what. “I would do whatever it took to survive,” Smart told the audience.

After she and her captors moved to California to escape Colorado’s winter, they talked about moving East, and Smart knew if there was any way anyone would find her, they would have to return to Salt Lake City. She talked about how she learned to play into her captor’s power and ego to convince him to return to Salt Lake City.

On March 12, 2003, Elizabeth Smart was rescued from her abductors, Brian David Mitchell and Wanda Ileen Barzee. After being reunited with her family, her mother talked to her about what had happened and how to deal with it.

“The best punishment you could ever give him is to be happy,” Smart’s mother said.

Among Smart’s coping strategies were her mother’s words and her own determination not to allow Brian David Mitchell and Wanda Ileen Barzee to take away one more minute of one more hour of one more day of her life.

Smart’s new book, My Story, and her current book tour has been an empowering journey for her as well as for others who have come to hear her speak. Now, she wants to help those who have been in similar situations to cope with their issues, and she wants people to understand that she is not a victim, but in fact a victor.

“I’ve come to the point in my life that I’m not sorry I was kidnapped,” Smart says about her life.

She has also created organizations such as the Elizabeth Smart Foundation and Laura Recovery Center, and has partnered with programs such as radKIDS to empower young people and teach them how to feel safe in their communities. She talked about how over 80 percent of abductees who fight back get away from their captors, making these causes pertinent to her young audiences.

After Smart’s speech, the audience seemed to be in a daze of emotions and information, which continued to sink in. For Senior Trey Cantrell, her composure stood out.

“I was surprised by how candid she was. I expected her to be more reserved and somewhat emotional. She seems to have come to terms with it all,” Cantrell said.

Junior Patricia Holt also found Smart’s demeanor surprising and somewhat contradictory to the subject of her story.

“I was surprised by how funny she was and how she made the situations as light as possible,” Holt commented about Smart’s smattering of jokes.

When asked about why Smart believes it is important to talk about her abduction and educate people about safety, she expressed that after all the terrible things people hear about on the news, every now and then, there is a little light at the end of the tunnel.

What’s next for Elizabeth Smart? She plans to continue the book tour, but travel home and spend as much time as possible with her husband and two dogs—a fairytale sort of ending for a strong woman with a powerful story. Or maybe it’s a fairytale sort of beginning.

To conclude her speech, she smiled and stated, “We all need a happy ending sometimes.” 

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