Eleven years ago – almost to the day – Elizabeth Smart was found. After nine months of captivity, abuse, and rape, endured after being abducted from the bed she shared with her sister, she could finally go home.
In the years that have passed since then, she’s gone through high school and college, done mission work in France and gotten married. She also started the Elizabeth Smart Foundation, and works as an advocate for families with missing children.
There’s a saying her grandpa lived by that has influenced her in doing all this: “Where much is given, much is expected.”
She has been given a lot, she told reporters in Columbia on Friday (March 14). ”I mean, I have had the ultimate miracle in my life: I survived,” she said. “I am alive.”
She was in Columbia to speak at MU, as the featured speaker of this spring’s Delta Gamma Foundation Lectureship in Values and Ethics.
She recently wrote a book, “My Story,” and has been doing speaking engagements around the U.S. for about three years.
Throughout her travels, she’s noticed a common thread: Everyone has problems.
But everyone also has a choice every day, she said – we can make the choice to stay in bed, pull the covers over our heads, and hide. Or, we can get up and do what needs to be done.
For her, part of that choice involves continuing to share her story.
On June 5, 2002, Smart crawled into bed next to her little sister, Mary Katherine Smart, in the room they shared in their Utah home, as usual.
Later that night, she heard a strange man’s voice.
“I have a knife at your neck,” he began, then commanded her to get up and come with him.
Terrified, she followed his orders – she didn’t know what else to do.
“I was prepared for lots of things,” she said – things like earthquakes and fires. But this? She had no idea.
“I didn’t know in that moment that I could fight back, or do anything,” she said.
She told her Columbia audience about some of her memories from that night: walking up the mountain away from her home, seeing the camp where she would be held captive, noticing a cable that ran through the camp – which would later be fastened around her ankle, meeting her captor’s wife.
She remembers being forced to take off her pajamas and put on a strange robe. She remembers sitting on an overturned bucket, and feeling so alone and scared that she didn’t hear what the man who abducted her was saying – until he got to the last line. The line about sealing her to him as his wife.
“No,” she cried out. He threatened her: If she did that again, he would kill her. And now, he said, they had to consummate their marriage.
She described her life until that point as “sheltered” – not only that, but she was still a young girl who hadn’t even hit puberty yet. She had an idea what he meant, but didn’t know for sure.
“I remember just praying so hard, and hoping so much, that it wasn’t what I thought it was,” she said.
But it was – and despite her protestations, her captor proceeded to rape her, then got up, smiled and left her lying there.
“I will never forget how I felt lying on the ground,” she said. She felt broken.
The next morning, she was tied to a cable – she was trapped.
She began to think about how she might get away. If nothing else, she could outlive them, she thought. But suppose it took 30 years for them to die. Would she still remember who she was?
She began thinking of all the things she didn’t want to forget. Eventually, she came to the voice of her mother, Lois Smart. And in those memories, she recalled a time when she’d come home from school upset because one of the popular girls had invited everyone at the lunch table to a party – except Smart. She was not invited.
Her mom asked if they were really her friends, and told her that there were only two opinions she ever needed to worry about.
The first opinion was God’s – he loved her, and that would never change. And the second opinion – that was her mother’s. She would always be her mother, and nothing could change that.
It was then that she realized: Yes, her family would always love her. And in that moment, she found determination to survive. She would get home. She would see her family again.
Nine difficult months followed, and Smart said there were days when she would have been happy to give up – but she didn’t.
Finally, on March 12, 2003, in Salt Lake City, everything changed. She was walking with her captors, and police cars surrounded them. At first, she answered questions as her captors had told her too. “In my mind, they were indestructible,” she said. “They were invincible.”
But a policeman pulled her aside, and told her that her family loved her, missed her, and had been looking for her. In that moment, she finally felt safe enough to say who she was: She was, indeed, Elizabeth Smart.
The officer handcuffed her and put her in a police car – “They think I’m guilty,” she thought. They brought her to the police station, and put her in a small room, where her imagination ran wild.
The door opened, and her dad, Ed Smart, came in. He took her in his arms, and they wept with happiness. And then, they returned home to the rest of the overjoyed family.
Her captors, Brian David Mitchell and Wanda Barzee, are now in prison – Mitchell for life, and Barzee for 15 years at the federal level, before facing state charges.
The morning after Smart was found, her mom gave her some advice. “What this man has done to you is terrible,” she began. Words could not describe the wickedness. He had stolen nine months of her life.
But feeling sorry for herself would only mean he was stealing more. “The best punishment you could ever give him is to be happy,” her mom said.
And that’s what she did.
After her nine-month ordeal, she craved normal life again. She decided not to seek professional counseling, but found healing in her family, and in being back to a normal routine. She also found comfort in her music – she plays the harp – and in getting out in nature and going horseback riding.
At the afternoon press conference, she shared how her Mormon faith has helped her, as well: ”Knowing that I’m not alone is really important to me – and knowing that God knows who I am, and that He loves me even when I make mistakes.” She also loves knowing she can turn to him for comfort. “That helps me – probably every day,” she said.
The book, too, was cathartic, and she saw how much she was blessed.
“I am grateful for what has happened to me because it has allowed me to do so much,” she said.
If she hadn’t been kidnapped, she would be “just another blonde girl from Utah,” she said – though popularity or the spotlight have never been her aim. (When she was a child, she was “the ultimate definition of a wallflower.”)
Had she not been kidnapped, there are many people she never would have met.
Had she not been kidnapped, she never would have realized how many people were willing to reach out and help someone they had never even met.
“We all have problems,” Smart re-iterated to her audience – and in those hard times, know one else really knows exactly what each of us is feeling.
But, she repeated, “We always do have a choice.”
This story was produced in partnership with Columbia Faith & Values (ColumbiaFAVS.com), mid-Missouri's source for religion news.