I still remember the day in June 2002 when our local news reported the disappearance of Elizabeth Smart. We live in a suburb north of Salt Lake City, where Elizabeth lived, and the state community immediately rallied around her family and searched frantically for her. She had been kidnapped at knife-point from her Salt Lake City home, while her little sister watched the whole thing happen. I remember how this story consumed me and the nation. It soon became national news. I used to watch for Elizabeth as I commuted to Salt Lake City for work each day. I thought that maybe, if kept my eyes open, I might see her in the backseat of a car or looking forlornly out of a hotel room window.
Well, nine months went by, and I think most of us had concluded that she had been taken, raped, killed, and buried in a remote location. Much of Utah is mountainous and rural, meaning that she could have ended up anywhere. However, she was found! And the story of what happened to her was recently published in her own words: My Story by Elizabeth Smart.
While this sort of book isn’t usually well written or necessarily transcendent, I’m always drawn to these types of memoirs because of my interest in the news stories about them. I read Jaycee Dugard’s account of her years in captivity, and I anxiously waited for Smart’s book from my library. It is voyeuristic, but I admit it.
Smart’s book is predictable. Much of what she shares about the details of the kidnapping, captivity, and her return were details I already knew from the news. She does open up about the daily rapes and the squalor of her conditions in the campsite above her home and as homeless drifters in San Diego, but nothing is overtly explicit. If anything, Smart is careful not to reveal too much, and I appreciate that and I respect it.
She was kidnapped by a pedophile who claimed to be some sort of prophet. While he seems to have been crazy or delusional, Smart is adamant that he knew what he was doing and used religious language and manipulative tactics to his advantage. He pretended that this religion and his “revelations” were the reason he kidnapped and forced her to “marry” him, but Smart sees him as nothing but an evil sex-addicted and sadistic pervert.
As I read her story, I was sad for what happened to her, but happy that she had such a wonderful family to return home to. It cause me to think about all of the children in the world who may actually face similar circumstances to hers while in captivity, but it is perpetrated at the hands of their extended family members or even their parents. Additionally, many of the world’s girls are subject to sex trafficking and slavery, as outlined in Half the Sky by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. I recently read that book and was appalled at the conditions that many girls find themselves in and the lack of opportunities for them. Smart was lucky to have grown up in such a loving and close-knit family and to be able to return to them and heal from her abuse by never looking back.
And that’s where the value in Smart’s book lies. In the last few chapters, where she explains how she recovered, she notes the important lesson her mother taught her a few days after she came home. Her mother said, “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. To do exactly what you want. . . . At the end of the day, God is our ultimate judge. He will make up to you every pain and loss that you have suffered. And if it turns out that these wicked people are not punished here on Earth, it doesn’t matter. His punishments are just. You don’t ever have to worry. You don’t ever have to even think about them again. . . . Just be happy. If you go and feel sorry for yourself, or if you dwell on what has happened, if you hold on to your pain, that is allowing him to steal more of your life away. So don’t you do that! Don’t you let him! There is no way he deserves that. Not one more second of your life. You keep every second for yourself. You keep them and be happy” (p. 285-286).
I really internalized this. I have spent some years focusing on the hurt and pain of my own childhood and dwelling on the past. I have learned to move on and to feel peace, but I wish that I had decided a lot sooner not to give my life over to the people who have hurt me. I shouldn’t have give them that power.
It reminds me of a great lesson I once learned in a difficult situation at work. Two female coworkers treated me badly, and I felt miserable having to work with them each day. Our male boss, Alex (one of my very favorite people!), who observed much of this and had to deal with their antics as well, told me, “The best revenge is to live well.” That is exactly what Elizabeth’s mother Lois was trying to tell her. She was right.
The other amazing thing about Elizabeth’s story is her ability to dwell on the positive as she looked back. She got home and realized how many people were praying for her, searching for her, and caring for her family. She remembered the many people who had shown kindness to her in the form of water or food when she was hitching back to Utah with her kidnappers. She said, “Yes, I had lived through many miracles. I had experienced tender mercies that literally kept me alive. I had been carried by the love of others, and in many ways I had been blessed” (p. 289). I appreciated this attitude of gratitude, and it is one I want to have more of in my life.
Two of the miracles she shared in her book were especially moving to me. One involved the recent death of her grandfather, whose funeral was held just days before her kidnapping. While she was up in the mountain camp with her kidnappers, she felt her grandfather’s presence and she knew that he was there watching over her. In another miracle, she was dehydrated and her kidnappers refused to hike down the mountain and get water because they were worried about being caught. It had been a few hot summer days without water when one night Elizabeth woke up to find a cup of cool, clear water next to her pillow. She could not explain how it got there, but she knew it was a miracle.
I mentioned my discomfort with the idea that so many others suffer like she did as part of their permanent lives and at the hands of their families. Yet Elizabeth recognizes this herself. She talks about her current work as an advocate for children and how she knows that many are faced with more terrible circumstances than she. I admire her for using this trauma in her life to go forward and do good. She has learned compassion through her terrible experiences.
Now, I still remember when and where and how I heard that news that she had been found. I was sitting in my office at my editing job when breaking news came across the screen around 3 p.m. (We all had TVs in our offices to keep up on the world events we wrote about each day.) Many of us gathered in my office, and I remember jumping for joy. It was a wonderful day to see her freed and returned home and to realize that she was still alive.
I once saw Smart in Salt Lake City a year or so after she returned home. I ran into her at a clothing store, where she was giggling with friends and acting like a normal teenager. I smiled and left her alone. I was happy to see that she seemed to be adjusting. I look forward to seeing where her work as an advocate and her life takes her. She deserves happiness.
I’ve posted this today in anticipation of my girls’ studies post for Thursday. I think Smart’s experiences raise some interesting issues about sexuality and girls. I’m ultimately impressed with Elizabeth Smart’s willingness to speak out on this topic in many ways. I’ll explore this more in my next post.