The Best Revenge: You’re Living Well, Elizabeth Smart

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.

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.

47 thoughts on “The Best Revenge: You’re Living Well, Elizabeth Smart

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  1. I agree that she is an amazing woman, and I’m proud that she has come so far. I think her mother is right – that worst you can do is to go on with your life. Don’t let that person have one more day of your life than he/she has already taken.
    I can only imagine how much it took to write that book and how much it takes for her to confront and advocate girls who repeatedly remind her of her own experience. She is truly brave.

  2. Emily, thanks for sharing this. I love you boss’ comment and how you incorporated it in your theme. I also like your link to “Half the Sky” one of the hardest books I ever read, but must be read by all. Unfortunately, there are people who exploit others, often seemingly well intentioned people. We must guard against these people and call them out, but we should endeavor to live well and not let them own our minds. I hope the three young women who survived the Cleveland abduction can emulate Smart’s success. Thanks, BTG

  3. I love readingyour blogs. They are so informative and deep! Thank you for posing this. I too have been waiting for her book to come out. Now I have TWO more books to add to my list!! Thanks lady and I hope you have a great day!

  4. What a great article and review 🙂
    And hell of a story, told from a really strong woman. In my country (Austria) something similar happend to a little girl – though she was hold hostage for over nine years, before she could escape. She wrote a book too, but I haven’t read it yet. It is called 3069 days – which is how long she was a hostage.
    It is really shocking, that there are such evil people out there who would do something cruel and horrible to a little girl… I just can’t understand it.

    1. I can’t understand it either! But wow, 9 years? That’s crazy. I’ll have to look into her book. And I’m coming to Austria for a conference in April!!! Woo hoo. 🙂

      1. It is just unbelievable…
        Yes, 9 Years and it happened in 1998 – I can’t even imagine, what this girl had to put up with…
        What each person involved in such a case had to put up with is possibly more, than human are able to cope with.
        I just checked and it is available in english
        Very nice – do you know the exact place or city? 🙂

        PS: You’re welcome

  5. I remember when she was kidnapped and found — I was so very relieved she hadn’t been killed. I avoid books like this only because I dwell waaaay too much but there is something to be send for hearing the stories of survivors and more than that, being open to their lived experiences and advice for overcoming tribulations, pains, and wounds, physical and psychic. The capacity to heal is amazing, when the resources are available.

    As always, a lovely, thoughtful post, Emily. Thanks for sharing.

    1. You are so right Audra that we can learn much and take heart when we hear about how resilient people can be in such terrible circumstances. And I hear you on internalizing it too much. I tend to do that as well. It isn’t good sometimes. Thanks for reading!

  6. Like Audra, I tend to avoid books like this because my anxiety goes through the roof, though of course I admire and respect people who transcend their traumatic experiences and help others in the process.

    Great insight on ES’s loving family, and what a difference that makes in the healing process. Her mother’s advice is wonderful, although I wouldn’t have blamed her a bit if she’d allowed grief and anger to swallow her up for awhile.

    1. Hopefully she had a chance to feel grief and anger — those aren’t bad feelings to have! — but being stuck there can prevent healing. One of the things that struck me — and upset me — in Emma Donoghue’s Room was the rush the for the kidnapped girl to be ‘normal’. In a culture that so values ‘resiliency’, I’m afraid we forget — and minimize — emotional experiences like sadness.

    2. Absolutely on going through the stages of healing. She didn’t go into that much, but she talked about how riding horses turned out to be the best therapy for her. I am sure there were bad days, but like you, I am impressed with her ability to be an activist.

  7. I’m glad she survived. Missing person cases always send chills of fear through me. I struggled with anxiety when I was growing up (I still do, sometimes, but thankfully to a lesser extent now) and one of my fears was that something would happen to my mother and she would go missing.

  8. Great post! I’m in awe of people who can go through something so horrific and somehow remain resilient and positive. Not sure I’d be able to take the high road myself, especially given how much of Elizabeth’s young life was stolen from her.

    Did you happen to read “Room” by Emma Donoghue? It’s about a boy and his mother who are held captive for years in a small windowless room. Fantastic fictional depiction of that experience. Well worth checking out.

  9. I’m from Salt Lake as well, and I remember when it happened. I was in like 6th grade at the time, but I still remember certain details…

  10. Let me rephrase… I just finished Escape by Carolyn Jessop, but had read Ms. Smart’s story prior to Escape. Please disregard/ delete my initial comment! I loved Elizabeth’s story, her unending hope, her bravery, and her courage. I often felt that her small miracles were such a salvation, and hoped repeatedly that the veil would somehow be lifted. I remember when she was found, hearing about it on the news.

    1. Ah, that makes more sense. I was like, “Huh? Her father?” Now I get it. I read Escape last year and yes, that was ridiculous! Smart’s story is quite a triumph. Thanks for weighing in, and your first comment is deleted. 🙂

      1. Yes… i was having a brain cramp! i have started keeping a blog tracking my own books that I have read. I have so many friends always looking for good books. My theory… blog it and be able to make solid recommendations!

  11. This is a brilliant article. On the other side of the world her being found was such big news! It is good to see her adjusting so well. And very inspiring. Thank you for sharing this.

  12. I think it is admirable that She stepped up and talked about it and is working to help other girls who have had similar challenges. Here’s to hoping this experience continues to make her stronger.

  13. What a wonderful post – I loved how you weaved in so many interconnected and thought-provoking ideas. I cannot imagine the agony that Elizabeth Smart had endured for such a long time and I’ve often wondered how one can continue to live on with such traumatic memories. It makes me happy to know that you had seen her giggling with her friends. I hope she can live as normal a life as possible.

    I also loved the mother’s quote that you included, and I too will keep those words in mind.

    I swear that I sometimes get chills when I read about some of your experiences! I also had a job situation in which I was being treated badly by 2 female co-workers, and it was my male boss who came to help me, with similar words that your male colleague shared with you. I think our souls must have split into 2 at some early point in our lives…;-)

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