WILMINGTON — It’s been almost two decades since Elizabeth Smart was jolted awake in the night and taken at knifepoint from her bedroom. Many know her name because of the 2002 kidnapping case. Today, even more know her for her story of resilience.
In the days that followed Smart’s kidnapping, searches ensued and the 14-year-old’s photograph was widely circulated to the masses through media. But it wasn’t until nine months later she was rescued and reunited with her family. Now an adult, Smart has used her story to inspire others to continue pushing on, and has become a face of change and advocacy work for children’s safety.
Friday, she’s visiting Wilmington to recount her story and speak to perseverance at the annual luncheon of Coastal Horizons Center — a local nonprofit providing substance abuse, mental health, rape crisis intervention and a range of other services.
“There’s a lot of things that I hope people walk away with,” Smart told Port City Daily in an interview this week. “I hope they walk away feeling uplifted and that the world isn’t as dark and gloomy as a place as many people feel it is. Good things do happen. But I also want people to walk away, recognizing that, as cliché as it sounds, that they’re special, that they have something to offer the world that nobody else has to offer … There isn’t anything that anybody else can do to them that will take away from their value or worth as a human being.”
Smart’s abduction case was one of the most followed in recent history. In early June 2002, days before her middle-school graduation, Smart was taken from her Salt Lake City home. Her captors, a local beggar who’d once worked on her home, and his wife took her to a crude campsite in the woods, just 3 miles from her family’s house. It was close enough to hear the sounds of searchers calling for her in the days following her abduction. Smart was chained to a tree, repeatedly raped, starved, forced to drink alcohol and threatened with murder if she tried to escape. A few months in, Smart was often disguised and taken into the public of her family’s city. Later she was relocated to San Diego.
In the end, Smart manipulated her captors to return to Utah. While walking along the roadside toward Salt Lake City, police responded to reports from people who’d recognized her. Smart was reunited with her family in March 2003.
Over the last two decades, Smart has published two books: her memoir “My Story” and follow-up “Where There’s Hope.” She is a well-known champion for change related to child abduction and recovery programs, and has helped push through national legislation, including the sex offender registry bill when she was 18.
“Every single one of us has a story, but it’s up to us if we allow that story to define who we are or if we decide to define who we are,” Smart said. “Because there’s so many things that we do not have control over, whether it’s natural disasters or health. Many times, we find ourselves victims of circumstance … ultimately, it’s up to us if we stay a victim or if we decide to change, and I think it can often be challenging and very difficult and hard. But it’s worth it because, I mean, happiness is real.”
Smart comes to Wilmington at a time when many are battling mental health nationwide. New Hanover County has a suicide rate of 16.9 per 100,000 population. In the years of 2016-2019 neighboring Pender County had the highest average suicide rate per 100,000 population (24.4), according to data from Cape Fear Collective. Coastal Horizons is hoping Smart’s story, though it also delves into the issues of kidnapping and rape, will give hope and encouragement to those who are struggling to seek help.
Smart will recount her road to recovery during the event. After Smart was rescued, she recalls having a skewed vision of what therapy was and rejecting the idea.
“I only knew what I’d seen of it, like on TV, and in my mind, that was going to lie on a leather settee in some psychiatrist office and it being, like, filled with shelves of books and some old guy sitting on the other side of the desk, with little glasses perched on his nose,” Smart said. “I mean, that was 100% what I thought it was, and I thought that it was like him asking you to go and relive the worst moments of your life and talk about them. And, in my mind, I was, like, ‘No, I don’t want to do that. I have no interest in reliving my story. It’s in the past. It’s done.’”
Smart said her parents were initially concerned when she refused to talk to a professional — so much so they started to see one themselves. Her parents were advised to give Smart time and not force therapy onto her. They were told to take care of themselves, so when the day came when Smart did want to talk about it, they’d be in a healthy enough mindset to listen.
“That was probably the best piece of advice they could have given my parents because my parents really did try to make their own mental well-being and health a priority,” Smart said. “It wasn’t always easy.”
In the years following their reunification, the Smart family was in the midst of a drawn-out legal process.
“It just felt like we didn’t understand the system,” Smart said. “We didn’t know what our choices were. It just felt like we had to do what was being told us.”
It was the better part of a decade before her captors were sentenced and the trial was done, Smart recalls. Brian David Mitchell pursued an insanity plea, postponing the trial to seven years later. He was sentenced to life in prison, but not until December 2010. Mitchell’s accomplice, his wife Wanda Barzee, agreed to testify in a plea bargain and was sentenced in 2010 to 15 years but was released years earlier. As of 2018, she walks free.
While Smart stated at the time Barzee’s early release was “incomprehensible,” she recommitted on Instagram to her positive outlook on life: “May we all remain vigilant in watching over our families, friends, and community from anyone who would seek to hurt or take advantage. I truly believe life is meant to be happy and beautiful, and no matter what happens that will remain my goal for me and for my family.”
“I no longer have that antiquated view of what therapy is,” Smart told Port City Daily. “I understand what it is now and I’m a fan of it now. You know, I wish I understood what it was then.”
She believes therapy could have taught her a lot of skills to help cope, but she doesn’t have regrets. After her rescue, Smart found peace in playing the harp, which she had learned growing up.
“I felt like I could release emotions through music that maybe I couldn’t articulate,” she said.
Other times she would go horseback riding with her grandfather.
“A lot of times we wouldn’t talk a whole lot on our ride, but it was almost like hitting the reset button for me,” Smart said. “Whatever was bothering me that day or that moment, it just kind of helps me realize that that was only a moment, that was not my whole life. And I have a lot of life in front of me.”
Smart is 34 now. She has three children with her husband. She said her kidnapping only makes up nine of the 400-plus months she’s lived.
“There have been ups and downs. There have been harder months than others, but there’s always been hope through all the other months,” Smart said. “You know, there’s always been very visible reasons to keep going, knowing that I was loved, knowing that I had a support system, knowing that I was safe. Now I’m married and I have children, and I work in a field that I feel extremely passionate about and I care deeply about. So, ultimately, I feel incredibly blessed.”
She describes her transition into advocacy work as wading slowly into a swimming pool.
“I didn’t just jump in the deep end,” Smart said. “My dad was actually very influential in introducing me into advocacy and me getting more and more involved over the years. He’s always been a huge example of what it means to do acts of service.”
When Smart was still with her captors, her father Ed was already advocating for legislation and was working to build the Surviving Parents Coalition to empower those whose children had been kidnapped or murdered.
“I think he really felt called to make a difference so that what happened to me didn’t happen to other children,” Smart said.
His influential work continued after Smart returned home. He would always tell Smart what he was lobbying for and invited her to join. At age 15, Smart stood by President George W. Bush’s side as he signed the nationwide Amber alert system into law in the White House Rose Garden. The 2003 package also imposed stricter penalties for child pornographers and sex offenders.
“Ever since then, it’s just kind of been this gentle wading, and now I feel like I’m swimming in the deep end with my head barely above water,” she laughed. “But I wouldn’t change it.”
She said her advice for others struggling is to recognize being who they are is enough.
“And if they don’t know that yet, they should do everything in their power to realize how special they are, how great they really are,” Smart said. “I mean, stop comparing yourself to everybody else. Maybe turn off your social media or go through the accounts and unfollow the accounts that make you feel bad about yourself or make you compare yourself to other people and then work on loving yourself.”
She encourages others to fill their lives with what brings them joy.
“Find what speaks to you, and then go and do it,” Smart said. “Don’t be afraid to ask for help, and even if you find a therapist and your first time doesn’t turn out exactly the way you’d hoped or you don’t feel like you mesh with the therapists you went to — that’s OK. Go try another one. I mean, people are people, and it might not be the method. It might just be the person. Maybe you just don’t click as well. “
Smart believes society is making progress in that therapy is more accepted now than it ever has been before, even if there are still people who see it as a crutch.
“If someone decides to go down that path, then we should be supportive of them because it takes a lot of courage to say you need help or you need support and making yourself vulnerable,” Smart said. “It’s scary to make yourself vulnerable.”
Also in the last 15 to 20 years since her kidnapping, sexual violence and rape have gone from taboo to regularly acknowledged and spoken about. Smart references the #MeToo movement, in which people share their stories of sexual assault online to help show survivors they are not alone. The movement became popular in 2017 following the exposure of Harvey Weinstein’s sex abuse allegations.
“I think it really shocked people, how many survivors were willing to come forward and acknowledge that they had been sexually abused or exploited in some way. That was huge,” Smart said, adding, “I think we still have a long way to go.”
She said it is more acceptable for a woman to come out as a sexual abuse survivor than a man, but male statistics are still high. Nearly one in 33 men are sexually assaulted during their lifetime, according to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network.
According to a 2016 U.S. Department of Justice analysis, nearly 80% of rapes go unreported. Smart stresses the fault always lies with the perpetrator.
“We’ve got still a ways to go in allowing space for all victims to come forward, not just women, but all victims to come forward and not judge them,” Smart said. “I think we can do better in how we view victims. I think our legal system can do better in how we treat victims. I think there’s still a lot of education that, honestly, everybody needs in understanding how to interact with victims should they disclose to you.”
Today, kids still learn to “stop, drop and roll” for if their clothing catches on fire, but few are taught what to do if they are threatened with rape or touched inappropriately.
“I’m willing to bet that there’s probably more people who are sexually exploited in some way than there are people who catch on fire and have to turn to stop, drop and roll,” Smart said. “So we should have something better than what we do. We should have more education.”
At the time of her kidnapping, Smart said nobody sat down with her and taught her the difference between enthusiastic consent versus rape. Her religious background put a focus on abstinence, and those teachings without the distinction prolonged her struggle after her rescue.
“That then made me feel like I wasn’t as good as everyone else, that I wasn’t worthy to be noticed, and that I wasn’t worthy to sit next to the other girls in my Sunday school class after I was rescued because I knew that I wasn’t as pure as them or I wasn’t as clean as them,” she said.
Coastal Horizons’ luncheon starts at 11:30 a.m. at the Wilmington Convention. Tickets are on sale now. Proceeds will benefit the Coastal Horizons’ Rape Crisis Center and Open House Youth Shelter and Residential Services.
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