Right before I visited Salt Lake City, Utah, I read Elizabeth Smart’s memoir, My Story. I swear, I had no idea that Elizabeth Smart was from SLC. I know that the story of her abduction was big news at the time, but I was only 12 years old. I heard her name and vaguely knew the circumstances from the 5 o’clock news clips, but I wasn’t really familiar with the details.
That’s why I picked up her memoir.
Elizabeth Smart was taken from her home in Utah, from her bed, in 2002 when she was 14 years old. She was kidnapped at knife-point by a man named Brian David Mitchell, who, with his wife Wanda Barzee, held her captive in the mountains, just several miles from her home. She was chained to a tree, raped every day, and forced to do manual labor climbing up and down the mountain to get water. She was made to drink and do drugs. They took her to California when the weather started turning colder. She was verbally abused, emotionally abused, malnourished, and mistreated. They kept her hidden for nine months. Finally, after she had manipulated her captors into going back to Salt Lake City, they were recognized on a public street. Elizabeth was saved and her captors were taken into custody.
It is a heart-breaking story and it’s miraculous that she was recognized and rescued. The story feels like fiction. It feels like it couldn’t have actually happened. It must have come from someone’s imagination. A writer must have woven a story with a strong, brave heroine who endures great challenges. The evil villain is a crazy Jesus-proclaiming religious man walking around in plain sight. The story reaches its climax as the heroine learns how she can out-smart the villain and good will triumph over evil.
But this is not fiction. This was real life. Real life that actually happened, that makes you feel like it could happen again at any moment. Any weirdo you pass by on the street could have some hidden captive tied to a tree not too far from here. Let’s hope not.
When I was in Salt Lake City, I couldn’t stop staring at the mountains. They’re beautiful, yes, and I would have stared at them anyway had I not read this book. But I couldn’t stop myself from wondering which mountain Elizabeth was dragged up the night she was taken. I couldn’t help but wonder which grove of trees had kept the makeshift camp hidden from view. I had to marvel at the steepness of every mountain and wonder how Elizabeth was forced to climb up and down one of them for months. I wanted to look at the mountains and see the natural beauty of Earth, but all I saw was the hiding place of a psychopathic rapist.
The book itself is well written. I can’t imagine what it must have taken for Elizabeth to confront this series of events, again, and tell this story. Elizabeth has become an author and an activist, a wife and a mother. I believe we are the accumulation of our experiences, the things we do and the things that happen to us. In a weird, twisted way, Elizabeth became the person that the world needed (or at least someone needed) because of what happened to her. Since her ordeal, she has advocated for missing persons, supported sexual predator legislation and the AMBER alert system, started a foundation to support the Internet Crimes Against Children task force and educated children on sexual violence and abuse prevention. She has undoubtedly helped many people and saved many lives through her work in the past 16 years.
But I couldn’t help but feel that the book was also her defense. It felt like perhaps she was responding to accusations from people who thought she was to blame in some way for what happened to her. They thought she was experiencing Stockholm Syndrome. They thought she was sympathizing with her captor, developing some sort of feelings or affection for him. Why else wouldn’t she run away or yell or show her face? Maybe there were people who thought she should have done more to escape. Maybe there were the (crazy) people who said that she brought it on herself because she was too pretty or she talked to this man in the Temple Square and caught his eye. Whatever people may have said, I got the tone from the book that this may have been her way of finalizing everything, of proclaiming once and for all what happened and that she couldn’t be to blame.
I didn’t do extensive research into the old news articles or commentary or opinions from 2003, so I can’t say for sure. But it made me sympathize with Elizabeth. I could almost feel the accusations gripping the edges of the pages as Elizabeth tries to write them all away and stand in her truth. I hope she found closure in writing it and will continue to be an advocate for all those suffering like she did.