When I was in eighth grade I had to sit behind a couple of girls who were rude to me. Then, I got a D+ in PE because I was lousy at volleyball. Those were what I considered traumatic events. Oh wait, one more: a teacher got upset with me because I was clicking my pen—an embarrassing and really horrible experience, I thought. But then, the other day, I read Elizabeth Smart’s book and it put things in perspective.
I still remember shouting, “They found Elizabeth Smart!” to my family and possibly everyone within a two-block radius that day I heard the special news bulletin. I couldn’t believe this young girl who’d been abducted from her bedroom, was back and that she was still alive. I was amazed and ecstatic. In fact, I’ll probably always remember that moment. Maybe that’s why I picked up Elizabeth’s book when I saw it on a display table at the library the other day. I hadn’t really planned to read it, but I thumbed through it and then checked it out. Elizabeth’s story is a quick read and I finished it the next day. Well, here are my thoughts on the book My Story, Elizabeth Smart with Chris Stewart.
Though the book isn’t what I’d call a work of art and probably won’t be winning any literary awards, it was clearly written and compelling. It’s told with a childlike innocence which seems appropriate. Getting the story at last from Elizabeth Smart’s own point of view finally answered some questions I’d had for a while.
When I heard how close the initial campsite was to her home, for instance, I wondered why searchers couldn’t find her and why Elizabeth didn’t do more to be found, such as scream. Elizabeth let us know that the campsite was well concealed; that she was subdued rather quickly by being raped and then shackled, and that her abductor, Mitchell, told her repeatedly, “I’ll kill you and your whole family!” Barzee, his accomplice, emphasized that he would do it. Ummm, I think that could probably convince just about anyone to stay mum. Add to that the fact that her abductor brandished a long knife which he pressed against her, and it kind of gives you the picture of her situation. So even though Elizabeth could hear her uncle calling her from what sounded like a close distance, she did not respond. The fact alone that she’d just been kidnapped right from her bed in her own house and that Mitchell had already proven he did not act the way normal people act, also contributed. Also, her uncle’s voice was the only one she heard, so she assumed he was by himself. Elizabeth was concerned that if she answered and her uncle came to the campsite, Mitchell could ambush him and maybe even kill him.
At a later date a police officer actually came up to the trio in the downtown library and asked to see Elizabeth’s face. I’d heard that story as well and wondered why Elizabeth didn’t speak up. Even as I read this part of the story again, I wanted to shout, Do something! But Mitchell was a great actor and he’d made sure that Elizabeth was disguised. She and Mitchell and Barzee were all dressed in religious attire. Mitchell conned the officer into believing that looking at “his daughter’s” face would defile her. It was a time when there was a lot of sensitivity about religion because of 9-11 and the officer backed off. I learned that Elizabeth was highly frustrated herself that she hadn’t taken advantage of that opportunity. But haven’t we all been frustrated at times for not taking action? It’s always easier afterwards to think of things we could have done or said, but at the stressful moment at hand, those ideas don’t necessarily come. I’m guessing the police officer probably wished later he had acted differently as well—that he’d taken Elizabeth aside to talk with her, for instance. I imagine he played out that scenario many times afterwards.
I also wondered what would have prompted Elizabeth to tell Mitchell where her cousin lived, which led him to another abduction attempt. Elizabeth explained that Mitchell liked to talk a lot and often droned on and on. One of the things he liked to complain about was his mother who had a restraining order on him. In one instance he named the street where his mother lived. Elizabeth unthinkingly told him that she knew that street—that she’d spent a lot of time with her cousin who lived on that street. Mitchell asked more questions which Elizabeth innocently answered. She had no idea she was putting her cousin in harm’s way. Luckily, Mitchell was not able to get into that home as easily as he had gotten into Elizabeth’s.
Mainly, the book helped me recognize the big part Elizabeth’s age played in Mitchell’s ability to keep her traumatized. “I was so young,” Elizabeth repeats several times in her book. And who at age thirteen or fourteen would know how to react under such circumstances? I didn’t even know how to deal with my peers, let alone two perverted abductors. The more I read, the more I understood why Elizabeth Smart reacted the way she did. In fact, I was proud of her for eventually thinking of words she could say to convince Mitchell to return to Salt Lake after he’d taken her to California.
The biggest thing I wondered was how Elizabeth was able to come out of this ordeal in fairly good shape, sane, and even thriving. How, when many of us (like me) are still haunted and “scarred” by far less significant events in our teen years, was Elizabeth able to move on so beautifully. Again, Elizabeth answered this question. She gave credit to heavenly helpers, but also to her mother whose wise counsel inspired her. Soon after Elizabeth got back home, her mother let her daughter know that she fully recognized the fact that this evil man had taken nine months of Elizabeth’s young life and that no punishment would be great enough, but then she continued, “…. the best punishment you could ever give him is to be happy. To move forward with your life; to do exactly what you want. …..You just be happy, Elizabeth. Just be happy. 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! Not one more second of your life.” This book helped me recognize the negative impact of the words those intent on evil have to control and instill fear, but also their positive impact to heal and inspire courage when spoken by those with our best interests at heart.
Although I generally wish people would come to trial more quickly, in Elizabeth’s Smart’s case it was probably a good thing that it took a few years before she had to testify in trial. By then she had matured enough to be able to speak out without timidity. I’m proud of her for doing this and for what she’s accomplished since. Thanks Elizabeth, for writing this book and being willing to share such a traumatic and ugly time in your life. We’re happy you survived. We’re happy you’re very much alive.