At age 14, Elizabeth Smart endured the unimaginable: Abducted from her bedroom in Salt Lake City, Utah, on June 5, 2002, she was held captive for nine months by Brian David Mitchell, a self-proclaimed prophet. He raped, drugged, starved and abused her, aided by his wife Wanda Barzee.
After her rescue, Smart initially avoided the spotlight. She returned to normal teenage life, finishing high school and college, then going on to complete a Mormon missionary trip, where she met her husband Matthew Gilmour, with whom she has two children.
Gradually, she became an activist, sharing her horrific story so that victims of kidnapping, violence and sexual abuse might find solace and strength. She contributed to the United States Department of Justice's 2008 handbook for kidnapping survivors, “You Are Not Alone: The Journey From Abduction to Empowerment.” In 2013, she released “My Story,” her unflinching memoir.
Now, 15 years later, she revisits the ordeal in A&E’s Biography special Elizabeth Smart: Autobiography. Smart shares with Biography her perspective on the past and the power of the #MeToo campaign, a new platform she hopes will help victims air the truth and overcome.
There was a point when you said you were never going to make a movie about your ordeal. Why did you change your mind, and what are you hoping the Biography documentary and Lifetime movie will convey to audiences?
It was at a time in my life that I was scared and didn’t want people to know what happened to me. Now I have moved on, experienced more and chosen to make advocacy a big part of my life. It seemed the natural decision to make (after much discussing and searching my feelings) to help give other victims a voice and help educate the public on what it is really like to be kidnapped, chained up, raped, manipulated. The fear that victims endure and why it may seem possible for them to escape but in reality it's virtually impossible.
Are there any parts of your story that you feel will be clarified through these films?
Absolutely. The intensity of what went on is captured perfectly in the film. The fear and terror that I felt is so accurately portrayed. I think it will completely change many people’s perception of what happened and what it was like.
Since your ordeal, you've taken a leadership role in helping kidnapping survivors and child victims of sexual abuse. What motivated you to be so active and open?
It came on little by little, one choice at a time — advocating a piece of legislation here, speaking at a conference against child crimes there, until I looked around and I was swimming in the deep end of advocacy work.
What is the key message you want to impart to victims?
There are so many things I would like victims to know. It’s not their fault. They did nothing to deserve this. They deserve to be happy. They shouldn’t feel any guilt or shame over what has happened. They deserve to be loved. They deserve to be safe. They are worthwhile, no one can change their value as an individual and as a human being. And there is always hope, never give up!
Is that message different at all for adults, who might keep quiet about harassment or violence?
My message is the same for adults. It doesn’t do anyone any favors by keeping silent, least of all yourself.
What do you see as the most important aspect of the #MeToo campaign?
The #MeToo campaign is monumental. It is giving a voice to so many too scared to speak out before. It is bringing solidarity to victims of rape and sexual violence that wasn’t there before. It is also bringing a topic into the light that has been avoided and hidden in the shadows for far too long.
You must hear so many stories of assault and violence. How do you handle that emotionally?
There does come time that I need to take for myself, step away and breathe for a minute. Spend time with my family, go run with my dogs or do something else that I enjoy. Otherwise I couldn’t continue, it would be too draining and emotionally exhausting.
How did religion help you? Another person may have had a serious crisis of faith, or turned away from religion entirely.
Religion has been a huge part of my life. It was my faith in God that helped me to survive and still move forward today.
What is your view on forgiveness?
You don’t forgive for the other person, you forgive for yourself. If I held on to the pain and anger I have felt there wouldn’t be room to love my husband and children 100 percent because a part of me would still be holding on to that darkness. And that doesn’t hurt my captors, that only hurts me, and detracts from my life. So call it a selfish reason, but I refuse to allow my captors to steal my happiness, love and dreams.
What advice do you give people when they ask: How can I tell my partner about what I have been through?
It’s important to share what you’ve been through with the people closest to you. So [then] you can turn to them when you need help, when you are struggling, so they can be understanding of why certain things bother you and help you to heal.
What gives you hope that human beings can treat each other with respect?
There are so many evidences of good. My story is proof of that. I’m still amazed at how many people come up to me and share their efforts with me, [vabout how they] prayed and searched for me. There will still be bad things that happen, but we can make change.
We can make the culture shift to support survivors and not question them, or hold them at fault somehow. We can speak openly about rape and realize that it doesn’t matter whether you are a 14-year-old girl kidnapped from your bedroom at knifepoint and raped, or walking down the street naked and drunk out of your mind and raped. Rape is rape, and it is unacceptable in any form. It is never the victim’s fault!