In the brief time that I spent with Elizabeth Smart I was schooled; schooled on grace, schooled on resiliency, and schooled on the fact that love can potentially overcome the most intolerable of circumstances.
As most are aware, Elizabeth was abducted by Brian David Mitchell from her bedroom in the dark of night and shuttled at knifepoint to a camp in the wilderness where she was to begin an unspeakable ordeal. She was merely 14 years of age. There, she met her second captor, Wanda Barzee, another psychopath who would treat Elizabeth as nothing more than an inanimate belonging, a slave. At first, Elizabeth thought that Wanda might be someone whom she could rely upon for help. After all, prior to this experience, Elizabeth’s experience of women was primarily the warmth she had known from her mother. Because Wanda was such an affront to women she came to hate her even more than Brian David Mitchell.
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Mitchell was disgusting and sick, a true psychopath. Elizabeth is confused and offended that anyone would think that she in any way identified with her captors. She understands that for some this is a survival strategy, but she did not experience this. Rather she remained horrified and disgusted, but nevertheless completely under their power. Her very self was virtually erased by these two monsters. They left her stripped of her dignity, fighting to survive. Mitchell would rape Elizabeth repeatedly on a daily basis. All the while Wanda was encouraging him, and admonishing Elizabeth to be more responsive to her “husband.” Elizabeth believed she had been spoiled by these rapes; she believed she would never be worthy of the love of a romantic partner. But one clear thought emerged through the haze of misery: “my family will still love me. If I can just find my way back, I know they will never abandon me.” It was hope for this reunion that kept Elizabeth fighting to survive.
There are many strategies that people use to survive overwhelming trauma. Compartmentalizing, numbing, and shutting down are common. They are all generally under the phenomena called dissociation. We literally disconnect from our feelings, from our bodies and sometimes from reality itself. Elizabeth found herself shutdown. This biology is a kin to “death feigning.” Animals adopt this strategy when threatened - the freeze response. It is a conservation strategy of survival when there is no escape. It is adaptive but sometimes can be associated with symptoms like PTSD.
Fortunately, Elizabeth did not experience significant symptoms after she was rescued – in fact she did not seek any professional support after returning home. It was suggested to her that she might avoid the trauma of testifying against her captors if she were to meet with psychiatrists who could then present what she had experienced to the court on her behalf. Well there she was, alone with two middle aged men, asking her provocative questions about her experience that was re-traumatizing. Elizabeth assumed that the experience of treatment must be like this and did not want to endure something like this again.
If I understand Elizabeth, I believe she would say that this awful experience also taught her some deep truths about being a woman and left her with a passion to empower them. Her experience with Wanda Barzee had a profound effect upon her. It threw in to bold relief that there are many sacred elements to being a woman and a mother. Wanda violated both by exploiting a child and treating another woman as a slave. Elizabeth now has a profound compassion for other women and hopes to promote that compassion between and amongst women. In doing so she wishes to empower women who have been exploited or traumatized, and to give them a voice and community within which to feel safe. It breaks her heart when women automatically blame themselves for circumstances that are random and outside of their control. Women need to put blame where it belongs and hold perpetrators responsible. They need to be able to feel safe to speak up and to share their experiences, which are unfortunately all too common today.
I commend Elizabeth for using her terrible experience to make a difference. There is no doubt that her foundation and her public speaking will affect the lives of many. The time has come for a campaign such as this, and I know of no better source of inspiration than Elizabeth Smart.