Elizabeth Smart: Her Journey from Survival to Inspiration

The abduction of Elizabeth Smart was one of the most followed child abduction cases of our time. Elizabeth was abducted on June 5, 2002, and her captors controlled her by threatening to kill her and her family if she tried to escape. Fortunately, the police safely returned Elizabeth back to her family on March 12, 2003 after being held prisoner for 9 grueling months. 

Through this traumatic experience Elizabeth has become an advocate for change related to child abduction, recovery programs and National legislation. Elizabeth triumphantly testified before her captor and the world about the very private nightmare she suffered during her abduction. 

She knows people still look twice when they see her, wondering why they recognize her. Maybe she’s a friend of their daughter. And then they realize, “Oh, wait, you’re that girl who was kidnapped, weren’t you?” 

 “To some people, I recognize I probably always will be that girl that was kidnapped,” Smart said in an interview at her hotel. But when she looks in the mirror, she sees more than that. She sees a mother, a wife, a survivor.  Because even with all the terrible things that happened to her, Smart said, in many ways, she was lucky. 

A story of abduction, pain and resilience… 

 

On June 4, 2002, Smart and her family attended an end-of-year awards ceremony at her school, where the 14-year-old won several awards for academics and fitness. Early the next morning, about an hour after midnight, Smart was awakened, in the bedroom she shared with her younger sister Mary Katherine, by the sound of footsteps and the feeling of cold metal against her cheek. A man whispered, “I have a knife to your neck. Don’t make a sound. Get out of bed and come with me, or I will kill you and your family.” The kidnapper, a man by the name of Brian David Mitchell, led Smart out of the house and marched her for hours through the forest to a camp where his wife, Wanda Barzee, was waiting. 

Mitchell and Barzee held Smart captive for the next nine months as they moved between California and Utah. Mitchell raped Smart daily , and frequently kept her tethered to a tree. He forced her to consume vast quantities of alcohol and drugs and often did not feed her for days, bringing his captive to the brink of starvation. All the while, Mitchell attempted to indoctrinate Smart in his bizarre religious beliefs and convince her that he was a prophet. 

 

After several months, Smart’s sister, who only pretended to be asleep when Elizabeth was kidnaped, came to believe that the kidnapper resembled a man who had once worked on their home as a handyman—a person who called himself Immanuel. Police discovered that Immanuel was a man named Brian David Mitchell, and in February 2003, the popular crime detective show America’s Most Wanted aired his photograph in an episode. On March 12, 2003, a passerby recognized Mitchell walking with Smart, who was veiled and wearing a wig and sunglasses. Authorities arrested Mitchell and his wife and returned Smart to her family that evening. 

 

 “Your past shapes you, but doesn’t define you” 

 

When she found herself back into the arms of her loving family, Elizabeth had no plans to speak publicly about what happened to her. In fact, she didn’t want to talk about it at all, to anyone, but sometimes she had to — investigators and attorneys constantly interviewed her. 

So Elizabeth became her own hero. Despite everything that had happened to her, she somehow managed to return to a relatively normal life shortly after she was reunited her family. Moreover, she even hiked with them to the camp where she was taken by her kidnapper — the experience empowered her, it has made her feel triumphant. Elizabeth returned to school and resumed her favorite activities; her greatest passion was playing the harp. So after graduating, she enrolled at Brigham Young University to study music performance. But, years later, she made the decision to use her experience to change the lives of other victims as well. In this way, she started and worked with other foundations, and encouraged individuals to overcome similar situations.  

“Some people will look at me and forever see the little 14-year-old girl who was kidnapped all those years ago, but when I look in the mirror, I see a wife, a mother, an advocate, a friend, a survivor” (qtd. In McClurg).  

From the neighborhood in Salt Lake City to the whole country, Smart has grown to become an inspiration in the lives of countless people. Many would agree that a hero must possess many qualities, including determination, positivity, and encouragement. While it’s not always easy to persist through difficult situations, giving up is never an option for a person who is dedicated to changing the lives of others. Someone who creates hope and cares for the victims during the most dreadful experiences will have an impact on them forever. This is a true hero, a life saver. 

In 2008, Elizabeth helped to author the United States Department of Justice handbook for kidnapping survivors — You Are Not Alone: The Journey from Abduction to Empowerment; and in 2011 she launched the Elizabeth Smart Foundation, which aims to empower children and provide resources and trauma support for victims and their families. 

While helping others, she also allowed herself to be happy and become the woman she dreamed to be as a little girl — and also found a man who loves her with whom she built a beautiful family. 

In October 2013, Elizabeth released a memoir entitled My Story, and continues to advocate for sexual abuse survivors and vulnerable people everywhere. She refuses to be defined by her past traumas or to allow others to label her. Instead, Elizabeth chooses to focus on moving forward into her free life, and helping others along the way. 

If she can, you can as well! No matter how difficult your current situation is, we are here to help you on your journey! Click here to find out more about our programs! 

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