Food Storage & Other Adventures in Motherhood

Book Review: My Story by Elizabeth Smart

by heather

My Story by Elizabeth Smart (with Chris Stewart)is both horrifying and beautiful. Horrifying because of what she
went through (although she does not go into any kind of graphic detail, which I’m sure most readers would appreciate) and beautiful because of the strength that she has. It is beautiful because through the dreadfulness of her experience she continued to have hope, and because she pulled something positive out of this experience, going on to become an advocate for recovery programs and change in regards to children’s abduction.

In June 2002, Elizabeth Smart, at age 14 was abducted from her home in Salt Lake City, Utah by Brian David Mitchell. According to him, she was to be his first of seven child brides, and his wife, Wanda Barzee was to be ‘their mother in Zion’. He tied her foot to a tree, with a steel cable, in the mountains a couple miles north of her home and raped her repeatedly. He frequently came down into the city to beg or steal money, food and alcohol. On a few occasions all three of them came down into the city, but Mitchell became paranoid as people grew suspicious.“My life pretty much consisted of three things: getting raped, being forced to drink alcohol, and sitting on a bucket in a clearing of trees.” She lived there until September when they decided that they needed to move to California where it would be warmer than the mountains of Utah. In the San Diego area she continued to suffer abuse, as well as extreme hunger and neglect, surviving off what they could find in dumpsters. In the spring of 2003, Elizabeth convinced her captors to go back to Utah. They hitch-hiked from  southern California to Orem, Utah and walked for many days in between rides. The day that they arrived in Salt Lake City, the police arrested Mitchell and Barzee and Elizabeth was returned to her family.

I have heard many people speculate that the reason why Elizabeth didn’t leave was that she was suffering from Stockholm syndrome. That always really bothered me (not that I know Ms. Smart personally or anything), because there are reasons why a victim would not leave besides starting to identify with his/her captors. Elizabeth revealed that this was the case for her. Throughout her captivity, Mitchell repeatedly threatened to kill her and her family. He was an ugly, scary and evil man and she was afraid that if she ran away that this terrible abusive person would hurt her family. She didn’t stay because she was starting to ‘like’ her captors in anyway, she stayed because she was a young girl who was very afraid of what they would do to her family if she left. “Brian David Mitchell is not insane. The professional analysis is clear. He is a manipulative, antisocial and narcissistic pedophile. He is not clinically psychotic or delusional. He is just an evil man….He was his number-one priority, followed by sex, drugs and alcohol, but he used religion in all of those aspects to justify everything.”

Elizabeth described how she felt immediately after her first act of abuse.“I didn’t feel like a whole person anymore. I felt like I was…like not even half, like I was just a portion of a human being. I just felt filthy and disgusting. I felt like, Who could ever want me back? Who could ever want to talk to me? Who would ever be my friend? I don’t know what the exact definition of despair is, but if it is feeling like your life is over, as if there’s no point to continue because no matter what happens, you will never be accepted or happy again, then despair is what I felt….I was so young and so I didn’t have the tools yet to deal with what had just happened to me….But I was not confused. I knew what had just happened to me wasn’t my fault. I didn’t ask for this! I didn’t run away with this stranger, I didn’t marry him. None of this was my choosing.” I found her words to be heart-breaking and beautiful. Yes, it is sad that she believed that she was less valuable because of what had happened to her, but despite this she still saw through his lies, she was not being brain-washed. I think the most beautiful part is that she has taken her experience and is using it to help other victims because she really understands how they feel.

Although she experienced horrible things, she repeatedly speaks of hope and determination. “Looking back, I realized that at one point, early on the morning of the first day, something changed inside me. After I had been raped and brutalized, there was something new inside my soul. There was a burning now inside me, a fierce determination that no matter what I had to do, I was going to live!

“Most of us believe in miracles….One of the miracles that I experienced on that first brutal morning was the fact that, in the midst of all the torment, I was able to find a tiny ray of hope. Nothing that had happened to me so far was fair. No one knows that more than I do. It was brutal and violent and the greatest intrusion on one’s person that can happen in this world. And the suffering was just beginning. Nine months of pain and fear and the greatest humiliation still lay ahead. And like I said, I was just a little girl.” One of the things that stood out to me is that she repeatedly points out how young 14 is, that poor sweet girl. My sister is 14, I think of her and the anguish it would cause me if someone hurt her like that. Helen Mar Kimball and Nancy Winchester were each 14. And it is so young, too young to have to deal with such things.

“Modern-day pioneers, Mitchell and Barzee and their god against the world. Of course, I knew it was ridiculous. He was a dirty old man who wanted a bunch of young girls for his wives. That’s the only thing he cared about. Sex and drugs and alcohol. That was the only thing this was about. He could do all the preaching that he wanted, but there was never any doubt in my mind. He was an evil man who had taken me and held me captive. He threatened to kill me. He raped me every day. He threatened to kill my family. That seemed to take God out of the equation for me.”

“He had to kidnap me to save me from all the wickedness of the world. Everyone around me, the entire world, was carnal and sensual and devilish. Which was ironic news, coming from a naked man standing in the middle of the forest with his “new wife” cabled to the trees. Mostly I just cried through it all. It was just so humiliating. So painful and so crazy.”

“Just like with Abraham and Isaac, it was a trial of our faith. he explained” He continued “It was clear to me now, California was supposed to be a test of our faithfulness. But the Lord has other plans in store for me now.”

What struck me about these quotes (and several other things that Brian Mitchell did and said) was how dangerous religion can be. It is like double-edged sword so to speak. If religion helps you to get through a difficult experience, like Elizabeth’s ordeal or like Immaculee Ilibagiza
during the Rwandan Holocaust or Corrie Ten Boom during WWII, then that is a beautiful and amazing thing. That is what religion should be about. However, when people start using their religion to rape young girls or take advantage of other people in any way, it quickly becomes a corrupt and monstrous tool. I think that this not only applies to the people who are taking advantage, like Brian Mitchell, but also those who support the manipulators, like Wanda Barzee. It also reminded me of the quote by Albert Einstein “The world is a dangerous place, not because of those who do evil, but because of those who look on and do nothing.”

When Mitchell used the example of Abraham and Isaac to justify his behavior (in that particular case, it was another attempt to steal a young ‘bride’), it made me feel sick to my core. I’m not a religious scholar, but it is my understanding that this biblical example has been the source of much debate for centuries, and I don’t know that there has been any solid conclusions about it. What made me feel sick is that have heard this argument before to justify what most would otherwise consider to be vile behavior, but when I heard this argument as a faithful believing Christian, it was hard to rebuttal, although it just felt wrong. I can’t say that I know all of the details behind the story of Abraham and Isaac, however, I am very leery of anyone who would use it to justify taking advantage of someone, especially someone who has a strong faith in God.

During Elizabeth’s captivity, she was almost rescued by a private investigator. They were in the library and the officer asked her remove her veil. She didn’t out of fear of retaliation from Mitchell. And the officer didn’t just rip it off her out of respect for the religious customs that Mitchell was speaking of. “Though his initial reaction had been an explosion of pride in his ability to manipulate law enforcement, as well as the realization that there was a certain sensitivity to people’s religious customs that would allow him to hide me in plain sight, the reality quickly set in: He had almost been caught. I don’t mean to point a finger at this officer personally, for he was dealing with a master manipulator, however Mitchell’s words and behavior really made me realize that religion needs to be tempered with common sense. If someone is behaving in a way that seems evil and suspicious, we should not just let them get away with it, for there are many innocent people who can be harmed by their behavior.

I also thought it was interesting that in many ways the veil that Elizabeth wore was somewhat like it’s own ball and chain, it kept her captive. In early Judeo-Christian culture, the veil represents ownership. The reason that Rebecca wore a veil when she went to meet Isaac was that it signified that she belonged to him. In forcing Elizabeth to wear a veil, it prevented people from recognizing and rescuing her and effectively kept her with Mitchell.

Throughout the book, she shared many inspiring thoughts. “The realization that my family would still love me proved to be the turning point. In fact, it proved to be the most important moment throughout my entire nine-month ordeal. It was at this moment that I decided that no matter what happened, I was going to find a way to survive. The conviction was crystal clear. I would do whatever it took to live. No matter what it took, no matter what I had to do, I was going to survive.” I think it so beautiful the love that she and her family have for each other, and how it sustained her. When it reached the part where she was reunited with her family I couldn’t hold back the tears

“Yes, I had lived through many miracles. I had experienced tender mercies that literally kept me alive. I had been carried by the love others, and in many ways I had been blessed.” Throughout her story there were many small miraculous things that helped her survive. People who were kind to her as they traveled back from California. People fed them while they were there. At one point, early on, she had gone a few days without water and Mitchell was too lazy to go get more. She woke in the middle of the night to a cup of cold water near her bed and felt that someone was watching out for her.

Repeatedly she spoke of gratitude, and in that way she reminded me of Corrie Ten Boom. “My mother always taught me that we needed to finish everything on our plates before we left the table. But I have to say that I am grateful for those people who their away their food. Their scraps helped to sustain me for many months.” On Thanksgiving, at night she thought of the things she was grateful for. Despite her hardships she had many things to be grateful for. She still believed in God, which helped her to keep her sanity, and to give her strength and hope. She was grateful that she had not gotten sick during this ordeal. She had gotten a great meal that day from some charitable people. She was grateful that one day she would get away from her tormentors and one day she would be free.“There is one other very important explanation for why I’ve been able to overcome what happened to me. I believe in gratitude….When I first got home from being kidnapped, I was so grateful to be back with my family, so grateful that they cared and had not given up on me….I was so grateful for literally everything.”

When she returned her mother gave her some great advice that proved to be very helpful to her. “Elizabeth, what this man has done is terrible. There aren’t any words that are strong enough to describe how wicked and evil he is! He has taken nine months of your life that you will never get back again. But 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 be happy, Elizabeth. Just be happy. If you go and feel sorry for yourself, if you hold on to your pain, that is allowing him to steal more of your life away. Don’t you let him! There is no way that he deserves that. Not one more second of your life. You keep every second for yourself. You keep them and be happy. God will take care of the rest.”

At the trial, Mitchell put on a show, pretending to religious as well as mentally ill. At one, as he was being carried away he glared at her as if to say ‘See, I’ve won. I can manipulate these people as I please.’ Elizabeth looked back and thought “No, Brian David Mitchell, I am stronger than you. I’m not afraid of my future. And I’m not afraid of you. Not another second will I give you. I will live and be happy. That is how this story ends”

From a recent news article“When she talks about what motivated her to write a memoir, she typically brings up

Credit: ABC News

many of the deeply-ingrained societal issues that continue to plague survivors of sexual assault. She wants to help teach society to treat rape victims with compassion.“Her goal as a public figure is to make ‘talking about rape and abuse not such a taboo.’”

I deeply admire this woman and highly recommend her book. I know that just by my sharing her words with the youth and leaders in my little neighborhood, it is already making a difference and I believe it will continue to do so. I respect her so very much for speaking out about a difficult thing in an effort to improve the lives of others.


One Response to “Book Review: My Story by Elizabeth Smart”

  1. […] as criminals, but Molly’s coverage of recent events is giving me second thoughts. Heather reviewed Elizabeth Smart’s story. Both Alan Rock Waterman and Denver Snuffer wrote about Daymon […]

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