Elizabeth Smart Shares About Her Faith And Kidnapping
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. We continue looking back at some of the notable women who inspired us last year. In a few minutes, we'll hear from Malala Yousfzai, the Pakistani teenager who was shot by the Taliban because she not only wanted an education for herself, she also spoke publicly about the value of educating girls. Our next guest also dominated the headlines as a teenager. Back in 2002, she was just 14 years old when she was kidnapped at knife-point from her bedroom by a man named Brian David Mitchell, a self-proclaimed religious prophet who kept her captive and sexually abused her for nine months. At one point, he even chained her to a tree. But Elizabeth Smart eventually did escape, and she wrote about her ordeal in her memoir titled “My Story.” When we spoke in 2013, I started by asking her how she was doing.
ELIZABETH SMART: I'm doing so great. I couldn't be happier. I got married about a year and a half ago.
MARTIN: Congratulations. Best wishes to the bride.
SMART: Thank you. Thank you. And I just couldn't be happier.
MARTIN: I think a lot of people might want to know, why write this book now? And was there any hesitation about this because you do have to relive these events? I mean, you had to relieve these events in writing this book, which I do have to say is very gripping and very heartbreaking and very frightening at parts because there is a lot of detail about exactly what happened to you. Any hesitation about having to go through all that again?
SMART: I actually found it an incredible experience. Very edifying and just amazing to go back and relive, re-write my story, but just realize how far I really have come in my life and to see just how resilient the human spirit is. All of us have the potential with inside us to reach so much further and grow so much more than any of us think we can.
MARTIN: The kidnapper preyed on religion. He presented himself as a prophet. You are very clear that he is not. In the book you say that he's a manipulative, anti-social, narcissistic, pedophile - not clinically psychotic or delusional, just an evil man. He slipped too easily in and out of prophecy for it to ever be his actual state of mind. But because you are such a devout person - your family is very devout - when he first kind of presented this idea that this was ordained by God, was that confusing to you? How did you understand that?
SMART: From as far back as I can remember, my parents have always tried to teach me what's right and what's wrong, what you should do, what you shouldn't do. And they've always said, well, you'll know a person by their actions. If there's someone out there that's doing good things, then you know that they're going to be a good person. But if they're out there and they're hurting you, you know that they're bad. God is not cruel or vindictive. He loves all of us, but he will allow us to make our own choices. So when I was kidnapped and he was telling me all of these things, I remembered what my parents said - you'll know a person by their actions. And so even though he was sitting there telling me that he was a prophet, that I should be thankful for what was happening to me, I was really a lucky girl, I realized that he wasn't a good person. He was hurting me. He made me feel terrible. And growing up believing that I have a kind and loving heavenly Father, I couldn't believe that God had called him to do what he was doing to me. So just right from the very beginning I knew it wasn't true.
MARTIN: There was this very chilling scene just after he has kidnapped you, just after he’s forced you from your house at knife-point, where a police car passes by and he says, if this is the work of God, then let this police car pass without finding us. Did you find that confusing, frightening? Or did you just think - even then, did you feel like this can't be true and this is all made up?
SMART: I was shocked. That was one of the last things I could have ever expected to hear. Just being kidnapped and then all of a sudden having him whisper in my ear about God. But it just - as shocking as it was, I still couldn't be OK with believing that this was something from God.
MARTIN: He had seen you in a public place with your family, and he had stalked you. He kind of targeted you, and he found a way to ingratiate himself into your space so that he could attack you. And I just want to sort of point that out. But he also said that he wanted you because you were young, pretty and Mormon - apparently assuming that that would make you more vulnerable. Do you think that that's true in some way?
SMART: I think as a Mormon, we're taught to be kind, to be nonjudgmental, to be respectful of everyone around us. And so I think he thought going in with that mentality, he thought that, yeah, we would be more vulnerable to what he wanted to do.
MARTIN: How do you think parents should go about addressing these issues? Because one of the things that impresses me in the book is how you’re very protective of your family. And one of the holds that he had on you was that he kept telling you, I'm going to kill your family. If you try to run away, I'm going to kill your family. And in part, you wanted to protect them. I think most people would teach their children to be protective of the family, but they also want them to protect themselves. What should we learn from this experience and what message to impart? And also the selflessness - I mean, part of the reason he was able to ingratiate himself into your family is that they're kind, and they thought he needed work and offered him work doing handyman work around the house.
SMART: The most important thing any parent can teach their child or give to their child is love and letting their child know that no matter what, they can never be replaced. That they will always love them no matter what. So if they ever find themself in a situation where they're scared or they're worried or they feel uncomfortable, they can fight back. So if we teach children how special they are, that their value can never ever be decreased and that they can do whatever they need to when faced with a terrible situation, then they will be so much more prepared for what life has in store for them.
MARTIN: Talk a little bit more, if you would, about how - about the role that faith played in comforting you in your time of distress and in your lowest moment.
SMART: I remember probably one of my first really faith-building experiences happened when I was 7. I had been out horseback riding, and I got off my horse, let go. My horse ran down the mountain and I had to go and find the horse. And I was still just really little, and I ended up getting lost. And I remember being so scared. But I remember kneeling down and praying to find this horse, to find the trail, to be able to get back down to my family. And I remember so clearly when I finished my prayer, just feeling this calmness. And I felt like it was going to be OK. I need to stand back up, and I needed to start looking again for the trail. And that led me to my trail. And ever since that experience, I have always known that God knows me, and he loves me, and that he will never abandon me. So during my kidnapping, there were moments when I felt so low. I felt like I didn't have anybody to turn to except God. He was sending me guardian angels to help me make it through my darkest moments.
MARTIN: And yet, the kidnapper and his accomplice, his wife Wanda, kept insisting that, in essence, he was God, that this was ordained by God, that this was an agent of God. How did you avoid becoming confused by that? I mean, you say in the book - it's very profound - you say that you never thought of harming yourself. You never – you never were confused. And I think some people might wonder, how come?
SMART: Because I was getting hurt. I felt terrible. I mean, I was being abused. I was being raped. I mean, I was deprived food, and I was deprived water. All these bad things were happening, and yet they were telling me they were good people. Well, their actions just spoke so much louder than their words. It was very clear all the time what kind of people they were.
MARTIN: Do you ever think now, though, about what kinds of messages people should be imparting around these questions of, you know, obedience and faith? I know that for people who are not people of faith, one of the things that they often express is that they feel that faith sometimes allows people to be too easily led. They feel that it makes people vulnerable to being led by authorities who then abuse that trust. And I wonder - I know it's a heavy kind of question, but I wonder how do you sort that out? What message would you say you would want to impart around that based on the experience that you had in being able to sort this out for yourself?
SMART: I have faith because I have prayed, and I have studied. And I have thought about these concepts, and I have received my answer. I feel so strongly about what I believe.But I would hope that every other person does the same thing. I mean, you don't just take what's given to you and say, OK, this is what we're supposed to do. But that you pray about it, you think about it, and you find your own answer. That's what true faith is.
MARTIN: : If you're just joining us, we're speaking with Elizabeth Smart. She was the victim of a notorious kidnapping in 2002. A survivor, I should say, of a notorious kidnapping in 2002, where she was held by a kidnapper and his accomplice, his wife, for nine months before she was rescued. She describes this experience in her new book "My Story." For ages people have struggled with the question of why God allows evil things to happen. And you're very clear that this was an evil thing and an evil man, and the person who was assisting him was also. What answer have you come up with about why things like this happen in the world?
SMART: We are here on this earth to see the choices we're going to make. We're going to be tested, and we're going to try. And one of our greatest gifts is that we do have choices. We can make choices. And although God doesn't wish us harm or want bad things to happen, we all have that freedom to choose what we're going to do. And so when bad things happen, that is a choice. Although I'd never ask to be kidnapped or for something like that to happen to me, I can find that goodness can still come out of it. And that I can be grateful for the opportunities that it's opened up to me that otherwise wouldn't have been.
MARTIN: I almost hesitate to ask, but I do have to ask about the question of forgiveness.
SMART: I need to make it very clear that when I say I forgive my captors, I do. I have let go of the past. I've let go of what they've done to me, and I've let go of them. They no longer have a part in my life. And I have no desire to see them. I have just moved on.
MARTIN: They've both been sentenced to long prison terms after long delays, I guess caused by - what - questions around their mental competency to stand trial. There is no possibility of parole. But would you have desired that they face the death penalty for what they did to you?
SMART: It's really not up to me to decide. I am happy and grateful that I have my life back, and that's enough for me. And knowing that he will never be able to hurt another person, he'll never be able to come back after me, that is enough.
MARTIN: Forgive me for, you know, parents, you know, warning here. You describe in the book, you were raped just about every day, sometimes several times a day. For a young woman who had no sexual experience before this occurred, I mean, is there something you think people should know about what it takes to recover from that, or something that they just don't know about that that you would want to be sure people understand?
SMART: Whoever has been through that, it is not their fault, and they have not lost any value. And it's so important to make sure that they realize that because after being raped, I felt completely worthless. I didn't even feel like I was human anymore.And it is just so important to let these survivors know that they're not any less of a person. You don't love them any less. And that to pretend like it never happened or to pretend like rape doesn't exist or that it only happens in the wrong parts of town, you're doing that survivor a disservice.
MARTIN: One of the things, though, I heard you speak about, though, at a conference of survivors some months ago - I think it was - maybe it was last year - was that the challenge, though, of having been raised in a conservative tradition that very much places an emphasis on sexual purity. And I wonder how you reconcile the desire that many parents have to ensure that their children do observe standards with not wanting to shame them or cause them to feel shame if something bad does happen to them. Have you figured, you know, how to send that kind of message, how to balance that message out?
SMART: There's a difference between sexual abuse – sexual abuse, rape - there's a difference between that and between what a real sexual relationship is. There’s a big difference. They’re not the same thing.
MARTIN: I know. But there is this message of part of the way that this is sometimes taught is to say, well, the reason that you want to remain sexually pure is that if you have a sexual relationship outside of marriage, you’re going to be like used up candy. You know, there’s all these analogies that people use like unwrapped candy or – you know, you’ve heard all those sort of stories. And I’m wondering how you teach this message of maintaining a standard or chastity, if that’s an important value, while not imparting that sense of shame. Do you see my question?
SMART: I think I understand it. To everyone, they need to make their own choices and no matter what they are. It doesn't make you a bad person if you don't wait for marriage to have sex. I am not saying, at all, that if you get into romantic relationships, that you’re a bad person. I feel like I need to be very, very clear on that. It's a personal decision that everyone needs to decide for themselves. And if you decide that it's not for you, that you want to wait and you make a mistake, or you decide to get in a relation with someone, that is completely fine. That is completely up to you. And if you feel like it's something wrong, that's what the atonement is for. That's what Jesus died and hung on the cross for was to help us, forgive us, to help us move on in life. I hope that answered your question.
MARTIN: I think it did. Now part of the reason I’m thinking about this is that we’re obviously very grateful that these young women were rescued from that house of horrors in Cleveland, where they were kidnapped for up to 10 years.And one of the reasons that their kidnapper preyed on them is to say that nobody’s looking for you because you’re not a virgin. I mean, that was one of the ways that he manipulated them. I don’t know if you remember that story about these young women in Cleveland. So I think that’s part of the reason it’s on my mind is the way that this is used to coerce young people.
SMART: The most important message we can send to everyone is that all of us have value. That none of us can be replaced. That it doesn't matter what's happened to me, doesn't matter what's happened to those four women, I still have value. They still have value. No matter what's happened to us, we still have value, and we are still worthwhile people.
MARTIN: Forgive me, if I may say that I think you are remarkably brave and your story - the book itself is very brave. And do you want to say why you felt it was important to really tell all of the story, even the horrific parts of it, not to sugarcoat any of it?
SMART: I wanted to go all the way because I felt that I would be doing myself and other survivors a disservice if I sugarcoated it and pretended like it didn't happen. And hopefully, how we can all progress from all of our nightmares and tragedies and problems - hopefully, so that none of us feel like we have a ball and chain hanging on behind us the rest of our life.
MARTIN: What is next for you?
SMART: I always plan to be working in child advocacy. I just am grateful for the opportunity I have right now to literally be living my life for it.
MARTIN: Elizabeth Smart's book is titled "My Story." And she joined us in our Washington, D.C. studios.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.