Smart: Bad circumstances don’t define who you are
By Amy Robinson
Farmer Staff Writer
For 19 years, McKenzie County Healthcare Systems has been bringing top-notch speakers to address the women of McKenzie County. And this year, the 2015 Woman’s Day event delivered another quality speaker.
The speaker for the Oct. 21 event was Elizabeth Smart, who gained national fame in 2003 when she was rescued after being kidnapped and help captive for nine months. Born in Utah in 1987, the harrowing ordeal and impressive bravery of Elizabeth Smart touched the hearts of the 300 women in the room.
Elizabeth Smart was born on Nov. 3, 1987, in Salt Lake City, Utah. She is the second of six children born to Lois and Ed Smart, both devout members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. As a youngster, Smart was known as a kind, smart, shy, and obedient child. Her greatest passion was the harp, which she began playing at the age of five and practiced for hours each day.
“I had a huge family, with over 50 cousins just on my mom’s side,” remembered Smart. “And I remember I was always asked to play the harp at all of my cousins’ weddings. I can’t even say how many weddings I played at!”
By the time she reached middle school, Smart was sought out to perform as a harpist at local weddings and funerals, and she played numerous recitals - including opening for the Utah Symphony under Salt Lake City’s Capitol Rotunda. Smart was also a skilled equestrienne and distance runner who was training to compete in cross-country racing when she reached high school. She attended Bryant Intermediate School, where she was known as an intelligent and diligent student.
On June 2, 2002, when she was 14 years old, Smart and her family attended an end-of-year awards ceremony at her school, where she won several awards for academics and physical 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 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 fancied himself a prophet named Immanuel, and after performing a bizarre wedding ceremony, he declared Smart to be his wife and raped her.
“The only sentence I heard during the wedding ceremony was ‘I hearby seal you as my wife in front of God and the angels,’ and I just remember screaming NO,” said Smart. “I began to give him reasons as to why this wasn’t okay and he just kept saying, ‘we have to consummate our marriage.’ I’d been sheltered from a lot of different aspects in my life, but this wasn’t a big deal to him. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the feeling of having been raped.”
After having been abducted from her bed, marched through the mountains for hours, forced into an extremist wedding ceremony, and raped in less than 24 hours, Smart felt like she had hit rock bottom.
“I felt like ‘rock bottom’ had new meaning,” said Smart. “I remember crying and feeling like there was no hope, no light, no reason for me to try. I kept asking myself how long would this misery be prolonged for? That thought really scared me. I had four brothers and we had our problems, but those problems weren’t anything compared to this.”
But Smart remembered her mother. She remembered her mom talking to her, telling her that she’d always love her no matter what. Smart says she kept remembering her mother’s words and her mother’s unconditional love, and that is what she held onto for all those months she spent in captivity with her captors.
“I realized that my mom would still love me, even though this had happened to me,” said Smart. “She wanted the best for me and would always care, and so would my dad. So, when I realized that, these two people who stole everything from me, the one thing they could never change was my family loving and caring about me. I did have something worth holding on to. I decided at that moment that I would do whatever it took to survive and to make it back to my family someday.”
Mitchell and Barzee held Smart captive for the next nine months as they moved between California and Utah. Mitchell raped Smart daily - sometimes multiple times per day - and frequently kept her tethered to a tree. He forced her to consume vast quantities of alcohol, marijuana, and other drugs and often did not feed her for days bringing Smart 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.
The night of Smart’s kidnapping, her younger sister, Mary Katherine, had pretended to be asleep in the other bed while silently attempting to observe her sister’s kidnapper in the dark. “I stayed in bed,” she recalled. “I was scared. I couldn’t do anything. I was just shocked, petrified. I didn’t know what to do, knowing someone had come into my bedroom and taken my sister.”
After several months, it suddenly occurred to Mary Katherine that the kidnapper resembled a man who had once worked on their home as a handyman and who had called himself Immanuel. Police discovered that Immanuel was a man named Brian David Mitchell, and in February 2003 America’s Most Wanted aired his photograph.
Finally, 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.
Remarkably, Smart managed to return to a relatively normal life shortly after rejoining her family. Smart says that her kidnapping helped her understand the depth of her love for her family and friends and learn to take joy in the gift of life. In October of 2013, Smart released a memoir entitled My Story, highlighting the horrific ordeals that she encountered while she was kidnapped.
Although the story does detail the inhumane treatment that she received from her captors, Smart wrote the book as a form of closure.
“I want people to know that I am happy in my life right now,” stated Smart. “We all have our bad days. You want to say, ‘Really?’ But time does pass. I’m so glad I didn’t let my two captors rule the rest of my life. That set the course for the rest of my life. I’m no longer sorry that it happened to me because it wasn’t a family member or someone I trusted that kidnapped me. And I had a support system - family and friends - to go back to.”
“I grew up in a bubble and I view my experience and everything it has taught me, and I know bad things happen, wherever there is opportunity,” said Smart. “I wouldn’t have the voice I have today if I wouldn’t have gone through what I did. I am able to share my experiences and reach out to other survivors. I want people to know they aren’t alone, they’re in good company. And they don’t need to let those experiences define who they are.”
Smart was received with open arms at the MCHS Woman’s Day event, as a woman of courage, inspiration, and hope - not only for women in McKenzie County, but for women everywhere.