Article by John Morin | Photography by Joshua Eller | Owl Staff
Fourteen-year-old Elizabeth Smart was sound asleep when a man climbed in through a window of her Utah home and made his way to her room. Led by knife-point out of the house, Smart vanished into the dark woods, not to be seen again for another nine months.
A decade later, Ms. Smart made her first Maryland appearance as the keynote speaker at the 8th Annual Cherish the Child Symposium at Mountain Christian Church. The symposium focused on child protection awareness and ways individuals can help make a difference.
During her speech, Smart led the audience through a detailed account of the horrors she faced during the time of her abduction. Her captor, a man named Brian David Mitchell, referred to himself as “Emmanuel” and professed to be a prophet of God. His wife, Wanda Barzee, was called by the name “Hezbollah” and assisted her husband.
On the night of the abduction, Emmanuel led her to a large tent hidden in a grove of trees and performed a sort of mock wedding ceremony, proclaiming: “I hereby seal you to me as my wife, before God and his angels as my witnesses.” Then he raped the frightened and sobbing Smart on the tent floor.
Overcome with despair and shame, Smart started to question her fate: “How could anyone ever love me or want me again? I felt it would have been better if he just killed me then and there, than to have raped me and let me live.”
She remembered how her family and God would always love her, however, and it renewed her hope.
“The morning after I was kidnapped, I promised myself I would do whatever it took to survive,” Smart shares with Owl Magazine. “It didn’t matter if it would be three days or thirty years; I would be home someday.”
What followed was nine months of unthinkable hell; she was abused, forced to drink alcohol and watch pornography, and lived in fear that her family might be harmed as well. Any attempt to escape would be met with death.
Smart believes that her parents’ teaching of persistence and hard work, her faith, and just “plain old stubbornness” was what helped pull her through. “I’d say it’s definitely thanks to the people who prayed for me [and] tried to support me from far away,” says Smart. “I’d say it was God’s hand in my life.”
Smart was filled with new urgency when she discovered their plans to crisscross the United States to find seven young brides for Emmanuel. By using her captor’s own brand of manipulation, Smart mentioned to Emmanuel that God told her they should go back to her home state. Insisting that Emmanuel was a “great man of God,” Smart had him ask God if this was true. A short while later, her captor said that God had told him the same thing and so they left for Utah. Shortly afterwards, they were spotted on busy State Street and Smart was finally reunited with her family.
Part of her healing process came from her mother’s advice that the worst punishment she could give her captor was to be happy. “He took nine months of my life from me; he doesn’t deserve any more of my time,” Smart explains. “[That advice] inspired me to keep going, to be better today than I was yesterday.”
From her ordeal, Ms. Smart has gone on to create the Elizabeth Smart Foundation (ESF) to help prevent future crimes against children. One of the programs offered through ESF to meet this end is RadKids (Resist Aggression Defensively). Smart is also a news correspondent with ABC News and is active in promoting other safety legislation measures in Washington D.C.
For others looking to make a difference or to use their own experiences to bring about change, Smart says, “I think you should never undervalue or under measure yourself. You can do everything you want to do; you just have to figure out what it is and then do it.”