Elizabeth Smart makes “moving forward” a cornerstone of her work with people who have survived horrific abuse. But, 11 years after she endured a nine-month kidnapping, she herself is focused on that past — as a way to extract its lessons.
“If I had not been kidnapped, would I be here?” she asked the audience at the opening event of the National Council of Jewish Women, Essex County Section. There was a ripple of laughter from the 550-plus people at the Oct. 28 gala at Brooklake Country Club in Florham Park, responding to her claim that her last name doesn’t go with her “blond” identity.
But the young Mormon from Utah, with her hair wound Heidi-style around the nape of her neck, did have a message in line with the NCJW’s efforts to help people overcome adversity. “I don’t feel sorry about what I experienced,” she said. “I am grateful for all that it taught me. It has allowed me to have nights like this, to meet individuals like you, who are making such a difference.”
Smart was a shy, sheltered 14-year-old in June 2002, sharing a bedroom in her Salt Lake City home with one of her five siblings, when she woke to find a man holding a knife to her throat. Then — and for the nightmare months that followed — she obeyed Brian David Mitchell’s every order, believing his threat that he would kill her family if she rebelled. “I had no reason not to believe him,” she said.
Chained up and repeatedly raped, she felt utterly worthless — “like ash,” Smart recalled — and at times she envied the kidnapped kids who had been found dead. But, she said, her faith in God and her parents’ love helped her realize her own inherent value and the importance of surviving. She did whatever it took to stay alive. In March the following year, she got her “happy ending,” when she was rescued by police who spotted her and her captors.
Smart is aware, she emphasized, that many people have faced tough challenges. “As I’ve traveled and met so many people, I have found we have so much in common. We all have problems, trials, and struggles. In fact, if there’s anyone who hasn’t got any problems,” she said with a smile, “could you let me know what your secret is?”
Turning serious, she said, “We have two options: to give up and allow our problems to overwhelm us — and there are plenty of days when I just want to crawl back into bed — but that generally makes things worse. Or we can decide, ‘That was terrible and I wish it hadn’t happened, but I’m not going to let it define who I am or steal my happiness.”
A few people in the audience, including Ellen and Donald Legow of Livingston, who sponsored the evening, said afterward they had wanted to hear more about her recovery and her efforts to help others, but with the time available, Smart just briefly summed up what came next.
Supported by her family and her community, she returned to high school and went to college. In 2011, she established the Elizabeth Smart Foundation, which supports the Internet Crimes Against Children task force and aims to educate children about violent and sexual crime. She also became a commentator for ABC News, providing her unique perspective on stories about missing persons. And in 2013, her memoir My Story, cowritten with Chris Stewart, was published.
Earlier this year, she married Matthew Gilmour, a Mormon from Scotland whom she got to know while both served as Mormon missionaries in Paris. He didn’t know her story when they met. “He just thought I was cute, and I really liked that,” she said.
“Elizabeth Smart offered a poignant look at what it means to have hope in a difficult situation,” said NCJW/Essex president Deborah Legow Schatz of West Orange. “Her incredible story of perseverance in the face of unimaginable hardship is a reminder to us all to not allow our past to dictate who we become in the future.”