‘We’re all survivors of something’; Elizabeth Smart reflects on the past and how to move forward

Elizabeth Smart answers questions from the audience following her speech at Southern Utah University, Cedar City, Utah, Feb. 4, 2019 | Photo by Jeff Richards, St. George News / Cedar City News

CEDAR CITY — No matter what might happen to them, people are defined by their decisions, Elizabeth Smart told a crowd of approximately 3,000 people Monday night, sharing a message that was both horrific and heartfelt.

Elizabeth Smart speaks at Southern Utah University, Cedar City, Utah, Feb. 4, 2019 | Photo by Jeff Richards, St. George News / Cedar City News

“Ultimately, it’s our choices that define who we are,” Smart said at the America First Event Center on the Southern Utah University campus. “Yes, what happens to us, it affects how we live our life and affects who we are, but it doesn’t define us. So, no matter what you’ve been through, … I hope that you remember that ultimately you hold the control over your life.”

Smart addressed a variety of topics during her hour-long remarks, which were followed by a 30-minute Q&A session.

Smart chronicled the traumatic experiences she endured from the time of her abduction from her Salt Lake City home in June 2002 until her rescue on the streets of Sandy nine months later. Her time spent with her two captors, Brian David Mitchell and Wanda Barzee, was filled with trauma, including rape and unending psychological abuse. They evaded authorities by camping out in the mountains above Salt Lake City and later in Southern California. Soon after the trio returned to Utah in March 2003, someone recognized Smart, and her captors were arrested.

Now a 31-year-old married mother of three young children, Smart is an author and activist who speaks frequently about helping children stay safe from abuse. Her most recently published book is “Where There’s Hope: Healing, Moving Forward, and Never Giving Up.”

Elizabeth Smart speaks at Southern Utah University, Cedar City, Utah, Feb. 4, 2019 | Photo by Jeff Richards, St. George News / Cedar City News

“The truth is … we’re all survivors of something,” she told the audience. “Hopefully, it’s not all kidnapping and rape, but we all survive things in life. I mean, we all deal with hard times. We all have our struggles. I don’t know anybody who doesn’t.”

For Smart, her previously innocent life changed forever that fateful June night when Mitchell entered her family’s home and kidnapped her, taking her away to a primitive campsite in the nearby foothills and telling her that she was to be his second wife.

She spoke Monday of the manipulative tactics used by her captors, including plying her with alcohol, withholding food and water, and subjecting her to death threats and other psychological abuse. Smart said she was afraid to say anything to others on the few occasions when they ventured out into public. 

“So I never ran. Never screamed. Well, actually, I did try to run a couple times, but it never ended well. It always came back with more abuse,” Smart said. “Every time I felt things couldn’t get worse, they thought of a new way to make it worse. They thought of a new way to humiliate me even further. So yes, it got to this point where I was living in fear and I didn’t do what would seem to be the logical thing because I was scared.”

Elizabeth Smart signs copies of her books for fans and well-wishers after speaking at Southern Utah University, Cedar City, Utah, Feb. 4, 2019 | Photo by Jeff Richards, St. George News / Cedar City News

Smart called it “survival mode.”

“I did what I had to do to survive,” she said, “and looking back now, you know, I don’t regret any decisions that I made, because ultimately I did survive.”

Smart spoke of the horrors she endured while being raped on a daily basis by Mitchell.

“The terrible, awful thing about rape is that the victim keeps living,” she said. “You don’t always overcome it. You can’t always just set that aside. … It’s almost like a living death.”

Even on the day she was finally rescued, Smart said it wasn’t until she had been physically separated from her captors that she was finally able to tell police who she really was. She also described the relief she felt when her father arrived at the police station and immediately gave her a big hug.

People line up to purchase copies of Elizabeth Smart’s books following her speech at Southern Utah University, Cedar City, Utah, Feb. 4, 2019 | Photo by Jeff Richards, St. George News / Cedar City News

“I realized that it really was my dad, and I just remember feeling and knowing that he was never going to let another person hurt me ever again, at least not the way that these two people had hurt me the last nine months. And I just remember thinking that, I don’t know what’s ahead. I don’t know what the future holds, but it’s going to be okay because my dad is here.”

Her first night back in the comfort of her own home, Smart said her mother had asked if she wanted to sleep in her parent’s bedroom, but she said she wanted to sleep by herself in her own bed.

She then told her mother, “I promise I’ll still be here in the morning.”

“That’s not very comforting,” she said Monday night. “Actually, I woke up a few times in the middle of the night and my parents were hovering above me. But I was still there.”

Smart said she still appreciates the wise advice her mother gave her the following morning:

Elizabeth, what these people have done to you is terrible and there aren’t words to describe how wicked and evil they are. They’ve stolen nine months of your life from you that you will never get back, but the best punishment you could ever give them is to be happy, to live your life, to do the things that you want to do, because if you’re feeling sorry for yourself, you’re living in the past by dwelling on what’s happened to you. That’s only allowing more of your life to be stolen away from you.”

Smart talked of feeling angry and frustrated when Barzee was released from prison a few months ago. She then said what forgiveness means to her.

Elizabeth Smart speaks at Southern Utah University, Cedar City, Utah, Feb. 4, 2019 | Photo by Jeff Richards, St. George News / Cedar City News

“I say, I forgive my captors, but I will never be okay with rape. I will never be okay with abuse. I will never be okay with kidnapping, and I will never, ever, think that those things are okay. I will spend the rest of my life speaking out against them and standing up against these terrible crimes.”

“For me, forgiveness is loving yourself enough to let go of those negative feelings and releasing them,” she added.

During the Q&A session, Smart talked about the large amount of publicity her story received.

“I’ve been through a nightmare, but I’m not the only person who’s been through a nightmare,” she said. “And unfortunately, my story is not so much so different from thousands of other stories. I mean, I don’t know why my story got so much attention. … It’s not so different from so many others. But I realized that because it did see so much attention and because I was so well-known, I had an opportunity to make a difference.”

Smart said she has the chance to possibly prevent what happened to her from happening to others.

“Maybe I couldn’t prevent it 100 percent, but if I could prevent it even 1 percent, then that’s what I wanted to do.”

After the event concluded, dozens of people lined up in the hallway outside the arena to purchase Smart’s books and have her autograph them.

Smart’s appearance, which was free and open to the public, was sponsored by Iron County School District with support from Southern Utah University. Monday afternoon, right before Smart’s appearance, the SUU Human Rights Advocates also screened her Lifetime movie “I am Elizabeth Smart” (2017), a powerful film narrated by Smart herself, which recounts her nine-month ordeal.

Rich Nielsen, Iron County School District’s director of secondary education, said the event was by far the most well-attended parent night that the district has ever held.

“This week is National School Counselor Appreciation Week, and on behalf of our district leadership team, we extend our appreciation to these amazing individuals who work so hard to support our students and families,” Nielsen said during his opening introduction.

Nielsen said Smart’s appearance was intended to bring support to students, parents and other members of the community who have suffered trauma and other difficulties in their lives.

“We want to bring hope and healing,” he said. “School counselors and social workers are available in our schools, and we encourage you to reach out for resources.”

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Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2019, all rights reserved.


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