“Never let your past dictate your future.” – Elizabeth Smart
On 5 June 2002, America and the world became enveloped by the kidnapping of then 14-year old Elizabeth Smart, when she was abducted from her Salt Lake City, Utah home. For nine grueling months, Elizabeth was held captive in the mountains not far from her home (traveling to California during the winter); raped on multiple occasions, tethered to a tree and threatened with death if she tried to escape. She was brought home March 2003 when Elizabeth and her captors returned to Utah, and eventually rescued by Salt Lake City police. Since her abduction Elizabeth has talked about her ordeal at a number of lectures, established the Elizabeth Smart Foundation, publishing a New York Times Best Seller, “My Story”; advocating for the Amber Alert System and pushing for numerous laws and legislation on child abduction.
I was a first year Criminology student when Elizabeth was kidnapped. I became interested in the case, following it daily even upon her return. Years later, I would closely watch the trial of her abductors. It was fascinating to discover that she was held captive only five miles from her own home (it is common for kidnappers to hide abductees not far from where they live), and she could see her house from where she was held. Elizabeth’s case was one of the reasons why I studied behavioral/criminal psychology.
When I found out that she would be speaking at the University of North Dakota on March 30, I immediately planned a trip to see her speak. Her courage to speak after the harrowing experience she had lived through speaks to her amazing character. Thanks to the Greater Grand Forks Convention and Visitors Bureau, I was guaranteed a seat to see her speak. Elizabeth spoke to a packed house at the Chester Fritz Auditorium on campus, a lectureship series hosted by the Delta Gamma Foundation/Everson Family Lectureship in Values and Ethics; those arriving as the lecture began had to be turned away or sat quietly in the lobby listening to her words.
Elizabeth began the lecture by describing her life leading up to the kidnapping – being an awkward, shy teenager who regularly played the harp at relatives weddings; most of the time, reluctantly. She would begin high school in the fall of the year she was abducted. She recounted the night of he kidnapping – she was sound asleep in her bedroom, with her sister sleeping next to her, dreaming about what her first day of high school would be like – when suddenly, she was jolted from her dream to hear the words, “I have a knife at your throat, if you scream, I will kill you.” She said that she thought it was apart of her dream and when she finally woke, she was startled and shocked… she did not know how to react. There, standing over her, was an oddly dressed haggard man holding a knife to her throat, instructing her to get out of bed and to follow him. If she did not comply, he would kill her sister in front of her. Scared, and believing that he had already killed her parents and other siblings, she complied.
As she went on, she talked about how they finally crossed the street when her captor and herself noticed a car coming down the street. She surely thought that it was the getaway car. Panicked, they huddled behind bushes, and to her dismay, the car passing was a police car… on its nightly rounds. She desperately wanted to scream for help, but was threatened by the man. Elizabeth begged the man to just kill her now and get it over with, so that her parents knew that she did not run away and that she was indeed kidnapped. That was when he turned to her and said, “I am not going to rape or kill you… yet.” The words echoed through the auditorium to gasps of horror from the audience.
Elizabeth continued to briefly talk about what the day to day life was like being held captive. The daily rapes and being chained to tree; being violated and feeling like she had nothing to live for.
But she did. Elizabeth discussed how her belief and faith in her God kept her going, including the unconditional love she knew her parents would still have and knowing that they were looking for her. Her thoughts were correct when her captor returned from a trip in town, showing her a missing flyer. She would then go on to discuss being found. She ultimately convinced her captors to return to Utah, after moving to California for the winter. It was upon her return that three by-standards contacted police to report something strange; it was then, where immediately, police found her with her captors. She told us how reluctant she was, at first, to tell police who she really was in fear of her captors. When the police officer told her that her parents were looking for her and wanted her home safe, it was then when Elizabeth admitted who she really was and was safely returned home that night (after a long night of debriefing).
After recounting her ordeal, Elizabeth discussed how she was able to move on with her life. The only thing she wanted to do, upon returning home, was to return to her normalcy and routine – start high school and be a teenager again. After a while, she finally did. She also shared that speaking about her abduction and sharing her faith in her God is what has helped her through all these years. She shared with us one piece of advice her mother gave her, the night she returned home – “No matter how many bad days, weeks or months, you have gone through… God will reward you with good things soon for all the times you have missed them.” Those poignant words resonated with me. I am not a big believer in God, nor do I believe in organized religion; however, I do believe that no matter how many bad things or days you’ve experienced, if you keep believing, good things will happen.
Elizabeth shares her ordeal to help those who have experienced the same thing – in hopes that her story of survival will help them heal and have the courage to move on with their life. Reflecting on her own words of encouragement, Elizabeth talked about how she was able to move on – finishing high school and graduating from Brigham Young University, bravely testifying against her captors; completing a Mission in Paris, meeting and marrying her husband, and giving birth to her first child. She pointed out that there are days when it is difficult, but she immediately makes herself think of all the good that have come from this, and how her life has changed positively since then. She briefly discussed her foundation and the projects that have stemmed from that, especially Operation Underground Railroad – an organization helping to remove children from slavery/trafficking/sex trade around the world and reuniting them with their families.
Her words are inspiring and moving. I was blessed and honored to have the opportunity to see her speak. Elizabeth Smart is a brave woman, who used her faith, love of her God and family to survive and overcome the horrific monstrosities that she experienced. If you would like to know more about her ordeal in her own words, her book “My Story”, is available for purchase.
The Greater Grand Forks Convention & Visitors Bureau hosted a Spring Break stay while in Grand Forks. The opinions in this post are mine.