With her soft-spoken voice, Elizabeth Smart shared her experience of being taken from her room by a stranger, led into the woods and held captive against her will, hanging to whatever hope she could.
“I had to be dreaming,” Smart said.
Smart described herself as a quiet and awkward 14-year-old girl at the time of her kidnapping. Smart was about to move on to high school, and despite the feeling of being introverted, she was prepared for life and what was ahead of her. However, nothing could have prepared her for what would happen, and she said she didn’t have a choice but to leave with her captor as he led her to the mountains near her home.
They then stumbled upon a well-prepared camp with shelters on a flattened mountainside where her captor’s wife was waiting. Smart was then stripped of her past life. She was raped repeatedly, sometimes multiple times a day over the period of the next nine months.
“How had this happened to me? Why had this happened to me?” Smart asked.
Growing up as a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, she said it didn’t cross her mind that someone could be that evil to force that upon someone. With deep pauses, she said the experience was devastating, demoralizing and violating beyond words. Shortly thereafter, the reality emerged that someone really could be that evil. Feelings of worthlessness set in, and the thought crossed her mind that nobody would want her, as being raped by her captor made her feel worthless.
“I felt it would be better to be dead than to feel this shame because of what happened to me,” she said.
As Smart laid on the ground after being raped by her captor, she said she remembered her mother and father. She felt everything would be OK because her parents would still love her. It was then when she decided she would do whatever she could to see her parents again.
Smart recently published her book Where There’s Hope: Healing, Moving Forward, and Never Giving Up, inspired after hearing frequent questions of how she has managed the challenges associated with her kidnapping and finding hope.
Smart said she certainly doesn’t know everything related to forgiveness, hope and anger. She said by interviewing other survivors of their own tragedies along with her narrative, a clearer picture emerged of how to navigate the emotions associated with sexual abuse and other tragedies.
When Smart was returned to her family in March 2003, her family provided the support she desperately needed. She said her mother told her what these people did was terrible; they had stolen nine months of her life she would not be able to get back. But to be happy, that is the best punishment she could give to her captors.
Although Smart said she will still feel the anger, pain and frustration associated with what happened, it’s important for her to remember the end goal of the day should be happiness.
“I’m not perfect at that,” Smart said.
Smart shared how her husband purchased her a new car. Shortly after receiving the car, while rushing to the airport to catch a flight, she backed into the garage door, leaving a scratch on the rear bumper. She felt horrible, calling her husband immediately after it happened. Her husband reminded her that she can choose how she reacts to adversity.
She said many things in life are unfair, but things still happen, but at the end of the day we decide who we are.
“I realize that every single one of us has a story,” Smart said. “And at some degree we are all searching for the same things: how do you overcome problems, how do we have happiness in life, how do we deal with anger and forgiveness? I don’t have the answer to all these questions, but I do my best. I hope whoever comes, no matter what their struggle is, they will feel inspired and encouraged.”
Smart told anyone who suffers from the pain and emotions associated with sexual abuse and kidnappings to remember what her mother told her, “to make happiness your goal.” She also wants them to know that it’s not their fault. Things may be difficult for a time, but you make the difference in yourself.