Monday, February 24, 2014

Elizabeth Smart's Survival Story

Everyone has one, their story of struggle and how they persevered. Whether it was through a difficult period of time, a challenging day, or a history of oppression...we are overwhelmed with a great number of survival stories to listen to, learn from, and be inspired by.

The story of Elizabeth Smart ("My Story") was always one that interested me. We all remembered when she was kidnapped back in the summer of 2002, right from her home. The media images of her parents pleading for her safe return, and the suspicion and doubt and sadness that clouded the situation.

It was a story that captured the nation's attention, and one that brought great relief when Elizabeth was found...alive!

But when her story unfolded, and elements of her 9 months in captive were broadcast, I remember there also being a bit of judgment on Elizabeth. When it was discovered that she was out in public on numerous occasions, and that she had encountered police officers yet still didn't reveal her identity...it almost took away from the fairy tale ending to her horror story.

I remember thinking to myself...WHY wouldn't this girl just speak up or scream or run away when she had the chance? I knew it was a story that I wanted to hear, and I realized that I may never hear it. It seemed like far too long had passed without truly hearing Elizabeth's story. The few TV appearances were interesting, but still not clear. And then there was news of her book release in the fall of 2013.

I finally got around to reading it, and it was captivating. Really captivating. Elizabeth outlined the details of the events leading up to the kidnapping, including how her parents had previously assisted the homeless Brian David Mitchell by offering him work at their home, and the night he returned months later to lead her out by knife point. Her journey up the mountain, just miles from her home, and how he raped her, threatened her, starved her, and hid her in a robe and veil, snatching her confidence and terrorizing her young mind.

It's amazing to hear a story like this, because I assume most stories never get told, as the victims end up dead or vanish indefinitely. It's amazing to hear how incredibly sickening and evil people can be, like Mitchell and his wife, Wanda Barzee. Hiding behind religion and self-assumed role of a "prophet"...it really outlined the lengths that he went to do justify his pedophilia. It was horrible.

Horrible on many levels, to hear how the 14-year-old Elizabeth went from a peaceful and innocent life as a Mormon girl with a large, loving family...to being the slave to this vagabond couple, and participating in their twisted family under the guise of religion.

Elizabeth talks about their journey from Utah to California, and the way Mitchell would manipulate his way into getting food, liquor, drugs, and how he forced her to partake in elements of life that were completely unknown to her. Although she doesn't describe the daily rape she endured from Mitchell, you just know that at the root of her fear was the fact that this grown man was taking pleasure in her innocence...and his wife was too delusional to interfere.

It's repulsive, but despite all of the horrible things that were happening to Elizabeth...I knew there was going to be redemption at the end, at least for her family who were undoubtedly suffering without her.

There were so many times, so many encounters, and so many missed opportunities for Elizabeth to easily return to her family. Just by removing her veil, stating her name, or even by running...but it didn't happen. And this is what had completely confused me...up until I read this book.

You can see the trickery and the constant threat of murder that Mitchell places on Elizabeth. He embeds this message so deep into her young mind, that she becomes convinced that if she does anything out of line, that Mitchell will kill her...and also ensure that her family is murdered as well.

That's a lot to put on the mind of a child. As a logical adult, we can easily think of the many ways we would have revealed our true identity to passers-by and police officers. But as an empathic adult, reading the book makes it clear why this young girl didn't have the courage to potentially risk her life (and the life of her family) by taking a chance at disobeying him.

Of course in the end, the group returns to Utah, and it is the tip of a stranger and a savvy police officer that end up capturing Mitchell and Barzee, and returning Elizabeth to her family. It took 9 months...9 long months for her to finally utter the words "I am Elizabeth"...and I could have cried when I read that part of the book. It was like FINALLY! FINALLY!

And the best part about all of this is that Elizabeth Smart has evolved into this incredibly strong, giving, and well-adjusted young woman. She is involved in international missionary work, has her own foundation to raise awareness about child victimization, she's married, and she looks happy.

In all the interviews of her I've since watched, I'm so impressed with how confident and how determined she is to be happy. Her mother told her, shortly after being rescued, that her greatest revenge against her captors was for her to be HAPPY.

The story moved me on so many levels, and mainly because I can think of many challenging situations that people go through...but this was a unique one. Mentally, physically, and spiritually, this experience ripped to the core of all things sacred and innocent.

And she survived. She survived, and she's smiling. She survived, and she's productive. She survived, and she still has her family and a husband, and a career, and a purpose...and she didn't let that disgusting man and his wife rob her of her LIFE! She didn't curl up in a ball and run away from the world...she embraced her story, she shares her story, and she has triumphed beautifully.

No one knows what is in her heart, or what runs through her mind at night, but what is on public display is definitely motivating. It is a story of rising above the most terrible circumstances, and still being able to approach the world with joy and thanksgiving.

She survived. I'm glad she did, and that she finally shared this story in her own words. Because 12 years after her kidnapping, Elizabeth Smart has given me a renewed outlook on how your faith can literally bring you through anything. She loved God, and never let Him out of her sight during this ordeal. She continued to praise him, and knew that He would bring her through.

Elizabeth Smart has reminded me of the importance for having gratitude for life, and the strength of the human spirit to overcome almost anything.


Written by Stacey Marie Robinson for Kya Publishing's "Urban Toronto Tales" blog.

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