KOKOMO, Ind. —When Elizabeth Smart looks into her mirror, she doesn’t see a victim.
She sees a survivor.
Kidnapped from her bed at knifepoint when she was 14, Smart endured nine grueling months as the captive of a homeless street preacher and his wife, living chained up in a tent, where she was sexually assaulted daily.
Passersby saved her on March 12, 2003, calling police to let them know they thought they had spotted Brian David Mitchell, whose picture had been published as a suspect in her kidnapping, with her on a downtown Salt Lake City street.
Smart refuses to let that experience, nearly 15 years ago, define the rest of her life. Instead, she’s used the public interest in her story to be an advocate for people who have been victims of abuse, she told an audience at Indiana University Kokomo Tuesday (April 10).
“My kidnapping has altered my life, it’s changed the course of my life,” said Smart, now 30, to the crowd filling Havens Auditorium. “I wouldn’t be doing half the things I do today if I hadn’t been kidnapped, but I also realize that’s no longer what defines me. When I look in the mirror, I don’t see a victim anymore. I see an activist, I see a wife, I see a mother, I see a friend, I see someone I’m proud to be.
“It’s not what happens to us, it’s what we decide to do next, how we move forward, how we pursue our lives,” she said. “We don’t have a lot of control over what happens to us all the time. I couldn’t stop being kidnapped. I couldn’t stop being raped. I couldn’t stop being held captive. But I can decide how to move forward from that.”
Her mother’s advice the morning after she returned home also shaped how she moved forward afterwards. Lois Smart told her daughter that while what Mitchell and his wife, Wanda Barzee, did to her was wicked and evil, and they’d stolen nine months of her life, “the best punishment you can give them is to be happy, is to move forward with your life, to do all the things you want to do.”
Feeling sorry for herself, or holding on to bad memories of that time just allowed them to steal more of her life, and “they don’t deserve one second more,” her mother said.
With encouragement from her family, Smart, who describes herself as shy and quiet, stepped into the public eye, writing two best-selling books, and lobbying with her father for laws to protect children, including the national sex offender registry. She also founded the Elizabeth Smart Foundation, to raise awareness about predatory child crimes, and written two books.
“Having been a victim of sexual violence and kidnapping, I don’t think anybody else should have to go through that,” she said. “If speaking out, if raising awareness, if sharing my story is going to help bring that change, that’s what I’m going to do.”
Smart also shares her story to give hope to others who have been abused, so they know they are not alone, and to create awareness of resources to help them recover.
“Nobody should have to feel like they’re going through this alone, like they don’t have anywhere to turn,” she said, adding she was lucky to have support from a loving family as she recovered.
“The terrible truth about sex crimes is that they have the ability to destroy the rest of a person’s life,” she said. “It’s very important for me to talk about these issues, to educate people.”
Smart encouraged her listeners to trust their instincts, and if they see something suspicious, alert authorities. Because three people called a Salt Lake City dispatch center in March 2003, she returned home to her family, and her captors went to prison.
“I believe strongly in the power of ordinary people,” she said.
That was the message that resounded with students Emily Harsh and Jake Wilson.
Harsh, from Kokomo, said it’s important for people to be aware of what’s happening around them, because “you never know when you could be that person who helps someone get out of something.”
Wilson remembers hearing Smart’s story when he was very young, and found her message of hope inspiring. He noted that most people aren’t aware of how prevalent abuse is, and that they can help by reporting suspicious activity.
Lindsey Nelson admired Smart’s courage in “bringing awareness to things people don’t want to talk about,” with her message.
“She has taken something traumatic in her life, and turned it around to help a lot of people,” she said. “It’s very brave.”
Smart said she has forgiven her captors, even though she knows they are not sorry for what they did to her, and they need to remain in prison, where her testimony put them.
“If I waited for them to say sorry, I will wait until the day I die,” she said. “Forgiveness is not acceptance of what happened to you. I will never be OK with kidnapping, I will never be OK with rape or abuse. Those are things I would never think are acceptable actions. Forgiveness means I have accepted they happened, I have dealt with my anger, I have dealt with my emotions, and I have let it go, and I have let peace come back into my life, I have let joy back into my life.”
Smart’s presentation precedes IU Kokomo’s Angel Walk, an annual fundraiser for the Family Services Association of Howard County’s domestic violence shelter, scheduled for Tuesday, April 17.
Indiana University Kokomo serves north central Indiana.