Everyone faces obstacles, but it’s overcoming them and focusing on the future that is critical-that’s how Elizabeth Smart was able to survive after she was abducted, held in captivity, and raped every day for nine months. Smart spoke to a full Devlin 008 on April 10, with students packed into the stairwells and onto the floor around the podium-BCPD was called in to manage the crowd.
“I don’t think I’ve ever spoken to a room quite this packed before,” Smart said. “It’s a nice feeling to have.”
The majority of the talk focused on her personal story. The night before Smart’s junior high school graduation, when she was 14, she was abducted from her bed at knifepoint. The man who kidnapped her forced her to walk several hours in the mountains near Salt Lake City, Utah. Eventually, they reached a grove of trees with a tent in the middle. In the tent, her abductor’s wife forced her to change into robes. When she was done changing, her captor came into her tent and spoke to her: “I hereby seal you to me as my wife before God and his angels as my witnesses.”
Smart was shocked-this was the last thing she expected him to say. He then said it was time for them to consummate their marriage. Smart was raised in a strict home and didn’t know what that meant-but, she had some idea, she said.
“And then he raped me, and that’s exactly what I thought it would be and prayed it wasn’t,” she said. “I will never forget how I felt lying on the ground at that moment. I felt like no one could ever love me again and no one would ever want to be my friend again.”
Despite the heaviness of Smart’s story, her ability to look at it from a distance-it has been 12 years since the kidnapping-allowed her to inject some humor into the talk. She interspersed tales from her life at home before the event into her description of the abduction in order to give the audience a sense of what she was like as a young teenager.
Before the kidnapping, one of her most traumatic experiences was when a popular girl at school snubbed her. When she told her mother what happened after school that day, her mother told her she loved her and would always love her. Smart recalled this memory as she was lying in the tent that first day. Her belief in her faith and in her family helped her survive, she said.
“I made up my mind in that moment that I would do whatever I could to survive,” she said. “It didn’t matter what it was. It didn’t matter how many personal standards or principles or promises I had to break to myself. I would do it if it meant that I would be able to go back home and see my family again. That decision saw me through a lot.”
Nine months later, she was rescued. Although her two captors had taken her to California for the winter, she convinced them to return to Salt Lake City, where police recognized her and took her into custody. Though she did not know why, the police handcuffed her and took her into a cell in the police station, she said.
“I guess if I go to prison that would still be a step up from where I’ve been the past nine months,” she thought at the time. As soon as she thought that, her father walked in the door and she was able to go home.
The next morning, Smart’s mother gave her advice that helped her move on and stay focused on the future. Her mother told her that she had to move forward, otherwise she would be letting her captors take away even more of her life. The best punishment Smart could give them was to be happy, Smart said.
“It’s not really what happens to us that makes us who we are-it’s our choices,” she said. “It was my choice to be happy and let the past go that got me where I am today.”
Despite the horror of the nine months she spent living outside with her captors, Smart said she is no longer upset that it happened to her.
“I wouldn’t ask for it, I wouldn’t sign up for it, but I just think of what I’ve been able to do since then,” she said. “I certainly wouldn’t be here today, certainly would not be a public speaker at all. I don’t know where I’d be, but I’m grateful because of the people I’ve been able to meet, the people I’ve been able to work with and for the lives I’ve been able to change.”