Elizabeth Smart: We are not defined by the bad things that happen to us

Speaking to a joint meeting of the Rotary Clubs of Thurston County in Lacey in 2013, Utah kidnap survivor Elizabeth Smart tells the harrowing and disturbing story her 9-month ordeal. Smart is scheduled to speak in Tacoma next month.
Speaking to a joint meeting of the Rotary Clubs of Thurston County in Lacey in 2013, Utah kidnap survivor Elizabeth Smart tells the harrowing and disturbing story her 9-month ordeal. Smart is scheduled to speak in Tacoma next month. The Olympian

In 2002 Elizabeth Smart, then 14, seemingly disappeared from the face of the Earth.

Nine months later she returned, and the details of her kidnapping shocked the country.

Not long after, Smart went missing again. Or at least she wanted to.

“I did try for a long time (to go underground),” Smart said. “I thought I could just disappear.”

Smart is now 31 years old, married and the mother of three children. She is an author and activist for missing people.

On March 8 she’ll speak in Tacoma to kick off the Interfaith Women’s Conference being held the next day at Curtis Jr. High School in University Place. The conference brings together women of all faiths to, “ignite our faith, strengthen our families and find ways to serve in the community.”

Smart is clear on why she transformed from a shy teenager to a public persona.

“I want people to understand that bad things happen to all of us,” she said. “Some of them are definitely on the more public scale than others.”

What happened to Smart was the definition of a bad thing that happened on a massive public scale.

She was kidnapped from her Salt Lake City home on June 5, 2002. After enduring nine months of rape and deprivation at the hands of her captors, she was rescued on March 12, 2003 in Sandy, Utah. Her story, its shocking details and her regained freedom garnered national attention.

“Even though these bad things happen, that’s not what defines us,” Smart said in a recent phone interview with The News Tribune as her youngest daughter sat in her lap. “What ultimately defines us are the choices we make.”

Smart chose to turn her experiences into a life with purpose.

Today, she advocates for child abduction victims as well as for recovery programs and legislation. Smart took a break from her mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to confront her captor at his trial.

She has testified before Congress.

Smart wrote a book about her experiences, “My Story,” and another book on overcoming trauma, “Where There’s Hope.”

The life she lives now is not the one she imagined after first regaining her freedom.

Before her abduction, Smart never had been in the spotlight.

“I wasn’t used to people recognizing me everywhere,” she said. “And that was one of the biggest adjustments that I had to make, coming home.”

It took her time to realize she’d never go back to her former life.

“I thought I could just pick right back up from where I had left off,” Smart said.

She knew she wanted to make a difference and impact the lives of others.

“I was not sharing my story, and I was not vocal a fraction of the amount as I am today,” she said of those early years.

It was her father who encouraged her to share her story, Smart said.

The result, she said, is beyond what she could have hoped for.

“The life I’m living now is better than the one I had imagined as a little girl because I’m doing something that’s meaningful and important to me,” she said. “It’s hopefully changing the world for good.”

Part of that is speaking to audiences like the one in Tacoma. Over the years, the reason why Smart shares her story has changed.

“Initially, I found it almost strangely cathartic,” she said. “I share it now because I view it as educational more than anything.”

It wasn’t easy at first.

“If you have the opportunity to sit down with a (trauma) survivor, never start a question with, ‘Why didn’t you …’. The victim will not hear the question. The victim will hear, ‘You should have…’”

As well-intentioned as those questions were, it’s not what she needed to hear.

“Some of those questions made me feel really bad,” Smart said.

Her story gives insight into the horrors of kidnapping, rape and being deprived of the basic necessities of life.

She knows people are curious. She hopes they focus their questions on her instead of others.

“If they ever have someone that trusts them enough to share the darkest moments of their lives with them … don’t ask them the same questions,” Smart said. “And if they are going to ask someone those questions, then they should ask me those questions.”

Smart is sensitive to ‘blame the victim’ language in society.

“I think the majority of it is unintentionally done,” she said.

What victims need are trust, understanding and compassion, Smart said.


Smart and her husband have a 4-year-old daughter, a 1-year-old son and a 3-month-old baby.

Her eldest daughter hasn’t caught on yet that her mother is famous.

“I certainly don’t plan on hiding what happened to me from her,” Smart said. “Education is power. I want her to feel confident throughout her entire life.”

Right now, the conversations are age appropriate.

The main message Smart wants to impart to her daughter is, “I love her no matter what. Nothing will ever change that.”

Smart, perhaps more than the average person, is keen to impart other messages to her children.

“Nobody has the right to hurt her,” she said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s a teacher or family member or friend. If anyone ever threatens her or scares her, it’s not OK.”

And, she said, her children have every right to defend themselves.

Smart was kept captive through psychological torture. Her captors told her they would kill her family if she tried to escape.

All the while, photos of the blond smiling girl flashed across TVs and in newspapers.

Smart acknowledges there’s a bias in the media toward white crime victims.

Native Americans, as an example, don’t get nearly the same coverage.

“Proportionally speaking, they make up one of the largest percentages of women and children who are sexually abused and kidnapped,” Smart said of Native Americans. “You almost never hear about them being reported on the news. I think that needs to change.”

Coverage of all missing children needs to increase, Smart added.

“I am so grateful for the coverage my story received,” she said. “Who’s to say if I’d ever been found if it wasn’t for the attention? There’s a good chance I’d never been found. I could still be kidnapped today or maybe even dead.”

The recent kidnapping and subsequent rescue of 13-year-old Jayme Closs is an example of how the news media and public awareness can aid in finding missing children.

Jayme’s parents were murdered at their Wisconsin home in October, allegedly by the man who took Jayme and subsequently held her captive.

On Jan. 10, she freed herself and made it to a neighbor’s house.

“The word that came to my mind was miracle,” Smart said of Jayme’s rescue. “Jayme Closs is every reason why we can’t forget about these children. Just because we don’t immediately find them doesn’t mean we give up. Because she was gone for three months, and she came back.

“I was gone for nine months and I came back.”

‘An Evening with Elizabeth Smart’

When: March 8, 7 p.m.

Where: Rialto Theater, Tacoma

Tickets: $29-87

Information: tacomaartslive.org/events/calendar/event/532

Interfaith Women’s Conference

When: March 9, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Where: Curtis Jr. High School, University Place

Tickets: $49 (includes lunch).

Information: associatedministries.org/IWC

Craig Sailor has worked for The News Tribune for 20 years as a reporter, editor and photographer. He previously worked at The Olympian and at other newspapers in Nevada and California.