If I had to describe Elizabeth Smart with a single adjective, that word would be “sane.” If allowed a second, I’d add “courageous.”
Most people recognize Smart as the 14-year-old Utah girl who was kidnapped from her bedroom by a self-proclaimed Mormon “prophet” and his equally deranged wife and used as a sex slave for nine months before police apprehended the oddly dressed trio walking down a Salt Lake City street — en route to a mountain hideout where Smart had been kept tethered to a steel cable like a dog and raped on a daily basis.
What they may not understand amid the fog of gossip, misinformation, and fixed ideas that attach to high-profile sex crimes are the crucially important things she’s saying about rape, sexual violence and recovery. Moved by Margaret Talbot’s excellent profile in the New Yorker, I decided to read Smart’s book “My Story.”
If I could, I’d require every high school and college-aged kid in America to read and talk about it — although people who allow their children untrammeled access to the Internet and cable TV often freak out at “adult content” being permitted in schools.
Not that there’s an ounce of titillation in it; quite the opposite.
Now 26, Smart heads her own foundation for the prevention of child sex abuse and gives about 80 speeches a year. She’s said that one of her goals as a public figure is to make “talking about rape and abuse not such a taboo.”
But there’s more to it than that. Smart’s speeches, Talbot reports, “reliably end on a note of quiet resilience ... ‘Never be afraid to speak out. Never be afraid to live your life. Never let your past dictate your future.’”
No doubt Talbot is correct that “Smart’s Breck-girl beauty had been part of what fascinated people about her kidnapping, and now that beauty seemed to confirm her triumph as a survivor.”
Quite so. Smart isn’t ruined; she’s not a psychological wreck; she hasn’t let being the victim of a grotesque crime break her. She rides her horses; she plays her harp. She’s loving and beloved. The monster tried to destroy her, but she won.
However, there’s a double-edged aspect to her cover-girl looks that Smart herself never discusses, partly out of modesty, I imagine.
If TV audiences saw her as a symbol of innocence brutalized, then so did her captors. The “holy man” who took her — a psychopath using religion to mask pedophilia, she believes — clearly got off on defiling and degrading her, while his wife’s collaboration just as obviously stemmed from insane jealousy over her girlish beauty.
The fact that she came from a close-knit, loving family also contributed to Brian David Mitchell’s destructive obsession. And it was precisely his constantly repeated threats to murder her parents and siblings if she ran that prevented Smart from bolting. Remember, the child was 14.
“I’m just a little girl,” she begged that first terrible night. “I haven’t even started my period. I’m still a child.”
So it comes as more of a disappointment than a surprise to see people who ought to know better talking nonsense. Commenters to a sympathetic article in Jezebel, an online magazine also featuring articles on “Creatively Exposed Skin at the Golden Globes After-Parties,” sneered that she belonged in “the category of ‘how a wealthy white woman rises above a truly horrible experience,’” and doubting that her family had to beg for help.
Actually, family members were treated as suspects for a time.
Meanwhile, the comparative silence of the feminist left has been noticeable. I suspect Smart’s religiosity has a lot to do with that. Anyway, too bad, because she’s talking about sexual victimization and shaming in ways that young people of every persuasion need to hear.
Today a married woman, Smart spoke to the New Yorker with disarming frankness. “There’s a huge difference between rape and sex. Having experienced both, I know it’s not the same thing.”
But she also told a conference at Johns Hopkins last year how “dirty and filthy” she felt after her assailant first raped her. She believes that church teachings about sexual “purity” are a terrible mistake.
“I remember in school one time I had a teacher who was talking about abstinence, and she said, ‘Imagine, you’re a stick of gum and when you engage in sex, that’s like getting chewed, and if you do that lots of times, you’re going to be an old piece of gum, and who’s going to want you after that?’ And that’s terrible, and nobody should ever say that.”
However, thinking of her mother’s love caused Smart to reject feelings of worthlessness and made her determined to survive. And no, she never grew to love her captors. Terror, not Stockholm syndrome, prevented her from fleeing until police had Mitchell in handcuffs.
Then she removed her disguise and said, “I’m Elizabeth Smart.”
Gene Lyons is a columnist for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.