Most Americans remember where they were when the news arrived that Elizabeth Smart had been found alive, nine months after being kidnapped from her home in Salt Lake City at age 14.
Glenn Beck’s wife Tania, speaking at the “Independence Through Commitment” conference at the Man in the Moon event, said she was in her car and “trying to picture what the reunion would’ve looked like, obviously with tears and smiles and hugs all around.”
Today, roughly ten years later, Smart is elegant and poised as a woman can be. Fresh-faced and smiling, she spoke both at the conference and with TheBlaze’s Billy Hallowell about her experience of being captured and raped, what’s she’s learned from it, and the best piece of advice she’s ever received.
“We all have at least one thing in common: we all have problems!” Smart opened her speech saying.
Hers began when she was in junior high, she said, and desperate to go on vacation with her friends. She went to bed after finally winning the consent of her parents, waking up to the words: “I have a knife at your neck. Don’t make a sound. Get up and come with me.”
“I had never been so scared in my entire life,” Smart said. “I had no idea how long this man had been in my house … .The one thing I did know was that my younger sister was still asleep, alive in bed next to me, and I didn’t know what he’d do to her if I didn’t do what he said.”
As the man led her out of the house and into the woods, Smart said she prayed relentlessly for a means of escape.
“All I could think was, if he could part the Red Sea for Moses, He can part some of the scrub oak for me and I can escape…[But it] didn’t happen.”
As they went further and further, Smart said she began thinking about the handful of news clips she’d seen in her life, most about children who had been abducted and didn’t survive.
Smart said she remembered thinking, “I’m going to be raped and murdered,” and asked her captor to get it done with right there.
“I just wanted [my parents] to know what had happened to me,” she said.
But her captor responded with a smile, saying: “I’m not going to do that to you — yet.”
After what seemed like ages, Smart said she arrived at tent where a woman with “long robes, a long headdress, long gray hair, and no makeup” greeted her.
When she was finally left alone, Smart said she began “crying and crying.” How did this happen? she asked herself. [Does] my family know [I'm] gone? Were they looking for me? Was I going to be found?
In the middle of her thoughts, Smart said the tent door unzipped and a man walked in. He had changed into a robe and knelt down next to her, saying: “I hearby seal you to me as my wife before God and his angels as my witnesses.”
Despite her age, Smart said: “In that moment, I know what was going to happen next. I tried every possible thing to hold him off … .If anything, it only seemed to encourage him. He finally forced me onto the ground where he ripped off the robe I had been forced to put on, then he raped me on the floor of the tent. Then he got up, he smiled, and zipped up the tent.”
“I felt like I’d been broken,” she explained. “I felt like my soul had been shattered. I just remember lying there crying, being in so much pain physically and emotionally that I ended up falling asleep, and the last thought was of those children I had seen in the news … . I remember thinking, they’re lucky, I wish I was one of those children, because no one will ever be able to hurt them again … .”
The man was kneeling over her again when she awoke, but now she had a thick metal cable wrapped around her ankle allowing her only to go from the bucket they used as a latrine to a laying-down position where they kept her.
She remembered hearing that the first thing you forget about someone is their voice, so she started replaying the voices of all her loved ones in her head. The most important voice, she said, was her mother’s, who had recently comforted her after a popular girl invited everyone at the lunch table to a party except her.
“Haven’t you learned yet that ‘popular’ is just another word for ‘rude’?” her mother told her. Bottom line, she said, is that there are only two opinions that matter in the world: God’s, and hers.
“I may not always love your choices…but I will always love you, and I will always be your mother, and nothing can ever change that,” Smart remembered her mother saying, resolving at that moment that it didn’t matter “how long I was held captive, what I had to do, how many personal standards or beliefs I had to break, I would do it if I could survive and one day be back with my family again.”
From there, Smart “fast-forwarded” nine months to her eventual escape. By then, she understood that the twisted couple used religion to justify their actions, and told God she would never, ever do the same except for this one time, if He would only let it work.
She knew that her best hope of rescue lay in Salt Lake City, telling her captor (who went by the name “Emmanuel”): “I don’t know but I just have this feeling like, we’re supposed to go back to Salt Lake. I know that sounds crazy, God wouldn’t speak to me, but this feeling just won’t leave me alone! Do you think you could ask him, because I know he’ll tell you, you’re his servant, his prophet, you’re practically his best friend.”
The captor “prayed” on it, and they began the trek back after he unbelievably felt the same “inspiration.” The group was walking on the side of a road when police car after police car began surrounding them. But by that point, Smart said, she had been so threatened every day that they would kill her and her family if she spoke out that she just gave the answers they wanted her to give.
“I wanted to scream, yes I am Elizabeth Smart! Save me! These people are crazy, we need to lock them up!” she said, but she was too afraid to speak out until all three were taken into the station, and she knew they couldn’t reach her family.
Not long after she was taken to a room by herself, the door flew open and her dad ran in.
“I knew in that moment that nobody would ever be able to hurt me again in the way my captors had,” Smart said. “No matter what lay in front of me, it was going to be okay, because my dad was there.”
The best advice she’s ever received
After she arrived home, Smart said her mom gave her the best piece of advice she’s ever received.
“My mom said, ‘Elizabeth, what this man has done to you is terrible, and there aren’t words to describe how wicked and evil he is…but the best punishment you could ever give him is to be happy. Move forward and follow your dreams and do exactly what you want to do. You may never feel like justice has been served, but you don’t need to worry about that because in the end, God is our ultimate judge, and he will make up every pain and every suffering that you’ve gone through. Those who don’t receive their just reward here will certainly receive it in the next life, so you don’t have a reason to hold on to that.’”
“If you relive it, you’re only allowing him to steal more of your life away from you,” she continued. “That’s the best piece of advice I’ve ever been given, and I have tried to live it every single day.”
“We always have a choice to move forward, to make a difference,” Smart said. “I like to think that we’re not defined by what happens to us…because so many times they’re beyond our control. I like to think that we’re defined by our choices and our decisions.”
That doesn’t mean she doesn’t still feel pain, particularly after hearing about events like the tragedy in Cleveland, Ohio, where three women were kept for over a decade as sex slaves.
She told TheBlaze’s Billy Hallowell: “It makes me sick that these things happen. It makes me sick that there are people out there that don’t have a conscience. That don’t care. That are just heartless…But seeing people come home…I think it’s proof that there are miracles.”
She added: “I think it’s proof that as far as other missing children go, that they’re still out there, they’re alive and waiting to be found.”
On top of that, the experience opened her eyes to “what can happen, and how nobody is immune from pain, from suffering.”
“No one can say, well, that’s not going to happen to me, or my daughter or my son. It can. It’s a very real danger.” In her own house, her family has gone from “check and double check” to “triple and quadruple check,” she said.
But though she wouldn’t wish the experience on anyone, Smart said she’s found a way to be grateful for what her path has allowed her to do.
“I have been able to meet different people and share my story and try to make a difference, so what happens to me doesn’t happen to any more children. I am grateful that I can be here today,” she said.
Now, Elizabeth Smart is happily married and living in Utah. She told Hallowell that she still plays the harp and has a dog, and that far from weakening her faith, the experience has strengthened it.
“I know God won’t give me anything I can’t handle,” she said at the end of her remarks, smiling and roughly quoting Mother Teresa. “Sometimes I just wish he didn’t trust me so much.”