Elizabeth Smart swore up and down she would never write extensively or do any major public speaking about her story of survival. And for years, she didn’t.
Smart, who was abducted at knifepoint from her Salt Lake City home when she was only 14, made headlines worldwide nine months later when she was reunited with her family after being found just a few miles from her childhood home.
It would be eight years before Brian David Mitchell, the man who repeatedly raped Smart and held her captive with the help of his wife, Wanda Barzee, was convicted and sentenced to two life sentences in federal prison at trial in 2011. His case took so long to conclude because he was at times declared mentally unfit to stand trial.
Smart recounted the abuse on the stand for the record – a turning point in her journey to heal, she said.
Now crisscrossing the country to share stories of other survivors featured in her second book, “Where There’s Hope,” Smart continues to speak out to ensure more people who have faced violence, death and trauma have a voice, she said.
Speaking before a crowd close to home — a crowd that may be even more familiar with her story and her Mormon faith than most — has personal meaning she can’t quite describe.
“These are the people who did go out searching, who were in the search parties,” Smart said. “These are the people who did support my family, especially close to home. These are the people that stood beside my family and helped them through.”
Maybe it’s just her, Smart said, but that support still means something 16 years later.
MOVING ON FROM THE PAST
Smart’s first book, a memoir titled “My Story,” became the basis for a Lifetime movie, “I am Elizabeth Smart,” which was narrated and produced by Smart 15 years after her abduction. The decision to write about her experience wasn’t an easy one, she said.
“I wanted to leave it all in the past and didn’t want to have it brought up in daily conversation,” she said. “I didn’t want anyone to know what had happened. It was the worst nine months of my life. For years, I didn’t write about it, didn’t want to think about it.”
It was her father, she wrote in her new book, who encouraged her to speak publicly as a survivor if she thought she could. It may help other victims find peace with their own stories, he told her.
The second book, published this year, features interviews Smart conducted with survivors of all kinds of atrocities — a gay woman who was orally raped by a man trying to convert her to heterosexuality, a man who was accidentally shot and paralyzed by a friend, another man who lost his wife and two children in a crash caused by a drunk driver.
Some of the people who Smart interviewed are familiar to the reader, including former first lady of Massachusetts Ann Romney, who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, and fashion icon Diane von Furstenberg, whose mother was a survivor of the Holocaust. Others are everyday people trying to overcome horrific obstacles of their own, including suicide, self harm and sex abuse.
“This book is not just me,” Smart said. “It’s not just my story. So many people entrusted with me with their stories, their experience, their advice. They trusted me with what I’d call their sacred trust, and I knew I needed to take it seriously and invest my time and my energy in telling these stories the right way.”
ALLOWING SURVIVORS TO HEAL
Neither of Smart’s parents have ever pushed her to do anything she didn’t want to, including jumping right into therapy or counseling when she returned after being freed from her abusers, Smart said. They allowed her to talk about her abuse and fear of never being reunited with her family again on her own terms.
One of the themes of the book is how to talk to survivors of trauma without pushing them too far, or worse, asking inappropriate or insensitive questions about their abuse or situation. Smart writes that while she doesn’t think people are inherently malicious, she is constantly asked inconsiderate questions about her experience, including how she never became pregnant while Mitchell was abusing her.
Many of the survivors featured in the book also share the experience of people asking probing questions about their mental health, their healing process and their journey toward forgiveness.
“You don’t have to know every little detail of what went on; you don’t have to have your curiosity satiated,” Smart said. “These are the darkest moments of their life. They do probably want to forget them.”
Smart, who met her husband in 2009 and now has two young children, said “Where There’s Hope” has allowed her to be the person asking questions of people who have experienced trauma. Her experience with probing questions from strangers helped prepare her to tell those stories in the most noninvasive way possible, she said.
“It was a reversal of roles — I was asking a lot of people about the worst part of their lives,” she said. “A lot of these people I didn’t especially know well; some were people that I admired from afar. I feel comfortable speaking to survivors of sexual violence, but I have not dealt with some of these issues personally, such as suicide within my family.”
“I didn’t want to be that person.”
Along with raising her family, Smart is proud to have founded the Elizabeth Smart Foundation, become a nationwide advocate for the National AMBER Alert and the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act and worked with the Department of Justice to create a survivors guide titled “You Are Not Alone: The Journey from Abduction to Empowerment” to encourage children who have been abducted to not give up and know there is hope for a rewarding life.
She also became a correspondent for the daytime TV show “Crime Watch Daily.”
“It’s just become a state of being for me, asking people for their stories and asking for their advice,” Smart said. “Every single person I come across, I’m just trying to get their story, get the facts, without damaging every person you interview. It’s an honor to tell these stories.”
Elizabeth Smart’s ‘Where There’s Hope’ Book Tour
When: 7-9 p.m. Thursday, April 5
Where: The Grove Hotel, 245 S. Capitol Blvd., Boise
Cost: Tickets are $30, which includes a copy of the book and a $5 donation to the Women’s and Children’s Alliance. Tickets can be purchased at Rediscovered Books at or at http://www.rdbooks.org/event/elizabeth-smart- where-theres- hope.