After 14 years of life enveloped in familial and affluent suburban comfort, Elizabeth Smart was kidnapped from her bedroom at knifepoint, dragged up a canyon, chained to a tree, and raped repeatedly.
In “My Story,’’ written with the assistance of US Representative Chris Stewart, Smart recounts her ordeal. Although the details of her case are already well known, Smart’s memoir is as compelling as it is disturbing. Her stoic Mormon faith, moreover, will both inspire and mystify readers.
Smart describes her attacker, David Brian Mitchell, as “a dirty pedophile who liked living on the streets” and who did whatever it took to get the food, drugs, and sex he craved. Through his revelations and prophecies, Mitchell persuaded Wanda Barzee to abandon her children, become his wife, and help him marry young Mormon virgins.
Elizabeth Smart was their first victim. Mitchell first saw her in November 2001 while panhandling near Salt Lake City’s Temple Square. The next June, after he had inveigled his way into a few odd jobs for her parents, he slipped through an unlocked window at night and went to Smart’s bedside. He told her that if she resisted, he would kill her and her family. Taking her to a mountain camp, he — with Barzee’s help — married her in a makeshift ceremony and then raped her.
Nine months of abuse, deprivation, and tedium followed. “My life pretty much consisted of three things,” Smart writes, “getting raped, being forced to drink alcohol, and sitting on a bucket in a clearing in the trees.” As winter approached and their fears of arrest mounted, Mitchell and Barzee took Smart to Southern California. There, Mitchell barely fed her. When Mitchell landed in jail for a few days, Smart and Barzee nearly died for lack of water. Eventually, Smart helped persuade Mitchell and Barzee to return to Utah, where a cyclist spotted Smart, poorly disguised in a gray wig.
After her rescue, Smart rejoined her family, served a Mormon mission in France, and entered a public life of advocacy and journalism. After her rescue, she emerged from her trauma much the same person, only stronger, and — she insists — without any lingering psychological wounds. She found strength and solace in horseback riding, in playing her harp, and in her family and church. “I think a few people might look at me and almost not believe what I say,” Smart concedes.
Faith sometimes withers when it collides with evil. Instead, Smart affirms that she “never felt closer to God than I did throughout my nightmare with Mitchell.”
“My Story’’ suggests that Smart’s Mormon faith and heritage shielded her from doubt. According to the Book of Mormon, all human beings, are “free forever, knowing good from evil; to act for themselves and not to be acted upon.” Despite his majesty, Smart states, God “won’t make the evil go away.”
Smart also reflects on the 1856 Mormon hand-cart pioneers, hundreds of whom died in an early mountain snowstorm. For modern believers
Smart adopts a more defensive tone when explaining why she did not make more attempts to escape or even to identify herself to a police officer who questioned Mitchell in her presence. Smart has often faced such questions, but most readers will readily grasp her fear and hesitation. What many readers will not easily grasp is how she retained her hope. “My Story’’ might have better answered those questions had Smart continued with the narrative of her life beyond 2003 and discussed her education, her mission, and her marriage. Still, even had Smart fleshed out her past 10 years, her resilience likely would remain a mystery of faith, a final tender mercy in her story of suffering and survival.
John G. Turner teaches religious studies at George Mason University and is the author of “Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet.’’