Elizabeth Smart said she never knew why she was “chosen” by her kidnapper, but taking her mother’s advice, she has chosen to move on.
“‘Elizabeth, what this man has done to you is terrible,’” she recounted her mother saying. “‘But the best punishment you can give him is to be happy.’”
Smart, 25, was the keynote speaker for this year’s Boys & Girls Clubs of Hall County Futures for Kids Gala on Tuesday night at the Gainesville Civic Center.
Although Smart’s story is an extreme case, she said everyone faces struggles in life.
“There’s one thing all of us have in common — there will come a point in life when all of us ... face a hardship. Maybe it’s something big, maybe it’s something small,” she said.
The key is choosing to move forward, she said.
“A traumatic event may not be your fault,” Smart said. “But we always have a choice on how we react. We always have a choice on how we’re going to move forward.”
She told the story of her abduction by a man with a knife when she was 14, asleep at her home in Utah. It was a moment that brought “a whole new meaning to being scared,” she said.
“I remember thinking, ‘If I can just hold him off long enough, help will come,’” she said.
Help didn’t come for nine months, it turned out. During those months while Smart was held, she was “ordained” as the second wife of her kidnapper, who raped her nearly every day.
Brian Mitchell and his wife, Wanda Barzee, have been sentenced to long prison terms without parole.
Smart has taken her ordeal and harnessed her name recognition to launch a foundation and write a book, called “My Story.”
One of her greatest messages is understanding and owning one’s self-worth.
“You’re the only you out there ... you have something to contribute that nobody else does because we’re all so different,” she said before her speech.
For Smart, she said her parents instilled her self-worth, a key realization in getting her through her captivity.
“When I was kidnapped, and after all these terrible things happened to me, and I was feeling worthless and disgusting and filthy, I was able to remember my whole life how my parents treated me,” she said. “What was going on while I was kidnapped — that was just a moment. Even though I wasn’t at home and I wasn’t around the people I loved and who loved me and wanted what was best for me, it didn’t matter. I was still valuable. I still had worth. I was still important as a human being.”
During her speech, Smart described to a rapt audience for more than 30 minutes her moment-by-moment thought process as she endured being torn from her home and abused until the moment an officer recognized her.
“I’ll never forget the day I was rescued. I’ll never forget when the police brought me to the police station. At first I thought I was in trouble because I had been handcuffed on the way over. I remember thinking, ‘Don’t I at least get a phone call?’” she said, mimicking her exasperation. “My dad was there and I knew it was going to be OK.”
In spite of all she went through, Smart concluded by saying she is grateful to be a voice for victims.
“I would never ask to be kidnapped. I would never volunteer to be kidnapped, it’s not something I ever wanted, but I’m not sorry it happened,” Smart said. “I am so grateful for the opportunities that it has since opened up for me. I’m so grateful I can go out and be a voice for so many men, women and children who don’t have a voice, or are too afraid to step forward and tell their stories.”
She encouraged the audience to not shy away from taking a step that could make a difference, whether it was reporting something suspicious or showing compassion to a person in need.
“You have an opportunity to make such a big difference and never know the reach,” she said.