Elizabeth Smart recounts kidnapping at BGSU eventWritten by David Yonke Editor, ToledoFAVS.com | | David.Yonke@ReligionNews.com
Elizabeth Smart said she doesn’t believe that the “street preacher” who kidnapped and abused her for nine months when she was 14 truly believed he was on a divine mission to find seven brides, as he claimed. “He probably liked young girls,” she said in a talk at Bowling Green State University.
Speaking to about 400 people at a fund-raising banquet for the BGSU library on Nov. 5, Smart said she thinks the kidnapper, Brian David Mitchell, “found that religion was the best way to manipulate and control people around him, and that’s one thing he wanted – control, power.”
Smart, now 26, recounted her ordeal in gripping detail in a one-hour talk, starting with the June night in 2002 when she bid her parents goodnight “like any other 14 year old,” only to wake up with a stranger standing over her bed.
“I remember hearing the words, ‘I have a knife at your neck. Don’t make a sound. Get up and come with me,’” she said.
Smart said Mitchell, who in 2011 was sentenced to life in prison, forced her to hike more than three miles at night through densely wooded and mountainous terrain near Salt Lake City, Utah, to a secluded camp where he and his wife, Wanda Barzee, held her captive (Barzee was sentenced to two 15-year prison terms in 2011).
“I remember thinking, ‘How was this going on? I’d just been with my family. How did this happen?’” Smart said.
She described herself as a very shy 14-year-old girl who “had never even said ‘hi’ to a boy, let alone have a boyfriend.”
Growing up in a devout Mormon household, Smart said she had a 5:30 p.m. curfew on weekdays and 9 p.m. on weekends, was not allowed to watch PG-rated movies, and was forbidden from using “bad words” such as “dumb” and “stupid.”
The first night, her captors forced Smart to don a white robe with a belt. “Basically you looked like you were an extra on the ‘Ten Commandments’ – the movie they play every Easter,” she said.
Then she heard Mitchell say, “I hereby seal you as my wife before God and witnesses.”
“I never felt so repulsed, so horrified in my life,” she said.
Mitchell then told her, “We need to consummate our marriage.
“I may have grown up in a bit of a bubble,” Smart said, “but I knew what he was saying.”
Her captor ripped off the robe and raped her. Afterward, he acted “like he had gone to the grocery store and bought me cookies. It wasn’t a big deal for him at all.”
Smart recounted the months of suffering, failed escape attempts, threats to kill her and her family and doubts about her own self-worth. She was rescued in March 2003, when police, acting on a tip, pulled up on the roadside while the trio was hitchhiking from California to Salt Lake City.
She said her religious upbringing helped her endure such a hellish ordeal.
“My faith is a huge part of my life. It’s always been a part of my life,” she said in a press conference before the banquet. “My parents had taught me to believe in a kind, loving, wonderful God, and not a harsh, vindictive, vengeful God. When my two captors would tell me, ‘Well, God commanded us to do this to you,’ I could never believe it because that wasn’t a God that I knew. So if anything it only made my faith stronger and it continues to play a part in my life every day.”
Smart, who last year married a man she met while the two were serving as missionaries in France, said it is particularly disturbing for people to abuse others in the name of God.
“I think it’s terrible to have something so sacred twisted to hurt other people,” she said. “Religion, I believe, is meant to help us. It’s meant to give us hope. It’s mean to help heal us and help us in our day-to-day lives. So when I hear about people twisting it, I feel terrible. It makes me sick.”
She said she plans to continue working to prevent kidnappings and sex-trafficking, to offer people “a renewed sense of hope,” and to let people know that “whatever trials we face in life, you can move forward, you can recover, and who knows, you might be able to turn it into something wonderful in your life where you’re able to work with other people and help other people and make a difference.”
David Yonke is the editor and community manager of Toledo Faith & Values (ToledoFAVS.com), a website that provides in-depth, nonsectarian news coverage of religion, faith and spirituality in the Toledo area.