Elizabeth Smart sat backstage in a ballroom of the Washington Hilton hotel, where, in a few minutes, she would be telling an audience of sixteen hundred teen-agers her story of survival. It has been eleven years since a vagrant abducted Smart from her family’s home, in Salt Lake City, when she was fourteen. After nine months of captivity, during which she was repeatedly raped and threatened with murder, she was rescued by the police, in Utah. Smart’s speech was the keynote address of the annual conference of Key Club International. It was a steamy July day, but Smart looked composed in a ruffle-collared black dress, her blond hair in a chignon. She had no notes. I told her that I liked her red shoes, which reminded me of the ruby slippers that Dorothy clicks to return home from Oz. “Every girl should have a pair,” she said. “Don’t you think?”
At the lectern, Smart began by conjuring the kind of ordinary girl she was when she went to bed on June 4, 2002. That evening, she’d spent a lot of time persuading her parents to let her join her best friend’s family on a vacation to a small town in Utah, only to have her older brother, Charles, tease her about how boring the trip was sure to be. She’d shot back, “Hey, what if those are the last words you ever say to me?” The audience laughed, nervously. A few minutes later, Smart arrived at the part of her story where she woke in the middle of the night with a knife at her throat. The ballroom got very quiet.
Although Smart will never escape being associated with the lurid captivity she endured, she has chosen to remain a public figure and has been unusually successful at doing so on her own terms. She is a full-time advocate for the prevention of child abuse who lobbies for legislation and heads a foundation. She delivers some eighty speeches a year, and they reliably end on a note of quiet resilience. She told the teen-agers in Washington, “Never be afraid to speak out. Never be afraid to live your life. Never let your past dictate your future.” . . .
Kidnapping victim Elizabeth Smart reveals details about her story and advocacy efforts in an interview with Wolf Blitzer.
"I don't think I've ever spoken and not had someone come up to me and say, ‘I was raped and I've never been able to tell my story' or ‘I've been through some kind of abuse,'" Smart told KSL's Debbie Dujanovic Tuesday during an interview in Liberty Park — the site of many candlelight vigils in her honor held while she was separated from her family. "Every time I speak that happens to me, and that really helped me decide to right my book and to include everything that I included in it."
The motivation behind the book was always hope, Smart said. Having met so many victims of abuse, she felt she could help inspire survivors to "never, ever surrender." "I really felt like I could contribute something by writing it," Smart said. "I'd be able to reach out to other people who have struggled in their lives and hopefully give them the hope to continue forward, to not allow their situation or their problems to hold onto them any longer than they have to."
Smart didn't hold back — "My Story" is truly that: a detailed depiction of her experience in captivity. Those difficult details, she said, were necessary and couldn't be left out. "I didn't want to sell myself short," she said. "I didn't want to sugar coat or gloss over things that, even though they were difficult things to include and publicly talk about or write about, I wanted to include them because I wanted all of the other survivors out there to know that you can overcome it and it's not something that should be played down because it's important. Every bit of it's important."
In an interview in the upcoming issue of the New Yorker, Smart explains that abstinence-only education is one piece of a bigger puzzle. She notes that’s just one of the multiple factors that contribute to a society in which rape victims are shamed instead of supported:
Smart told me that she wanted to clarify her point. She had been lamenting that victims of sexual abuse often feel that they are “no longer as good as everybody else.” Nobody should have the power to take away another person’s self-worth, Smart told me. But abstinence education was hardly the only way that victims of sexual assault could be shamed. A girl could be humiliated through social media — Smart and I talked about the incident last year in Steubenville, Ohio, in which high-school students recorded an assault with cell-phone cameras and mocked the victim on Twitter. Smart told me, “I can’t tell you how many women I’ve met who say, ‘When I was your age, I was raped, but it was kind of my fault, because of X, Y, or Z.’ And I just want to pull my hair out.”
Ultimately, she’s describing rape culture — the term for a set of attitudes that assume rape is inevitable, consent is invisible, and victims are to blame for the crimes perpetrated against them because they “asked for it.” Thanks to high-profile rape cases like Steubenville and Maryville, rape culture is becoming a more mainstream concept. But it’s still constantly reinforced, particularly through the media.
The New Yorker article on Smart notes that “her goal as a public figure is to make ‘talking about rape and abuse not such a taboo.’” While that may seem like a typical low-impact public awareness effort, that type of education campaign around sexual assault is sorely needed. Research has found that the majority of Americans don’t talk about sexual violence, despite the fact that it’s a hugely widespread issue. Most adolescents grow up without learning anything about rape or consent. Many rapists report that they don’t believe they actually did anything wrong. College campuses have swept rape under the rug for years.
Before giving a 45-minute speech at the conference, Smart told The Dispatch that community vigilance is vital. “If we ever see anything that’s out of the ordinary or different, just call (police),” she said. “Hopefully, the worst thing that happens is misunderstanding.”
In recent days, the poised and soft-spoken Smart has taken on a media blitz in support of her autobiography, My Story. The book, released last week, took about two years to complete. “I wasn’t sure if I wanted to do it,” she said. “I came to a point where I felt like it would be a good thing to do, the right thing to do.”
She encourages families to talk about abduction — even though such crimes are rare. “The best thing that we can do for them is to prepare them,” Smart said. “Not necessarily to scare them. “If they ever feel uncomfortable, if they ever feel scared or that someone’s taking advantage of them, then they can do whatever it takes. They can yell; they can fight; they can kick, scream, bite, whatever.”