By Lisa Montague.

Elizabeth Smart has a story to tell: hers. But it’s not just a story of tragedy and despair and the depths of human depravity. Rather, it is hope when things seem hopeless, strength and resilience in the face of overwhelming odds, and the knowledge that no matter what, God is always with us.

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The now-25-year-old became a household name in the summer of 2002 when she was kidnapped from her affluent home in Salt Lake City, Utah, at the age of 14. For 9 months, her parents, family and community prayed, searched and clung to the hope that she would be found safe and alive. Her family—members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, sometimes inadvertently called the Mormon Church—worked hard to ensure that Elizabeth’s name and picture were not forgotten in the hopes that someone, somewhere would recognize her and bring her home. And through their faith, prayers and dedication, miracles happened. Elizabeth was brought home.

In the ensuing decade, Elizabeth Smart has refused to look back at her traumatic ordeal—only looking forward. She wants to show the world—and other victims—that you can move past your circumstances and find happiness. You do not need to be defined by your tragedy—but by the stronger person you become afterward. Elizabeth’s memoir, “My Story,” was released Oct. 7 in hopes that it might help others move forward after tragedy—and know that God will never abandon us in our darkest hours.

Elizabeth is Telling ‘My Story’

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The Elizabeth Smart story is every parent’s worst nightmare—putting your child safely in her bed for the night and waking up to find her gone. But her rescue also brought hope to other families with missing children. In the days, months and years following Elizabeth’s return home, the Smart family asked that the public respect her privacy and allow her time to heal. She became a motivational speaker and advocate for change related to child abduction, but she held tight to the private, horrific details of her days in captivity. Now, 10 years later, Elizabeth is ready to tell her story in intimate detail—100% of what happened to her. She said:

I didn’t just want to go 10% and sugarcoat the rest. I wanted it to be really what happened and what it was like every single day I was there, because I don’t think I’m doing anyone any favors by sugarcoating it. [1]

Why now, so many years later, is she opening up? She said that people don’t often acknowledge the “just staggering” number of children who are sexually abused before the age of 18—one in 4 girls and one in 6 boys. She said:

I want to reach out to those survivors and those victims. I want them to know that these things do happen, but that doesn’t mean that we have to be defined by it for the rest of your life. You can move forward and you can be happy. >[1]

Elizabeth’s advice to other victims speaks volumes as to the reasons that she waited to write a book. She said:

To have so many people speculate on what happened and what I must be going through, and just so many lies being told. It was hard. I didn’t like it. I don’t think anybody likes having people guess at what they’re going through. Privacy is so sacred and any time a victim is returned, a survivor is found and rescued, privacy is one of the greatest gifts we can give them because if they decide to share, that’s up to them and they will come forward. [2]

So Elizabeth is coming forward with her story, in her own time, and in her own way.

Faith in the Face of Fearsome Foes

Elizabeth Smart’s terrifying ordeal began on June 5, 2002, when she was taken at knife-point from her bedroom by a bearded transient street preacher named Brian David Mitchell. She said:

To me, in my bedroom is the ultimate place in safety. I mean, I felt like that was the safest place in the world for me, so waking up in the middle of the night in my own bedroom having this strange man standing over me, someone I didn’t recognize, not only that but having a knife being held to my throat, I was terrified. I had grown up in a very happy home and I really didn’t know what the definition of fear was until that moment. That brought whole new meaning. [1]

As the street preacher, who called himself “Emmanuel,” led her out of her house and up the steep mountain trail above her home, Elizabeth said she prayed for a way to escape. She said, “All I could think was, if he could part the Red Sea for Moses, He can part some of the scrub oak for me and I can escape…[But it] didn’t happen.” [3]

Instead, she was held captive and endured unspeakable abuse at the hands of her two captors—the street preacher and his wife, Wanda Barzee. Mitchell forced her to act as his second wife, telling her that God told him to do this to her. As a member of The Church of Jesus Christ, Elizabeth was taught differently. She said:

When I was kidnapped and he was telling me all of these things, I remember what my parents said: “You’ll know a person by their actions.” And so even though he was sitting there telling me that he was a prophet, that I should be thankful for what was happening to me, I was really a lucky girl—I realized that he wasn’t a good person. He was hurting me. He made me feel terrible. And growing up believing that I have a kind and loving Heavenly Father, I couldn’t believe that God had called him to do what he was doing to me. [4]

Throughout her ordeal, Elizabeth never lost faith in God nor in His goodness. She held tightly to her parents’ teachings and remembered the words of her mother: “I may not always love your choices…but I will always love you, and I will always be your mother, and nothing can ever change that.” [3] Elizabeth said she knew one thing: “My family was still there. And because of that, because I had that and because I knew that, I was able to make the decision to do whatever it took.” [5] No matter what it took, Elizabeth was going to find a way to get home to her family.

Ice-Cold Water and Other Tender Mercies from God

Elizabeth said that although “God won’t make the evil go away,” He will visit us in our afflictions. [6] She recounted one experience when the camp’s water supply ran out and she became severely dehydrated. One morning, Elizabeth said, she woke up to an ice-cold cup of water. She said she never knew where the water came from—but she knew that it was a gift from God. She said:

I could just feel the cold water running down inside of me and just how grateful I was for it. And just feeling like it was God telling me that I wasn’t forgotten, that He still knew I was there. And that He wasn’t abandoning me. [5]

Elizabeth also described how she prayed nightly for shoes, and then found a perfect-fitting pair under a bush. Other blessings include a rainstorm when her throat burned with thirst and a Thanksgiving or Christmas meal prepared by volunteers. She also said that she could feel the presence of her late grandfather. Elizabeth writes that those “tender mercies literally kept me alive.” Elizabeth says that she “never felt closer to God than I did throughout my nightmare with Mitchell.” [6]

What-Ifs and Missed Rescues— Don’t Second-Guess What Might Have Been

The armchair quarterbacks who speculate on what she and others could have or should have done need to know one thing, Elizabeth said:

You can never judge a child or a victim of any crime on what they should have done, because you weren’t there and you don’t know and you have no right just to sit in your armchair at home and say “Well, why didn’t you escape? Why didn’t you do this?” I mean, they just don’t know. That’s wrong. And I was 14. I was a little girl. And I had seen this man successfully kidnap me, he successfully chained me up, he successfully raped me, he successfully did all of these things. What was to say that he wouldn’t kill me when he’d make those threats to me? What was to say that he wouldn’t kill my family? [1]

And Elizabeth had heartbreakingly close near-rescues throughout her 9-month ordeal. There was the time that she heard her uncle calling for her. The time that the helicopter was just above them—so close that the trees were bending from the blades—but never saw the hidden campsite. The Salt Lake police detective who saw them at the public library—but never lifted the veil that covered her face because Mitchell said it would violate her religious beliefs. Of that incident, she said:

When he turned around and walked away, being 100% convinced that it wasn’t me, I mean, it felt like I was being kidnapped all over again. I mean, it felt like I was being stolen from my family again and being ripped away from my life and my happiness. [2]

And there were others, but ultimately, Elizabeth herself outwitted Mitchell at his own game.

Elizabeth Manipulates the ‘Master Manipulator’

After the close call with the Salt Lake police detective, Mitchell and his wife took Elizabeth to Southern California—where she encountered a few more near rescues. Although only a 15-year-old, self-described naïve child, Elizabeth soon realized that her best chance of escape lie in Salt Lake. She said that Mitchell started talking about going the East Coast—New York or Boston. But, she said her thinking was:

We have to get back to Salt Lake. There’s no way anyone was going to find me if I don’t. But there’s every reason for them not to want to go back to Salt Lake, every reason in the world for that to be the last place for them to ever go. [2]

Elizabeth said that she knew her captors wielded religion as a tool for manipulating others—and that it was wrong. But she prayed that if just once, God would let this idea work—she would never ever do it again. She knew the only way Mitchell would take them to Salt Lake was if he thought the idea was his. [3] She said:

I remember turning around and facing my captors and just telling them, “I just have this feeling and I know that God would never speak to me, but I know he’ll speak to you because you’re his servant. You’re practically his best friend. Could you please ask him if we’re supposed to go back to Salt Lake, because this feeling, it just won’t leave me and, this is just crazy coming from me, but if you ask him I know he’ll tell you.” And so he did end up asking. And that was how it was decided we’d go back to Salt Lake. [2]

‘Are You Elizabeth Smart?’

Soon after the trio’s return to Salt Lake City—on March 12, 2003—they were walking down State Street in the nearby suburb of Sandy. They had just been in Walmart, where Mitchell shoplifted hiking shoes and other items. Elizabeth said:

I remembered all these cars pulled up and then the policemen jumped out of their cars and they came over and surrounded us and started asking questions. And my two captors, they kept giving the answers and the officers started to ask me questions. [2]

Initially, Elizabeth gave the officers the back story that Mitchell had prepared for her. She said, “I was scared. I was petrified.” [2] Elizabeth writes in her book:

“She’s scared,” one of the other officers whispered from the back. “She doesn’t dare say anything.”

The officers huddled together, a couple of them keeping their eyes on Mitchell and me. Barzee seemed to have melted into the background. It was as if no one cared that she was even there.

“She’s scared of him,” the officer said to the others. “She’s too scared to even answer. You’ve got to get her by herself.” [7]

So the officers separated her from her captors. Elizabeth said:

At first, I was still really scared. I kept giving the answers that I had been told to give, and then finally one of the officers said, “Well, if you’re Elizabeth Smart, your family misses you so much and they love you so much and they have never given up hope on you the entire nine months you’re gone. Don’t you want to go back home to your family?” And it was just at that point that I felt like, well, no matter what the consequences are, I don’t care, I want to go home. [2]

Then, she said:

I told them that I was Elizabeth Smart. It was scary because I didn’t know if they thought I had done something wrong or if they had thought I had run away. I didn’t know what they were thinking. [2]

The officers took Elizabeth to a Salt Lake City police station and put her in a room by herself.


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Not long after that, the door flew open and her dad ran in. Elizabeth said:

I knew in that moment that nobody would ever be able to hurt me again in the way my captors had. No matter what lay in front of me, it was going to be okay, because my dad was there. [3]

Hope and Healing After Tragedy

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The trauma of Elizabeth’s captivity sets the stage for the miracles that happened after her rescue. Not long after Elizabeth returned home, her mom gave her the best advice she ever received:

My mom said, “Elizabeth, what this man has done to you is terrible, and there aren’t words to describe how wicked and evil he is…but the best punishment you could ever give him is to be happy. Move forward and follow your dreams and do exactly what you want to do. You may never feel like justice has been served, but you don’t need to worry about that because in the end, God is our ultimate judge, and He will make up every pain and every suffering that you’ve gone through. Those who don’t receive their just reward here will certainly receive it in the next life, so you don’t have a reason to hold on to that. If you relive it, you’re only allowing him to steal more of your life away from you.”

That’s the best piece of advice I’ve ever been given, and I have tried to live it every single day. We always have a choice to move forward, to make a difference. I like to think that we’re not defined by what happens to us…because so many times they’re beyond our control. I like to think that we’re defined by our choices and our decisions. [3]

Elizabeth said:

Healing takes a lot of different forms, and it’s different for everybody. There’s not a wrong way, there’s not a right way. And for me, I’ve had a lot of different therapies. [8]

For Elizabeth, who plays the harp, her therapy included music as well as riding horses, her family and her faith. [8]

Life is So Good: Elizabeth is Choosing Her Happily Ever After

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Elizabeth Smart took her mother’s advice to heart—and has lived it to the best of her ability. She served a proselytizing mission for The Church of Jesus Christ. She got married last year. And her book is expected to be a best seller. She said:

It couldn’t get better than that, right? I’ve got great dogs. I’ve got a great family. I mean, I couldn’t be happier. …That happened to me. But I’m so much more than that girl that was kidnapped. [2]

Chris Stewart—with whom Elizabeth wrote her memoir, which was published by St. Martin’s Press—said:

She is one of the most compelling people I have ever met in the sense that she absolutely refuses to view herself as a victim who is going to let this unbelievable experience define her ability to be happy for the rest of her life. It’s inspiring. I think one of the main reasons she wanted to write this book was to show people that. …

Some people have challenges that the rest of us look at and wonder how they endure, and yet Elizabeth will tell you that life is always good, that there is always hope that life will get better, and we decide whether we are happy or not. [9]

Elizabeth’s captors are in prison for their crimes, and she has moved on with her life. She is working as an advocate on children’s issues, using her experience to help others. She said:

I have let go of the past. I have let go of what they have done to me. And I’ve let go of them. They no longer have a part in my life, and I have no desire to see them. I have just moved on….

Although I never asked to be kidnapped or for something like that to happen to me, I can find that goodness can still come out of it, and that I can be grateful for the opportunities that it’s opened up to me that otherwise wouldn’t have been. [4]

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