Smart les­son: Bad ex­pe­ri­ences don’t de­fine you

Kid­nap­ping vic­tim tells Crys­tal Lake au­di­ence of har­row­ing ex­pe­ri­ence

Chicago Tribune - - CHICAGOLAND - By Amanda Mar­razzo

Elizabeth Smart spoke Fri­day with elo­quence and some­times a dash of hu­mor about be­ing a painfully shy 14-year-old girl in 2002, about to grad­u­ate mid­dle school, tucked into bed in her Utah home, when she was kid­napped at knife­point by a men­ac­ing stranger with “the most evil smile.”

In a speech to about 350 peo­ple at Sage YMCA in Crys­tal Lake, Smart, 31, shared that it was the love of her fam­ily that kept her strong and en­cour­aged her to do “what­ever she had to do to sur­vive.”

For nine months she was held cap­tive in a re­mote moun­tain­top camp­site by Brian David Mitchell and his wife, Wanda Barzee.

Smart said Mitchell raped her daily. Hor­ri­fy­ing as the or­deal was, she does not let it rule her to­day, and she en­cour­aged oth­ers go­ing through un­con­trol­lable, chal­leng­ing times to do the same.

“We all have a story, we all have a past,” she be­gan. “We all have ex­tra bag­gage.”

Smart, who mar­ried Matthew Gil­mour in 2012 and just gave birth to their third baby three weeks ago, said it is easy to get stuck in those neg­a­tive ex­pe­ri­ences, “but ul­ti­mately it is not what de­fines you.”

She de­tailed the abuse, the hor­ror and the con­stant threats Mitchell would make that he would kill her fam­ily if she tried to es­cape.

“I never prayed so hard for my life, for the op­por­tu­nity to es­cape, to see my fam­ily,” she said.

She ne­go­ti­ated with her cap­tors to let her go, only to be an­swered by Mitchell’s “evil smile.”

He raped her on the first day, she said, telling her she was his bride and they were to “con­sum­mate” the mar­riage, in spite of her beg­ging him not to. Af­ter­ward, she said, he “smiled, like he en­joyed it. He liked hurt­ing a lit­tle girl.”

As she lay on the cold ground she “felt ru­ined, be­yond help, (thought) how could my par­ents want me back. There was no light, no hope, noth­ing to hold onto, noth­ing to sur­vive for . ... How could this hap­pen to me?”

She re­mained chained to a tree dur­ing most of her cap­tiv­ity.

She wor­ried that even if she sur­vived, how could she go back to a “nor­mal life,” what would peo­ple think of her?

But then she re­mem­bered how her mother, Lois Smart, al­ways told her, “I’ll al­ways love you no mat­ter what.” And that “be­came a pin­prick of light, a pin­prick of hope,” she said.

She ul­ti­mately was dis­cov­ered in Sandy, Utah, by passers-by who called 911. Po­lice ar­rived, end­ing her night­mare. She re­turned to school to a “new nor­mal” in the fall of 2003.

And again, it was her mom’s words that gave her strength to go on. She told her daugh­ter to “be happy … live your life. Don’t al­low them to steal more of your life.”

Mitchell was con­victed of kid­nap­ping and un­law­ful trans­porta­tion of a mi­nor across state lines to en­gage in sex­ual ac­tiv­ity. Barzee pleaded guilty to kid­nap­ping and un­law­ful trans­porta­tion of a mi­nor.

Learn­ing of Barzee’s early re­lease from prison in Septem­ber, Smart said she felt “be­trayed, frus­trated.” At a re­cent pa­role hear­ing, Smart was told that Barzee would be in­car­cer­ated un­til 2024. Still, she said, she is not afraid and ac­tu­ally feels sorry for Barzee, whose own fam­ily won’t have any­thing to do with her and whom Smart also con­sid­ers a vic­tim of Mitchell’s.

How­ever, if Mitchell, who was sen­tenced to life, were to be re­leased, she said she would be sit­ting out front of her home “with a shot­gun.”

To­day, Smart is au­thor of the New York Times best-sell­ing au­to­bi­og­ra­phy “My Story” and an ad­vo­cate for change re­lated to child ab­duc­tion, re­cov­ery pro­grams and leg­is­la­tion.

Af­ter the Crys­tal Lake event, 17-year-old Kate Nel­son, from Glen El­lyn, said Smart made some “amaz­ing points.” She re­lated to the mes­sage of not let­ting neg­a­tive events of the past “take ahold of you.”

Her fa­ther, Sean Nel­son, said Smart’s mes­sage is “very im­por­tant” and one that he wanted his daugh­ter to hear.

“Don’t let the bad things de­fine you,” Sean Nel­son said. Amanda Mar­razzo is a free­lance re­porter.

RICK BOWMER/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Elizabeth Smart told her au­di­ence in Crys­tal Lake on Fri­day her fam­ily’s sup­port helped her through the trauma her 2002 ab­duc­tion.

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