You probably first heard the name Elizabeth Smart in 2002, when the 14-year-old was abducted at knife point from her parents’ Salt Lake City home as her younger sister slept beside her. For nine months, Smart was held captive in the Utah woods by Brian David Mitchell and Wanda Barzee, where she was taken as Mitchell’s “wife” and raped repeatedly. Then, in 2003, she was spotted only miles from her home, finally leading to her rescue from the unimaginable horrors she’d endured.
Barely a teenager at the time, Elizabeth Smart survived something that is more nightmarish and traumatic than most of us can picture. Her name could have become synonymous with victimhood, with tragedy. Instead, the name Elizabeth Smart evokes survival, perseverance, strength, and activism. Now 30 years old, Smart is the #1 New York Times Bestselling Author of the autobiography, My Story, and the founder of the Elizabeth Smart Foundation, where she advocates for sexual assault survivors and works to end rape culture. She has been especially vocal about the dangers of abstinence-only sex education and the problematic notion of virginity=purity, which was the root of shame she needed to unlearn after surviving rape.
Her foundation’s latest initiative, Smart Talks, consists of Smart, survivors, doctors, and prevention education specialists speaking to college students about healthy ways of coping with sexual violence. The talks also aim to educate survivors about local rape crisis centers and community organizations that will provide support. Over the phone, Smart tells me that she began Smart Talks after meeting two young women who didn’t realize they had survived rape until years after the fact because “both of them just thought that’s what sex was. And that stuck with me for so long.”
Smart is a journalist, focusing on bringing attention to missing children and sexual violence. She has been a commentator for ABC News and is now a correspondent for Crime Watch Daily with Chris Hansen, where her invaluable insight into trauma helps tell victims’ stories with the sensitivity, determination, and care they deserve. She is also happily married and the mother to two young children, Chloe and James.
Her new book, Where There’s Hope: Healing, Moving Forward, and Never Giving Up, out March 27th, is a combination of interviews and memoir as Smart copes with trauma and adjusts her understanding of “Happily Ever After.”
In the book, she describes anger and grief as important emotions that we not only deserve to feel, but that we must feel. Through interviews with several people who have overcome violence, illness, and loss — including her parents Ed and Lois Smart, human trafficking survivor Norma Bastidas, and Fight Like Girls founder Bre Lasley, who founded the organization after surviving a brutal attack in her own home — Smart provides readers with a path to healing.
I hopped on the phone with Smart to discuss everything from Where There’s Hope to the #MeToo movement. Read on for more.
HelloGiggles (HG): What inspired you to conduct this series of interviews for Where There’s Hope? How did you choose who to interview?
Elizabeth Smart (ES): So as I’ve gone out speaking, I have a lot of Q&A sessions. I noticed that people aren’t so interested in the nitty-gritty details of what happened to me. Most of the questions I’m asked are pretty general, like, “Do you ever deal with anger?” Or “Do you ever deal with depression or pain?” Or “Where do you find hope? What helps you? Have you forgiven your captors?” Pretty broad questions. And I kept thinking: I get these same questions over and over — maybe I should try to answer them on a bigger, broader scale. Should I write a book and just answer those questions myself? But I didn’t know if I could fill 300 pages with just me and my feelings — I didn’t know if many people would wanna actually read that.
I started thinking: I have my experience and I can speak from my experience, but people who are asking these questions [about anger and trauma] are not only kidnap survivors or rape survivors. They all come from different backgrounds. So how could I answer these questions in an effective way so that people could feel a connection to the book? And so then that got me thinking: Why wouldn’t I speak to other survivors for this book? Why wouldn’t I speak to other people who are making a difference and who are changing the world?
That’s kind of how I decided it would be a good idea to find other people [for this book]. I took people who I have admired over the years, people who inspire me. Originally I had a pretty big list, but not everyone had the time or felt like it was the right fit for them, understandably, but they’d recommend someone else… So when one door shut, another door opened, and I just met so many amazing people in the process of writing. Everyone had something just important and poignant to add to the book. I think the person this book will probably affect the most is me.
HG: In the first chapter when you interview your mother, you say, “I want to delve deeper than we have in the quiet conversations we’ve had in the past.” Was this a difficult thing for you to do, to hear more about what happened from her perspective?
ES: Yes, because now I have children of my own. And before when my mother and I would talk — I mean, what happened to me isn’t something that comes up in everyday conversation; it’s like, every once in a great while, we’ll touch on it. And so when I sat down to talk to her and listened to what she experienced, having children of my own helped give me greater compassion and understanding of what exactly she went through. I look at my own little children and I think, if anything ever happened to them… I mean, I would rather go through it for them. I’d rather do anything for them than ever have them hurt. I’d rather be kidnapped five times before ever allowing it to happen to them.
I had a greater understanding and a greater compassion and a greater empathy for what she went through than I have in previous conversations.
HG: In the book, you speak to Norma Bastidas. a human trafficking survivor, and discuss the victim-blaming Nancy Grace interview you endured as a teen. I was struck by your words about owning your anger in order to heal, even though anger is perceived as a taboo, negative emotion. How did you learn to embrace your anger?
ES: For me, it’s been something I’ve had to learn as I’ve grown. I’ve had to realize that I have every right to be angry, and that’s okay. It’s okay for me to feel that way. I don’t need to be ashamed of it.
Everyone feels anger. Everyone feels pain. It would just be unnatural of me if I tried to say that I never dealt with it or that I didn’t feel it. If I wanna move forward, then I think it is important that I do experience those feelings so that I know that I’ve been here, so that I can let it go, so that I can leave it in the past. I think that not expressing anger, not dealing with it — you’re just holding it inside. And it’s gonna come out at some point.
HG: Your journey with the idea of “happily ever after” — and your realization that being happy and doing exactly what you want is the best way to reclaim your life — is a really empowering narrative thread in the book. How do you feel now about the concept of “happily ever after?”?
ES: When I first started out writing the book, I liked the cliché answer: No one’s life is perfect; you can’t just say, “happily ever after,” because it doesn’t exist, ’cause we all have problems. But then going through the process of writing the book and speaking to these people, I heard everyone say, “Yeah, actually, I do believe in happily ever after.”
Saying “Happily ever after” doesn’t mean that you don’t have your problems. It doesn’t mean that you don’t have your struggles, but it means that you’re living life to the the best that you can right now. You’re doing what you want to be doing. You’re making time for those things that are important to you.
Like I said earlier, the person the book probably had the biggest impact on was me. It taught me so much, including that “happily ever after” doesn’t mean never having problems. Everyone will have problems. I will still have problems. I still have problems in my life, and I will continue to have problems in my life. But I also know what I want. I also am doing what I feel is important, what’s worth my time right now, and I’m making sure that I’m living life the best way I know how.
HG: There is endless wisdom to be gained from reading Where There’s Hope, but is there anything right now that you’d like to say to our readers who are struggling to move on from trauma?
ES: I would tell them, if you’re sad or if you’re angry or if you’re dealing with negative feelings, that, first of all, it’s okay to feel anger. It’s okay to feel grief. It’s okay to feel sadness. Those are natural emotions to victims. It’s not your fault. I mean, if you were raped, there’s no circumstance on earth that could ever justify rape. Victim of domestic violence? Once again, it’s not your fault. And to all victims, you really deserve to be happy. To all survivors, we deserve to be happy. And don’t feel pressured to just wake up tomorrow and think, alright, tomorrow, everything’s gonna change. Tomorrow I’m gonna be happy. Tomorrow my life is gonna move forward. Accept that it might take some time to move forward, to heal, to just be okay with it. Feel what you’re feeling and take each day as it comes. Just remember that your end goal should be happiness; it should be doing all those things that you want to do and that are important to you.
Find out what is important to you. What do you like doing? We have an allotted amount of time in life, and none of us knows how long that will be. So I would suggest make sure whatever it is that you’re doing, you feel like it’s worth your time. That it’s of value. You can always make more money. One way or another, you can fabricate material things again. But the one thing you can’t get more of is time. So make sure you’re really living your life and moving in the direction that you feel it is important to move in.
HG: There is a profound moment in the book when you bring up Harry Potter and Voldemort and your choice to call your captors, Brian David Mitchell and Wanda Barzee, by their names. You explain that saying their names takes away their power over you. Can you talk more about the freedom that comes with naming your fears?
ES: I’m not gonna say it’s the same for everyone, but for me — those are their names. That’s who they are. They don’t come up in everyday conversation; it’s not like I talk about them like they’re my friends. But continually referring to them only as “my captors” or “my tormentors” still gives them that power of being my captors, of being my tormentors. That’s still granting them that power over my life, and I just refuse to do that.
HG: You’ve been very vocal in your support of the #MeToo movement and all it has accomplished. What do you think can be done to progress the movement further?
ES: I’m so happy that [this movement] is happening. I think that it’s been a long time coming, and we’ve got daily proof in the media of how long this has been going on, and how high up it goes. And this has been going on forever and it’s penetrated all levels of society. This movement is needed. Having survivors coming forward and talking about it isn’t only making this issue real for themselves, but it’s also setting this precedent: It is now okay to admit that something has happened to you. It’s okay to admit that you were raped, and there are other people out there who are your — I guess, let’s say — comrades in arms. You’re not alone. Rape and sexual violence is such an isolating crime. So many victims are threatened and told things like, “I’ll tell your mom and dad.” Or “Your mom and dad won’t believe you. No one will believe you. If you tell someone, people are gonna think you’re just trying to get attention or that it’s not true because the attacker would never do that.”
It’s an extremely isolating crime, and so it’s terrifying coming forward. Those threats from your rapist or your abuser seem very, very real. But to see this sort of avalanche, this tidal wave of survivors coming forward and saying, “This isn’t okay, and this did happen to me, and this happened to me, and this happened to me.” I think people for the first time are realizing, “People will believe me. And it’s okay. I can admit this.”
We’ve still got a long way to go because rape and violence and sexual abuse still happens. But I think we are making progress. I think we are making this a bigger issue — it’s not as easily pushed under the rug anymore.
Elizabeth Smart’s Where There’s Hope (St. Martin’s Press) is available now.