Elizabeth Smart, a former victim of one of the most notorious kidnappings in recent history, spoke about being a victim of sexual violence at the America First Event Center (AFEC) on Monday, Feb. 4. The event was hosted by the Iron County School District.
On June 5, 2002, when Smart was 14 years old, she was taken from her bedroom in Salt Lake City by a man and a woman claiming to be sent from God. During the following nine months, Smart was sexually assaulted and manipulated until she was found walking the streets of Salt Lake with her captors in February of 2003.
Smart began her speech on the basis that everyone has something to relate to, even if it’s not sexual violence.
“We’re all survivors of something. We all survive things in life,” Smart said. “We all deal with hard times. We all have our struggles. I don’t know anybody who doesn’t.”
Smart explained that before her kidnapping, she never would have expected an event like kidnapping to occur.
“I grew up in a very loving, wonderful family in a very nice neighborhood,” Smart said. “The world where I came from was a world where bad things didn’t happen. Or, so I thought.”
Smart also explained even the basic safety information, such as ‘stranger danger,’ cannot protect people from everything.
“We’re given a lot of basic safety information,” Smart said. “In the majority of cases, it’s not strangers actually. The scary thing is, in the majority of cases, your probably safer with strangers than you are with the people you know.”
Smart said that after the first night with her captors, thoughts of unworthiness crept into her mind.
“After the first time he raped me, I questioned if anyone would want anything to do with me,” Smart recalled. “I wondered if my parents would want anything to do with me… I didn’t know that difference between sex and rape.”
Smart described the pain a victim can go through when these thoughts race through their minds.
“The victim keeps on living,” Smart said. “You don’t always overcome [those feelings]. You can’t always just set them aside… It can destroy you from the inside out.”
Smart explained that even when trauma such as sexual violence happens to a person, it does not define them.
“No matter what happens to us, ultimately it’s our choices that define who we are,” Smart claimed. “Yes, what happens to us affects how we live our life… but it doesn’t define us. You hold the control over your life. You hold the power over what happens to you.”
One common question Smart has been asked is why she didn’t run away from her captors or why she did not scream or say something to passerbys.
“After nine months of being so abused, so threatened, being hurt so many times, my captors became, what seemed like to me, invincible,” Smart said. “[It] seemed like nothing could stop them.”
Now, as a 31-year-old mother of three, Smart focuses on three important aspects with her children, which she says also relate to any victim of sexual violence.
“Love [them] more than anything. There is nothing [they] could do that will change [my] love for [them],” Smart said. “Second, nobody has the right to threaten, hurt or scare [them]. If someone does, it’s ok to fight back… Third, [you] will always believe them.”
Smart also pointed out one statistic while emphasising her second piece of advice.
“The crazy thing is, in abductions,” said Smart, “about 80 percent of children who do fight back, actually are able to get away.”
Smart also said that after she was finally rescued from her captors, the smallest things in life meant a lot to her. Decisions such as what to eat and what to wear were two examples she gave that helped her to go through a healing process.
Smart also addressed those that may know someone who is healing from traumatic event.
“One of the most important things a victim can have is support,” Smart said. “[Most] of the reason that I am able to go out and share my story, and talk about some pretty dark details of what happened to me, is because I know I have that support network… Take care of yourself so you can be there for someone when they come to you.”
Smart also warned that although one strategy may help one victim, it may not help another.
“There is not a set formula that’s always going to work,” Smart said. “You have to find what’s right for each survivor; what’s right for each victim. Just being their friend and treating them like a normal person is ultimately what’s going to make a really big difference.”
Smart ended her speech with hopeful words of advice.
“Forgiveness is the greatest form of self-love that you can have,” said Smart. “I forgive my captors, but I will never be OK with rape. I will never be OK with abuse. I will never be OK with kidnapping. I will never think those things are OK. Forgiveness is loving yourself enough to let go.”
Story by Kurt Meacham
Photo Courtesy of Mitch Quartz