On Friday morning, I had the opportunity to speak briefly with Elizabeth Smart on the phone. We will be publishing the interview on the Mormon Women Project in the next few days. Her memoir, My Story, was released last week and I was grateful her publicist gave me a few minutes to talk with her during her book tour.
Unfortunately, I didn't have time to read her book before I spoke to her as my appointment was made quickly, but I did go on to read it this weekend. As I hope to be a champion for Mormon women, it seemed imperative that I read her account, no matter how upsetting it might be to me as a mother of three daughters. She is, after all, with the likely exception of Ann Romney, the most famous Mormon woman in the world. What I read was, of course, upsetting because of the hell she lived through for nine months, but Elizabeth has a remarkable way of reminding the reader throughout every page of the book of one striking and essential element of her experience: she didn't buy any of what Mitchell was trying to sell her. Despite the physical violations, the hunger and the intense boredom, Elizabeth remained her own authority on who she was, what was right and wrong, and how she was perceived by other people. Aside from being paralyzed with fear by Mitchell, Barzee and their threats, she maintained a remarkable distance from their manipulative mindgames, always protecting her inner self and always leaving room for God, grace and gratitude. Even though religion was their tool, she never let their perversions distort what she knew to be true.
In this spirit, it seems to me that there are two foundations that literally saved her. The first is the knowledge she had of her worth. She's spoken about individual worth extensively and she spoke about it to me on the phone the other day. As one familiar with the critiques of our Young Women program and the messages Mormons send to their girls, I was moved by the fact that it was the simple knowledge that she was a daughter of her Heavenly Father, who loved her, that allowed her to block out the manipulative and degrading influence of her captors. This message gave her an inner authority that disarmed evil. I am humbled by the power of this simple truth in a life or death situation.
Secondly, and somewhat related to the first, is that she had a correct understanding of the character of God. Elizabeth, even at age 14, seems to have had a particularly mature and well-formed understanding of God as loving and yet beholden to the agency of people. She says at the beginning of her book that God did not cause what happened to her, but that He had to work with the evil choices of people. Despite religion and God being thrown around her for nine months as a tool of torture, she had a personal relationship with God that made her fully aware of Mitchell's deceptions. There are marvelous moments in the book where she's describing some proclamation Mitchell makes about being a prophet or about how she needs to "descend below all things" or about one of his 45 minute prayers, and she reveals how ridiculous it all sounded to her. She's yelling in her mind how idiodic it all is, when many of us would have started to believe or internalize the perversions.
Perhaps these two salvific foundations lead me to a third observation about Elizabeth's experience: in many ways, her life has been an allegory for the entire plan of salvation. Ripped from an idlyic pre-world with a loving family, she found herself in an existence of base physical abuses and challenges with a few truths to guide her way: she was a daughter of God, who loved her, and she had a parents that were anxious for her to return to them. She was beset on every side with untruths and perversions of the truth. She relied on the Holy Ghost and her knowledge of the true character of God to keep her unspotted from the lies she was being told. She had to claim her name and her identity to be released from her hell by the police, and she was returned to what felt to her like a celestial home.
Elizabeth generously acknowledges there are many in the world who are not nearly as fortunate as she: as she says, she does not have to see her abuser every night over dinner or in family photographs as many do. But I am deeply grateful that one of the most famous Mormon women in the world is famous because our most basic truths literally saved her life.
Find Elizabeth's interview on the Mormon Women Project here.