Abducted from her home in the middle of the night at age 14 and repeatedly raped and tortured by her captors for nine months, Elizabeth Smart now has a very specific viewpoint about the concept of forgiveness.
“Forgiveness is something you do for yourself. If I hold on to my anger for them (kidnappers), it takes away a part of my soul. Forgiveness is giving up the hope for a better past,” Smart explained during a free, public talk about her ordeal held recently at the University of Findlay. “I do forgive them. I never want to see them again, though.”
During her hour-long and intensely personal narrative, Smart a poised and educated young woman who is now a wife and a parent to two children, said the thought that her parents would continue to love her no matter what had happened to her was primarily what enabled her to persevere amidst the hell that her captors had created for her. That belief was not her initial reaction, however. Raised Mormon, Smart’s faith instructs members to believe that sex before marriage is forbidden and unforgiveable. To a young teenager, even one who had no control over her circumstances, the idea itself was tortuous.
Her 2002 abduction attracted worldwide attention and precipitated a manhunt that ended not far from where she and her family of eight lived. Today, Smart’s activities involve child sex abuse prevention advocacy and traveling the globe to raise money for programs that also seek to protect children. After her afternoon speech in the Alumni Memorial Union, she spoke at the Mazza Museum for an event that raised money for the Center for Safe and Healthy Children in Findlay.
Smart’s captors told her that if she said anything, or tried to escape, her other family members would die. The night she was kidnapped, her male abductor raped her, explaining it was time for them to consummate their marriage. A close encounter with a police cruiser that night proved to be a missed opportunity for escape.
“I remember feeling like my world had stopped moving, that my life had come to an end,” Smart recalled. The children she had previously seen on television news shows who had died after being kidnapped “were the lucky ones,” she had surmised.
But “I realized my parents’ love was worth surviving for,” she said. “So I decided I would do whatever it took to survive, even if it meant doing everything my captors told me. Looking back, I don’t regret any of those decisions.”
Second guessing survivors’ instincts and decisions “is something that no survivor should hear,” she advised. “They did whatever they had to do” at the time.
Smart was rescued on a city street by police who had received calls from bystanders who had noticed her and her captors walking down a Salt Lake City, Utah sidewalk. Intensive counseling for her and her family helped with their healing process. She said her mother also gave her sound advice, which she immediately began to follow.
“The best punishment you can give them is to be happy. Move on with your life,” Smart said her mother explained.
“I have come to a point in my life where I don’t feel bad for what happened to me. I’m not sorry for myself. Because it happened to me, I got an incredible opportunity to speak out” and help others who have been sexually abused, she said. Her ultimate goal: to help “change a culture that turns a blind eye to abuse going on.”