Newsmaker Series Debuts at GW with Elizabeth Smart

The survivor of kidnapping and author of “My Story” says she has found a “happy ending.”

Elizabeth Smart reads from book standing in front of podium
Elizabeth Smart shared her story at the first Newsmaker Series event co-presented by GW's Lisner Auditorium and Politics & Prose.
October 11, 2013

By Brittney Dunkins

Elizabeth Smart made headlines at 14 years old when she was kidnapped from her home in Salt Lake City by Brian David Mitchell, a self-styled prophet, and his wife, Wanda Barzee.

She was held captive for nine months before being rescued by police.

Now, more than 10 years later, the 25-year-old author of “My Story,” an account of her ordeal, is sharing her experience and speaking out for children and victims of abuse.

Nearly 100 students, faculty, staff and community members, including Second Lady Jill Biden, listened to Ms. Smart speak at the first event in the Newsmaker Series, co-presented by George Washington University’s Lisner Auditorium and independent bookseller Politics & Prose, on Thursday. The event was held in the Marvin Center’s Grand Ballroom.

“This evening is especially significant because it kicks off an expanded partnership between Politics & Prose and GW that was arranged earlier this fall,” Bradley Graham, co-owner of Politics & Prose said, welcoming the audience.

“As a poised, articulate and married woman in her mid-20s, Ms. Smart is no longer a victim, but an advocate,” he said. “She is helping to raise awareness of and help prevent crimes against children.”

Upon taking the stage, Ms. Smart discussed her time in captivity, her struggle for survival, and the choice to tell her story and empower youth and victims of sexual assault.

“I remember so many overwhelming feelings and emotions,” she said, reading from her book, “terror that is utterly indescribable even to this day, embarrassment and shame so deep, I felt as though my very worth had been thrown on the ground.”

She described how her attacker led her into the mountains and left her sitting on a bucket in a tent at a campsite, later returning to rape her and tether her to ground with a steel cable wrapped tightly around her ankle.

"I felt broken and filthy,” Ms. Smart said. “I wondered who would ever want me? Who could want anything to do with me? Was I even human anymore?”

Despite a feeling of “complete despair,” one thought kept her going. She made the most important decision of her life, she said.

“I realized my family would always be mine. They would always care about me. They would never give up hope for me. They would always want me to come home,” she said. “Because I had something worth living for, worth surviving for that couldn’t be taken from me and couldn’t ever be changed, I made the decision to do whatever I had to, to survive.”

Ms. Smart said that once she was rescued, she was excited to come home but saddened by the experiences that had been stolen from her, from first kisses and boyfriends to prom night and graduation.  

Advice from her mother, Lois Smart, put things in perspective.

“We decide what our future is going to be, where we are going to go, what we are going to do, and how we are going to react to what happens in our lives,” Ms. Smart said. “I will never forget my mom told me that the best punishment I could ever give these people would be to be happy, to live my life and to become the person I want to become.”

Ms. Smart said she did not think she would ever write “My Story,” but after the trial of her kidnappers she realized she wanted to put the information that was released into context.

She also wanted to use the platform that she had been given to help victims of sexual assault and abuse. 

“Every time, without fail, that I have spoken, there is someone who comes forward and says, ‘I was raped’ or ‘I was abused as child,’” she said.

Three years ago, she and her father, Ed Smart, began discussing the founding of the Elizabeth Smart Foundation, an organization geared toward preventing and ending predatory crimes against children.

Today, the foundation partners with five organizations: radKIDS, Keep Georgia Safe, the Joyful Child Foundation, the Surviving Parents Coalition and the Gina for Missing Persons FOUNDation.

She spoke passionately about her work to protect and empower children.

“Wouldn’t it be nice if we were there to protect every child from every bad thing?” she said during a question-and-answer session with the audience.

“But unfortunately we can’t. We’re not always there, and the best thing we can do is prepare our children by teaching them and letting them know they are absolutely irreplaceable.”

Despite the tragedy in her own life, Ms. Smart is committed to showing others that there is life and happiness after abuse, something she was able to realize while writing her book.

“It was an incredible experience to write down what happened and know the ending,” she said, “to know that no matter how bad my story got, I have a great ending.”