My Story by Elizabeth Smart
I don’t know anyone who has a perfect life. Nobody. And I know that every single one of us have our own personal challenges and trials and there are days when we wish that we didn’t have to get out of bed. There are days when we just wish we could pull the covers back up and hibernate. But we all have a choice to make. We have the choice to stay in bed and keep the covers pulled over us, or we have a choice to move forward.
When I was 14 years old, nothing special stood out about me. I was just average fourteen year old getting ready to graduate from junior high, very excited. I remember going to bed one night in a room that I shared with my sister, in a bed that I shared with my sister. I remember waking up to the voice — a strange voice saying, “I have a knife at your neck. Don’t make a sound. Get up and come with me”. That started a nine-month long nightmare.
I remember this strange man taking me way up into the mountains behind my home, all that while at knifepoint. I mean, I remember being brought so far up into the mountains, we crossed right over the top of the mountain and started down the other side. We were about a quarter of the way down the other side when we came to a grove of trees and nothing stood out about it, nothing seemed special about it but he directed me inside this grove of trees. And I remember walking in and I saw that part of the mountain had been leveled out.
There was a tent set up. There were tarps lying on the ground, hanging up in the trees. I remember seeing a huge hole in the ground behind the tent where they had laid logs across the top and then thrown dirt up on top of it. But the most scary part of this whole scene was the woman that emerged from the tent. She brought me in and she sat me down on a bucket where she tried to sponge bathe me and change me out of my pajamas into strange robes.
I grew up being very very shy and very very self-conscious. And that was just about the most traumatic thing I had ever had happen to me. I remember begging and pleading with her just to let me do it myself that I wasn’t dirty, that I had just showered the night before, and that I could change myself, I didn’t need her help.
Finally, after, I don’t know fifteen minutes probably of begging and crying, she finally just passed me the robes. I wiggled them on, she scooped up my pajamas and she left me alone in the tent sitting on upturned bucket. I remember sitting there and crying and crying and thinking of what had happened to me, how had just yesterday I had been at school with my friends, how had just yesterday I’d been at home looking — looking forward to graduating ready to go to high school, how had this happened, how had my world turned from day to night. And what had happened to my family, had this man gone through my house already and murdered my family? What was going to happen to me? The only thoughts that I could think of were going to happen to me were he’s going to rape me. And then he’s going to kill me because nobody survives being kidnapped. Nobody ever comes home. I have never seen a happily ever after in a kidnapping story. Every story the news repeats it’s always the same. Maybe it’s days later, weeks later, years later a body is found. But that’s what happens.
As I sat there crying and being so scared, I remember the tent door zipping and in walked this man. And he had changed out of the dark clothes he had kidnapped me in into a robe just like the one I had on. And he knelt down next to me and he started to speak. And at first I was so caught up in my own worries and my own fears and what had happened and what was going to happen, I couldn’t even begin to think to listen to what he was saying.
Finally, some part of me pulled myself together long enough to hear him say the words that I was now his wife. I was sealed to him. And that I was supposed to perform all wifely duties and it was time for us to consummate our marriage.
Now I grew up in a very traditional home. My family is very religious. I have been raised to believe that sexual relationships are to be within the boundaries of marriage. And that’s what I had always believed, that’s what I had always intended on following. And so here this man was, telling me that I was supposed to consummate our marriage and I may have grown up in a bit of a bubble. I mean I may not have been the most forward thinking fourteen year old in the world at the time. Part of me wasn’t even sure I knew what consummate a marriage meant. The other part of me was praying and hoping that it wasn’t what I thought it was.
I quickly found out exactly what it was. I remember begging and pleading and crying and try to come up with every reason I possibly could to try to convince this man to let me go, to not hurt me, to just release me back to my family. But nothing I said or did made a difference. I will never forget, he pulled me off the bucket where I’d been sitting on to the ground where he ripped off the robe I had been forced to put on. And he raped me on the floor of the tent and then when he was finished he got up and he left me alone. And I will never ever forget how I felt. How broken I felt, how I was beyond all help, all hope that even if someone did find me what was the point. I was useless. I was disgusting. I wasn’t worth saving at that point.
I fell asleep thinking those thoughts and when I woke up there was this man kneeling over me again and this time he had taken a thick metal cable and had wrapped it around my ankle and bolted into place so that I couldn’t run away. In that moment I started thinking of all the children whom I had seen on the news whose stories always seemed end so tragically. And I couldn’t help but think they are the lucky ones, they are so lucky. I wish I could be one of those children because no one will ever hurt them again. No one will ever make them feel like they are worthless or that. They’re unloved, no one could ever do that to them again. I wish that was me.
And that is a brief look of what the next nine months were. Very early on, I made the decision that I wasn’t going to let these two captors win. I wasn’t going to let them take my life from me. I would do everything I possibly could to survive. Even if that meant out living them, even if that meant surviving for another thirty years going through this kind of abuse every day.
Thank heavens, it wasn’t thirty years. It was only nine months later. I will never forget the first time I saw my dad after the police had stopped and picked me up. I will never forget feeling that no matter what lay in front of me, it was going to be OK and that nobody ever again would be able to make me hurt the way that these two people had made me hurt the last nine months.
Best feeling in the world: knowing that someone loves you. The following day my mother gave me a piece of advice and I’d like to share it with you because as I said we all have trials in life, we all have those times when we don’t want to get out of bed. My mom said to me, “Elizabeth, what this man has done to you is terrible and there are not words strong enough to describe how wicked and evil he is. He has stolen nine months of your life that you will never get back. The best punishment you could ever give him is to be happy, is to move forward with your life because by feeling sorry for yourself and holding on to the past and dwelling on what’s happened to you, that’s only allowing them more control, more power, steal more of your life away from you. So don’t let that happen. Justice may or may not be served, restitution may or may not be made but don’t you dare give them another second of your life”.
I have tried to follow that advice. Every day since then I am a long ways from following it perfectly. But then again what daughter is perfect following her mother’s advice. But I know that we all have a choice. I know that when we are faced with trials we have a choice. We can give in and surrender or we can fight and we can move forward. And as I’ve been able to go out and share my story and speak with different people, I have learned so much. I’ve come to a point in my life that I can say although I would never wish it upon myself and I certainly never would wish it upon anyone else, I’m grateful for what has happened to me, because of what it’s taught me, because of the perspective it’s given me, an empathy I’ve felt for other survivors. I am grateful that I can make a difference. I’m grateful that I can speak out. And especially for victims of sexual abuse who haven’t been able to speak out for themselves yet.
It is so traumatic. It is so scary coming forward and saying I was sexually abused. I was hurt someone stole something from me that I’ll never get back. But I have to tell you it is so important to come forward and share your stories and speak out about it. Even if it’s not to your community, even if it’s not on a larger scale but at least to law enforcement so that we can stop those people that are out there taking advantage of other people; it is so important.
So I have to encourage every single one of you. When you are faced with a trial, don’t give up, don’t surrender, move forward because you never know what you’ll be able to do with it, you’ll never know the lives you’ll be able to touch. I am so grateful to be here with you all today. Thank you so much.