SALT LAKE CITY — As Melissa walked into her bosses' office Friday afternoon, she immediately recognized the young blonde woman talking on the television.
"I am so thrilled to stand before the people of America today and give hope to other victims who have not spoken out ... about what's happened to them," Elizabeth Smart told the news reporters gathered outside the courthouse after hearing that the man who raped her nearly every day for nine months had just been found guilty. "I hope that not only is this an example that justice can be served in America, but that it is possible to move on after something terrible has happened, and that we can speak out and we will be heard."
Melissa felt like cheering.
Melissa is also a survivor of rape and violence.
She knows how daunting it is to confront her attacker in court, and the horror of sharing intimate details with a room full of strangers. Watching Smart's composure through an 18-day trial has been empowering for Melissa, and she was moved when she heard Smart mention women like her.
"I said a lot of prayers for her as well," Melissa said. "I'm glad to see that she is pulling through this and she is showing people that it isn't the end of the world when something horrific happens to you. You can get through it, and there is a lot of hope. Seeing her strong like she is, I think it does give hope to other victims."
While not every victim will recover as Smart and Melissa have, nor walk away with a guilty verdict against their attackers, therapists and professionals point out several factors in Smart's attitude and actions that make her a positive role model for others who have experienced such trauma.
"I've had a few victims actually talk about Elizabeth Smart when they come in," said Utah County special victims prosecutor Donna Kelly. "They say 'Look at her, what she went through was so horrible and she's doing pretty well.' They kind of see Elizabeth as the hope, the example of how they can put their lives back together."
Kelly has prosecuted perpetrators of sex crimes for the past 20 years, learning along the way that abuse is strikingly individual. Some of her victims have moved forward following repeated rapes at the hands of family members, while others have crumbled into addiction and depression after a one-time event of sexual abuse.
"Some people are more resilient than others," Kelly said. "We don't really know why."
Kelly and other professionals point to family support as one of the most important factors in a victim's recovery.
"Having come from a loving home, a context where needs were met, where support was ever-present, where love and harmony prevailed — all those kinds of things that seem to characterize the Smart family — created in her a bit of what psychologists simply sum up as resilience," said Jed Ericksen, a crisis social worker and University of Utah professor emeritus. "It's like you've almost got your body armor on, psychologically and emotionally, even though what she experienced would have been completely out of the realm of expectation and there wouldn't have been any specific preparation for anything like that in her life."
Smart's parents have been with her throughout the ordeal, from the massive searches when she was missing, to the myriad court hearings and the drawn-out trial.
"Today's such a wonderful day," said Lois Smart, mother of Elizabeth, who is now 23. "There was another day that she used the word 'victorious' and that is when she came home. And I think this is an exceptionally victorious day for us all as mothers, as women, as daughters, that we can go forward and these things don't have to happen to us and that there is a way to put those people behind us and that we can move forward in our lives."
For victims who aren't ready to talk with family or friends, a stranger will do, say, at a crisis hotline. Experts say the important thing is to find someone who won't be judgmental but can help brainstorm about resources, and let the victim know he or she is not to blame and doesn't have to deal with it alone.
Nationally renowned therapist and author Dr. Susan Forward said one of her past clients, when asked who knew about her abuse, began listing off names: her mom, dad, sister, brother, the mailman, hairdresser, etc.
"That was my sign that she was getting ready to finish up her work, so I think it's a good thing to tell," she said. "You have to be careful who you tell, but on the whole, it's good to chip off a piece of the secret and hand it to someone else, because secrets poison."
Professionals and therapists are quick to say there's much they don't understand about the long-term ramifications of sexual abuse, but they do know that such victims have higher rates of drug and alcohol abuse, a greater inability to form close relationships and a higher percentage of out-of-wedlock births.
While Smart appears to be doing well, said Kelly, no one knows how much she's suffering. "It's a very private individual matter for people to process. Some victims do very well for a while and then fall apart, some fall apart right away, then gradually get better. It's a very individual thing."
Particularly remarkable about Smart's composure is her age, both then and now, said Ericksen. "In many cases, the older you are and the more life experience you have had, the better prepared you are to deal with these kinds of things." It's tougher without an adult perspective.
Forward said many things can unleash a flood of memories, emotions, anger or even desires for revenge. Common triggers are marriage and childbirth, neither of which Elizabeth has experienced yet.
About 40 percent of calls to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network's national sexual assault hotline concern something that happened five or more years before, RAINN director Jennifer Marsh said.
Often, the individual begins to recognize that relationship problems, substance abuse and other issues are the result of abuse that has not ben dealt with, Marsh said.
"I think the important thing to remember is that if she has gotten the appropriate counseling, this stuff can really heal," Forward said. "When I say heal, I don't mean be forgotten about, but it can get very manageable."
The legal process
Salt Lake City Police Victim's Advocate Dianna Goodliffe always reminds victims that the criminal justice system is great, but it doesn't always work.
"We can't always get convictions," she tells them. "If they hang their hat on the system making them better, it usually fails miserably."
Instead, she talks to them about facing their abuse, dealing with it through necessary counseling, therapy or legal proceedings and then putting it behind them and moving on. For some victims, court is a place of healing and closure, said Chad Grunander, a former special victims prosecutor with the Utah County Attorney's Office. Yet finding closure is more difficult with a not-guilty verdict.
"Society and victims have this sense that not guilty is the same as innocence, and that's not the case," Grunander said. "That can have an effect (on the victim) as well, as they go away thinking 'the jury didn't believe me.'"
It can also be difficult for the community to understand that rape survivors react differently to the legal process, and how a community perceives the reaction of a survivor can affect whether or not they believe or support them.
"What is interesting in terms of public response to rape is how often that ability to talk about it and reflect on it without breaking down is used against victims in a trial to discredit them," Utah Coalition Against Sexual Abuse executive director Alana Kindness said. "We have this idea of how someone should behave, so we're shocked when they don't behave that way."
Elizabeth stayed composed for her three days on the stand, recounting detail after detail, while others find that confronting an abuser in court is "devastating, like reliving" the assault, said Ericksen.
Kelly said the studies her office has seen from the National Institute of Science and others show that in general, participation in the criminal justice system doesn't harm victims, though discussing the painful topics may delay the recovery.
"Elizabeth Smart is a wonderful example of what to do, just in her strength and resolve, and her willingness to push back against a perpetrator," Grunander said. "She's the cream of the crop. I would love for my victims to approach the system and push back (against the perpetrator), and just stay positive like she has."
No longer the victim
Though the world came to know Elizabeth Smart as the girl who was kidnapped by a sex-crazed religious zealot and then found alive nearly nine months later, that need not be a lifelong label.
Smart's testimony showed her abduction and treatment "does not define her as a person; she has honor and integrity, goals and objectives and accomplishments," Erickson said. "She's something other than a victim."
That's the message that therapists and prosecutors want other women to recognize.6 comments on this story
"No matter what life circumstances are handed to you, you can rise above them," Goodliffe said. "You can get past even really horrific things that happen to you. You can survive, you can thrive in the wake of all of it."
By confronting what happened as she did, Ericksen said, Smart showed "'there's more life to be lived and it's not going to define how I go about the rest of my life. I'm going to go on and be me and do the things I can do and want to do and be the person I want to be despite this.' I take great comfort in this."