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Elizabeth Smart a resilient example for other abuse survivors

Published: Friday, Dec. 10 2010 11:26 p.m. MST

Brian David Mitchell sings as he is found guilty in the 2002 kidnapping and rape of Elizabeth Smart.

Scott Snow, Deseret News

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."

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