It took a village to bring a little girl home. —Lee Benson, the Deseret News columnist
The Elizabeth Smart kidnapping is back in the news, thanks to the release of another book, this time by the victim herself. “My Story” offers Elizabeth's account of the ordeal, as told to Chris Stewart. It paints a portrait of Elizabeth's life under the evil spell of Brian David Mitchell, who, when you cut through his pathetic, prophetic claims and galling hypocrisy, was nothing more than a sick, vicious pedophile who enslaved a 14-year-old girl.
“My Story” walks us through the filthy camps, the physical and mental abuse, the crazed delusions of Mitchell and his wife Wanda Barzee, the starvation, the travels and the hiding; it attempts to explain Elizabeth's strange timidity and compliance when a scream or a simple identification during her many public wanderings might have saved her much sooner.
The kidnapping is – can you believe it? – a decade behind us. What I remember most about that time is the way it galvanized the public and the kindnesses and grassroots search efforts it inspired. It is cruel irony that the stage for the crime was set with an act of kindness – Elizabeth's mother offered $5 to a homeless man, Mitchell; it ended with acts of kindness – strangers offering food and transportation and, finally, calling the police. In between, there were valley-wide searches by thousands of volunteers. I remember people on the street yelling, “They found Elizabeth Smart!”
“It took a village to bring a little girl home,” said Lee Benson, the Deseret News columnist.
Benson co-authored a book about the kidnapping with Elizabeth's uncle, Deseret News photographer Tom Smart, who was instrumental in finding Elizabeth. It is one of three books about the kidnapping and, in my estimation, it took two of them to tell the story. “In Plain Sight” tells the part of the story that Elizabeth couldn’t tell – the behind-the-scenes effort to find her. That is why I don’t understand why Ed and Lois Smart publicly discredited the book.
A disclaimer: Tom Smart and Benson are colleagues of mine, as well as my friends. I (and they) have nothing to gain by this because the fate of the book was sealed years ago when Lois and Ed publicly repudiated it. It killed sales of the book.
“We haven’t endorsed Tom’s book because (Elizabeth) hasn’t shared her story with anyone,” Ed told the Deseret News’ Pat Reavy in 2005. Ed went on to say that Elizabeth was “disheartened” by Tom’s book. He said there’s no way anyone could see Elizabeth’s ordeal in the same light as she did.
That wasn’t the intent of the book. “In Plain Sight” – based on hundreds of interviews and exhaustive research – told the story of how Elizabeth was found. It included the blundering efforts of the police, the rallying of the community, the courage of Tom Holbrook and FBI agent Mick Fennerty (and, if you read between the lines, the dogged persistence of her Uncle Tom), the role of the "America’s Most Wanted" TV show, the deceit of a pair of Salt Lake Tribune reporters – things Elizabeth had no knowledge of.
Lois opposed the book, telling Reavy that she wished the kidnapping of her daughter could be put behind them and Elizabeth could move on with her life and not be known simply as the girl who was kidnapped.
Yet Lois and Ed had written their own book about their daughter’s kidnapping, a made-for-Hallmark effort called “Bringing Elizabeth Home.” There was an authorized TV movie and a nationally televised interview with Oprah in the Smart home.
Now Elizabeth’s book has arrived at the bookstore a decade later.
There are many memorable passages in “My Story,” among them this: “I am the one who lived through nine months of hell,” Elizabeth writes. “I am the one who was forced to lie with Mitchell every night I am the one who felt his hot breath on my face I am the one who was forced to watch things between Barzee and him that no one should ever should be forced to see.”
Remarkably and triumphantly, Elizabeth has moved on. The American culture has produced many who claim victim status for much less and use it as an excuse for bitterness, anger and bad behavior. Elizabeth has served an LDS church mission, graduated from BYU, married and become a national spokeswoman for many causes related to the protection of children. She heeded the advice her mother offered her shortly after she was rescued, as recorded in “My Story”: “You be happy, Elizabeth. Just be happy. If you go and feel sorry for yourself, or if you dwell on what has happened, if you hold on to your pain, that is allowing (Mitchell) to steal more of your life away. So don’t you do that. Don’t you let him. There is no way that he deserves that. Not one more second of your life.”
The book is worth reading. Notwithstanding (and understandably), it fails to tell an essential part of the story, as covered by “In Plain Sight.” In Elizabeth’s version, she gets off the bus in Sandy and the police show up to rescue her. It was slightly more complicated than that, and it would be a shame if the rest of the story were ignored. For instance, there are the roles of Fennerty, the FBI agent, and Holbrook, Mitchell’s brother-in-law.
Police insisted they had the culprit in Richard Ricci (by then, dead of an aneurysm), ignoring late revelations by Elizabeth’s sister Mary Katherine that the real culprit was the man who called himself Immanuel and had once worked on the family house. The Smarts held a press conference against police wishes describing Immanuel, and Holbrook, seeing the news reports, thought they were describing Mitchell. The information was passed to police, but they still would not pursue him as a suspect. Fennerty leaked the information to "America’s Most Wanted." When Elizabeth got off the bus in Sandy, she was recognized by people who had seen the show. Fennerty was reassigned as punishment for the leak. One of the best scenes in the book is when he receives a call telling him Elizabeth has been found. Fennerty collapsed to his knees in the middle of an airport. As for Holbrook, he refused to accept reward money.
Elizabeth writes that she never would have rescued herself – she was too fearful. She had to be rescued by someone who recognized her without her help. In the end, that is what happened, and that’s what makes the other half of the story so essential.
Doug Robinson's columns run on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Email: [email protected]