PROVO — In the past week, the hashtag "#MeToo" has taken social media by storm.
And at BYU on Friday night, abduction survivor Elizabeth Smart and Deondra Brown, of the musical group The 5 Browns, shared their own stories of sexual abuse in hopes that “together we can change the paradigm from ‘I’ve never told anyone’ to ‘people have powerful stories and we need to listen,'” according to a press release for the event.
“We’re here and we’re talking about big, dark, scary issues, issues that we don’t want to talk about," Smart said. "... And I think it’s even harder to admit that something has happened to you but being here tonight, what’s going on in the media with Harvey Weinstein and the #MeToo campaign, and this is a time where it is making more noise and we’re going to continue to expand this campaign, to expand these events where we talk about these issues because the more people we can bring in and educate, the more noise we can make, which will eventually change the system.”
Smart's story captured the hearts and prayers of people throughout the world after her abduction from her home in Salt Lake City in 2002 when she was 14. She was rescued nine months later after she was spotted on the street with her captor Brian David Mitchell.
While Smart's story is well-known, she is aware that many others go untold. Smart in a statement said "too many times after I speak, I’m approached by people who begin by saying ‘I’ve never told anyone this,'" followed by their own stories of assault.
The panel's focus was on sexual violence, what to watch out for, where to find help and finding the courage to speak up about the experience. It was moderated by KUTV news anchor Kim Johnson.
Participants included Brown, whose father Keith Brown was sentenced to prison in 2011 for sexually abusing Deondra and her sister Desirae over several years; Dr. Brook Keeshin, a child abuse pediatrician and child psychiatrist at Primary Children's Hospital; and Alyson Larsen of Rad for Women and Rad Kids, which are billed as personal empowerment safety programs.
"The reality is that (sexual abuse is) something that affects all ages, all genders,” Keeshin said.
The panel addressed the fact that 90 percent of child sex abuse victims know their perpetrator. It also addressed the importance of speaking up.
“It’s important for victims to become the individuals who look out for themselves," Brown said. "... In this instance, you can be selfish."
Smart and Brown reiterated the importance of understanding that victims are not alone. Smart explained that prior to her return home, she often remembered the love of her parents when she began to lose the will to survive, a love she knew would not fail her.
“For me, being raped was probably the single most destructive thing that could’ve happened to me,” Smart said, before clarifying that now, as a mother of two children, that may have changed. “There were so many times where I felt like things couldn’t possibly get worse and for me, I eventually got to the point where I realized ... that I knew I had my family, if no one else would love me, they would and for me, that would be worth surviving for.”
Brown shared how music helped her endure her horrific experience and recounted the first performance after news broke of her father’s sexual abuse. Brown remembers being nervous prior to the show but recalled finding strength in the applause of the audience.
“We’d never had an audience give us a standing ovation the second we stepped on stage,” Brown said. They did that night.
Following the event, Elizabeth Smart's father, Ed Smart, said that he and Elizabeth's mother had conversations about helping her recover from abuse before she ever came home.
“My wife and I had a little discussion before she was found about moving forward, and we had some genuine concerns about how would she survive, how would we move forward together, and one of the things we both decided was that regardless of what had happened to her she needed to know that it was not her fault,” Ed Smart said.
An emotional moment came toward the end of the event when a BYU student asked Smart, “When did you know you had forgiven and what was that process like?”
“I think a lot of us have grown up with this playground idea of what forgiveness is and as we grow to adults, I think that idea needs to change,” Smart said. “It needs to mature as well because you’re not going to be friends with everyone who hurts you. Speaking from experience there are a couple of people that I never, ever want to see ever again. With that being said, have I forgiven them? Yes, but I don’t want to have anything to do with them.28 comments on this story
“If I held on to what they did to me for so long that anger would take part of my soul and ... that would be taking part of me away from my family, from my parents and my husband. Not all of me would be able to be there for my daughter, not all of me would be able to be there for my son, not all of me would be able to be there for everything that I want to enjoy along the way.”
Another student explained that she is currently involved in a court case and asked Smart how she was able to find strength to testify in court. Smart explained that prior to taking the stand, she thought of people she admired and wanted to be like. She then addressed the student directly.
“Know you’re not alone, know you’re strong and know there are so many people around you who love you and want you to be happy,” Smart said.