SALT LAKE CITY — Elizabeth Smart has heard every comment and been asked just about every question imaginable in the 15 years since she was rescued from her kidnappers.
The Salt Lake City native — who was taken from her home on June 5, 2002, and found alive on March 12, 2003, after nine months of physical and sexual abuse — travels the country working as an advocate for survivors of sexual abuse and missing persons and speaks regularly about her experience. She leaves time for Q-and-A sessions at the end of many of her speeches, which has served as a forum for comments and questions that run the gamut.
Yes, there are plenty of the insensitive ones — “You should have run faster.” “You should have screamed louder.” “How did you not get pregnant during your captivity?” “You were raped so many times. Was there any moment that you were just like, ‘OK, I’m being raped,’ and enjoyed it?” — but Smart said in a recent interview with the Deseret News that in her years of experience, such “nitty-gritty, detailed questions” aren’t the most frequently asked.
“It’s generally the broader questions like, ‘Have you forgiven your captors?’ ‘Have you moved on?’ ‘How have you moved on?’ ‘What therapies were helpful for you?’ and ‘How do you deal with the attention?’” Smart explained.
But the most common question of all, according to Smart: “Where does your hope and resilience come from?”
That question served as the catalyst for Smart’s most recent book, “Where There’s Hope: Healing, Moving Forward and Never Giving Up” (St. Martin’s Press, 288 pages), which will hit shelves Tuesday, March 27.
In the book, Smart shares insights from her own experiences as well as lessons gleaned through more than a dozen interviews with people she said she admires — a list that is as varied as both of her parents; Ann Romney, author and wife of former presidential nominee Mitt Romney; human trafficking survivor Norma Bastidas; fashion designer Diane von Furstenberg; paraplegic and three-time Olympic medalist Mike Schlappi; Catholic Archbishop John C. Wester; Mariatu Kamara, UNICEF special representative, author and survivor of the civil war in Sierra Leone, and more.
“At the end of the day, every single one of us has a story, and in my book, I tried to address as many stories as I could,” Smart said. “I really tried to go out and talk to people from different backgrounds who have experienced different things so maybe (if) someone who reads this doesn’t feel a connection with me or anything I say, that’s OK because maybe they felt a connection to someone else.”
With the release of her new book, Smart spoke with the Deseret News to discuss what it means to have hope, how she maintains it and the lessons she learned from writing her book.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Deseret News: Hope is obviously needed when you have big and challenging things going on in your life, but what do you think the role of hope is in day-to-day, normal, mundane life, and how do you maintain hope in the everyday?
Elizabeth Smart: When it is day-to-day, mundane life — but I don’t really feel like life is really all that mundane with a 3-year-old and an 11-month-old, so my life tends to be full of fireworks all the time — but I think hope is what gets you through the mundane. It’s that belief in a better future, a belief in the positive in life and the good that will come. I think that’s what it is for me, so when I was kidnapped it was that belief that my family would still love me, that they’d still accept me, that they still wanted me back, and that’s what I held onto and that’s how I survived my kidnapping.
Now, my children, they’re my hope. My family is my hope. I see (a) change coming about in our society that’s a big hope for me. … I am hearing more and more survivors coming forward and sharing their stories, saying “This is not OK, and I’m not going to let this define me and I’m not going to let this hold me back from being who I want to be.”
DN: You mention several instances in your book of times when people have said or asked insensitive things. When people continue to say insensitive things to you, what do you do in those situations and what do you do to make sure those situations don’t bring you down?
ES: Obviously I can’t control what anybody else says to me. Usually when those insensitive things are said, I just have to realize that they’re coming from a place of ignorance. Obviously they haven’t experienced what I’ve experienced. Clearly they probably don’t know anybody else who’s experienced what I’ve experienced, so they have no idea what they’re talking about. …
I used to, whenever an article would come out about me that would come to my attention, I would read all of the comments afterward and so much of the time, there was a lot of negativity, and that used to really hurt my feelings a lot and I’d feel really bad and I wouldn’t understand. Why are people so nasty? Why would people say things when they don’t even know? I didn’t ask for this article to be written. This is just someone else’s perspective. … It’s sad that — and I’m probably not the only person who feels this way — but you could read 100 nice comments and then you read one rude comment, and that one rude comment is the one you remember.
I remember talking to my older brother about it and he was like, “First of all, don’t read the comments. That’s a waste of time to begin with.” And second of all, he said, “Think of the people who are writing those comments. Who has the time to just sit and be nasty? That’s their sole purpose is tearing other people down. Would you want to talk to them? Would you want to see them? Would you want to know them anyway?” That thought has always kind of stayed with me.
But to your face, that’s not always easy to avoid, so I do my best to try to stand up for myself and for other survivors, and I remind myself that once again this is probably coming from a place of ignorance — this is probably not intentionally trying to be rude, and if I can answer this, I have a supportive family to go back to. I’ve got a good support network. I have a wonderful life, and if I can answer this, then hopefully they won’t go to the next survivor and ask the same insensitive question that maybe will tear down another survivor. I do my best to try to answer it.
DN: When did you realize you had forgiven your captors and how did it feel once you realized you had?
ES: First of all, I think forgiveness is probably one of the greatest forms of self-love there is because you don’t do forgiveness for anybody else. My captors will never care if I forgive them. … It will not make a day of difference to them at all, but it will make a huge difference to me. If I stay angry from holding onto this in my life, it would be eating away at me. It would mean I wouldn’t be 100 percent mother to my children; I wouldn’t be 100 percent wife to my husband; I wouldn’t be able to work for survivors 100 percent because there would always be this percentage of me inside holding onto this anger and this bitterness, and frankly … I love myself too much to do that to myself.
I think my mom’s advice when I came home that these people had stolen nine months of my life and the best punishment I could ever give them is to move forward and to be happy. I think that was given to me at a very poignant time that kind of set me on that course of forgiveness, to move on with my life. I don’t think I connected moving on with my life to forgiveness at that point. I think it was just years and years to realize that forgiveness is not like “kiss and make up,” which I feel like, at least for me (when I was growing up), I feel like that was my understanding and knowledge that forgiveness is always for the other person. …
It is such a big topic and I think there is kind of, at least from my perspective, a misunderstanding of what forgiveness is. I can say I have forgiven my captors. That being said, I never want to see them again. I’m not OK with they did to me. That’s not right. I would not allow that to happen to me again. I would not allow that to happen to anyone else (and) although it has happened, I’ve moved on with my life and I don’t carry it around inside me and allow it to eat away at me every day. I’ve accepted that it’s happened and, because I love myself, I have moved on. …
Maybe that’s just my definition. … Not every person who hurts someone else will be sorry, and if you’re waiting for that (apology) before you can say it’s all right and look magnanimous and forgiving, then that day may never come, and then you’ll just be carrying anger around with you forever.
DN: In your introduction to the book, you write about how after you returned home you began to realize that you were given a second chance at your life. As you’ve been going about your advocacy work, there are obviously stories that you hear of people who weren’t given that second chance and ultimately didn’t get the chance to come home. How have you dealt with questions that have crossed your mind of why you were given that second chance and why other people don’t get that chance? How do you deal with those feelings?
ES: Absolutely, that thought has crossed my mind. … I think probably one of the most common statistics parents hear when their children are kidnapped is that if they’re not found within the first 48 hours that they’re most likely dead. … Yes, that may be true, but because of my story, that makes me think that we shouldn’t give up after the first 48 hours. We shouldn’t just forget about them or think it’s a lost cause, so when I meet parents and families and friends who are still searching for their lost child, I don’t think anyone should ever give up until their child or loved one is found. It is so hard. It is so hard to see these parents, these families, these loved ones, these friends who are still searching and knowing that they’re happy for you but knowing at the same time that they wish you were their child or their friend who came back. It’s hard. It’s hard, and that honestly, that feeling makes me feel like I can’t stop doing what I’m doing. I can’t stop talking. I can’t just give up and sink into the shadows, even though sometimes that may be very tempting, because there are still children who are missing. There are still people who are missing.
DN: You mentioned in the book that sometimes you have to take your young children along for interviews and juggle your schedule. I know you’re really busy with all the things that you’re doing, so how do you maintain that work/life balance in your life?
ES: That is an excellent question. I’m not quite sure. When I’m out speaking and working, I am there. But when I’m at home, I’m at home and I’m with my children. … But (finding the balance) is a struggle. I have two children and I came from a family of six kids and I look at my mom and think, "How on earth did you do that?" I have two and I feel like I don’t know what I’m doing half the time. … I’m open to pointers if anyone has them.
DN: You asked your interview subjects several questions that I’d like to ask you. You asked Mariatu (Kamara, UNICEF special representative, author and survivor of the civil war in Sierra Leone) in your interview with her what it is that she hopes for her daughter. What is it you want and hope for your children?
ES: I will feel like a success if I raise my children to be kind and happy people. But obviously there’s lots of things I would like for them. I naturally never want them to be hurt, but I hate to say that’s probably unrealistic. But I want them to be educated, and not just educated in school but I want them to be educated in life and experiences. I want them to have a well-rounded outlook on life. I want them to know that there is danger out there but that they don’t need to live in fear, they just need to be prepared. And, you know, I want them to be happy.
DN: Where do you turn for peace?
ES: Usually my husband is a pretty good rock, a pretty good sounding board. … He definitely brings a center of gravity into my life.
When I feel anxious and like stressed out, I turn to the things that have served me well over the years. I enjoy running. I am not a fast runner, but I like going outside and just enjoying being outside with my dogs or taking them out for a run. Music has been a big part of my life and that has always (been) soothing, or at least my mind is so much on what I’m trying to play that maybe my worries are a little bit less significant in that moment. …
Certainly, being a religious person, my faith has been a big source of peace and comfort, knowing that God knows everything. He understands everything and knows what’s in my heart, so whatever I’m worried about or whatever I feel like I didn’t do well enough or came up short on something, he knows exactly where I’m at and then I just have to trust in him.
DN: You end the book by asking readers to consider two questions about their experiences: What did you learn, and was it worth it? So, what did you learn from writing the book, and was it worth writing in the end?
ES: Yes. I feel like I did learn so much … (and gain) so much perspective. Listening to these other people sharing their stories, and talking about what they’ve experienced, and how they look at the world and how they dealt with it, sometimes it just blows me away.
It’s probably been the hardest project I’ve ever done in my life and it’s probably been the most work-intensive project I’ve ever done in my life, but it’s probably the project that I am the most proud of. I’m more proud of this second book than I am even of my first book. Honestly, this means more to me. So yes, it absolutely was worth it. It was very difficult, but it’s very much been worth it as well.
If you go …
What: Elizabeth Smart "Where There's Hope" book signing
When: Friday, March 30, 6-8 p.m.
Where: Deseret Book, 45 W. South Temple
What: Elizabeth Smart presentation and "Where There's Hope" book signing
When: Wednesday, April 4, 5:30 p.m.
Where: Joseph Smith Building Auditorium, Brigham Young University
Note: Presentation is open to the public, with a ticketed signing to follow. Tickets can obtained when purchasing the book at the BYU Store.