Five Takeaways from Elizabeth Smart’s Talk at Boston College
What we should learn from the woman who was strong enough to get away.
Very few can imagine waking up in the middle of the night as a 14-year-old and hearing, “I have a knife at your neck, don’t make a sound. Get up and come with me.” When the incessantly smiley, bubbly Elizabeth Smart stepped in front of the microphone last night at Boston College, it was just as hard to imagine that she had lived through it.
Smart, who was kidnapped at age 14 and held for nine months, now travels around the world giving talks and works as an activist in many capacities. Thursday night, she spoke at Boston College as part of the school’s Care About Rape Education awareness week—organized to spread awareness about sexual assault, rape, and intimate partner violence. “I don’t think I’ve ever spoken to a room quite this packed before,” Smart remarked in response to the staggering attendance at her talk, which overfilled the auditorium she spoke in.
Her book, My Story, which details 100 percent of her experience, according to CNN, was published just over a year ago, a decade after the traumatic event. This account is just one of the ways Smart spreads her story and, in turn, awareness surrounding abuse.
Here are five highlights from Elizabeth Smart’s talk at BC:
“No, that couldn’t possibly be it…”
As a 14-year-old, Smart, about to graduate from middle school (and thankful to get away from the horror that that was), woke up to a man talking her in the middle of the night, and she couldn’t help but think it was a dream. She was a quiet, proper girl who lived a life with strict parents in the Salt Lake suburbs; she did not think that she was the type of person to get captured. “If we’re all flavors of ice cream, I’d be vanilla,” Smart joked. “Not even with sprinkles.”
As she was taken past her backyard, deeper and deeper into the mountainside, she quickly changed her preconception that bad things happened to people who have put themselves in that situation. She wasn’t skulking through a back alley; she wasn’t in the bad part of town; she was in her bed, the one place she felt safe. And when this sheltered girl was told by her captor that it was time to “consummate their marriage,” she couldn’t imagine what he meant. Then, she thought, No, that couldn’t possibly be it.
“I’m not sorry that I was kidnapped. I wouldn’t ask for it, but I always think of what I’ve been able to do since then.”
Smart’s story, above all, is not one of terror and trauma; it’s one of resilience and forgiveness. Throughout her talk, Smart repeated the fact that she was not going to let her life be run by this attack. The day before speaking in Boston, Smart visited the site in California where she was kept captive during the winter months for the first time since she was abducted. For the first time, she went back to the place where she was held and couldn’t help but be amazed. “I’m grateful because of the people I’ve been able to meet and work with and the lives I’ve been able to see change,” Smart explained. And with her Scottish husband (yes, she confirms that she married him for the accent) and two dogs, Archibald and Angus, she would rather appreciate the life she lives now than get stuck in the past.
“Nobody has the right to say, ‘Why didn’t you run?’ They’re not you, and they don’t know.”
Perhaps the only time during her hour-long speech when Smart’s voice dropped was when she was asked, “What do you say to people who so commonly ask in cases of abuse, ‘Why didn’t you run; why didn’t you try to get away?” “I don’t have a perfect succinct answer,” Smart said. “I more have a huge tirade.” For Smart, what it comes down to is that there is no possible way people can put themselves in that situation. No one can know what was at stake or what the situation was.
“‘You poor soul,’ I want to say to them,” Smart said. “You’re so naive to think it’s easy to run away.” When facing her captors, Smart explains that she had never seen them fail; they had kidnapped her, raped her, and done so many other things and gotten away with it. “What was going to stop them from killing me or going after my family,” she asked. As a conclusion to her answer, Smart joked about a gentleman who she saw wearing a shirt with the pope that said, “Who am I to judge?,” of which she greatly approved.
“I don’t know why they handcuffed me, they probably had a good reason. Personally, I like to think I’m a big threat. I mean, look at me…lethal weapon.”
A continuation of Smart’s never-ending wit and charm, she made this joke regarding her rescue. Back in California, Smart decided that the only way she would be rescued would be to make it back to Salt Lake City. As her captors continually used religion as an excuse to evade the questioning looks they would receive from the hyper-aware, post-9/11 people they passed by, Smart decided to turn their trick back on them. “I have a feeling we should go back…God would talk to you because you are his servant, his prophet, even his best friend,” Smart told her captor, knowing that this would stroke his ego enough that he would take her back. Upon arriving in Salt Lake, a group of police officers stopped Smart and her husband-and-wife captors.
The first time she was raped, Smart felt disgusting and ashamed, but thought back to her mother’s voice and realized that, no matter what, her mother would always love her. She decided then, “I made up my mind in that moment that I would do whatever it took to survive.” Back at the car in Salt Lake, one officer told Smart about a girl who had been missing for nine months, whose family loved her and missed her and said, “Don’t you want to go back home to them?” To which Smart replied, “Yes.”
“The best punishment you could ever do to them is to be happy and to move on with your life, and to do all of the things that you want to do.”
“We all have problems,” Smart said. “But it’s not what happens to us, [it's] the choices we make after.” When asked if she knew the moment she was able to let all of her pain and suffering go, Smart explained that it was the first time she talked to her mother after being rescued. In a police station in Salt Lake City, Smart sat with her mom, who began to say that although what happened to her what horrible and unforgivable, God would one day make up for everything she had lost. Her mother continued with the quote above, reminding her that the strongest thing she could do would be to go on to lead the best life possible.
Smart has continued with this mentality ever since, even when faced with her captor during his trial, when she explained to him that he could never hurt her—or anyone else—again because she wouldn’t let him. “I guess I’m just that stubborn that I wasn’t going to let them steal any more of my life from me,” Smart said.