Elizabeth Smart Talks Kidnapping, Overcoming Trauma In SPA Lecture

Author and kidnapping survivor Elizabeth Smart spoke to a crowd of Penn State students Tuesday night as part of Penn State’s Student Programming Association (SPA) guest lecture series.

Smart talked at length about her kidnapping at knifepoint in June 2002 and the journey to healing from her trauma. She opened the lecture by saying that everyone has a story to tell, but she recognized how important it is to not compare traumatic experiences.

“It’s easy to compare, but we shouldn’t do that because ignoring our own struggle or ignoring our own pain doesn’t make it go away and doesn’t make it hurt any less,” Smart said.

Smart described how she used to hate when people, particularly in her home state of Utah, would come up to her in public and refer to her as the “girl who was kidnapped” — not because she was ashamed of herself but because that’s not how she wanted to be defined.

“I felt like I was so much more than that, and that wasn’t the only thing I wanted to be known as,” she said. “I’ve come to realize it’s not what happens to you that ultimately defines who you are. It’s not what you go through that defines who you are. What really, actually defines who you are — and what the people who take the time to get to know you will recognize you for — are the decisions that you make, the reactions that you have, and the choices that you will choose moving forward.”

She described the day she was kidnapped as “normal.” Before it, she “never thought anything terrible could happen to her.” Smart even joked that before that day, the thing that scared her the most was the 1995 film “Jumanji”.

When one of her captors, Brian David Mitchell, held her at knifepoint that fateful night, Smart said that she realized that she “didn’t have a choice” other than to go with him because she didn’t know what else to do, considering that a moment like this is unlike basic safety preparedness training.

Smart grew up in a Christian, conservative community near Salt Lake City. When she was sexually assaulted by Mitchell the first time, she said she felt like the emotional and spiritual pain was comparable to the physical pain for her.

During the nine months that she was held captive, Smart said she held onto the memories of who she was before her kidnapping and her family to give her something to survive for because her captors couldn’t take away her family’s love for her.

“I realized that I did have something that my captors couldn’t take away,” Smart said, “The one thing I knew for sure that they could not take away was the fact that my family loved me, and they always would — even if my captors killed me.”

One question that Smart gets asked the most is why didn’t she just tell the police right away who she was on the day she was rescued. Simply put, her captors reinforced to her every day that they would kill her if she didn’t follow what they wanted her to do.

“It’s so easy to sit there and think ‘Well, why were you scared? Why didn’t you scream ‘I’m Elizabeth Smart, please save me.’…I’ve been asked that question so many times over the years, but for nine months, I had been hurt. I had been abused, and I had been told every single day that if I ever did anything that my captors didn’t want me to do, that they would kill me,” Smart said. “And if they didn’t kill me, they’d kill my family, and they didn’t give me any reason to doubt the veracity of what they were saying.”

When she was finally rescued and returned home to her family, her mother gave her the advice that the best punishment Smart could give her captors is to live a happy, full life instead of feeling sorry for herself, which would give them the power back. Smart acknowledged that this advice sounds like sweeping the problem under the rug, but she knows her mom meant that she wanted her to remember what happiness feels like in the middle of the more emotional, tough moments.

Smart closed the lecture by telling the audience that her experience taught her three things. The first is that humans are resilient and so much stronger than we think. Second, no one else can take away your worth. Finally, despite the things that happen to you, the choices you make define who are.

“You define who you are. Your decisions define who you are. You you react is how you define who you are. Never, ever give up,” she said.

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About the Author

Mackenzie Cullen

Sadly, Mackenzie graduated from Penn State in 2022. She majored in English and served as one of Onward State's associate editors. You can keep up with her life and send compliments to @MackenzieC__ on Twitter.

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