The Salt Lake Tribune recently named its Utahn of the Year. According to the Trib’s Website, BYU basketball player Jimmer Fredette was the readers’ choice while the staff chose Salt Lake City Police Chief Chris Burbank. One deserving candidate, however, did not even come up for consideration because she’d won before, which is unfortunate, since 2011 was the year she truly merited the honor.
In 2011, Elizabeth Smart came into her own. She appeared in court to help secure a life sentence for Brian David Mitchell, the man who, along with his wife, Wanda Barzee, abducted Smart (then 14) at knifepoint, “married” her and proceeded to rape her for nine months, until she was found and rescued from Sandy’s suburban streets in March 2003.
2011 was big in other ways: Smart completed a mission in Paris for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and returned to receive a $50,000 Diller-von Furstenberg grant to jump start a nonprofit to help children recover from abduction and sexual abuse. In July, ABC News named Smart a missing-persons commentator.
Smart is doing her level best to make sense of an absurd situation—being taken from her bed in the middle of the night by a bearded “prophet.” And for critics, it’s enough. Smart helped get her abductor a life sentence, and it’s time for her to move on, live her life. Even the Tribune looked past her triumphs for its Utahn of the Year. Some are uncomfortable to see Smart relive her ordeal, to the point of tears, as she did at a December Salt Lake Rotary club meeting. According to an ABC4 news story, which reported on Smart’s emotional delivery, she was there to raise funds for the Elizabeth Smart Foundation.
“He went straight from ‘marrying’ me to raping me,” Smart told the group, “and after that moment, I couldn’t feel more worthless and more degraded … I don’t want another child to feel how I felt. I don’t want another child to feel worthless.”
The group was nothing but supportive. One Rotarian in attendance, who asked not to be named, said it was a moving experience for him. “She played one piece on the harp before speaking; she said that she generally either plays or speaks, but not both, so it was rather unusual for her. I think [having played the harp first] must have had an effect on her, as she got quite emotional telling the story she must have told a hundred times before about the abduction and … how it impacted her.”
Does this mean, going forward, Smart is stuck in her survivor role? And should she be? “Sadly, Elizabeth’s life was defined forever by her perpetrators,” says Babs De Lay, herself an incest and rape survivor who serves on the Utah Coalition Against Sexual Assault board. De Lay knows the value of speaking out about rape. Annual productions of The Vagina Monologues, which De Lay spearheads locally, focus on rape and violence against women. “Many years ago, I heard a report on PBS on Bosnian women who were rape victims. One woman alone had been brutalized for days, by soldiers and objects, and also watched her family slowly murdered for the soldiers’ ‘fun.’ I personally can’t imagine how you would heal from that kind of experience,” she writes in an e-mail.
“There’s a shelter in New York that deals with victims of extreme violence,” De Lay continues. “One of the things they teach is to tell your story over and over and over.”
Angie Makomenaw, Violence Against Women coordinator for the University of Utah’s Women’s Resource Center, isn’t surprised that Smart takes her victim role seriously. “You’ll find that in the fields of domestic violence and child sexual abuse, those who are most passionate about it have experienced it firsthand,” she says. “They know. They’ve gone through it.”
Does it re-victimize Smart to revisit her abduction, time and again? “Talking about [one’s rape] is encouraged,” Makomenaw says, “but there are two different avenues to that: Do you just talk to your closest circle of friends and family, or do it publicly for an audience where you don’t know what the outcome or the reaction will be to your discussion?”
Overall, Makomenaw thinks Smart is … smart. “Because she is talking, she is also furthering her nonprofit agency, so she is getting positive feedback that she is making a difference. She’s not just rehashing old wounds; she’s rehashing it to accomplish something, to move forward. She’s making progress. If the feedback is positive, she is changing people’s lives. She can easily see that and easily gets confirmation. I think it’s positive if she gets to choose the venues and her approach, because it’s in her control.”
One organization that doesn’t want to talk about Elizabeth Smart is the Rape Recovery Center. When querying the organization’s acting executive director, Holly Mullen—who served as City Weekly’s editor from 2007 to 2009—she declined to comment for this story. “I am actually in the nascent stages of working on some partnership activities with Elizabeth Smart and her foundation,” Mullen writes in an e-mail, “and members of the extended Smart family have been generous donors to the agency. To have an official RRC voice on the questions you have put forward strikes me as a conflict.”
There is no end of conflicted feelings when it comes to rape. But Smart isn’t afraid to talk about it; she’s working out her abduction and rape in a public way for the public good.