When Elizabeth Smart was fourteen years old, she slipped away from her large family and knelt in a closet, entirely alone, to pray to God about the direction of her life.
As she describes this experience in the opening pages of her new memoir, My Story, it happened on a Sunday after church. Buoyed by a beloved Sunday School teacher’s promise that if the teenagers would lose their lives in the service of God, He would direct their steps, Elizabeth offered her life to God’s guidance:
“God, I’m here. I’m only fourteen. I know I’m just a little girl. But I’ll do whatever it is you want me to do. I really do want to serve you. But I’m not sure that I know how.”
Until two days later, when Elizabeth found herself kidnapped at knifepoint, raped, chained, and brutalized.
She was as confused as anyone would be by this turn of events. “I don’t understand!” she told God. “I did what you have asked me! This can’t be what you wanted!”
And it wasn’t, she is quick to point out. God did not have a “plan” for her to be kidnapped:
“I don’t think what happened to me was something that God intended. He surely would not have wished the anguish and torment that I was about to go through on anyone, especially upon a child.
But since that time, I have learned an important lesson. Yes, God can make some good come from evil. But even He, in all His majesty, won’t make the evil go away. Men are free. He won’t control them. There is wickedness in this world.
Which left me with this: When faced with pain and evil, we have to make a choice.
We can choose to be taken by the evil.
Or we can try to embrace the good.”
Anyone who is familiar with Mormon beliefs and history will recognize several important things in these opening pages (this all happens within the first 3% of the book, according to my Kindle).
First, human beings are free to make their own choices.
God does not stop evil from entering the world. The down side of the Mormon principle of agency, or free will, was that Brian David Mitchell could make his own twisted decisions about capturing and repeatedly raping an innocent girl. But the greater truth was that Elizabeth could also make her own decisions about how she would respond to the trauma. As her mother explained the day after Elizabeth’s return, the best thing she could do for herself was to not allow Brian David Mitchell to steal one more moment of her life. And as the rest of the book relates, she has followed her mother’s advice and come through it all gloriously, not only surviving the ordeal but using her experiences to raise awareness, help children, and live a life of faith.
Second, there must be an opposition in all things.
In 2 Nephi—the same chapter that discusses the foundational theological principle of agency—we learn that in order to bring about God’s purposes, both evil and goodness must exist; it is in learning to choose between them that we grow more like God.
And finally, there is a historical precedent for Elizabeth’s prayer.
When Joseph Smith was fourteen years old, he slipped away from his large family and knelt in a grove of trees, entirely alone, to pray to God about the direction of his life. There is a timeless narrative underlying Elizabeth’s story, a Mormon narrative that suffuses every page. She does not claim Smith’s story, but it is there in the very Mormon-ness of the way she recounts her life.
Throughout her book, Smart tells the story of her captivity without flinching, drawing strength from her deep faith in God and the love of her family, including the grandfather who passed away just before her kidnapping and whose spirit she believed helped her through the ordeal. In one especially poignant scene, she recalls the Mormon pioneers from the Martin and Willie handcart companies who thought death was very near to them as they endured one blizzard after another and people died on the trek west. They were freezing, she was starving and chained; and by a tender miracle, God provided a cup of water for her—just for her—in the worst moments of a dangerous thirst. God, Smart believes, never abandoned her even in the worst of times, when she was being raped daily and forced to take drugs and alcohol.
Smart vigorously denies the speculation that she developed some form of Stockholm Syndrome or affection for her kidnappers. The only emotion she ever felt toward them was fear, she says; she did not bond with them in any way. The reason she stayed with them was terror that Mitchell would carry out his threats to kill her and her family if she ever tried to run away. Good and evil were not confused in her mind: her family and her religion were good, and her captors and their religion were twisted and evil.
In the end, after many dark moments, Smart was rescued. I think every Latter-day Saint in America remembers that day, the unexpected wonderful news. And when I got to that part of Smart’s story, I wept for her. To be home, to be embraced by her family, was a dream come true.
And the sick, perverted man who took her turned out to be a prophet in at least one tiny way. The biblical name he had insisted on calling her—Shearjashub, who was a son of the prophet Isaiah—came true. The name means “a remnant shall return.”
Isaiah was given that prophecy centuries ago to offer comfort in the face of the Assyrian exile. Not all would be lost in the coming devastation. A remnant would return. Hope was always there, lurking around the next corner.
In Elizabeth Smart’s case, she was a remnant. She did not lose faith, despite crushing circumstances. “The human spirit is resilient,” she says. “God made us so.”
And if thou shouldst be cast into the pit, or into the hands of murderers, and the sentence of death passed upon thee; if thou be cast into the deep; if the billowing surge conspire against thee; if fierce winds become thine enemy; if the heavens gather blackness, and all the elements combine to hedge up the way; and above all, if the very jaws of hell shall gape open the mouth wide after thee, know thou, my son, that all these things shall give thee experience, and shall be for thy good. The Son of Man hath descended below them all. Art thou greater than he? (D&C 122:7-8)