The Mormon Themes in Elizabeth Smart’s Memoir

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Elizabeth_Smart_My_Story__47539.1364369091.1280.1280When 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.”

Nothing happened.

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)

  • Peter Marlow

    Thank you for sharing this with us. What a beautiful story. Thank you for giving it such a beautiful treatment.

  • Chris T

    Thanks for the excellent thoughts on Elizabeth Smart’s memoir. I just finished reading it yesterday and found it to be both gut-wrenching and faith-affirming at the same time. I had noticed many of the same Mormon-y themes of agency, accountability, and good & evil, though I thought Smart (and LDS ghost-writer Chris Stewart) did a good job of making the concepts accessible and familiar to a non-LDS reader as well. The parallel to Joseph Smith’s experience with personal prayer is poignant, and calls to mind some of CS Lewis’ thoughts on when our prayers are not perhaps answered as immediately as we might like or in the manner we might prefer. Thanks again for sharing this!

  • Mehgit B.

    Not only Latter-Day Saints remember with joy the day when Elizabeth was rescued. Any of us, of any or no religion, old enough to remember her abduction could hardly believe that she was safe and sound. Here in Ohio we have few Mormons, so we are unfamiliar with the Mormon themes in her book. Thanks for explaining them!

  • Genesis

    Thank you for sharing. As a survivor of extreme trauma who fled Ohio to be free, Elizabeth’s story gives me hope that someday my own horrendous story can be told to also help inspire others. Enduring 16 years of daily sexual abuse and other torture ultimately finding some solace in the faith of my choosing (LDS) I still wonder where I go from here.
    Sometimes it feels like you’re the only one whose been hurt so horribly and can’t see why Heavenly Father could allow such atrocities. It truly helps my personal perspective as a convert to read (again) what was planned, what was not and most importantly the choices I have from here. I feel tormented by the past but I hope to fully read her book, someday publish my own and join the ranks of survivors (thrivers) of unspeakable things who brought more good into this world.
    Elizabeth (in my eyes) was truly blessed and although lots of us don’t have the support she does we still have the power within to not only follow her example but also lead in our own ways.
    Thank you for writing this article.

  • Steve

    An inspirational story. No matter how bad it gets, we can overcome.

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  • A more important aspect of Smart’s case, I think, is what she has said about Mormon dogma harming her and preventing her from escaping earlier. This is from an article in the Washington Post:

    Excerpt: “What role did Mormon culture play in Elizabeth Smart not running away from her captors during her nine-month kidnapping in 2003?

    Speaking last week to a panel on child sex trafficking at Johns Hopkins, Smart examined that question, and said that the conservative religious culture of her upbringing affected her sense of self-worth after her rape and her unwillingness to attempt escape.

    “I felt like my soul had been crushed. I felt like I wasn’t even human anymore. How could anybody want me or love me or care about me? I felt like life had no more meaning to it.”

    “It’s feelings of self-worth. It’s feelings of ‘who would ever want me now?’ I’m worthless. That is what it was for me the first time I was raped.

    “I was raised in a very religious household, one that taught that sex was something special that only happened between a husband and a wife who loved each other and that’s what I’d been raised, that’s what I’d alwayss been determined to follow, that when I got married then and only then would I engage in sex. And so, for that first rape, I felt crushed –’Who could want me now?’ I felt so dirty and so filthy I understand so easily all too well why someone wouldn’t run. Because of that alone. I mean, you can imagine the most special thing being taken away from you –not that that was your only value in life –but something that de-valued you? Can you imagine going back into a society where you’re no longer valued? Where you’re no longer as good as everybody else?

    “I remember in school in one time I had a teacher who was talking about abstinence and she said ‘Imagine you’re a stick of gum. And when you engage in sex, that’s like getting chewed. And if you do that lots of times you’re going to become an old piece of gum and who’s going to want you after that?’

    “That’s terrible, nobody should ever say that. But for me I thought ‘oh my gosh, I’m that chewed up piece of gum. Nobody re-chews a piece of gum. You throw it away.’ And that’s how easy it is to feel like you no longer have worth, you no longer have value. Why would it even be worth screaming out? Why would it even made a difference, your life already has no value.” ….

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  • Mike Kitchens

    Your point is not more important. Her understanding at the time of her abduction was that of a 14 year old girl. She was merely relating how she felt at the time. Teachings of morality and your self worth are not only associated to the Mormon religion but to all religions that believe in God. The Spirit bears witness of that truth. Her feeling of worthlessness was coming from a young misunderstanding of teachings. She now realizes that she was wrong in those beginning understandings, a point that you left out of your viewpoint. If she were pointing out things wrong with the religion why would she remain in that religion? Because she was not pointing out shortcomings but her understanding at the time. I don’t understand your desire to sully things of great worth to others.

    Elizabeth is a wonderful girl that has endured great hardship and is willing to share her triumphs to support others. I think this article is a great tribute to her and her desires for bringing good to all those who suffer similar incidents. Thanks Jana for this wonderful article.

  • Collin

    When other people suffer I’m quick to think how it is all going to be alright in the end, but when I suffer I’m quick to doubt and say why me. And I’ve gone through nothing so close to as horrible as Ms. Smart has gone through. She is a great example to me.

  • Perry Bulwer

    I am not sullying anything, Mike, Mormon dogma does that without my help.

    Except for the first two sentences, my comment consists of Elizabeth’s own words. It is only your opinion that the words she spoke recently criticizing Mormon dogma were the words of a 14 year old girl. Those were the words of a fully grown adult who is critical of some aspects of her church because of what she experienced.

    You state: “If she were pointing out things wrong with the religion why would she remain in that religion?”

    So, in your opinion believers of a particular religious system must never point out problems with that system? It seems that you think Mormon doctrine and practice is perfect, but if so, why have some doctrines and practices changed over the years? It sounds like you are advocating cultic thinking and group-thought, where everyone must believe exactly the same things, or else, and no one must ever criticize or challenge the status quo. That’s what happens in cults. I know, because I was in one once, with similar beliefs to Mormonism, but I escaped, not only physically but psychologically.

    I think it is perfectly reasonable for Elizabeth to remain a Mormon, since she was indoctrinated from birth and that is very difficult to break free from. But it is also perfectly reasonable for Elizabeth to criticize aspects of Mormon doctrine and/or practice, because of the traumas she experienced that Mormon dogma is responsible for.

  • V

    You, like the WaPo, mis-understand her. I listened to the entire speech after all of the brouhaha surrounding Elizabeth Smart renouncing her religious teachings on sex. She mentions the chewed up piece of gum and says it should never be used (happened in school, not Church). Fine. Agreed. But she knew her parents and family loved her no matter what. She know what happened to her was not her fault.

    Honestly, the attempts to disparage Mormonism because she was raped is really a bridge too far. You think those girls held captive in Ohio were fine and dandy with their self worth because of their lack of religion? How about the girls in Steubenville, Ohio? The idea that Elizabeth Smart suffered more because she was taught sexual relations were reserved for marriage is an insult to anyone who has been violated without that same upbringing. Sexual violation is about power and control. Period. That’s why it is used as a form of conquest since the beginning of time, regardless of social mores.

  • Perry Bulwer

    “Sexual violation is about power and control.”

    Agreed! And so is religion. Elizabeth was indoctrinated from birth to obey Mormon authorities, to yield her own natural inherent rights as a child, including her religious freedom rights which includes the right to be free from religion, to their power and control. Her abductor used the authority of Mormon scripture to control Elizabeth, and she yielded to that power and control because of the Mormon dogma she was indoctrinated with.

    But if you are an American, you may not recognize that right of children to be free from religion, since the U.S. is the only country, along with the failed state of Somalia, to refuse to ratify the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

  • As tragic as her story is, beyond description, it is more tragic that people are perishing because they don’t use the Scriptures (Bible) to verify the things they are being taught.

  • Chris T

    Not trying to put words in your mouth here Perry, but rather to clarify: are you suggesting then that Ms. Smart’s triumphs in the face of such terrible circumstances should be discounted or are somehow diminished because, while she may have overcome the psychological trauma inflicted on her by her abductors/captors, she is still in psychological bondage to Mormonism? Because that almost seems like a backhanded compliment…

    I am familiar with the Washington Post interview you linked to, but to be fair to Ms. Smart, its contents must be evaluated along with the rest of her statements, including those in her biography/memoir. In describing her reaction to that initial rape (and don’t dismiss how awful it is in the first place that such a modifier as “initial” has to be applied to the totality of her experience), she does describe feelings similar to what she expressed in her Washington Post interview, but then almost immediately thereafter, and throughout the book, she talks of how she was reminded of how her parents, her siblings, her friends, and ultimately her Heavenly Father loved her NO MATTER WHAT, and of how that knowledge gave her hope and strength to persevere even though things continued to get much, much worse for her. At times the ONLY possible explanation for her added measure of strength, according to her, was a supernatural power beyond her own capacity to explain away or account for, and THAT strength is what sustained her.

    This understanding is consistent with friends of mine who have heard Ms. Smart speak in conferences and symposia, and is in-line with discussions that many, many LDS parents, teachers, and leaders are already having about how we talk about sexuality, modesty, and chastity, especially as they relate to a person’s sense of their individual worth both to themselves and in the sight of God, and particularly how these conversations are conducted with our young women. The fact that these discussions are taking place amongst active, faithful, Latter-day Saints would seem to argue against your suggestion that Mormonism is an example of cultic thinking and group-thought where the status quo is unassailable. While it is true that some participants in these ongoing discussions express impatience or dissatisfaction with the breadth or depth of the discussions, it cannot be denied that they are happening.

    I am glad for your sake that you feel happier having physically and psychologically escaped from whatever cult held sway over you against your will, but I don’t think it is fair or helpful to imply that Ms. Smart’s remarkable example of perseverance and overcoming in the face of such extreme hardship, much of which overcoming she attributes to the faith that her parents “indoctrinated” her with (literally “to put teachings within”), is somehow diminished because she has not also moved beyond the need for faith or because she chooses to continue to express that faith through one particular ecclesiastical organization and faith tradition.

  • Perry Bulwer

    But you are putting words in mouth, Chris. I am not saying anything about Elizabeth’s recovery from her traumatic experiences, but you argue as if I have, which is putting words in mouth.

    Another example of putting words in my mouth is when you write: “… your suggestion that Mormonism is an example of cultic thinking and group-thought …” . I never said that. I suggested Mike’s comment was an example of that.

    I could rebut more of your argument, such as your claim that my comments diminish Elizabeth’s recovery in some way, a topic I said nothing about. But you have demonstrated an inability to understand what I write and criticize me based on your misunderstanding, so there’s no point. Besides, it looks like I am the only non Mormon apologist commenting on this article, and I do not have time to debate you all.

  • Raymond Takashi Swenson

    Now, Perry, you are injuring Elizabeth Smart by misrepresenting what she said and continues to say. You should reflect on how you are abusing her, using her as a mere object in your argument, and distorting her own views and words.

  • Raymond Takashi Swenson

    Dave, since Elizabeth Smart served as a missionary in France for 18 months, I am pretty confident that she knows exactly what the Bible says. She also knows that there are thousands of different Christian denominations because people cannot agree on what the Bible means. It was that reality that led young 14 year old Joseph Smith to take the Bible seriously and do what it says to do, namely, ask God (James 1:5). And Elizabeth would tell you that the answer he received from God set in motion the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

  • Perry Bulwer

    Raymond, it is absurd to accuse me of abusing Elizabeth and using her as a mere object. Furthermore, I have not misrepresented what she has said or distorted her views. I provided a direct quotation from her in her own words, the rest of my comments are expressions of my own point of view.

    Everyone reacting to and replying to my comments are making mostly straw men arguments to distract from the main point I was making. See my initial comment above, read it and my subsequent comments carefully with full comprehension, and you will see that my main point is that the traumatic events that happened to Elizabeth almost certainly would not have happened but for Mormon dogma. Both her abductor and Elizabeth were steeped in Mormon mythology and dogma and Elizabeth was conditioned to obey Mormon authority, which made her abduction and captivity so much easier.

    As far as her recovery after that trauma, I wrote that it was perfectly reasonable for Elizabeth to remain in her church. I did not criticize her for that, only explained why I think that was reasonable of her. Some criticize for me ostensibly raining on the parade of Elizabeth’s reliance on Mormonism for recovery, which is not true. My point is that she would not have had any need to recover from any trauma in the first place if she had not been coerced as a child to believe the things she does.

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  • I read Elizabeth Smart’s story a few months ago and was fighting tears the entire time. She is an amazing writer & and even stronger woman for surviving such a horrific ordeal. I was extremely touched by her dedication to her faith & her family. It takes a lot of courage to see a flicker of hope in such a bleak chapter in her life. I also think she experienced many miracles while in captivity. Not only did her case capture the attention & interest of people all over the world, but she also managed to gain a voice and help raise awareness about missing children everywhere. I really respect and admire her a great deal. I don’t think words can express how strong she is. She is right to say that it was a nightmarish experience, but she also became an amazing human being from the difficult experience she was forced to face. She truly shows that people can overcome anything if they decide to become victorious instead of victims. Her mother’s advice really resonates with me because living in the past will do no good. It will only hold you back from achieving your future goals and ambitions. Elizabeth Smart deserves all the happiness in the world, and I hope she and her husband have everything they hope for & continuing having a successful marriage. She is simply an inspiration to me