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Tuesday, November 25, 2014

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Elizabeth Smart tells what her ordeal taught her

Updated 11:12 pm, Monday, May 12, 2014

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  • Elizabeth Smart speaks at Women Against MS Luncheon at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Greenwich, Conn. on Monday 12, 2014. Photo: Dru Nadler / Stamford Advocate Freelance
    Elizabeth Smart speaks at Women Against MS Luncheon at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Greenwich, Conn. on Monday 12, 2014. Photo: Dru Nadler

 

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Elizabeth Smart was a shy, 14-year-old living under an early curfew and no PG-13 movies rules when she awoke in her bed to a strange man's voice.

"I have a knife at your neck. Get up, don't make a sound."

As he forced her out of her bedroom and into the mountains behind her Salt Lake City home where he would rename her, tie her up and rape her, Smart's kidnapper made it abundantly clear why she should never try to escape.

"If you make a sound, if you try to run, I'll kill you and I'll kill anyone who tries to help you."

Smart, who spent nine horrifying months imprisoned by her captor and his wife, delivered the keynote address Monday at the annual fundraiser luncheon for the Fairfield County Women Against Multiple Sclerosis.

The event, held at the Hyatt Regency Greenwich, benefitted the Connecticut chapter of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, which funds research aimed at curing, preventing and treating this chronic disease of the central nervous system.

Wearing a soft pink sweater with her blonde hair pinned up in a neat bun, Smart, now 26, said she has been able to recover from the abuse she suffered. Though it's been a difficult journey, something her mother told her after her rescue has been her guiding light: "These people have stolen so much from you. The best punishment you could ever give them is to be happy."

"We are all riddled with problems and trials in our lives, whether it's MS or kidnapping or financial problems," Smart said. "We have trials, but we don't need to let our trials have us because life is so worth living and it's so worth being happy and working to overcome whatever it is we're faced with."

In the 11 years since a police officer recognized and rescued her, Smart has become an advocate for child-abduction recovery programs. She has worked on national safety legislation, co-created an abduction survivors guide and helped promote the Amber Alert system.

She testified in front of her captor about the physical and psychological abuse he forced on her, saying she was raped three to four times a day and threatened with death should she try to escape.

Smart's testimony helped lead to her captor's conviction. In 2011, Brian David Mitchell, a former street preacher who believed he was a kind of messiah doing the work of God, was sentenced to two life terms in federal prison.

Wanda Barzee, Mitchell's wife and accomplice, was sentenced to 15 years in federal prison in 2010.

"These people stole me away from my life, from everything that I loved," Smart said. "They renamed me, raped me, chained me up, forced me to wear these terrible robes. But I realized that my mom's love is something they can't take from me. It will always be there. And that's something that really gave me hope and the will to survive through those nine months."

Smart said she has learned to find the good that has come of her kidnapping. She has been able to travel, meet influential people and work on projects designed to help other abduction survivors heal and find peace.

"I would never go out and say, `Please, kidnap me.' " Smart said. "But I can say that I am grateful for what it's taught me and for the way that it's changed my life. I don't know that I would have naturally picked this path in life, but I certainly do not regret going down it because of the people it's allowed me to meet and the differences I've been able to see in the world because of those people."