On the 20th anniversary of the day she was rescued from her kidnappers, March 12, Elizabeth Smart will do what she always does on that day. She’ll call her parents.
Smart was taken at knifepoint at age 14 from her bed in Salt Lake City by a self-described prophet who held her captive for nine months several miles from her home.
“I will call them and tell them that I love them,” she said of her parents, Ed and Lois Smart, who divorced in 2019. “When they look back, I’m pretty sure they’ll say that what they went through after I was taken was the most difficult thing they ever did.”
Looking back herself, Smart, 35, said those traumatic nine months could have left her bitter and broken.
Instead, she has learned to focus on the beauty in her life, and she devotes her time to being a child safety advocate, helping other sexual assault survivors and teaching people how to combat and heal from such attacks.
She does her work through the Elizabeth Smart Foundation, which she and her father founded in 2011 with $50,000 awarded to Smart by fashion designer Diane von Furstenberg. This month, Smart launched Wholehearted Consent, a website with information for parents on how to talk to teens about sexual consent.
“I am certainly not an expert on sex ed, but I am an expert in having my boundaries violated,” she said. “I feel we really need to provide more education.”
Her foundation offers a variety of programs, including a Smart Talks podcast and Smart Defense courses designed by martial arts experts.
Smart said she started offering self-defense classes after she was sexually assaulted on a flight in 2019. When she fell asleep on the plane, the man seated next to her began rubbing her inner thigh, she said, noting that charges were filed against him, but there wasn’t enough evidence for prosecution.
Smart said she doesn’t know whether basic moves from Brazilian jujitsu or Thai boxing, which she learned after the assault, would have helped her in 2002. On June 5 of that year, self-avowed prophet Brian David Mitchell broke into her house and held a knife to her neck while she was sleeping in bed with her younger sister. Mitchell wanted to make her his second wife.
“It was terrifying — it didn’t feel like it could be real,” Smart said. “He’d broken into my safe place and come into the heart of our home. I had no reason to doubt he would harm my family if I didn’t go with him.”
Mitchell forced Smart to walk three miles in her red silk pajamas to a remote mountain campsite, where he and his common-law wife, Wanda Barzee, chained her up and held an impromptu wedding ceremony. Smart said she was raped daily over the nine months she was held captive. In December 2010, Mitchell was convicted of kidnapping her.
“I can’t guarantee that knowing self-defense would have prevented me from being kidnapped, but education is power nonetheless,” Smart said.
“Maybe if I’d had a little more confidence and could hit back really hard or kick really hard or scream, he’d have become so scared he wouldn’t have tried to take me,” she said. “Maybe knowing those things would have made a difference.”
Smart grew up as a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and was repeatedly taught the importance of chastity, she said.
“I had so many Sunday school lessons that boiled down to the same thing, which was ‘Don’t have sex before marriage,’” Smart said. “So to experience being raped again and again, I really felt ruined. I felt embarrassed and ashamed, even though I knew it wasn’t my fault.”
“I felt like I wasn’t worthy to be saved,” she said. “I felt like I was never going to be loved.”
In time, she said she came to realize that her family would still love and accept her, and that gave her hope and a will to survive.
“I dreamed of the day when I could just hug my mom again, when I could just tell my dad, ‘I love you’ again,” Smart said.
When she was finally rescued on a busy Salt Lake County street, Smart said it took a few minutes for her to realize she was safe. Police had handcuffed her and put her in a patrol car, leading her to assume that she was going to jail, she said.
“I thought I was in trouble,” she said. “When my dad came in [to the police station] and started hugging the life out of me, I didn’t know what the future held. But I also felt like it was going to be OK because my dad was there.”
Smart said she is now living in Wasatch County, Utah, where she and her husband Matthew Gilmour live a regular life and often go skiing with their three children: Chloe, 8, James, 5, and Olivia, 4. Smart met Gilmour in 2009 when they were Mormon missionaries in France.
At home, she said she loves to do normal activities: make hot chocolate for her kids, watch “The Great British Baking Show” and play the harp, which she took up as a child.
She still sometimes marvels that she has the luxury to care about frivolous things like the color of her hair. Late last summer, Smart decided to become a redhead.
“I’d been blond my whole life and I thought, ‘What a stupid regret if I got to the end of my life and wondered what I would have looked like as a redhead?’” she said.
“My little boy was not happy at all,” Smart said, adding that he sobbed.
And yet it was an unremarkable parenting moment.
“On days when I get caught up in my own head, it’s a good feeling to step back and say, ‘I am such a lucky woman — I have no room to complain,’” Smart said.
She of course faces moments harder than comforting a child who is briefly upset. But she says she has the confidence and strength to take on the larger hardships thrown at her. Every day, she said, she works to make her present and her future bigger than her past.
“Now, whenever there is a challenge in front of me, I say to myself, ‘Elizabeth you can do this. You survived nine months with those creeps. If you could survive that, you can do anything.'”