Elizabeth Smart's kidnapping ordeal becomes story of survival, forgiveness

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- Elizabeth Smart's story gripped the nation when the Utah teenager was kidnapped from her own bed -- and that was only the beginning of her nine-month nightmare.

If you didn't know her history, you would never guess the horrific ordeal she survived. Now 25, the poised, soft-spoken Elizabeth Smart was only 14 years old when she woke up in the middle of the night in her own bed to find a strange man holding a knife to her throat.

"It was by far the scariest night of my life," she told WDRB's Elizabeth Woolsey. "It was a nightmare that I never thought was possible up until that moment."

Brian David Mitchell ripped her from her bed and her home. He held her captive for nine months, with the help of Wanda Barzee. Mitchell declared Smart his "wife" and raped her daily, sometimes more than once, and for a while, kept her chained to a tree.

"It was terrifying," Smart recalled. "I had to break every promise, every standard, I had tried to withhold my whole life. I had to break it so I could survive."

Smart says she feared for her life and felt filthy and desolate.  "I was under constant guard all the time.  For Mitchell, I was an object, a toy to him, and for Barzee I was a slave to her, so whatever it was they wanted I would always end up doing to survive."

While people in Utah and across the country kept their eyes peeled for the young girl whose story and picture became so well known, her brazen kidnappers took Smart out in public and to parties.  But they kept her hidden in plain sight with long robes and a veil. At one point, a policeman approached the trio in a library and asked Smart to lift her veil.  She refused out of fear, one of many "what-ifs."

She adds, "Victims or survivors do what they do because their life depends on it. For me, I had been threatened every day that not only would I be killed if I didn't do what they said but they'd come after my family and what perfect target they'd make.  They've already been through one tragedy, who would ever dream they could go through a second?"

Smart also told WDRB News what gave her hope throughout the ordeal:  "My parents had been extremely religious and always taught me that God loves us and cares about every one of us and that gave me comfort -- and then the few small glimpses I did see of people searching for me."

Police eventually found Smart just miles from her home. Her captors were arrested and are still in prison. Smart credits homecoming words from her mom as the best advice of her life that helped her heal.

"The morning after I was rescued," Smart says, "I was walking out of my mom's room and she said, 'Elizabeth, what's happened to you is so terrible.  This man stole nine months of your life that you will never get back.  The best punishment you could give him is to be happy and move forward with your life and do exactly what you want to do.'"

Elizabeth Smart may have become a household name because of the worst experience of her life, but she's still in the public eye by choice -- speaking at events such as a Business First luncheon to share a message of hope.

When asked how she's able to find good in her experiences, Smart said, "It's completely changed my life from where I thought it would be to what it is today -- allowed me to go out and be a voice for so many victims, children, women, even men who can't speak for themselves."

It's a path she never imagined she would travel, but she constantly relives her nightmare, hoping to help others overcome their own difficulties.  She says there's one other key to moving past adversity -- forgiveness.  "Another good piece of advice I've been given is that forgiveness doesn't mean you need to invite them over for Sunday dinner.  I have forgiven my captors but have no wish to ever see them again."

Smart also relates how she's managed to get past her ordeal:  "If I can survive nine months of being kidnapped, I certainly can survive the memory of it and can move forward.  I don't think it will ever hold me back in any way."

She continues:  "I think all of us are put into situations and given experiences for a reason -- not because we necessarily deserve or want them but I think that whatever we're placed in is where we have the opportunity to make the great difference, no matter what you're faced with, you can change it."

Besides speaking across the country, she also started the Elizabeth Smart Foundation to help prevent child abuse.  She's written a book about her story due out in the fall, and she was married in the last year, so she is moving on in many ways.

Copyright 2013 WDRB News.  All rights reserved.