Elizabeth Smart Is Standing Up for Rape Victims—And Tearing Down Purity Culture
Fourteen years after she was kidnapped, sexually abused, and held in captivity for nine months, Elizabeth Smart is fighting to change the way we talk about sex, rape, and abstinence. We visited her in her Utah home to learn more about her advocacy.
Photos by Kim Raff
"I didn't talk about being raped; I didn't talk about being sexually abused," says Elizabeth Smart, nestled into a large outdoor sofa on the sun-soaked patio of her spacious home in Park City, Utah. "It's hard to come forward. That's probably one of the hardest things that I've ever had to do: to say, 'I was raped.'"
It's been 14 years since Elizabeth Smart, then 14 years old, was kidnapped from the bedroom she shared with her younger sister in their childhood home, in the posh Federal Heights neighborhood of Salt Lake City. Fourteen years since she was awakened by a familiar-seeming stranger, with cold metal pressed to her neck and the following words: "I have a knife at your neck. Don't say a word. Get out of bed and come with me." Fourteen years since she was led away into the night, forced to hike miles up into the mountains behind her home, not to be seen again until just over nine months later, when an alert citizen recognized the face of her captor, Brian David Mitchell, from a recently aired segment of the television show America's Most Wanted and made the 911 call that would end her "nine months of hell."
The particulars of Elizabeth's captivity have been the subject of much media fascination since the moment that her safe return was announced on breaking news: the metal cable bolted around her ankle that kept her chained to a tree in the hills behind her house for months before Mitchell began allowing her to accompany him down into the city; the white linen robes and head coverings she was forced to wear as a disguise; the polygamous marriage ceremony Mitchell performed, sealing Elizabeth to him as a wife for all eternity; the biblical name he insisted on calling her—Shear-Jashub, meaning the remnant who will return.
In the infrequent interviews she gave during those initial years back home—years when she was still just a teenager trying to make it through high school—Elizabeth did not discuss the specifics of what she'd endured, focusing instead on her early work advocating for other missing children. In perhaps her most notorious television appearance from those early years, Elizabeth appeared on Headline News with Nancy Grace in 2006 to speak about a national sex offender registry bill that she was championing, and instead was ambushed by Grace's inane and invasive questions about the burqa Elizabeth's captors made her wear in public and whether she ever wanted to scream for help.
In 2013, seven years after the Nancy Grace interview and two years after her captor was sentenced to life in prison, Elizabeth published her first book, a memoir called My Story, which was co-written with Chris Stewart, a Republican congressman from her home state. In the book, Elizabeth reveals in her own words, for the first time, every painful detail of her abduction and captivity: extended periods of starvation and thirst, threats of death for herself and her family, and daily rape.
The trauma of the sexual violence that Elizabeth endured was made even worse, she says, by the fact that she was raised in a deeply religious household that prioritized abstinence.
"I was raised that way," says Elizabeth, who will be 29 this November, referring to her Mormon upbringing. "I did make that promise to myself that I was going to wait until marriage before I had sex... Well, then I was kidnapped and I was raped, and one of the first thoughts I had was, No one is ever going to want to marry me now: I'm worthless, I'm filthy, I'm dirty. I think every rape survivor feels those same feelings, but having that with the pressure of faith compounded on top—it was almost crippling."
Elizabeth regularly travels across the country, speaking at universities and lecture series, to share the story of her kidnapping, sexual abuse, and survival. It is fascinating to watch past interviews and speeches––many of them have been uploaded to YouTube––because as Elizabeth has matured, so, too, has her message.
"Sometimes when I tell [my story], and I'm thinking about it, it just feels like a different life... Almost like faraway dream," she tells me. "I know it happened to me, but part of me is like, Did that really happen to me? Just because I think I've come so far since then, and I've just done so much. Sometimes it feels like it's a completely different life."
Most surprising for those who have come to see her as the poster girl for Mormon modesty is that she is taking the church to task on some of its more sexist teachings. "I think the power of faith is amazing, the hope and the healing that it can bring to people," says Elizabeth, who credits her everlasting faith for the strength she had to survive Mitchell's abuse. "But I also think there's another side of it that can be potentially very harmful, especially when a lot of religions teach that sexual relations are meant for marriage... It's so stressed that girls in particular tie their worth to their virginity, or, for lack of a better word, purity."
I was kidnapped and I was raped, and one of the first thoughts I had was, No one is ever going to want to marry me now: I'm worthless, I'm filthy, I'm dirty.
She often shares, as an example of what not to teach young girls, an analogy that she learned as a young child in Sunday school: "You're like this stick of gum, and if you have sex before you're married, it's like someone chews up that piece of gum, and then when you're done, who wants a piece of gum that's already chewed up? No one." That was the first thing she thought of after Mitchell raped her on the night of her kidnapping.
Unbelievably, ever after Elizabeth was rescued, she was still made to sit through these lessons a few times a year, as a high-schooler in religious seminary classes. "You're like this beautiful fence," she remembers being told in class after she'd returned home. "And you hammer these nails in, and then every time you have sex with someone else, it's like you're hammering in another nail. And you can take them out, you can repent of them, but the holes are still there."
Elizabeth shakes her head. "I just remember thinking, This is terrible. Do they not realize I'm sitting in class? Do they not realize that I'm listening to what they're saying? Those are terrible analogies. No one should use them, period," she says. "Especially for someone who's been raped, they've already felt these feelings of worthlessness, of filth, of just—" she lets out an exasperated sigh "—of just being so crushed, and then to hear a teacher come back and say, 'Nobody wants you now'... You just think, I should just die right now."
She says she knows that her teachers never meant any of this with malice, but "statistically speaking, I'm not the only girl that's ever been raped. And those kinds of analogies, they stick with people." At that time, though, she still wasn't speaking up about her own rape—and wouldn't for several more years, until she testified at the trial of her kidnappers.
"The way we talk about [sex and abstinence] needs to change," she continues. "People need to realize there is nothing that can detract from your worth. When it comes to rape and sexual violence and abuse, that can never detract from who you are."
In writing and talking about sexual violence, people must make a linguistic choice in describing someone who has endured an assault: victim or survivor. Elizabeth uses both terms seemingly interchangeably, as in "rape victim" or "survivor of sexual assault." Though she uses both words, Elizabeth maintains that they're not synonymous. "I don't think they're the same thing; I think they are different stages, actually," she says. "A victim is someone who is still going through the abuse, and a survivor is someone who survived it. I'm not saying that they don't have hard moments still, or things to work through, but it's more about making that choice: that they want to survive, that they no longer want to remain the victim and they're taking the steps to move on in their life."
"I'm not saying it's easy," she adds, careful not to minimize anyone's path to recovery.
It should be noted that Elizabeth's Instagram bio is, rather poignantly, "Survivor. Mother. Wife." She met a Mormon Scotsman, Matthew Gilmour, while serving an 18-month LDS Mission in Paris; the two later married. Their February 2012 wedding, at the BYU-Hawaii Mormon temple, made the cover of People magazine. Three years later, their daughter Chloe Rose was born.
In 2013, when My Story came out, the New Yorker published a profile of Elizabeth by Margaret Talbot, then the most thorough update on her life. Buried down several thousand words in was one of the most surprising elements in this piece about a champion of women; it's a quote from a women named Kristine Haglund, who is the editor of a journal on Mormonism. She says of Elizabeth, "She's entirely faithful. And while she's not part of the feminist ferment in Mormonism, and I doubt she'd call herself a feminist, she is strong in a way that feminists can admire."
Anyone who is familiar with the Mormon church knows that it has an interesting relationship with the concept of feminism. As Kate Kelly, a feminist activist who was excommunicated from the faith in 2014 for advocating for the ordination of women into the LDS priesthood, puts it, "The primary reason that Mormon women are very reluctant to identify as feminist is that it is explicitly taboo in the culture. The church explicitly considers feminists to be enemies."
This puts Elizabeth Smart in a very strange position. She is a champion of victims of sexual violence, a hero for so many survivors, and an outspoken critic of religious purity culture. By all accounts, she is a feminist in the truest sense of the term.
When it comes to rape and sexual violence and abuse, that can never detract from who you are.
"What I see in feminism is people like Elizabeth, who stand up for women and women's rights," says Bre Lasley, 27, a Mormon woman who survived a brutal attack in her own home and founded the organization Fight Like Girls to empower girls and women to fight back, physically and emotionally, against any struggle they're faced with. Bre says she thought of Elizabeth and her kidnapping during the six-minute attack, which left her with five separate four-inch deep stab wounds to her lower abdomen and leg. The two women have recently teamed up and begun to work together. "For a long time I thought feminism was a negative thing, and I don't know why," Bre tells me over Skype.
Later, I ask Elizabeth whether she identifies with the term or rejects it, as the New Yorker piece would suggest. At first, she equivocates. "I think there are so many different kinds of feminism—some good, some maybe too extreme—it's a wonderful thing for women to come together, to be strong, to be independent, to have equal rights as human beings... There shouldn't be a glass ceiling," she says, sort of talking around the question. "At the same time, I like it when a man holds the door open for me, and I like it when I'm treated like a lady. I mean... I'm married, I have a husband, I have a family."
Given the Mormon church's antagonistic view of the movement, her discomfort with the label makes sense; still, believing in—and actively campaigning for—equality between men and women is pretty much the definition of feminism. When I tell her this, Elizabeth seems to casually change her position. "I've never thought of myself as a feminist before... Sure, call me a feminist," she says.
Although she may not have previously aligned herself with the feminist movement, Elizabeth has devoted a great deal of time to speaking out about how women suffer under hardline religious rules. In her first episode since being named a correspondent on the syndicated TV news program Crime Watch Daily, Elizabeth sat down with two of the women who reported being raped at Brigham Young University—where Elizabeth studied harp performance before being called away on the Paris mission—and were punished for violating an honor code that prohibits students from having sex.
"I don't have a problem with [the honor code]," Elizabeth tells me, reasoning that if you decide to go to a particular school, you are agreeing to abide by their rules, and there's nothing wrong with electing to live by a certain level of standards. "But I do think there are situations that happen that are outside of a person's control. And because of the honor code, [these rape victims] are scared to come forward because it can jeopardize their status at school... Plus, then it goes back to the religious stigma, because BYU is a church-owned school." These situations should be handled gently, she believes, and on a case-by-case basis.
The Crime Watch episode, and her interviews with the women who came forward, received a considerable amount of attention, as is often the case when Elizabeth speaks out against, well, just about anything. As Margaret Talbot suggested in her New Yorker profile, Elizabeth really is universally admired. When she speaks, people listen, Mormon or not.
As Elizabeth pauses to eat her lunch (a Smucker's Uncrustables peanut butter and grape jelly sandwich) we talk about how it isn't just BYU that has a campus rape problem. "It makes me so mad," she says of all of the stories that have been in the news lately, like at Stanford and the University of Colorado. "It just makes me so angry. I guess it's a good thing I'm not a judge, because I don't think any of them would ever see the light of day." She tells me she read the now famous letter that the Stanford rape victim wrote to her rapist, Brock Turner: "It broke my heart, made me angry, made me sick."
When I meet Elizabeth for lunch the next day, at a Park City barbecue restaurant, she is accompanied by her 18-month-old daughter and looks every bit the casual young mother, in a teal V-neck tee shirt, knee-length grey shorts, black slip-on sneakers, and a backpack full of baby things. There are blue and red crayons on the table, and Elizabeth draws a flower on a paper napkin, hoping to entice Chloe with a kid-friendly distraction so that we can pick up where we left off the day before. It works a little bit, but Chloe, who is "just full of wiggles," is more interested in the other booths, so we both keep one eye on the toddler while we talk.
"I'm not going to hide anything from her," says Elizabeth. "Of course, I want to maintain and protect her innocence as long as possible, but with that being said, I think it's a disservice to not talk to children [about sex]."
Elizabeth wants to ensure that Chloe never struggles with the sense of shame she did. "I don't want her to be scared; I want her to be prepared, and to know that she has options, and if she wants to talk about what happened to me, that's fine," she affirms. "I'll be happy to talk about it with her."
After lunch we go to a nearby park, so that Chloe can play while we talk some more. It's the most public place that we've visited together (the restaurant was fairly empty, and we sat inside on a sunny day, avoiding pedestrian traffic). I wonder aloud whether Elizabeth still gets recognized, and how often.
"All the time," she says. "A lot of times people won't know where they recognize me from—like, they'll recognize me, but they can't always place me. And then there are people who know immediately, right away, who I am... They come up and they'll say something like, 'I'm not going to bother you, but I appreciate what you're doing,' or 'I appreciate all that you talk about.'"
She has moved on, it would seem, from being recognized for what happened to her to being recognized for the advocacy work that she does. "I've become so much more than just my kidnapping and what happened," she says. Victim, survivor.
"It's nice to hear that you're appreciated," she tells me. "That's certainly not why I do it, but it is nice."
The park is full of children and adults, and Chloe runs off often, to various play structures, to the slides, to a set of steps which lead her to a bridge that is fairly high for someone who is only about two feet tall. Elizabeth keeps her eye on Chloe and grabs her when she goes too far out of sight, but less frequently than you might imagine for someone who survived a childhood kidnapping. On one of these retrieval missions, she is stopped by a group of young mothers and stands talking to them for a few minutes at the edge of the park. "Well, speak of the devil," she says to me, as she walks back with Chloe in tow: These women had recognized her and wanted to express their admiration.
"A lot of victims or survivors, they want to go back to being normal," she says, pushing her daughter gently in a swing. Chloe is calm, almost trancelike as she flies up, up, up, tilting her head skyward each time she swings back toward her mother, so that Elizabeth is able to quickly cup her chubby pink cheeks and plant a big kiss on her daughter's mouth. "I just wanted to be treated normal. I didn't want special exceptions. I didn't want people to be scared to be my friend... to avoid me because they don't know how I'm going to react."
"I always felt, like, Jeez, I survived nine months of hell, I hardly think that something you're going to say to me is going to break me."