Elizabeth Smart was broken.
In 2002, she was kidnapped at knifepoint from her Salt Lake City bedroom, dragged up a canyon and chained to a tree. During nine months of terror, Smart, then 14, was raped repeatedly by her abductor – religious fanatic Brian David Mitchell – as his wife, Wanda Barzee, watched. A girl whose world once revolved around her close-knit Mormon family, who loved to play the harp and was a little quiet, was thrust into a life of starvation, fatigue and abuse.
She was alive, but she wasn't living – nothing but a shell, as she describes it now.
"Every time I thought I hit rock bottom, somehow these people would find something new, something worse," Smart said in a phone interview with U.S. News, speaking thoughtfully, each word filled with purpose. "Every single time. And I had to shut down my heart because it hurt so bad that I wouldn't have been able to survive. I knew that my family would always love me and that they wouldn't abandon me, so I made the decision to do whatever it took to survive. It didn't matter what it was. But when I made that decision, it was turning off a part of my heart, part of my soul, because I just couldn't take it."
More than a decade after her kidnapping gripped the nation, Smart, now 25, chronicled the ordeal in "My Story," which was released this week. She says she never thought she'd write a book, but she did it because of her determination to help other trauma survivors – and to let them know it's possible to be happy and move forward with their lives. Smart certainly has: She's married, finishing a music degree at Brigham Young University and traveling across the country to give speeches and do advocacy work. She's also head of the Elizabeth Smart Foundation, which helps prevent crimes against children and educates kids about how to protect themselves if they're mistreated by a stranger.
In "My Story," Smart recounts the first time Mitchell laid eyes on her, when the family passed him on a street corner and her mother offered him $5 and work at the family home. Mitchell watched her closely and, as she later learned, decided then that she was "the one" – the second of what he intended to be five wives. After doing handyman jobs around the home, he familiarized himself with her sleeping arrangements and finessed his plan to snatch her. "Don't make a sound," he said that unusually dark night. "Get out of bed, or I'll kill you and your family."
And just like that, Smart was gone.
Throughout the trauma, she coped by turning her thoughts to her family, friends and faith. "I remember once Mitchell brought a newspaper back to camp, and he rarely ever did this," she says, her voice sharpening as she names her captor. A photo of one of her junior high classmates was splashed across the front page of the sports section. "I used to wonder what all my friends were doing, and it was so hard for me to see that picture," she says. "It was like they just kept on going without me, like it didn't matter I wasn't there. I felt abandoned."
And yet, she never fully let go of the hope that propelled her survival. Yes, there were moments when that hope faded, she says, but she held tight to the idea that she would make it back home. At the very least, she told herself, she was much younger than her captors. Mitchell was 48; Barzee, 56. They would have to die one day.
Perhaps her hope is to credit – maybe her faith. But seemingly against all odds, in March 2003, police stopped an odd-looking trio in a Salt Lake City suburb: Mitchell, Barzee and Smart, who was disguised in a filthy robe, veil and gray wig. At first, as the officers pressed her by asking her name, Smart remained silent. She was too scared to speak – Mitchell had promised to kill her family if she ever escaped. But then one policeman leaned in and, whispering, told her that if she was Elizabeth Smart, her family had missed her so much. And finally, she spoke: "I am Elizabeth."
Smart recounts her reunion with her family in a chapter that tugs on readers' heartstrings. "It was one of those rare moments that is pure and incomprehensible joy," she writes in "My Story." "Some people may live their entire lives and never feel what we felt in that moment."