By Jill Shockey, Penn State
UNIVERSITY PARK – Elizabeth Smart, who at age 14 was abducted from her home, sexually abused and held captive for nine months, shared her personal story and emphasized a theme of hope to conclude Penn State’s Child Sexual Abuse Conference yesterday at The Penn Stater Conference Center Hotel.
Since being returned to her family in 2003, Smart has become an advocate for change related to child abduction, recovery programs and national legislation.
“The only thing greater than fear is hope,” Smart said at the start of her talk, citing a line from “The Hunger Games,” a recent fiction bestseller and Hollywood film. “I believe that is why we are all here today — hope that we can make a difference, hope that we can turn something terrible into something wonderful, hope that we can change the tragedy that happened here at Penn State into a platform that will change the community and, consequently, the entire nation.
“Hope is what helped me survive,” she added. “Hope is what I was able to hold onto — hope that one day I would be reunited with my family, hope that one day I would be given a second chance at life. That is what saw me through my kidnapping.”
Smart walked the audience through her ordeal — from the moment one of her captors put a knife to her throat in her bedroom and threatened her to not make a sound and to come with him, through her rape atop a mountain ridge above her neighborhood, through travels across the country to cities including Boston, New York and Philadelphia with her captors, shrouded in linen clothes.
She also explained how she found the courage to try to manipulate her captors’ warped motives and to convince them to hitchhike back to her hometown, Salt Lake City. There, after nine months, she was recognized by two people who called police, which ultimately led to her return to her family.
“I realized that my family would always love me — my parents would always love me, my brothers and sister would always love me — and nobody could change that,” Smart said. “So I made the most important decision I could have made. Because I found something worth living for, I was able to make the decision that, no matter what happened, as long as it was within my power, I would survive. It didn’t matter if it was three days or 30 years. Because of that hope, because of the belief in my family and knowing that they would love me, I would survive somehow. That decision saw me through a lot — a lot of ups and downs.”
Recalling her family reunion, she said, “I remember seeing my mom and my siblings again for the first time, and thinking, ‘This must be what heaven is like,’ and I was so happy,” which prompted a burst of applause from the audience. “That was the day my life started over again.”
The following morning Smart said her mother gave her best piece of advice she has ever received. “She said, ‘Elizabeth, what this man has done to you is terrible, and there aren’t words strong enough to describe how wicked and evil he is. He has taken away nine months of your life away that you’ll never get back … but the best punishment that you could ever give him is to be happy, is to follow your dreams and to do exactly what you want to do, to not let anyone or anything stand in your way.’ And that’s true — that’s true for each one of us, that’s true for every survivor of anything out there.
“The best punishment we could give through our trials, through our adversity, is to be happy, is to move forward with our life,” she repeated, “because no matter how much bad there seems to be out there, there’s so much more good.”
Smart also acknowledged a prevention organization she has worked with extensively, first as a student, then as an instructor and now as a spokesperson. “An ounce of prevention is radKIDS, and I want to share this with you because it would have made a difference for me,” Smart said. radKIDS, which stands for Resisting Aggression Defensively, is a prevention program that teaches children as young as 3 years old its three principles: Nobody has the right to hurt you because you are special; Because you are special, you don’t have the right to hurt anyone, including yourself, unless someone is hurting you; and, most important, according to Smart: It is not your fault, and you can tell. You do not have to keep it bottled up inside you.
In her final remarks, Smart said, “Miracles happen every single day, and no matter how bad the odds seem, no matter how insurmountable your Mount Everest may seem in front of you, there are always exceptions, there are always miracles. Those two people, two everyday people, who saw me and called the police on March 12, 2003, and because of those phone calls, I was saved. I was rescued. I was reunited with my family.
“I have to applaud every single one of you who are here today,” she added, “who are making the effort to fight the elements to stay here and to attend this conference because you want to make a change, you want to see a difference, and because you realize that this conference can be the stage and a turning point for how we react and treat future abuse, sexual abuse, kidnappings, all sorts of heinous crimes against children.”
Penn State President Rodney Erickson closed the Child Sexual Abuse Conference, also thanking the conference audience for their commitment. “Penn State is very committed to helping to solve the problem of child sexual abuse,” he said. “We owe our deepest gratitude to all of you who have played a part in this important work and will continue to do, day in and day out. I can’t thank you enough for your participation.”
All permitted video-streamed sessions — from the public community forum on Sunday evening, Oct. 28, through Erickson’s concluding remarks — have been archived and are available for viewing at http://protectchildren.psu.edu/agenda.