Elizabeth Smart is back in the news. Seven years after her abduction and captivity, she testified recently in the competency hearing of Brian David Mitchell, the man who took her at knifepoint from her bedroom in June 2002 and held her in the woods of Utah for nine months. (See Kathy Riordan's October 1 post.)
Last week, the media covered her appearance at a conference in California called “Overcoming the Unimaginable.” Elizabeth seemed poised and animated, speaking of her ordeal: “I have never let it hold me back, and I have gone on to do everything, so far, that I have wanted to do.”
Amazing. Admirable. Inspiring.
But I wonder about Elizabeth Smart, and I know I’m not alone. Can she really be so strong and resilient? Or is she in some form of denial, repressing traumatic memories?
Matt Lauer wondered too. Following a Today Show story, aired on October 28, he said, “Every time I hear her and have read what she said, it’s hard to imagine that she has held herself together the way she has. And I hope it continues that way, that there isn’t some different outcome down the road. But she seems just incredible at the moment.”
It’s hard not to wonder if she will be plagued in the future by nightmares or flashbacks, or intrusive smells, sounds, and images. Perhaps if she's in an intimate relationship? Or if there is a trial?
Sometimes I think about what she went through. Imagine being fourteen, raised in a loving, religious family, seemingly protected from the evils of the world. Radiant, outgoing, musical. Then, in a terrifying instant, everything safe and predictable disappears and you are trying to stay alive, to stay sane.
If you are chained to a tree, raped daily or multiple times a day, as Elizabeth testified, drugged, and disconnected from everything you’ve ever known, then what happens to your psyche, your sense of self? Can you ever be whole?
As a clinical social worker, I’ve worked with trauma survivors over the years. Recovery is complicated, and outcome is based on complex factors, including the nature and extent of the trauma; the victim’s age and developmental level—chronologically, cognitively, and emotionally; and the relationship, if any, with the perpetrator.
Elizabeth had no relationship with her perpetrator, who had once done day labor in the family’s home. He was, for all intents and purposes, a stranger. The abduction, threats, and subsequent abuse must have been utterly dystonic, or unfamiliar, to her psyche—outside the realm of anything perceived as “normal.”
Wounds and scars must exist. How can they not? But now she seems to be saying, “That happened to me, and it was horrific and unimaginable, but it does not and will not define me.” Perhaps she has put the trauma in a compartment reserved for random, evil, extraordinary events. The “not normal” place. And, by all accounts, Elizabeth had a stable life before the kidnapping. That bodes well.
Healing from trauma is possible. It's a process. Healing doesn't mean forgetting. Healing doesn't mean forgiving. Healing is when traumatic memories are seen for what they are. When survivors accept that awful things happened to them, things out of their control. And it wasn't their fault.
“We all have our trials, and we all experience hard times,” Elizabeth said at the California conference, “but I don’t think we should ever let it disable us from doing what we want to do.”
Next week, she is off to Paris on a mission with her church.
So maybe her stalwart demeanor and cheerful smile in the video aren't “denial.” Maybe her speaking out is a form of mastery, of personal empowerment. And maybe her faith will guide her smoothly through whatever lies ahead, even when her memories are triggered, when that compartment is wrenched open.
“I know that we do have angels on the other side that we don’t see,” she said. “We’re never truly left alone in our darkest hour.”
I want to believe that. We all do.