DebFeb's Blog

Everyday Observations and Existential Musings

Deborah Sosin

Deborah Sosin
Location
Boston, Massachusetts,
Birthday
February 27
Bio
I'm a writer, editor, psychotherapist, and graduate student in the MFA Program in Creative Writing at Lesley University in Cambridge. I facilitate Write It Like It Is workshops and groups in the Boston area and teach at Grub Street. ("DebFeb" is a nickname related to my birth month.)

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NOVEMBER 2, 2009 8:08AM

Elizabeth Smart and Healing from Trauma

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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.

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Interesting post. It fascinates me that Elizabeth held so much of this back from family until she testified recently. She does seem very poised, and seems to have had some good professional help in working through this, an ordeal which is not likely to end anytime soon.
It is fascinating, Kathy. I know you're following the case, too. I saw Ed Smart interviewed by Diane Sawyer, saying that he hadn't known some of the details. I agree that Elizabeth seems to have had some good help and, thankfully, has a healthy sense of self that will serve her well.
Interesting post Deborah, I too have wondered and had some of the same thoughts about Elizabeth Smart. She seems a little too well "together" for someone who has gone through such a terrorizing experience, or at least what we expect someone to be like after such a thing. Maybe we need to erase our preconceived ideas of how we expect people to behave.

Her refusal to allow her experience with those two sick and awful people to define and color the rest of her life is likely the result of a very conscious decision on her part, one that she might even have made during her imprisonment. It was a coping mechanism that became a long term way of living for her. She refused to allow them to win, to beat her.

Of course this could also turn out to be a fragile facade that shatters into a million pieces with the proper trigger, but I somehow doubt it.

When someone says, how can she move on with her life, seemingly effortlessly like she has, survivors of concentration camps such as Auschwitz are brought to mind. Despite being imprisoned in a hell on earth, many who survived went on to live full and rewarding lives. It is hard to believe how anyone could after such a living hell but it is possible, not for everyone, but some people seem to have a gene for coping with such things, while others do not.
This is an interesting post, but I guess the sad thing for me is that her story (maybe only if she is repressing) will be played out in the news. She has not the privilege of privacy, something that was stolen from her. I think that's terrible.
It sounds like many people out there are jaded about our ability to recover from tragedy. What I have always sensed in this scenario is that her father never really wanted to know all the dirty details. We all knew what must have occurred to her before she was found, but he didn't want to be burdened with hearing the ugliest truths directly from his daughter. I'm not sure I can blame him. Working through the details, processing what happened - that was her burden. Their burden was finding the best help they could for their daughter, and providing the safest most loving place for her return. Her way may not be my way, but so far I cannot argue with results. She is poised, and she is strong. I am proud of her.
Ablonde: Thanks for your thoughtful comments. It really is a mystery why some people are resilient and others not. I also think, from what we can tell as total observers and strangers, that somehow Elizabeth will turn out OK. Agreed re: comparing to Holocaust survivors...or former prisoners of war, too. So much depends on the person's strengths and capacities prior to the trauma, and on the support systems available afterward.

AHP: Thanks. I know what you mean about the private-public problem as far as the trial goes. That's so awful. But she's choosing to make other appearances (at that conference), so I hope (and assume) it is empowering for her.

Annimal: Nicely put about the family's burden to find her good help and let her heal in her own time. That's not easy for many families. I remain optimistic as well. Thanks so much for your comment.