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20 years on, Elizabeth Smart focuses on a life ‘I feel passionate about’

Elizabeth Smart sits for an interview at the offices of the Elizabeth Smart Foundation in Salt Lake City, March 7, 2023.
Elaine Clark
Elizabeth Smart sits for an interview at the offices of the Elizabeth Smart Foundation in Salt Lake City, March 7, 2023.

“Sexual assault happens every 68 seconds in the United States. And every nine minutes — that person is a child.”

It’s a statistic from the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network that hits close to home for Elizabeth Smart.

On March 12, 2003, Smart was rescued after her knifepoint kidnapping from the bedroom of her family’s home in the foothills above the University of Utah. She was 14 years old at the time.

But as a poised adult, 20 years on, Smart’s concern is for other victims of sexual violence rather than herself.

“I wouldn't say it's something that haunts me. But if I listen to another survivor speak, and they speak of the pain that they felt, I know what they're talking about,” Smart said.

She was abducted by a religious fanatic and his wife, who subjected her to daily sexual abuse, deprived her of food and water and made her live outdoors. Nine months later, Smart was discovered in their company walking along a street in Sandy.

She still marvels that she made it through the ordeal.

“I genuinely didn't know if I could survive. It was hard. It was scary. It was, you know, in extreme circumstances,” Smart said. “There was never a time where it was easy to survive. It was always the fear from my captors, the different forms of abuse. But then it was also things like, am I going to starve to death?”

Smart turned her experience into a life of activism. She’s the founder and president of the Elizabeth Smart Foundation, which is now affiliated with the Utah-based Malouf Foundation.

If you or someone you know has experienced sexual assault, call the National Assault Hotline at 800-656-HOPE. Confidential help is available 24/7.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Pamela McCall: You’re a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Twenty years ago, you believed your abductor when he said God had ordained him to do the horrible things he did. Did the ordeal change your faith?

Elizabeth Smart: I have believed in God my entire life. I have prayed to God my entire life — every day. And I have never known God to be cruel or to be heartless or to not care about me. And if he really was truly called of God, I would not [have felt] all these things. I would not [have felt] all this pain. I always was able to come back and be like, “No, he's not called of God. He's doing this because he wants to.” That was a big part of surviving. And honestly, that's still to this day how I weigh out what I believe and what I don't believe.

PM: What is the importance of listening and believing survivors of sexual assault?

ES: It takes a huge amount of courage for a survivor to share what's happened with them, with anyone. And if [the] first response is, "well, I know that person, they would never do that," — why would you feel like you want to talk about it with anyone else when the person that you trusted enough to tell didn't believe you? People are always like, "Well, what if they're lying? What if they're lying?" False reports are right about at 2%. And honestly, I would rather be wrong 2% of the time than 98% of the time.

PM: What have you learned over two decades of advocacy about the ongoing sexual exploitation of women and children and the need to protect them?

ES: Sexual assault happens about every 68 seconds in the United States, and every nine minutes that person is a child. This problem is not just disappearing on its own. And if it feels like it is, it's simply because we're not paying attention. If you haven't personally been abused, then I promise, you know someone who has, whether you consciously know it, whether that person has spoken out about it or not. You do know someone who has been sexually abused. And that is terrifying. You know, I go home and I hope every day — because I have two daughters — I hope every day that I am the statistic for my little family. I hope that I'm the one that was raped so that neither of my daughters or my son are ever raped or ever sexually abused.

PM: Back in 2013, you told NPR that your mom said the best punishment you could ever give your captor is to be happy. Have you found happiness?

ES: Absolutely. I mean, my life isn't just perfect, but I have a very happy life. I'm married, I have a wonderful husband, I have three wonderful children, and I'm able to do something every day that I feel passionate about — that I feel like is making a difference.

Pamela is KUER's All Things Considered Host.
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