The first time 14-year-old Elizabeth Smart was raped, she wanted to kill herself.
Smart, Mormonism’s most high-profile sexual assault survivor, believed her kidnapper had robbed her of “virtue” — or virginity — and thus she had become worthless.
“For me, because I grew up in a very conservative Christian neighborhood, the first time I was raped I remember feeling devastated,” reveals Smart, now 29 and a special correspondent for Crime Watch Daily With Chris Hansen, in an interview to be aired Tuesday. “I felt like it would be better to be dead than to continue living being a rape victim, being a rape survivor. … I felt in that moment if there had been an easy way out, I probably would have taken it.”
In the show, Smart talks about her nine months in captivity with fellow sexual-assault survivor and victim advocate Daisy Coleman.
Smart was abducted from her Salt Lake City bedroom on June 5, 2002, by former Mormon religious fanatic and would-be polygamist Brian David Mitchell and his wife Wanda Barzee. Mitchell raped Smart daily and kept her captive until she was found walking with the couple on March 12, 2003.
Barzee is serving a 15-year sentence for her role in the kidnapping, while Mitchell was given life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Multiple books and movies have told and retold Smart’s tale, and the poised wife and mother now works as an advocate for survivors of sexual assault — and an advocate for eliminating the kind of lessons about sexual purity that can cause guilt and shame.
And the faith’s signature scripture, the Book of Mormon, describes how evil men kidnapped the “daughters of the Lamanites” and then deprived them of “that which was most dear and precious above all things, which is chastity and virtue.”
At the time Smart was abducted in 2002, young Mormon women studied that scripture under the value of “virtue” in their Personal Progress workbooks.
No wonder, then, that she had internalized feelings of self-loathing when she was routinely assaulted by her captor.
Smart didn’t try to escape, she later told national audiences, because she felt like a “chewed-up piece of gum; nobody rechews a piece of gum, you throw it away” — repeating an analogy she had heard growing up.
Today, the LDS Church takes a healthier approach in its official pronouncements.
Its “For the Strength of Youth” pamphlet, given to youth in the faith, says that “a victim of assault or abuse has not in any way had their virtue or value taken from them.” The “daughters of the Lamanites” verse was removed from young women‘s “virtue” study last year.
Rape victims “are not guilty of sin,” states the church’s Handbook 1, used by local lay leaders. “Church leaders should be sensitive to such victims and give caring attention to help them overcome the destructive effects of abuse.”
That can include thoughts of suicide — for rape survivors of all backgrounds.
According to a 1992 study by the National Victim Center — now the National Center for Victims of Crime — 33 percent of rape victims had thought seriously about suicide, and 13 percent had attempted suicide
As a public figure, Smart has told thousands of people what she’s learned — that someone’s “virtue” cannot be stolen.
But her most important audience, she told The Tribune last year, is her daughter.
Smart wants her to know that she is loved unconditionally, and to feel empowered to fight back against anyone who makes her feel scared or threatened.
No matter the consequences, Smart said, or the setting — courtroom, police station, the school playground — “I’ll be right there beside her, fighting back.”
WHERE TO GET HELP
Anyone who has experienced a sexual assault can access free, confidential help, including health care. Advocates recommend that victims seek medical treatment even if they do not want to report to law enforcement.
Trained Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners can offer free medication to prevent pregnancy and certain sexually transmitted diseases, and can stay with the victim to answer questions and assist with interactions with police and hospital staff. Forensic “Code R” rape examinations may be conducted up to seven days after an attack has occurred, and victims may have Code R exams even if they do not want to report to law enforcement.
In Salt Lake County
Rape Recovery Center • Victims who go to area hospitals may request a Code R examination. A specialized forensic nurse will arrive within 30 minutes. The Rape Recovery Center also has a 24-hour crisis line: 801-467-7273.
In Utah County
The Center for Women and Children in Crisis • Advocates can answer questions or accompany a victim to the hospital or to interviews with law enforcement. Victims can receive confidential information and support by calling 801-356-2511.
Brigham Young University Counseling and Psychological Services • It provides free, confidential counseling to BYU students. Counselors are available 24 hours a day to assist students in crisis and may be reached at 801-422-3035.