Elizabeth Smart was just 14 years old when she was kidnapped at knifepoint from her Salt Lake City home in 2002. She was held captive for nine months and forced to act as Brian David Mitchell's second wife. He raped her nearly every day and told her that the ordeal was ordained by God.
Smart says there were moments when she felt there was no one to turn to — except God. She writes about how her Mormon faith played a key part in her survival in her new memoir, My Story.
"When I was kidnapped and he was telling me all of these things, I remember what my parents said: 'You'll know a person by their actions.' And so even though he was sitting there telling me that he was a prophet, that I should be thankful for what was happening to me, I was really a lucky girl — I realized that he wasn't a good person. He was hurting me. He made me feel terrible," Smart tells NPR's Michel Martin. "And growing up believing that I have a kind and loving heavenly father, I couldn't believe that God had called him to do what he was doing to me."
Even when she feared for her life, Smart says, she never lost faith. "You don't just take what's given to you and say, 'OK, this is what we're supposed to do.' But you pray about it, you think about it, and you find your own answer. That's what true faith is."
A central question for people of faith is why God allows bad things to happen. Smart says her experience gives her a unique perspective on the issue. "Although I never asked to be kidnapped or for something like that to happen to me, I can find that goodness can still come out of it, and that I can be grateful for the opportunities that it's opened up to me that otherwise wouldn't have been."
Mitchell and his wife, Wanda Barzee, have been sentenced to long prison terms without parole. Smart says she's not focused on what happens to them anymore, but that she forgives them.
"I have let go of the past. I have let go of what they have done to me. And I've let go of them," she says. "They no longer have a part in my life, and I have no desire to see them. I have just moved on."
Smart says that one lesson she wants people to take from her story is the importance of treating sexual assault victims with compassion. "After being raped, I felt completely worthless. I didn't even feel like I was human anymore," she says. "And it is just so important to let these survivors know that they are not any less of a person. You don't love them any less. And that to pretend like it never happened, or to pretend like rape doesn't exist or that it only happens in the wrong parts of town — you're doing that survivor a disservice."
The kidnapping is not the final chapter of Smart's story. She is now married and working as an advocate for children's issues. Smart says writing the book was a healing experience that helped her realize how far she has come.
"All of us have the potential inside us to reach so much further and grow so much more than any of us think we can," she says.