Smart's triumph may empower other victims

When Elizabeth Smart emerged from a federal courthouse Friday in Salt Lake City, she celebrated not only her own triumph but also the possibility of justice for all victims.

Eight years after Brian David Mitchell kidnapped her and subjected her to near-daily rapes, a jury found Mitchell guilty. 

"I am so thrilled to stand before the people of America today," said Smart, 23, "and give hope to other victims who have not spoken out about what's happened to them."

Advocates for survivors of sexual violence say Smart's willingness to confront her offender under the nation's gaze will help empower other victims and dispel the stigma often associated with rape. Other observers say they have been inspired simply by her courage, poise and strength.

"There is such shame associated with sexual violence, and to have it being talked about so openly and publicly is almost a relief to some," said Heather Stringfellow, executive director of the Rape Recovery Center in Salt Lake City. "[Smart] held [Mitchell] accountable, and that's a very powerful message."

In Utah, 29 percent of women older than 18 have experienced some type of sexual assault, according to a 2007 survey by the Utah Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice. One in nine sexual assault incidents is reported to the police.

Survivors often fear they won't be believed or that their own behavior will be questioned, said Alana Kindness, executive director of the Utah Coalition Against Sexual Assault.

"I've been really impressed with [Smart's] candor and her ability to express herself and talk openly about her experiences," Kindness said. "It does give an opportunity for people to see that you can talk about it and that you can talk about it and be supported."

 

After Smart began her testimony in Mitchell's trial on Nov. 8, detailing her repeated experiences of rape as a 14-year-old girl, the Rape Recovery Center saw a spike in calls and drop-in visits for a two-week period, Stringfellow said.

"I hadn't anticipated the fact that so many people would be triggered by listening to her testimony and reading about the case," she said. "We've been overwhelmed by calls to our crisis line and people who needed assistance because her experience reminded them of their own."

Mitchell's violence against Smart, an "all-American girl," highlights how tragically common violence against girls and women is, said Theresa Martinez, a sociology professor at the University of Utah. 

"The way the family handled it, the way she handled it has given us a vision of healing," Martinez said. "[Smart] can be a positive role model for young people. If such things are going to happen, people need to understand they can come through such an experience and survive."

Smart and her parents have not been advocates by example alone. Ed Smart has championed the creation of a national alert system for kidnappings and family preparedness to prevent child abductions. 

In 2006, Elizabeth Smart and her father lobbied Congress to pass a law to create a national sex-offender registry. She watched President George W. Bush sign the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act into law.

In 2008, Smart shared her experience and words of encouragement in a booklet published by the U.S. Department of Justice, "You're Not Alone," for survivors of abduction.

"It is important to remember that just because something bad happened to you, it doesn't mean you are bad," Smart wrote. "You are still entitled to every possible happiness in life."

Fifteen-thousand copies of the pamphlet were published. Nearly half a million digital copies have been downloaded online.

After Friday's verdict, Smart's mother, Lois, spoke of the power of mothers, women and daughters to move forward, leaving their offenders behind.

"It is an exceptionally victorious day for us all," she said.

Since her abduction, Elizabeth Smart has graduated from high school, studied music at Brigham Young University and soon will return to serving an LDS mission in Paris, France. She has projected a calm and confident demeanor in her public appearances.

"[Mitchell] could have totally ruined her life. Yet she had the strength to say, 'No. I'm going to define my own life,' " said Kalyn Denny, a Salt Lake City resident and retired teacher who has followed Smart's story. "I can't imagine that any young girl wouldn't be totally in awe of her courage and her determination."

For Denny, 62, the day Smart was found and returned to her family on March 12, 2003, is burned in her memory. In the same way Denny remembers where she was when she heard about the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and John Lennon, she remembers the day another teacher hurried into her classroom at West Bountiful Elementary to share the remarkable news that Smart had been found alive.

"We were both just so excited. Neither one of us could believe they found her," Denny recalled. "I don't think brave even begins to convey the strength that [Smart] showed. She was just amazing." 

 

This piece originally appeared in The Salt Lake Tribune. Click here to read the original article.


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