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American kidnap victim takes control of her shocking 2002 abduction story

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This troubling memoir is the last step in American kidnap victim Elizabeth Smart's journey to take control of her own story.

In My Story, she walks readers through her shocking 2002 abduction and rescue nine months later. She has told this in court before, but bound in its entirety, it is as harrowing as expected: the horror, the fear, the months of near-daily rape and confinement by a man who presented in public as an insane but harmless street preacher but whom she describes as a cold, calculating and fully sane captor.

My Story comes just a year after Californian Jaycee Dugard's poignant memoir, A Stolen Life, recounted her own 18-year captivity. Smart's book is often as painful to read, though it's also a little more formal, courtesy of her co-writer Chris Stewart's professional abilities.

When Smart vanished from her home in Salt Lake City, her image was seared into public memory.

She was a blond 14-year-old from a wealthy and devout Mormon family: where media pass over the vanishing of so many young women, Smart's disappearance became national news, dominating headlines for months with a gong show of false arrests and accusations.

After she was found alive nine months later, her family rallied to return a semblance of a normal life. She made a few carefully chosen media appearances while she grew up, and her community, for the most part, protected her from prying eyes.

Her family wrote a book about their ordeal, and her uncle wrote one criticizing the police investigation. Kidnapper Brian David Mitchell's trial dragged through court, as he was declared mentally unfit multiple times: he was finally convicted in late 2010, and sentenced to life without parole. His co-kidnapper, Wanda Barzee, was given 15 years.

Smart's life, meanwhile, went on. She is now 25, and in recent years she began to grant more media requests; she has even started her own foundation to benefit survivors.

When she married Matthew Gilmour last year, she was shown glowing in her wedding dress on the cover of People magazine. A fairy-tale wedding, they called it, and every fairy tale has its dark passages.

During her captivity, through the long days of starvation, boredom and brutality spent in a makeshift camp under blistering heat, Smart claims here, she leaned on her Mormon faith. Though its "emphasis on sexual purity" entrenched her feelings of despair after the first night of her capture, she turned to God to see her through, and her recollections of faith strike an uplifting note throughout the book.

Some of it reads like constructed memory, which could also just be Stewart's stilted prose. But there is another, uncomfortable note: early in the book, Smart answers detractors who wonder why her terrified nine-year-old sister, who witnessed the abduction, didn't flee to her parents right away.

Later, she repeatedly pushes back against the idea of Stockholm syndrome: "There was no traumatic bonding," she writes. "No emotional ties. The only thing there ever was was fear, and never anything else. That's the only emotion I ever felt toward them."

Still, it seems telling that her report of her rescue differs significantly from what police described. She recalls the moment where she reclaimed her identity -- "I am Elizabeth," she says she told police -- but glosses over what officer Bill O'Neal said came first: her insistent repetition of a fake identity and story, until she finally blurted out, "I know who you think I am. You guys think I'm that Elizabeth Smart girl, who ran away."

Any compassionate person can understand why a child brutalized for so long would be afraid to step into the light; it's sad to think that somewhere along the line, someone made Smart feel she had to defend her innocence.

This is not her fault, and does not challenge her right to tell her story as she will. Still, while that telling opens a window onto her survival, the psychological complexities of kidnap and survival will have to be parsed another day.

 

Melissa Martin is a Free Press reporter.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 12, 2013 A1

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