Elizabeth Smart finds light after darkness

Fairfield Police Chief Gary MacNamara, Ed Smart, Elizabeth Smart, Det. Kerry Dalling and First Selectman Mike Tetreau join Debra A. Greenwood, president and CEO of The Center for Women and Families at the Speaking of Women benefit luncheon.

Fairfield Police Chief Gary MacNamara, Ed Smart, Elizabeth Smart, Det. Kerry Dalling and First Selectman Mike Tetreau join Debra A. Greenwood, president and CEO of The Center for Women and Families at the Speaking of Women benefit luncheon.

On the eve of a special awards ceremony at school, Elizabeth Smart, then 14, was awakened in her bedroom at her family’s Utah home in 2002. Brian David Mitchell was holding a knife to her neck.

Mitchell threatened to kill her sister, who was sleeping nearby.

“I’ll never forget the night my life changed forever,” Smart said.

For the next nine months, Smart was held in captivity by Mitchell and a female companion, Wanda Barzee. Mitchell repeatedly referred to Smart as his “wife,” raped her, and threatened to kill her if she tried to leave.

Smart recently described the horrifying experience during a Sept. 20 luncheon for the Center for Women and Families (CWF) of Eastern Fairfield County at The Watermark in Monroe. Joined by her father, Ed Smart, they spoke about the healing that took place after Smart was rescued from Mitchell and Barzee’s captivity nine months later.

During her remarks, Smart pointed out that, unfortunately, her tragedy wasn’t “unique.”

“It happens to children every day,” Smart said. “It happens to women every day. I know how it feels to be a victim. My story, though, has ended in a miracle. Miracles do exist and happy endings are still out there. We just have to be open to them.”

A local agency

The nonprofit CWF is in the miracle-making business. Through its services and programs, victims of domestic abuse and sexual violence can — and do — become whole again.

Smart and her father spoke at the CWF’s “Celebrating 15 Years: Speaking of Women,” an annual event to raise funds for CWF services and programs. The CWF serves Bridgeport, Easton, Fairfield, Monroe, Stratford and Trumbull.

Debra A. Greenwood, CWF president and CEO, said the organization is focused on “stopping violence before it starts.”

Despite the event’s stellar turnout — more than 700 people, including local and state legislators and school officials, were in attendance — Greenwood said CWF is scrambling to make up for cuts in a government grant.

 ‘Perfect’ upbringing

Until the night of her abduction, Smart said her life in Salt Lake City was “perfect.” Aside from bickering with her four brothers and sister, she described her family as being “average” and “mainstream.”

Her parents were good people who provided a “sheltered” lifestyle for their teenage daughter. Even so, after “Emmanuel,” which is how Mitchell referred to himself, abducted and then “married her,” Smart intuitively knew she was about to be raped.

“I tried to stall, and keep him talking, thinking that if I could put him off then someone would surely come to rescue me,” she said.

Afterward, Smart recalls feeling so “worthless” that she questioned whether her parents would have bothered to look for her. “I felt, who could ever love me, and who could ever want me back,” she explained.

Surviving

In those next few minutes, though, Smart made an important decision. She decided to do whatever was necessary to survive and one day return to her family.

In a moving narrative, Smart recalled consciously remembering her mother’s voice as she cried uncontrollably, filled with fear at what would happen next. With a smile, she described seeing her mother for the first time upon her arrival home. “She looked like an angel straight from heaven,” Smart said of her mom.

She recalls her mother’s sage words of advice, too. “She told that what this man did was horrible and that he stole nine months of my life but that I shouldn’t give him one more day,” Smart said.

Her mother told Smart that the best punishment she could give her captor was to be happy, live her life, and follow her dreams.

 Changing lives

Elizabeth and Ed Smart now are child safety advocates. They’ve helped to promote the National Amber Alert plan and the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act. Elizabeth Smart also is a commentator for ABC News.

Ed Smart praised CWF for the work it does in local communities such as Monroe. “We have the opportunity to make a change in people’s lives,” he noted.

His daughter’s 2002 abduction turned the Smart family’s life upside down, he said.

“Before this, I recall hearing about child abductions and my heart would go out to those families, but I never thought it would happen to me,” Ed Smart said. “I learned that these things occur on a daily basis.”

Services offered by the Bridgeport-based CWF, free and confidential to the public, include a 24-hour hotline, emergency shelter, support groups, and advocacy to navigate medical, legal and government processes related to domestic and sexual violence. For information call 203-334-6154.

The luncheon with Elizabeth Smart was sponsored by People’s United Bank and Elizabeth Pfriem.

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