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Friday, March 28, 2014

Elizabeth Smart and Happiness Culture

photo credit: CountyLemonade via photopin cc

As we walked into the library a copy of My Story by Elizabeth Smart (with Chris Stewart) caught my eye.  I picked it up and continued the B-line for the children's section.  Maybe while Lenny took part in the reading program I'd be able to juggle Linus and the book.  Me time and multitasking.  I am the buzzword Mom of the day.

The book pulled me in from the first page.  I read all 308 pages in the next 24 hours or so. (It's possible that I missed some sleep, which is really saying something.)  I know I'm not the only one who has been fascinated by the Elizabeth Smart story.  If you are I recommend reading the book.  I'm not going to do a review of it here.  You can find plenty with a quick Google search.  What I'm going to do is write about what struck me most about the book:  How Elizabeth Smart dealt with the trauma once her ordeal was over.

From the beginning the book seemed a little self conscious to me.  Since it was written in the first person it was easy to get the impression that Smart was trying to promote certain ideas and discount others.  I started to think that one could get a pretty clear picture of how she sees the world now as well as how she saw it at the time of her abduction.  Sometimes the differences between her child and adult selves were clear.  Sometimes they were not.  It was clear that her faith and her relationship with her family have been keys to her understanding of and ability to cope with the world throughout her life.

I was amazed that throughout the book she continuously described a loving God who cared for her throughout her suffering even as He allowed it to continue.  She admitted to being confused about why He allowed the situation, but made a distinction between God wanting her to be treated the way she was, and His allowing free will and the evil that people may perpetuate as a result of that.

I was impressed by the fact that, although her captor was able to get inside her head and convince her that he would kill her and her family if she escaped he was never able to convince her that his "prophetic" utterances were a true depiction of God.  Also, although she was clearly steeped in "purity culture" and taught to value modesty it was comforting that she was confident that her family would still value her and welcome her if she ever had the opportunity to return to them.

It was at the end of the book, though, that I started to question whether her faith and her family, despite all the strength they seemed to give her throughout her ordeal, might have steered her wrong to some extent.  Or at least might put her in a category of people that is hard for most of us to relate to.

This is what Elizabeth Smart says her mother made a point of telling her the first morning after she was back home:
"Elizabeth, what this man has done is terrible.  There aren't any words that are strong enough to describe how wicked and evil he is!  He has taken nine months of your life and that you will never get back again.  But the best punishment you could ever give him is to be happy.  To move forward with your life.  To do exactly what you want.  Because, yes, this will probably go to trial and some kind of sentencing will be given to him and that wicked woman.  But even if that's true, you may never feel like justice has been served or that true restitution has been made.
But you don't have to worry about that.  At the end of the day, God is our ultimate judge.  He will make up to you every pain and loss that you have suffered.....  ....You don't every have to worry.  You don't ever have to think about them again.
....You be happy, Elizabeth.  Just be happy.  If you go and feel sorry for yourself, or if you dwell on what has happened, if you hold on to your pain, that is allowing him to steal more of your life away.  So don't yo do that!  Don't yo let him!  There is no way that he deserves that.  Not one more second of your life.  You keep every second for yourself.  You keep them and be happy.  God will take care of the rest." (pages 285-286)

Wow.  Not "find healing, peace, wholeness."  Just "be happy, do what you want."  Now I don't know what I would say to my teenage daughter on the morning of her return after nine months of captivity and torture.  I'm sure I would make a few mistakes.  But the scary part to me is that Elizabeth says that this was good advice.  That her mother was right.  The minute I read it I wondered if what her mother really meant was "Don't be damaged or broken.  Don't let anyone see that this trauma has changed you at a very basic level.  Don't accept any emotions other than the ones that make us all comfortable."

I hoped it wasn't the case.  I looked, during the rest of the book for evidence that her family had understood that this type of trauma is not something you can just walk away from.  I found some.  That first night her parents (possibly still traumatized themselves) wanted her to sleep in their room on a mattress on the floor.  But she (having spent months in makeshift beds on the ground, cooped up with two adults) wanted to sleep in her own room.  She says that her parents offered the options of "Counseling.  Therapy.  Doctors and medication." She was the one, she says, who decided that these weren't right for her.  Horse riding with her grandfather and harp playing were her therapy of choice.  She also implies that God and her mother's strength gave her the ability to heal.  Also being grateful for the fact that pretty much everything in her life now is better than what she went though during those nine months.

But I wonder about the brain's ability to recover from a trauma like that.  During the course of some counseling I've had we've talked about how the brain needs to "file" memories of events so that they don't "ambush" us when we are reminded of them.  Sometimes, when we are under great stress, the memories are not processed.  They just kind of rattle around, waiting to flood our bodies with the sensations we felt at the time of the original experience - adrenalin, physical pain, terrible sadness.... the whole gamut of emotions.  Professionals have learned strategies that help trauma survivors process these memories.  We rarely do it the best way when we are close to the situation and the person involved.

And I wonder about how her current persona - the poised, carefully groomed, beautifully dressed woman who makes speeches, goes to receptions and has a foundation for helping children - affects other victims who hear her story and hear the words "no professional therapy.  I didn't need it."  She does say in the book, "But it's very important to stress that every survivor must create their own pathway to recovery.  What works for one might not work for another.  Therapy, medicine, and counseling might be the right path for some people, but not for others.  The fact that I chose a pathway to recovery that worked for me is not to suggest that it's the best path, or that it's the only path.  The only thing it suggests is that I found the path that worked for me." (pages 297-298)

Sounds so tempting, though.  Let a 14 year old decide that she doesn't need therapy after a MAJOR life trauma.  Go with her on some horse rides.  Encourage her to spend time playing music.  All done.  She's fine.  In case you think that I just have issues and am projecting them on to this situation I did some searching on the internet.  Most of what I found was articles about how great the book is or what interviews Smart has given or where she is speaking.  But I found one site, started by a sexual abuse victim, that brings up issues like the ones I'm talking about.  This site has the raw emotions - the anger and hurt - that I would expect to hear from abuse victims.  It also questions whether she was actually traumatized in the ways she claimed to be.  I don't want to endorse that at all.  It surprises me that a survivor of this type of abuse would make such statements.  But this quote (written before the book came out) supports my idea that Smart's recovery may not be encouraging to other victims:
The Smart case made me think to myself “What’s wrong with me?” “Why was I so sick, dysfunctional, full of phobias and fear? Why did I have panic attacks, suffer from deep depression, have nightmares, and want to die? Why did I need so many years of therapy and all Elizabeth had to do was talk to her parents?” It finally became clear to me that Elizabeth’s comments were demeaning to victims of child sexual abuse, kidnapping, and torture.  If she was truly a victim then she ought to explain in detail how exactly just talking to her parents has cured her. 
I don't doubt that Elizabeth Smart was kidnapped and subjected to the horrors she describes in her book.  And I truly hope that she is both happy and healthy.  I just wonder what parts of the story the Smart family has chosen not to share.  And I hope that others, who's journey to wholeness seems more winding and dark, will find hope and encouragement and get the help they need.

I know that the desire to overcome, the need to show that we are utilizing the abilities and blessings God has given us, can sometimes cause us to hide needs and weaknesses - even from ourselves.  We sometimes avoid the very means by which we could find healing and wholeness.  For a while we may be able to function and even seem strong, but we end up suffering more than we need to.  I've written before about how feeling like we are not allowed to acknowledge struggles can rob us of our joy.  God doesn't ask us to be strong.  He asks us to fall on Him.  He doesn't set a time limit on when we need to have worked through or let go of our hurts.  He isn't worried about us wasting the precious seconds of our lives.  We have plenty of time.  We can be happy.  We can know peace, joy, and wholeness.  It may be a messy process.  I hope that Elizabeth Smart and the rest of us have the room we need to work through our hurts and heal.


  1. "The minute I read it I wondered if what her mother really meant was "Don't be damaged or broken. Don't let anyone see that this trauma has changed you at a very basic level. Don't accept any emotions other than the ones that make us all comfortable.""

    Isn't that frustrating? I've been told some variation of that before from my own mother (out of love) and from my ex-husband (out of manipulation).

    I'm going to give her mom the benefit of the doubt and assume she meant well. Quite a few people who have never been through any sort of trauma truly do not understand that healing is work that has to be done before you can "just be happy." It is very much a process and a lot of work; it is not like waving a magic wand. And to make things worse, there are some people out there that seem to bounce back psychologically and emotionally from things, and they have no understanding or sympathy for those people that need to work harder to heal.

    1. It's interesting to me that Elizabeth identifies this as good advice 10 years after the event. Maybe some people really are wired that differently. When I was that age and people (who meant well) told me I could choose to be happy I felt like a failure. But I guess if they had been telling me "It's natural to feel sad and depressed" and I didn't that would have been frustrating to. It's important to allow for the whole spectrum of responses, I believe.