Ten years after her 2002 abduction at knifepoint, Elizabeth Smart has reinvented herself as an activist for children’s rights and abduction recovery programs: She’s helped write a survivor’s guide for children who’ve undergone similar experiences, and now she’s also written a memoir. My Story, out today, chronicles the nine months Smart spent as the captive of Brian David Mitchell and his wife. Mitchell was a religious fanatic who believed he was following God’s orders to take seven Mormon virgins as his wives. He made Smart his second wife and raped her daily throughout her captivity.
In the book, Smart speaks candidly about the shame of rape, confessing her deep fear that her Mormon family would reject her as a result of her experiences. While her conservative religious upbringing makes her an unexpected ally for the feminists who typically talk about issues like victim-blaming and slut-shaming, it’s not the first time Smart has challenged purity culture. At a forum on human trafficking in May, she said that her abstinence-only education made her rape more demoralizing. Writing about her sexual assault now, she elaborates:
I didn’t feel like a whole person anymore. I felt like I was … like not even half, like I was just a portion of a human being. I just felt filthy and disgusting. I felt like, Who could ever want me back? Who could ever want to talk to me? Who would ever be my friend? …
Part of the reason I felt so bad was that my family was very religious. I had lived a sheltered life. In my faith, and in my family, a great deal of emphasis is placed on sexual purity, waiting until you’re married for those kind of relationships.
Another was the fact that I was so young and so I didn’t have the tools yet to deal with what had just happened to me. But now I understand that what I felt is not uncommon among the victims of rape or abuse. Rape is such a violation; the feeling of worthlessness is almost universal. In addition, some women feel like they might have asked for it or deserved it in some way. They think it might have been their fault because of a low-cut shirt, or maybe they were flirting, or somehow they had communicated that they wanted it and then they didn’t want it anymore. There are a lot of reasons why they might feel responsible.
Smart is already making waves in the media with her firm rebuttal to questions about why she didn’t try to escape earlier. We hope her message about rape gets heard, too.