MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. (WBTW) — It’s been two decades since Elizabeth Smart was kidnapped from her bedroom at her home in Salt Lake City, Utah, when she was 14 years old.
The case quickly gained lasting national attention as Smart’s abductors held her for nine months before she was rescued about 18 miles from her home.
Now, a wife and mother of three, Smart is making it her mission to raise awareness about sexual assault, rape, and trafficking through several initiatives. She will be one of three keynote speakers during the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce Ignite Women’s Conference next week.
In an exclusive interview, Smart talked about how she has remained mentally strong since her abduction. She said that although she dedicates a lot of her time to sharing her story and helping survivors and women protect themselves, she prioritizes her family.
“I was told if I ever did anything that they didn’t want me to do they would kill me,” Smart said. “If they didn’t kill me, they would kill my family.”
Twenty years ago, Brian David Mitchell held Smart at knifepoint and took her from her bedroom. For the next nine months, Smart was tortured by Mitchell and his spouse, Wanda Barzee.
“I felt like my best chance of being rescued, of getting away from them was simply outliving them, recognizing that I’m quite a bit younger than them and they will die before me,” Smart said.
When Smart was found alive and rescued, it was a moment that shocked the nation.
“Very fortunate with my life,” Smart said. “I feel like if I went back in time. If I could tell my younger self something, I would tell myself [to] keep going. It’s going to be OK.”
That’s the advice she now shares with other sexual abuse survivors on a daily basis through her platform.
“There’s so much fear,” Smart said. “There’s so much shame tied up in these kinds of crimes.”
Smart’s message to survivors is a simple one.
“You deserve to be respected,” Smart said. “Your wants, your body deserve to be respected, and if you say no, then that should be respected.”
Smart is now balancing several projects aimed at helping women — the Elizabeth Smart Foundation; her Smart Talks podcast; and her Smart Defense self-defense class for women and girls, which she and her team are working to get into universities as an accredited class.
“We want to give you confidence,” Smart said. “We want to help you realize you are powerful, you are worthy. You do not deserve to be hurt; you deserve to be happy. You can fight back. You can scream.”
Smart wants other survivors to be able to find joy and not let their abuse define their identity.
“If you’re finding things that make you happy, like painting or dancing or going for a hike out in nature or going to the beach, take time to do that because life will pass you by otherwise,” Smart said.
Editor’s note: You can hear more from Smart and learn more about her journey by attending Tuesday’s Ignite Women’s Conference at the Myrtle Beach Convention Center. News13 anchor Annette Peagler will be hosting a session starting at 11:30 a.m. that takes a deeper dive into Smart’s journey.
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Annette Peagler is an evening anchor at News13. Annette is from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She joined the News13 team in December 2020. Annette is an Emmy-nominated journalist and has won journalism awards in Mississippi and Tennessee. Follow Annette on X, formerly Twitter, and read more of her work here.