If anyone's ever questioned your actions starting with, "Why didn't you...?" and you hear it as a scold, rest assured that you're not alone.
"I recognize—now that I'm older and I've have had longer to process this—most of these questions, they were not meant to be rude, they were not meant to be triggering at all," Elizabeth Smart exclusively told E! News, recalling the wake of her March 2003 rescue, nine months after she was kidnapped from her childhood bedroom. She was frequently asked things like, "Why didn't you run?" or "You were taken out of your own house, why didn't you just wake up and scream?"
"When I would hear the words, 'Why didn't you?' my brain would translate them as, 'You should have.' That always made me feel very defensive," the now 35-year-old author and activist explained in a recent Zoom interview, "and it made me feel like, 'Well, wait a second, did you think I wanted to be kidnapped? Did you think I wanted to be raped? Like, are you crazy? Who wants that?'"
Twenty years later, Smart is well aware that people still don't always express their curiosity in the most productive of ways. As a longtime advocate for survivors of trauma, she advises anyone who's on the receiving end of a person's trust to "treat it seriously and sacredly"—and tread gently.
"It's hard to always express what's in your heart or the concern that you feel for them," she acknowledged. "That doesn't always come through in words." It also took her time to accept that "no one's a mind reader. So hopefully both sides can have compassion for the other. But just think about the questions you're asking and the way that you are asking."
And having shared her still-miraculous story with audiences all over the country, she has never given up trying to move the conversation forward—or help prevent the unthinkable from happening in the first place.
Knowing firsthand how awareness and everyday vigilance can save lives, Smart's latest efforts have her partnering with Portland, Ore.-based tech company Q5id to promote its Guardian mobile app, a localized crowd-sourcing tool to help find missing children and adults.
"Say your child, heaven forbid, disappears. You don't know if they've just wandered off or if someone has kidnapped him," the mother of three said. "When a child disappears, time is everything. If you don't find a child in the first 48 hours, the chances of finding them in the future drop scary-drastically."
But Smart was especially drawn, she said, to the feature that verifies users' identification before they can become a part of the Guardian community.
"If your child has perhaps wandered off and you can't find them, you're desperate and your heart has dropped right out of your body, and your stomach is cinched up so tight that you can barely breathe, and you send an alert out," she added pointedly, "you wouldn't want a predator that may live in your neighborhood to find out that your child has disappeared and has all this information on what your child looks like. So getting these identifications verified is a really compelling part for me, knowing that it's a safe person who's receiving this information and getting the word out quickly."
Smart herself wasn't found quickly, the potentially pivotal 48 hours turning into nine agonizing months for her family after the 14-year-old was kidnapped on June 5, 2002, by Brian David Mitchell, a drifter and self-ordained street preacher who'd done repair work on the roof of the Smarts' Salt Lake City home in November 2001 under a different name.
Fancying her his new bride, Mitchell repeatedly raped the teen and terrified her into submission with the help of his wife Wanda Eileen Barzee. He transported Smart to various locations by car and eventually ventured out with her in public, albeit while making her wear a disguise, confident she wouldn't try to escape.
But on March, 12, 2003, thanks to wall-to-wall media coverage of Smart's abduction, two people recognized Mitchell from a police artist sketch and called authorities to report seeing a guy who looked like the suspect walking around a Salt Lake City suburb with two females.
Officers arrived, spotted the trio and approached.
Smart, who was reunited with her parents the same day, of course had no idea that she had become national news.
(Mitchell is serving a life sentence for kidnapping and transporting a minor across state lines to engage in sexual activity. Barzee, who agreed to cooperate with the prosecution against her husband, pleaded guilty in 2009 to kidnapping and unlawful transportation of a minor and was sentenced to 15 years in prison, minus time served; she was released in 2018.)
While Smart's chosen career path—meeting with survivors, working with the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, writing her memoir, serving as a producer and narrating the 2017 Lifetime movie I Am Elizabeth Smart, etc.—has taken her to some extremely dark places, she has proved relentlessly adept at harnessing the light.
"It is a dark world, there's a lot of sadness, there's a lot of tragedy," she observed. "There's a lot of injustice that happens every day. And I just can't live my life being stuck in the dark all the time. I mean, I wouldn't be able to get out of bed in the morning if that's how I lived my life."
Taking action has helped, such as launching her eponymous foundation and starting the We Believe You campaign, a month-long effort every November to educate about supporting survivors. And she sees tools such as Guardian—which relies on community involvement—as proof that humanity's still got gas in the tank.
"As I've gone out and worked with different organizations and seen people volunteer, seen people donate, helping survivors to move forward, to get to a place where they feel they can speak out about their own experiences—that's inspiring, and that's powerful," Smart noted. "And I have to hold onto those moments."
At the same time, she added, "I try to set boundaries for myself because this is a dark space and it is heartbreaking. Sometimes it does feel like it's too much to handle and that's usually when I need to take a step back and say, 'Hang on, just take a mental health day.' Or, 'take a mental health hour—or 10 minutes.'"
The mom of Chloe, 7, James, 5, and Olivia, 4, with her husband of 10 years, Matthew Gilmour, acknowledged that alone time isn't always in the cards, but going to the park near their Utah home or baking cookies with the kids can also do the trick.
"Or maybe it's turning on Bluey and reading a book in the background for a few minutes," Smart said with a smile, her reliance on a certain Australian blue heeler puppy to hold her children's attention while she recharges as relatable as it gets.
If she does find herself with a spare hour, depending on the time of day she'll exercise ("When I go for a run I get my endorphins, sets me up to be happier more productive throughout the rest of the day"), read a book, call a friend or—to get really indulgent—take a nap.
The admitted appreciator of "simple pleasures"—favorite Netflix binges include the jolly Great British Baking Show and the fraught survival competition Alone—also finished the nearby St. George Marathon last month with a personal best time and is considering trying to qualify for the next Boston Marathon. "That's pretty ambitious in my mind," Smart said, "but you never know."
The classically trained harpist, who last year ventured way out of her comfort zone to compete on The Masked Dancer—"probably the most terrifying thing I've ever voluntarily done"—is also vigilant about making sure she's not getting too mentally bogged down by work.
"I think probably everyone would agree with me that it's almost impossible to be balanced all the time," Smart explained. "But I definitely try to listen to what my emotions are telling me and what my body is telling me. And actually my husband is very good at noticing when I'm reaching my limits and [flashing a knowing smirk] pointing it out to me, which doesn't always lead to a happy discussion."
"But," she added with a laugh, "it is always good to have a wakeup call and to kind of step back for a second and be like, 'OK, right now there's a lot going on, I feel like I'm spread really thin, I don't feel like my children are seeing me at my best. They're kind of getting what's left of me, and that's not how it should be.'"
Now, when she reaches that threshold, she knows it's time to treat herself.
"Once this boundary is hit, I'm going to go get a massage," she suggested, "and as a family we're going to go out to dinner and ice cream and watch movies, all night."
As far as teaching her own children about personal safety, such as determining who is a stranger vs. a safe person, Smart—relaying the best advice she's received—suggested that the best time to start talking about a potentially tough subject is when the kids start asking questions.
"Maybe you can't talk about it right that very second," she said, "but you can say, 'This is a really important conversation and I'd like to talk about it, can we talk this evening?' Or in the morning, or whenever—just not five years down the road. You should be talking about it in the present or the immediate future."
Noting that the gap between 4 and 7 years old is vast, Smart said she's also been teaching the increasingly curious Chloe, her eldest, "not to have shame about her body." And "this cannot be a onetime conversation," she noted. "This needs to be an ongoing conversation with her as she grows. It should be a conversation that both parents are having with a child so that your child knows that it is equally important to both of you, and that it's safe to talk to either one of you—or both of you!"
And even though Chloe's the one asking the questions, "she usually rolls her eyes when I start talking about it again," Smart said, "and then she's like, 'I know, mom. I know.'"
Her children may not really understand the origins of their mom's hard-fought wisdom just yet, but Smart takes everything she's experienced into consideration when it comes to her outlook on life: That it's beautiful and worth living to the fullest.
"I think it is easy to feel down about the world," Smart said. "You turn on the news, good heavens, there's a million bad things happening every day." But, she added, "average, good, everyday people absolutely make such a huge impact. And I have seen so much good. I see so much good."