Elizabeth Smart shares triumph over trauma at benefit

As the keynote speaker at the 2014 Fairfield County Women Against MS luncheon, Elizabeth Smart talked about her kidnapping and captivity and how even the most horrid of circumstances can be overcome. —John Ferris Robben

As the keynote speaker at the 2014 Fairfield County Women Against MS luncheon, Elizabeth Smart talked about her kidnapping and captivity and how even the most horrid of circumstances can be overcome. —John Ferris Robben

In 2002, 14-year-old Elizabeth Smart was violently abducted from her Utah home. Over a period of nine months, she was held prisoner and robbed of her freedom, her youth and her innocence before she was rescued.

Now, 10 years later, she’s moved courageously forward, becoming an author, a public speaker and a strong advocate for change related to child abduction, recovery programs and legislation.

On Tuesday, May 12, at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Old Greenwich, she shared her story with a rapt audience at the 2014 Fairfield County Women Against MS luncheon. She told a harrowing tale of her kidnapping and vividly painted a picture of the child she was at that time.

At 14, she was an exceptionally shy, naive and sheltered girl who was close to her family and friends. The night of her kidnapping, her biggest concern was whether to accompany a friend on vacation. Later that night, her life as she knew it came crashing down. She was kidnapped at gunpoint from her home, while her sister safely slumbered in the bed next to her.

Over the course of the next nine months, she was raped daily by her captors. She was chained, forced to sleep outside, and given a new name. Her family and her life had been stolen from her, everything that she knew and loved. Despite this, Ms. Smart said, she realized one thing, that the love of her family, and particularly that of her mother, could never be taken away from her. This realization was “the hope that really carried her through” and she vowed not to forget it.

“The person whose voice was most important to me was my mom’s. … She’d always love me, and when I realized that was something that could never be taken away from me … they couldn’t take that from me. It was that that helped me make the decision to do whatever it took to survive,” said Ms. Smart.

She admits that there were times of great despair and many days when she would have given up if it had been an option. Yet somehow, she made it through nine months. She described the day that she was discovered by the police. She and her captors had hitchhiked their way back to Utah, where their unusual attire attracted unwanted attention. Police quickly realized who she was, and contacted her parents. Ms. Smart describes that moment of reunion as heaven.

“It was at that moment [that] I knew that nobody ever again would be able to hurt me the way that these two people had hurt me the past nine months … The only word I can [use to] describe that moment is heaven, I can’t imagine anything better than that moment,” said Ms. Smart.

She credits her mother for helping her pave her path ahead. Upon her return, her mother took her aside and gave her some sage advice. She told her that the best punishment she could ever give her captors was to “be happy and move forward with your life.” By feeling sorry for herself, reliving the abuse and holding on to the past, her mother said, the only thing she’d be doing was to let them steal even more of her life away.

“Frankly, that’s the best advice I’ve ever been given, and I always share that advice because I think it’s so true, so true for all of us,” said Ms. Smart.

Ms. Smart entreated the audience to not let their problems define them. She said bluntly that there wasn’t anyone who didn’t have challenges, whether it be a serious disease like MS, kidnapping or even financial problems. But, she said, the most important thing was to harness personal strength by deciding how to deal with those trials and tribulations.

“We have trials, but we don’t need to let our trials have us, because life is so worth living and it’s so worth being happy and working to overcome whatever it is we’re faced with,” said Ms. Smart.

She referenced words shared earlier by Elizabeth Auld, recipient of the Fairfield County Women Against MS 2014 Michael E. Cummings Award. Dr. Auld, who was recognized for her years of dedication to multiple sclerosis (MS) research, said there was a saying favored by her patients at the VA Medical Center in West Haven. They’d say, “I have MS, but it doesn’t have me.”

This was a message of personal strength and empowerment strikingly similar to that shared by Ms. Smart. Her life, and the lives of the many suffering from MS, are daily demonstrations that it is possible to overcome extreme adversity and to move bravely forward.

“What I’ve found out is that it’s truly our decisions that make us who we are,” Ms. Smart said. “It’s what we decide to do with what happens to us that defines us. … I would never go out and say, ‘Please kidnap me,’ but I can say that I am grateful for what it’s taught me, and for what it’s allowed me to do, and for the way that it’s changed my life. I don’t know that I would’ve actually picked this path in life, but I certainly do not regret going down it, because of the people it’s allowed me to meet and the difference that I’ve been able to see in the world because of those people and because of those organizations that are working so hard, and not just in child abduction and not just in abuse prevention, but in all fields of life.”

She said she was hopeful and inspired by events like the luncheon, seeing people come together for a cause greater than themselves, working hard to make a difference — in the case of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society’s Connecticut Chapter, with the ambitious goal of helping find a cure and building prevention and awareness for the disease. MS is a chronic disease of the central nervous system, affecting more than 6,000 people in Connecticut alone.

Many people are unaware of the disease’s particular dangers for women; it affects three times as many women as men.

“It is not a coincidence that we gather as women — 66% to 75% of all people diagnosed with MS are women,” said mistress of ceremonies Kendra Farn, an Old Greenwich resident whose mother helped launch the inaugural Fairfield County Women Against MS luncheon.

With the support of the more than 200 women gathered that day, and the ongoing hard work of organizations like the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, the thousands of people with MS will continue their fight, in the hope of one day finding a cure and ridding the world of MS forever.

 

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