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In ‘I Am Elizabeth Smart,’ a Kidnapping Survivor Shares her Private Guide for Overcoming a Life-Changing Ordeal
November 11, 2017  | By Alex Strachan

There’s a serenity to Elizabeth Smart in person that seems at odds with her experience when, in June 2002, she was abducted at age 14 from her family bedroom in a quiet, suburban community in Salt Lake City, while her younger sister looked on in silent terror. Smart was held captive in the wilderness by a crazed religious zealot and his equally crazed wife. She was repeatedly raped and terrorized for a full nine months before rescue and reunion with her family finally came in March 2003.

By the time it was over, Smart could have been forgiven for tunneling into a spiral of depression, but — remarkably — she didn’t.

Despite an ordeal few can imagine, let alone survive, Smart vowed to live life well and to the fullest. In the intervening years, she has become an ardent advocate for girls’ rights and recovering victims of crime.

The story of her kidnapping and the ordeal that followed hardly seems like suitable subject matter for a made-for-TV movie, but cable channels A&E and Lifetime have come up with a unique twist. Elizabeth Smart: Autobiography, a special two-part Biography, made with Smart’s full cooperation and personal insight into the terrible events of late 2002, followed by a made-for-TV biopic, I Am Elizabeth Smart, starring Skeet Ulrich (below) as convicted kidnapper Brian David Mitchell and relative newcomer Alana Boden (left) as the young Elizabeth Smart.

A&E will present Elizabeth Smart: Autobiography on consecutive nights, Nov. 12 and 13 (A&E, 9 p.m. ET). Lifetime will premiere I Am Elizabeth Smart the following weekend, Nov. 18 (Lifetime, also 9 p.m. ET).

Smart narrated and produced Autobiography, and pulled double duty as both technical consultant and co-producer, together with executive-producers Joseph Freed and Allison Berkley, on the TV movie version.

The idea was not so much to dredge up the past — Smart’s ordeal was made once before as a TV movie, 2003’s The Elizabeth Smart Story, starring Dylan Baker and Amber Marshall, based on the book by Smart’s parents, Bringing Elizabeth Home, by Ed and Lois Smart — so much as approach an old story with a new, 2017-based social sensibility. The new film is a tale of personal survival and reclaiming a stolen childhood by becoming politically active and surrounding oneself with like-minded people and advocates for social reform.

Smart appeared before reporters at this past summer’s meeting of the Television Critics Association in Beverly Hills, Calif. alongside Boden, Ulrich, fellow cast-member Deirdre Lovejoy, and producers Freed and Berkley, and it was evident within moments that Smart, happily married and the mother of two children of her own, is both well-adjusted and a practitioner of what she preaches.

Not content to merely be a public speaker on behalf of kidnapping survivors and child victims of violence and sexual abuse, Smart co-authored the U.S. Justice Department’s official 2008 handbook for kidnapping survivors, You Are Not Alone: The Journey from Abduction to Empowerment.

Smart has said she sees little point in dwelling on the past for the past’s sake. She doesn’t talk about her ordeal much — “I don’t really care to” — unless asked. Instead, she has focused her energy on her foundation, the Elizabeth Smart Foundation, which she established in 2011 to empower children and provide resources and support for victims and their families.

“Every year, there are around half-a-million children who disappear,” Smart explained, her voice quiet but firm. “I’ve been involved with Amber Alert over the years. It’s a really simple measure but has great effect. Already more than 800 children have been rescued because of it. That may not sound like a huge amount, out of half-a-million, but I can promise you that, to those 800 children, it means all the difference in the world.

“The more people we can get to go to the settings on their phone and turn on notifications for the Amber Alert, the more of a huge difference it will make. How many more children can we rescue? Because no child deserves to go through what I went through. No child deserves to be hurt, to be scared, to be raped, to be murdered. If we can all become just a little more vigilant, I know we can not only rescue and bring children back but hopefully prevent more crimes of this nature happening in future.”

Smart credited her Mormon faith for helping her through the early days of her ordeal.

“I grew up in a conservative Christian home. And having had 14 years of a wonderful family, of coming from a secure background, having been taught from my parents from as far back as I can remember,  to all of a sudden being taken, being told that God commanded them to hurt me, God had commanded them to do all these terrible things to me, was night and day for me. It never changed my view on God, because the 14 years prior to that, I'd always been told, ‘You'll know a person by their actions. No matter what they say, if they're a good person, they'll be doing good things.’ And these people weren't good. They were hurting me. So clearly they weren't people of God.”

The most important advice she can impart to survivors of an ordeal — any ordeal — is to believe in oneself and one’s own abilities. Know thyself.

“The most important piece of info_, well, advice, I can give is: Trust yourself. There's not anything you can tell someone that's a sure way to prevent being grabbed or kidnapped. You can't just say, ‘Scream, kick and yell, and you won't be kidnapped.’  I mean, they're certainly good things to know but, deep down, just trust yourself and believe. Trust yourself and find your hope, and hold on to it, and don't let go ever. Keep holding on. Just keep __doing everything you can to survive, because you can be happy again, you can move forward in your life, _you can have a normal life. It will be different, but you can have it again.”

Smart visited the set while I Am Elizabeth Smart was being made and provided a sympathetic shoulder for both young Alan Boden and Skeet Ulrich to lean on. Filming was particularly hard on Ulrich, she allowed, because Brian David Mitchell is not who he is.

“It was a pretty surreal experience,” Smart recalled, of that first day of visiting the set. “I remember first walking into the hair- and makeup trailer. I don't think I was supposed to go in there yet. But I remember poking my head in, and there was Skeet getting his hair and makeup done. I saw him for, like, half a second, and I was, like, ‘Oh, my gosh, that looks just like him.’  And then, when I talked to him, he's perfectly lovely and wonderful and nice. So it was . . . __ I don't know. It was such a surreal experience because I was sitting there looking at him and thinking, ‘You look like the devil. You look like the worst human being I know. But I know you're not him, and you're being so nice. This is so weird.’  It was surreal, but I'm glad I went. Right now, looking back on it, I’m just really glad I could play a part in seeing it get made.

“I'm not apprehensive about what the audience will take away from it. I will say that it is the best/worst movie I've ever seen. I mean, it's so well done, and it’s accurate. I'm very proud of it, but at the same time, part of me thinks I’ll be happy if I never have to watch it again. I was watching it on my laptop, and I kept thinking, ‘I could just close the lid. I don’t have to watch it right now.’ But then I was, like, ‘No, I actually do have to watch it right now.’ I’m very proud of it, but I hate it at the same time.”

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