Friday, November 5, 2010

Why Elizabeth ‘Ran Away’

Joan Swirsky
Friday, March 14, 2003
I fell in love with my husband-to-be when I was 14, no doubt about it. How did I know it was love? I didn’t. But my adolescent instincts proved accurate. We married as teenagers and are now celebrating our 43rd anniversary – 43 years of undying love. So much for 14-year-olds not knowing how they feel.
I came from a family with strong values. Right was right and wrong was wrong; good was good and bad was bad. By the time I was 10 years old, I knew – as surely as Elizabeth Smart knew from her Mormon upbringing – what was right and what was wrong.
And for many years now, I have been a psychotherapist and what I have learned from my patients’ complicated lives is that appearances don’t count.
I remember one young woman, the daughter of a librarian and schoolteacher, who grew up in a suburban home of the most conventional values. Her “presenting symptom” was dissatisfaction with her job, but I soon learned that she dated men who picked her up when she stopped at a light and even met a man, at midnight, who had called the wrong number and gotten her instead.
Little Ms. Conventional, it turned out, craved the fast life, the life of risk and escape from her mundane background.
I had another patient who married her psychoanalyst. But before that, as a teenager, she spent endless nights at crap tables in Las Vegas, loving every minute. And as a “grown-up married woman,” as she described herself, she said that her “happiest memories in life” were of “dressing up and being there when the highest stakes were on the line.”
So, clearly, stereotypes of 14-year-old innocents – even presented by “experts” using the most sophisticated psychobabble or crime-fighters using the most impressive “profiling” data – leave a lot to the imagination.
Let’s consider one possible Elizabeth Smart scenario. Brian David Mitchell, the drifter (and probably grifter) who paraded through Salt Lake City as Emmanuel, the God-fearing evangelist out to save misguided souls, met young Elizabeth Smart’s mother on the street, where he solicited a handout from the inveterate do-gooder.
It wasn’t enough for her to hand him five dollars; she also invited him to earn more money by fixing the roof of her home, which he did one sunny afternoon in 2001.
That’s the truth, but let’s start to imagine what happened next. The charismatic Mitchell bumped in to the nubile Elizabeth. They talked. He was charming. She was smitten. And although his work was done, they both managed to communicate with each other outside the home over a period of time.
Finally, he might have said: “I want you to come with me, to leave your boring existence – where your father sheds crocodile tears and your mother is a stone – to live a more exciting life, of God, of costumes, of travel, of freedom.”
She may have had doubts, but she finally agreed to an “escape” that left her sympathetic in the eyes of her family but, at the same time, free to live the exciting life she craved.
And true to her expectations, what ensued was more thrilling than she had imagined. She heard people calling out her name but never answered back. She agreed to wear a costume in public that camouflaged her face but she never bolted from her “captors” as she had innumerable oppto doortunities .
Even when she was caught by police officers this week and had the perfect chance to fly into their protective arms, she lied about her identity and denied being the Elizabeth Smart whose picture they showed her.
“Oh, that’s the girl who ran away,” she said. And when finally exposed, she asked first, not about her parents or her siblings, but about what would happen to the people with whom she had spent the last nine months.
And what about the so-called forensic evidence that experts said “proved” she was kidnapped, the screen that had been cut in the window of her home (a screen that was too narrow for most adults to squeeze through and that showed no fibers, no DNA, no nothing).
And what about the door that was unlocked, the one that other forensic experts insisted the intruder had both entered and exited? Who unlocked that door? Certainly not Elizabeth Smart’s parents!
And what about Elizabeth’s 8-year-old sister, Mary Katherine, who waited for over two hours to tell her mother and father about her older sister’s so-called abduction?
Isn’t it credible or at least possible that Elizabeth entrusted her little sister, who idolized her, with her secret, assured her that she would be fine, and instructed her to “not say a word” until two hours had elapsed?
And what about Elizabeth’s demeanor after she was “found”? Why didn’t the “experts” concentrate on her obviously well-fed, away-from-home sabbatical? Her serenity? The relief one might have expected from a “hostage’?
And what about her family’s reaction – her father’s unconvincing tears and his all-too-eager willingness to go before media cameras and “live” broadcasts, and, as always, her mother’s “cool” reaction? Even during the first hours and on the first day that Elizabeth came home!
Brian Mitchell is, by any measure, a creep (as is his wife). But Elizabeth Smart clearly was attracted to this creep because he offered her a safe but exciting escape from her stultifying life.
My bet is that she will fit in once more to the Smart household. But when given the chance to escape again, she will fly the coop – with joy – but this time without the entire world speculating, erroneously, on her motives.
Good luck, Elizabeth!
Joan Swirsky is a New York-based journalist and author. She may be contacted at