A Search for Answers: Has Elizabeth Become A Psychological Victim?

The Salt Lake Tribune, Mar. 14, 2003

    Augustine, she said. Her name was Augustine.

    Wearing a wig, a veil and sunglasses, Elizabeth Smart insisted to the police officers who questioned her on State Street in Sandy on Wednesday that she was <A HREF="javascript:void(0);" onMouseOver="overlib('
Brian David Mitchell (Emmanuel) walks in front of ZCMI Center on Main Street in Salt Lake City in spring of 2002, before Elizabeth Smart’s disappearance in June. He has been sighted frequently downtown.
Salt Lake Tribune‘, HAUTO, VAUTO, SNAPX, ‘5’)” onMouseOut=”nd()”>Brian David Mitchell’s daughter, that they were from Florida.

    “I know who you think I am,” she told the officers. “You guys think I’m that Elizabeth Smart girl who ran away.”

    The officers persisted, at one point moving Elizabeth away from Mitchell and his wife, Wanda Barzee. Behind the sunglasses, her eyes welled with tears. The officers could see her heart visibly pounding beneath her T-shirt. They pressed, and finally the teenager relented.

    “Thou sayest,” Elizabeth said after being asked yet again if she was the missing teenager.

    A day after Elizabeth Smart returned to her family, ending a nine-month ordeal that gripped the state and made headlines worldwide, there is an explanation as to why she did not make a break from her captors.

    She couldn’t.

    Police and her family said Elizabeth was psychologically traumatized — even brainwashed — by the homeless couple now in custody for her kidnapping.

    “I have no doubt about that,” said Ed Smart, Elizabeth’s father. “I have no doubt that she feared for her life when she left [her bedroom].”

    Experts are putting a name to Elizabeth’s behavior while in captivity — Stockholm Syndrome, in which victims become emotionally attached to and allied with their captors. Experts also are drawing comparisons with another well-known kidnap victim: Patricia Hearst.

    “People are in disbelief that she couldn’t have run to a phone and gotten help,” said Doug Goldsmith, director of The Children’s Center, a counseling service in Salt Lake City. “That’s a misunderstanding of the tremendous psychological trauma of being held hostage in a situation like she was in.”

    Hearst, long married to Bernard Shaw and mother of two daughters, appeared on “Larry King Live” on Thursday night to offer insights about how reality shifts for a hostage and what lies ahead for Elizabeth Smart.

    “It’s going to take awhile,” Hearst said of the healing process. “She still believes that her kidnappers have some kind of control over her and it is going to take at least a couple of weeks being away from them and back safely with her family before she realizes that they have no more powers, that she’s truly safe.”

   A granddaughter of publisher William Randolph Hearst, the then-19-year-old was taken at gunpoint from her Berkeley, Calif., apartment in February 1974 by a group known as the Symbionese Liberation Army. For two months she was kept, blindfolded, in a closet. She was repeatedly raped and beaten.

    By April she had a new name — Tania — and seemed — to a skeptical public — a willing participant in the army’s criminal escapades. Freed in September 1975, she served 23 months in prison for her role in a bank holdup; President Clinton pardoned Hearst in 2001 as he left office.

    Like Hearst, Elizabeth’s family has said their daughter was never out of sight of at least one of her two captors. For two months, they kept her in an isolated camp in a canyon northeast of her home. They then began traveling around Utah and at least two other states. Still unknown is what Mitchell, who called himself David Emmanuel Isiah and believed himself a messenger of God, told Elizabeth or how he frightened her into compliance.

    The trio used the line — “We are messengers of the Lord, Jesus Christ” — repeatedly when picked up by police this week.

    Experts said classic conditions for brainwashing appear to have been present — an environment controlled by a zealot who uses loaded language and professes mystical powers or access to a higher power.

    “She had no contact with family, friends and lived, literally behind the veil, so to speak,” said Rick Ross, executive director of the Ross Institute in Jersey City, N.J., and an expert in destructive cults and movements.

    “What he may have set up in her mind is that everyone and everything outside their small family group was evil and threatening, and even her future, her salvation and safety depended on him for safety and guidance.”

    She did what was necessary to survive, the experts theorized.

    “Because you have been so abused and so robbed of your free will and so frightened, you come to a point where you believe any lie your abductor has told you,” Hearst told King. “You don’t feel safe, you think that you will be killed if you reach out to get help. You believe that your family will be killed. You’re not even thinking about trying to get help anymore.”

    Now that she has returned to her family, the hard work begins — for her and them. That said, the odds of a full and rapid recovery, experts said, are in Elizabeth’s favor.

    “The security and support [trauma victims] receive from their families is what allows [these] victims to recover,” Goldsmith said.

    In the short term, it would not be surprising for Elizabeth to show concern for her former captors — to even relate good experiences she had while with Mitchell and Barzee, the experts said.

    Surrounded by strong family support, she will be free to “gradually unfold and relax and reveal what happened and what went on in the group,” Ross said, and to accept a new reality.

    Her parents and siblings also are likely to experience diverse emotions: grief, relief, anger, sadness and, overwhelmingly, joy.

    The Smarts have not said whether Elizabeth is receiving counseling, but that is likely — and necessary, experts said.

    “Right now, there is a honeymoon phase,” said Georgia Hilgeman-Hammond, executive director of the Vanished Children’s Alliance in San Jose, Calif. She speaks from experience: her daughter, then 13 months, was snatched in 1976; the girl was recovered in Mexico five years later.

    The Smarts face the hard task of working back into everyday life and regaining a sense of security about letting Elizabeth be a normal teenager, Hilgeman-Hammond said.

    They also will have to help Elizabeth cope with emotional triggers — seeing a homeless person, for example — that reignite terror, Hilgeman-Hammond said.

    If her captors are put on trial, Elizabeth — as well as members of her family — would likely have to relive and retell stories of the past nine months, which is helpful to some victims but traumatizing for others.

    The crush of media attention will make it hard for the Smarts and Elizabeth to regain a sense of normality, and it is likely Elizabeth will never be just another Utahn again.

    “It’s really important, given what we can assume is a fragile state of mind, that people leave her alone,” Goldsmith said. “She didn’t ask to become the new ‘American Idol.’ That is not her personality. Because you know about her through the media doesn’t mean you know her, and that she wants to walk through town hugging everybody.”

    Echoes Hilgeman-Hammond: “I hope we can give this family some space. It’s going to take them time to heal. There is a lot of strength in the human spirit. People can heal and develop a new, normal life.”

Vacation? Short break? Day trip? Get Skip-the-line tickets at GetYourGuide.


(Listed if other than Religion News Blog, or if not shown above)

Religion News Blog posted this on Friday March 14, 2003.
Last updated if a date shows here:


More About This Subject


Our website includes affiliate links, which means we get a small commission -- at no additional cost to you -- for each qualifying purpose. For instance, as an Amazon Associate, Religion News Blog earns from qualifying purchases. That is one reason why we can provide this research service free of charge.

Speaking of which: One way in which you can support us — at no additional cost to you — is by shopping at Amazon.com.