Book Review: ‘My Story’ by Elizabeth Smart & Chris Stewart
Released late last year, My Story is a first person account how 14-year-old Utah teen Elizabeth Smart was abducted by a perverted homeless preacher and his wife in 2002 and held as a sex slave for nine months. I vaguely remember reading about the abduction when it happened, though it wasn’t until she was rescued and details of her harrowing ordeal came to light that the story spread to international headlines. Her name came up again when she married a Scottish missionary in 2012, and I recall mentioning that she bore quite a resemblance to 24 actress Elisha Cuthbert.
There are many articles, several books and a TV movie about her story, but it has taken more than 10 years for Smart to build the courage to tell her story in her own words, with some help from the book’s other author, Chris Stewart, an American politician, author, and fellow devout Mormon.
When I began reading the book I did not know much about Smart, her abductors or the details of her captivity — I didn’t even know how long she had been held for. But if you would like to know a bit of the background, then here it is (skip if you prefer not to know): Smart was 14 years old when she was snatched from her Salt Lake home at knife-point by Brian David Mitchell, a homeless man who claims to be a prophet of God, in June 2002. She was led back to a small camp in the woods where she was made Mitchell’s “second wife” and forced to live with him and his first wife, Wanda Barzee. She was raped daily and repeatedly and went for days with little to no food or water. Initially she was chained to a tree, but later on she accompanied Mitchell and Barzee on little expeditions to the city. They then moved to San Diego, but a few months later returned to Utah, where she was eventually rescued by police.
While I applaud the attempt and Smart’s message of hope despite enduring what most of us can’t even begin to fathom, the truth is that My Story is not a great book. I had always thought that a true story is better when it comes straight from the mouth (or in this case, the fingers) of the person who actually experienced it, but this book has provided a perfect example of why that is not necessarily a good idea.
The content is all there, but the quality of the writing is lacking. I’m not in any way trying to blame poor Smart — she’s was just a girl when taken and not a professional writer, but Stewart, whom she collaborated with to bring the book to life, and the editor(s) of the book, should have done a better job of balancing out the narrative to make it a more engaging and compelling read. At times the narrative is chatty like this blog (with lots of exclamations! and comments in parenthesis), while other times it can read like a personal diary or a preacher’s sermon. Occasionally it becomes journalistic. The story would at times feel like Smart is telling it as though she’s back in the moment as an immature teenager, but then, without warning, she would seem removed from child herself and be telling the story from the present as a 25-year-old adult. The contrast is jarring, and if feels like you can almost tell which parts Smart wrote herself and which parts were added in or shaped by other writers and editors.
I also found it interesting, but not surprising considering Smart’s strict Mormon upbringing and beliefs, that some of the more gruesome aspects of Smart’s ordeal were self-censored and skimped over. For instance, she says that Mitchell forced her to engage in certain degrading acts against her will, but she doesn’t really suggest what they are. It’s not that I want to read all the disgusting details, but the decision to sanitise the story for the sake of protecting readers mutes the emotional power of the story .
It was also difficult to relate to Smart at times even though she was telling her own story. Part of it is because she is a very devout Mormon and had a strict and sheltered upbringing — which is why she did not come across as an “ordinary” 14-year-old American teenager and felt like someone much younger and more naive . But these are obviously not things she would say about herself. If you don’t keep her background firmly in mind, there is a risk that parts of her ordeal will feel incredible, perhaps even unbelievable. I was dumbfounded by the sheer number of occasions she could have easily escaped or sought help — including, most ridiculously, when they were confronted by a suspecting detective in public — but ended up doing nothing, even when she repeatedly emphasized that she did not suffer from Stockholm Syndrome and absolutely loathed her evil captors.
I’m not doubting Smart’s credibility for one second, but hearing an explanation from a different voice might have made her actions, reactions and thoughts easier to understand. Instead, it sometimes felt like she was trying to justify why she acted a certain way, and I would have preferred a psychologist or medical expert to try and explain her behaviour, that is assuming it can be explained at all. In fact, it wasn’t until her rescue that I began to appreciate the gravity of the paralysing fear she felt in Mitchell’s presence during those nine months — and realised that perhaps until you go through something that traumatic yourself you don’t have the right to judge the reactions of others.
The final chapters after her rescue are the strongest parts of the book and provide more depth and insight into Smart’s character, her incredible resolve and the wondrous support of her family. Be warned though that as Smart is the narrator, her unwavering belief in God is a theme that appears continuously throughout the course of the book. Personally, I was impressed with how she could do that despite everything she has been through, though I can also understand if some readers find her unshakable conviction in her faith a little irritating.
Note that this not the only book you would read if you want to find out the entire Elizabeth Smart kidnapping story and is probably something better suited for people who already know a little about the case or have seen the TV movie or read about it elsewhere. There is very little information in these pages about who her abductors were and what happened during their subsequent trial, nor does it go into any of the drama in her household during her absence, including the suspicions against her family and manhunts for wrong suspects. It’s more of a blow-by-blow personal account of her nine months in captivity, and that’s it, with no real attempt to provide a comprehensive background or context before or after the events.
In the end, My Story came as advertised because it really is Elizabeth Smart’s story, flaws and all. It’s a terrifying story about overcoming unspeakable acts of cruelty and degradation, but it’s also tale of hope about coming up with the strength to move on with life when so many of the things you value are shattered and can never be recovered. The personal details of Smart’s harrowing ordeal will keep you flipping the pages, though I must admit I was somewhat disappointed that it was not a more captivating read.