Friday, April 25, 2014

Elizabeth Smart: My Story

My StoryThis was a difficult book to read, primarily because of the content--the constant rape and abuse that Elizabeth Smart endured in the nine months of her captivity. Like most readers, I remember feelings of horror when her abduction was announced and the media frenzy that followed. I also distinctly remember when she was found: I happened to be trying on wedding dresses with my mom and my sister when the story broke.

Her story, as it goes, is straight-forward enough: Brian David Mitchell encountered her and her mother and sister in downtown Salt Lake City nearly eight months before her abduction and devised then a plan to take her and make her one of his "wives." The book recounts in detail how he planned and executed her abduction, the months of terror (and boredom) while she was kept chained in a camp high up in the Utah mountains, their eventual move to California and their return to Utah where she was finally recognized and rescued.

I don't think anyone should have to endure what she did--and for her to have emerged from that a gracious, hopeful, happy young woman is quite remarkable. This book isn't particularly well-written, but the story that emerges is still engrossing, often horrifying, but equally often inspiring, particularly Elizabeth's grit, tenacity, and faith. The writing often seems simplistic--I don't know if this was a stylistic choice to reflect the naivety of Elizabeth when she was abducted (she was only fourteen, still a child in many respects--a girl who would rather jump on the trampoline with her best friend than talk about boys, a girl who hadn't even started menstruating). Most of the time, the style didn't bother me, as it allowed the story to proceed without adornment. But sometimes it was distracting--the abundant use of exclamation points, and the tendency to tell (it was terrifying!) instead of showing. And I realize this is a difficult point: some of the things that happened were so horrible that she glosses over them instead of going into detail, but when I'm told how a character feels rather than being shown, I tend to feel distanced from them. In this case, feeling that distance makes for an uncomfortable reading experience, as if I'm seeking entertainment from her story rather than compassion and understanding.

I do think the story misses an opportunity to explore some of the more conflicting moments of her story--for instance, the reasons why she didn't seek help when Mitchell took her to the streets of Salt Lake City (she explains that she was terrified, which is likely true, but sometimes the explanations of what she was thinking or feeling feel a little too pat, as if the family was determined that she always be seen in the best possible light: she was always determined to make the best of things, to be hopeful, to remain devoted to thoughts of her family). And maybe this is true, but when I read memoir and biographies I'm drawn to complexity, to reflections that challenge me and change me and make me think. I admired Elizabeth for her strength, but I don't feel like reading this fundamentally challenged me. 

I am interested, however, in the idea of choice--perhaps its not surprising that in a story that centered so much about Elizabeth's lack of choices (she had no say in her abduction, no say in many of the activities she was forced to do) that the primary theme that emerges in the end is about choice: about Elizabeth's choice not to fixate on her captives, to forgive them but not wonder what happened to them, to choose to look forward instead of obsessing about the past that she cannot change.

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