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Blaming Elizabeth
March 25, 2003
by Tresa McBee

It didn't take long. There are news holes to fill.

And fill and fill. Cable news runs 24/7. Web sites must keep up. So the incredible story that Elizabeth Smart had been found was barely across the wire before the speculation based on few facts began: How did her kidnappers control her, and why didn't she try to escape?

Trot out the experts who know nothing about this case but a little about others. Most stayed simple, speaking about how the human mind is malleable and will instinctively twist to survive. About how captors can work craziness seen as unbelievable when viewed by people who've never been forced from home at knife point. About how Stockholm syndrome can make hostages identify with their kidnappers, even feel a connection.

And then one expert always sticks out from the keep-it-general experts, like the Rutgers University psychology professor who noted that Elizabeth is a teenager and teenagers like to do dangerous things. Risky things. Things that spark independence. So maybe that's the reason she didn't try to escape.

Blame the child. That offended.

From the day Elizabeth was discovered missing, she has been described as dutiful and quiet. And, one imagines, also sheltered by a large, extended family and a devout faith, raised by parents who reveal their own naiveté by inviting unknown panhandlers to work on their home. Elizabeth's father, Ed, has said he couldn't believe "such an animal" lurked beneath Brian Mitchell's reasonable surface. People said that about Ted Bundy, too. Evil wears a placid mask.

That an innocent 14-year-old forced from her bed by a creepy man and his knife -- with her little sister nearby -- would easily fall under his influence and religious instruction shouldn't stretch the imagination. Mitchell threatened Elizabeth when he forced her to leave with him, so it isn't illogical to consider similar threats continued in some form. And they needn't always come in the danger of physical harm. Determining who and what matters to a child isn't difficult. Abusive adults threaten children into submission all the time, returning them to other adults who could potentially help them but don't because children believe people who frighten them into silence.

Viewing whatever happened to Elizabeth with grown-up eyes casts an adult shadow on a child's perspective tainted with unknown fear and intimidation. That we are so willing to cast that shadow says more about us than a kidnapped girl. We don't easily imagine anymore a naive, unsophisticated 14-year-old without the resources or experience to go it alone or see a way out of current circumstances.

Perhaps if more information is released about what Elizabeth went through -- including an alleged "wedding ceremony" her first night in captivity as part of Mitchell's pursuit of at least seven additional wives -- the chatter of amazement that she didn't attempt escape will dull. If only she'd reveal what abuse, if any, she sustained. Maybe conduct a revealing interview with the queen of weep Barbara Walters or the super sensitive, low-tone Diane Sawyers. Get it all out. Relive it. Feel the cleansing. Feed our perceived entitlement to know.

It's reality television meets real life, only we no longer sense where one ends and the other begins. We think we have a right to be there, to hear everything, to see it all. We legitimize an event by screening it through our filter of tell-all catharsis.

That we're curious about the what, where, how and why of what Elizabeth went through is natural. Partly we want to know, so we can think about all the things we wouldn't do and all the ways something similar couldn't happen to us and ours. It's where that astonishment stems from that Elizabeth didn't run: We would have. Absolutely. We just know it.

Maybe. But we weren't the 14-year-old taken in the middle of the night. Elizabeth will never again be just Elizabeth Smart. She'll always be Elizabeth Smart, the kidnapped girl who spent nine months with a wacko and his wife as they followed supposed divine commandments heard only by them. That's enough to carry around.

© Northwest Arkansas Times. Tresa McBee writes for the Northwest Arkansas Times and can be reached at tresam@nwarktimes.com.

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