Margaret Talbot's piece in the New Yorker this week might be called "The Extraordinary Resilience of Elizabeth Smart" but a better title might be "How Elizabeth Smart Did the Impossible." The piece explores how Smart managed to get through her abduction and become that much more than an abduction victim forever defined as just that – a victim.
Pegged to the release of Smart's memoir My Story, Talbort explains how "Smart presents herself, as a pure girl who emerged from degradation purer still – stronger but somehow still innocent." Smart does so through her book – "It's not so gruesome that it would be unbearable to read" – and her role as someone in the spotlight – "Her goal as a public figure is to make 'talking about rape and abuse not such a taboo.'"
Smart could have very easily become a Jaycee Dugard, who also wrote a memoir but has largely stayed out of the spotlight since then. In a weird way, because of Dugard's decision to remove herself from public life, she has become defined by her name and what happened to her. Smart will never escape that inevitability entirely either, but by making advocacy for sexual assault victims her primary focus, she's managed to change her media story to something more meaty than the details of her gruesome nine-month hellscape. She recalls to Talbot the excitement that rose up after she spoke at Johns Hopkins University and said that it was her Mormon-based, abstinence-only education made her feel worse about her abduction:
She had been lamenting that victims of sexual abuse often feel that they are "no longer as good as everybody else." Nobody should have the power to take away another person's self-worth, Smart told me. But abstinence education was hardly the only way that victims of sexual assault could be shamed. A girl could be humiliated through social media – Smart and I talked about the incident last year in Steubenville, Ohio...Smart told me, "I can't tell you how many women I've met who say, 'When I was your age, I was raped, but it was kind of my fault, because of X, Y, or Z.' And I just want to pull my hair out."
Smart's feminist-esque message has managed to make her a media subject on her own terms. She's someone those who don't just read People magazine can identify and connect with, and the key to that has meant moving her message from one of abduction to legislation:
Smart's greatest appeal as a public figure is her evident desire not to judge other women. Kristine Haglund, the editor of a journal about Mormonism, told me, "The interesting thing is that she is almost universally admired. Which is a tough thing for a Mormon woman to pull off. She had this terrible experience and one that had weird and creepy Mormon overtones. Yet she still believes. She's entirely faithful. And while she's not part of the feminist ferment in Mormonism, and I doubt she'd call herself a feminist, she is strong in a way that feminists can admire. She emerged strong and whole, a modern woman able to address questions of sexuality directly and confidently."
While many of the other abduction and sexual assault victims also move on with their lives to live a version of happily ever after (Smart's point exactly), their choice to do so quietly means that while their personal stories are probably quite similar to Smart's, the stories about them in the media remain limited to updates on the status of their court cases or Wikipedia pages that redirect to "Kidnapping of Jaycee Lee Dugard."
And then of course, much of Smart's appeal comes from the fact that she is a non-threatening, blonde haired, young white woman. That doesn't take away from the great work she's doing that will hopefully prevent others who don't look or talk like her from having to go through what she did. But the shift in her public persona is still fascinating, one that rests on some classic PR choices. She stands straight. She speaks assuredly, if not loudly. She stays on message. She is a beaming bright light in the darkness.