Why didn’t she run? Why didn’t she scream? Why didn’t she tell puzzled bystanders or suspicious cops that she was, indeed, Elizabeth Smart? That Elizabeth Smart, the lovely, fairy-tale-obsessed 14-year-old who, in 2002, was snatched from her Utah home by Brian David Mitchell and Wanda Barzee and subjected to nine months of physical and psychological abuse fueled by Mitchell’s twisted God complex and sexual appetites.
For 15 years, Smart has heard it all. From TV and radio talking heads. From lawyers and reporters and people on the street. From other kidnapping victims who reach out to her online and at her many speaking engagements. And though she coauthored 2013’s My Story to document her torment as Mitchell and Barzee dragged her on a horrific multi-state odyssey, Smart realized that a crucial facet of her story had somehow escaped the public’s understanding.
Emotion. Palpable, indelible, relatable emotion.
Enter this month’s Lifetime original film I Am Elizabeth Smart. Two years in the making and coproduced and narrated by Smart, the film reveals how Mitchell (played by Riverdale’s Skeet Ulrich) targeted the girl after her father Ed gave him odd jobs, knowing he could use Elizabeth’s innocence, staunch Mormon faith and familial devotion to make her bend to his will. And how Smart (via a gutsy performance by newcomer Alana Boden) eventually turned the tables, capitalizing on her captors’ own weaknesses to champion her rescue.
“Watching it now brings up feelings that I have not felt in 15 years,” Smart explains. “It’s a very accurate portrayal of what it really was like, not just what happened. Not just ticking off the boxes — ‘rape happened, this happened, that happened’ — but the intensity of the emotion that was always going on inside me, between my captors and me. I had so many doubts that that would ever be possible to capture onscreen.”
Smart recalls her shock the first moment she saw Ulrich and The Blacklist’s Deirdre Lovejoy as Barzee in costume when she visited the film’s recreation of the encampment in the mountains just a few miles from her childhood home. “Seeing them on the set acting, it was otherworldly — and not in a good way. They were just so accurate. And they wanted my feedback. So, I’d be like, ‘OK, I feel like I want to throw up watching you now, so if you can turn it up so I actually throw up, that’s how it should be.’”
“Having Elizabeth Smart watching, Elizabeth Smart in her exact recreation of her encampment, while we were doing the most harrowing scenes and having her say to us, ‘That was spot on. You were perfect’ — that was great news and then equally horrifying,” says Lovejoy. “Because that woman has the strength to watch a re-enactment of the most brutal portion of her life, by actors that are actually doing it in a way that she believes she’s right there. We get to walk away from it at the end of the day. … My admiration, my respect for Elizabeth Smart is beyond measure.”
“The story is ultimately about how people can pervert religion for evil means and how people can use it for open salvation,” says Ulrich, who adds that he used Mitchell’s forensic psychology report — brought to his attention by Lovejoy — to inform his performance. “He’s easily the darkest human being I’ve ever researched. He’s a very, very dark soul who was, even in his teens, an atheist. So this whole religious concoction really just came out of pedophilia and a way to abuse people. To become this grandiose sort of figure.”
Smart hopes viewers will focus on the positives — hope, salvation and a renewed devotion to finding other kidnapped and abused kids whose stories might not be as high profile as her own.
“It wasn’t just deciding to do it for me,” the happily married mother of two shares. “There are so many people out there who don’t tell anyone what’s happened to them. They’re living with it every day and they’re carrying these huge loads that they don’t deserve to carry. I want them to know that they’re not alone. That they don’t have to carry this burden all by themselves and they can be happy again. If someone watched this who were still being held captive, I would want them to know not to give up — that we don’t just move on and forget. And I hope it’s a reminder to anyone who watches this film that there are [kidnapped] children who are still alive that we can’t just write off.
“Just because we haven’t found them within 24 or 48 hours, it doesn’t mean they’re dead. We can never give up hope. We can never stop looking.”
I Am Elizabeth Smart, Saturday, Nov. 18, 8/7c, Lifetime