Summer 2003, Vol. 6, No. 2

Table of Contents
Summer 2003

Quick Links:
Articles in this issue

From the Editor
St. Francis to the Rescue

Keeping the Shi'ites Straight

Masses of Torts

The Trouble with Missionaries

Jihad for Journalists

The Smart Saga

Ghosts of New York

Santorum v. Sodomy

The Irreverent Eagle

The Latest Japanese Cult Panic

Israel's Tele-Rabbi

Letters to the Editor


The Smart Saga
y Martha Bradley

During the night of June 5, 2002 a man slipped into a home in Salt Lake City’s Federal Heights neighborhood and crept silently down a carpeted hallway into the bedroom shared by 14-year-old Elizabeth Smart and her 9-year-old sister, Mary Katherine. Waking Elizabeth, the man pressed a knife into her side and took her out a window with a carefully cut screen and through the complicated system of canyons that led northeast into the Wasatch mountain range. 

Smiling out from the picture that soon appeared all over the country, Elizabeth seemed to represent everything good about youth—a blonde epitome of freshness and innocence. She was talented harpist and she loved sports, her friends, and her extensive, faithful Mormon family. In the post-September 11 atmosphere of fear and apprehension, Americans seized on the story, hoping against hope for her safe return.

Early on, Ed and Lois Smart recognized the power of the media to help them find their daughter. And if the face of God shone through much of the coverage, it was in no small measure because of the way they handled the story. Day after day, the family prayed in front of news cameras, thanking God for strength and crediting their faith for their ability to continue.

So on March 12, when police found Elizabeth walking down a street 13 miles south of her family’s home, it seemed like the answer to a national prayer. “Miracles do exist,” Ed tearfully told reporters from the lawn in front of his home. “ALIVE! ELIZABETH SMART MIRACLE,” screamed the New York Daily News March 13. On March 14, Ed and Lois appeared with local celebrities on a makeshift stage in Liberty Park for a celebration of Elizabeth’s return.

Almost immediately, however, the fairytale ending morphed into a Utah nightmare of sexual violence and religion gone bad. A 49-year-old drifter named Brian David Mitchell had, it seemed, kidnapped Elizabeth in order to make her his second wife. Quickly, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints posted a disclaimer on its official website asserting that polygamy was no longer a part of the Mormon way of life.

Within a week, Salt Lake City District Attorney David Yocom charged that after kidnapping Elizabeth, Mitchell had lashed her to a tree, raped her at knifepoint, and—with his 57-year-old wife Wanda Barzee—terrorized and starved her into submission. “He was looking for a pure, innocent girl, and she was angelic,” Ed told the New York Daily News March 16. “He was fixated on her.”

A few months after the kidnapping the teenager surfaced on Salt Lake City streets and at parties, where she stood silently with her “sister wife” behind Mitchell as he ranted and raged, preaching a convoluted tale of God and demons, and drinking until he collapsed on the floor. “They stood out in the crowd—that’s for sure,” Dan Gorder, a freelance photographer who in September ran into the white-robed trio in a Salt Lake City apartment, told the New York Times March 14. “When I took their picture, they didn’t seem to be really happy with it, but they didn’t do anything.”

No one made the connection between the silent, veiled woman and Elizabeth Smart.

Many in Salt Lake City had seen Mitchell walking down the street in his robe, staff in hand, his wild hair whirled around a face weathered by months in the sun and years of poverty. “Everybody knew of him,” Jeff St. Romain, president of the local chapter of Volunteers of America, told the Washington Post March 16. “He was very resistant to any of the services we tried to offer. He only wanted to talk about his religious beliefs. Sometimes he referred to himself as Jesus.” 

“Immanuel,” as Mitchell thought of his prophet self, wrote up his own religious doctrine in “The Book of David Isaiah Immanuel,” a 27-page manifesto that mixed philosophy, revelation, traces of Mormonism, and his own fantastic vision of the world. Preoccupied with persecution, he held that men could talk directly with God, and possessed a complicated vision of the afterlife that included family kingdoms, a multiplicity of Gods, and patriarchy.

Without exception, the Utah papers portrayed Mitchell as a Latter-day Saint-turned-sinner, making the mistakes as a youth—drugs, promiscuity, failure at school—that predicted his aberrant behavior as an adult. Taught the “truth” as a child, rejecting it at mid-life, excommunicated for his aberrant beliefs, he was easy for a largely Mormon audience to accept as an embodiment of evil.

On March 13, Salt Lake Tribune religion writer Peggy Fletcher Stack quoted a spokesman for the LDS Church as saying that Mitchell and Barzee had been excommunicated for “activity promoting bizarre teachings and lifestyle far afield from the principles and doctrines of the church.” Mitchell’s book, wrote Stack, described “the LDS Church’s decline into apostasy after the death of President Ezra Taft Benson in 1994, and paint Mitchell’s own role as savior of the faith and father to a new generation of righteousness.”

The Tribune and the church-owned Deseret News both obsessed about how this could have happened in the Salt Lake Valley. For Utah Mormons, the mountains provide a mythic quality of refuge, isolation, and protection. Literally thousands of volunteers had combed the foothills in the vicinity of the camp where the three had hidden in the underbrush. The fact that they did not find Elizabeth demonstrated that the Wasatch Range was in fact impenetrable.

While plural marriage represented just one unsurprising dimension of the story to the Utah press, it was the only tenet of Mitchell’s faith that mattered to the national media. On March 15, for example, Tatsha Robertson and Irene Sege of the Boston Globe called readers’ attention to a single passage in “The Book of Immanuel David Isaiah”—in which Mitchell describes polygamy as “a lost ‘blessing’ and himself as a ‘just and merciful’ God who can restore lost blessings to those who do not sin.” Of course, it is hardly surprising that the national press should focus on the subject that has been the focus of outsiders’ prurient fascination with the Mormons since the middle of the 19th century.

First taught by the prophet Joseph Smith as part of the LDS Church’s restoration of ancient beliefs, plural marriage became one of the standard Mormon life practices and doctrines that distinguished them from the world beyond Utah territory. The Mormons outlawed polygamy, first with an 1890 Manifesto and then with a much tougher stance (polygamists were excommunicated) after the first decade of the 20th century. Since that time, the LDS Church has determinedly distanced itself from both the practice and the people who continue to believe that it is the way they should order their families and live lives dedicated to God. Today, there are an estimated 50,000 excommunicated “Mormon fundamentalists” who live in isolated communities throughout the Mountain West and practice what they call “the Principle.”

By neither their behavior nor their doctrine, however, would such fundamentalists support the abduction of a child. Mormon fundamentalism is based on a patriarchal ordering of families that requires deference to authority on the part of women, but nothing like the “submission” required of Elizabeth as she fought for her life.

In numerous articles that appeared in national publications, women from the Utah group “Tapestry,” an organization of women who have fled polygamous marriages, commented on the case and told tales that often bore only a limited relationship to the truth. Sixty-three year old Rowena Erickson, the second wife to a polygamist for 34 years, told Alex Tizon and David Kelly of the Los Angeles Times March 15 that Elizabeth was “the target age…young, but mature enough to be sexually appealing and capable of child-bearing.”

The National Enquirer perpetuated many misconceptions—that the white caftans, headdresses, and veils were related to Mormon plurality, that Mitchell had joined a group of fundamentalist Mormons who practice it. Did Elizabeth, asked the tabloid, really run away from home? Or had Mitchell, who had once done odd jobs around the Smart home, previously taught her about polygamy and she agreed to go with him?

Along with the implication that fundamentalist Mormonism had led Mitchell to kidnap Elizabeth, the national media wondered whether her own orthodox Mormon faith had made Elizabeth into an easy victim. Thus Eric Gorski of the Denver Post speculated March 16 that because Mitchell’s religious ideology grew “out of Mormonism, it would have been easier for Elizabeth latch on to it.”

No version of this line was more extreme and offensive to Mormons than a March 23 column (“Elizabeth Smart’s case is symbolic of an ugly little secret”) by Jan Jarboe Russell of the San Antonio Express-News. “The hard truth is that Smart was preconditioned by her religion—original Mormonism—which is not really so distant form what her abductor believe,” Russell wrote. “The line between the kind of Mormonism the Smart family embodies—the well scrubbed, highly educated and wealthy kind that looks so decent and so clean—and the crazed kind Mitchell embodies is darn thin…. As a Mormon child, Elizabeth lived in a culture in which submission to religious authority was an essential part of her daily life. A healthy dose of disobedience might have saved Elizabeth from her abductors, but few 15-year-old Mormon girls are allowed the luxury of thinking for themselves.” 

In the June 2003 issue of Vogue, reporter Rebecca Johnson turned for insight to a polygamous family that had left the practice. “Women are followers in Mormonism,” the husband, Jeff Hanks, explained to her. “I think Brian Mitchell played on Elizabeth’s religious background by hitting on common themes that echoed in her head. This is a man who had the Book of Mormon memorized, so when he started saying to her, ‘You’re my wife. God has given you to me,’ she must have listened.”

The point needs to be made as clearly as possible: While Mitchell’s messianic faith owes much to the mental universe of the Mormon world, it is not Mormonism; nor should Mormonism, fundamentalist or otherwise, be construed as either permitting him to abduct Elizabeth Smart or inclining her to submit to his will.

In the end, the Smarts’ embrace of the media turned into something of a Pandora’s box. Shortly after Elizabeth disappeared Michael Vigh and Kevin Cantera of the Salt Lake Tribune received $20,000 from the National Enquirer to provide information about the case, including a rumor that Ed Smart and two of his brothers were involved in what the Enquirer called a “gay sex scandal.” When the financial arrangement surfaced, the two reporters, along with their editor, were fired.

The real facts of story were grim enough to turn the media squeamish. It was impossible to adhere to the normal journalistic rule of not mentioning rape victims by name—though the Deseret News held off reporting the nature of the district attorney’s charge for nearly two weeks. But even before the accusation was made, Elizabeth’s grandfather Charles and a Mormon bishop were assuring reporters that Elizabeth was still “pure” in the eyes of God.

After the charge was made, Chris Thomas, the family’s public relations representative, declared, “We will hold the district attorney accountable for any action that victimizes her a second time.” Meanwhile, reported the Washington Post’s T.R. Reid, the family “expressed concerns that further publicity could be damaging the family has “expressed concerns that the publicity they once sought could be damaging as the teenager tries to return to the quiet life she knew before her ordeal.” For its part, the Salt Lake City police department put a gag order on the case. Quickly, the national media spotlight shifted elsewhere.

The Elizabeth Smart story ultimately proved to be neither a tragedy nor a fairytale but something uncomfortable in between. If nothing else, it showed the continuing power of polygamy in Utah to capture the American imagination.



Hit Counter