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Think of Elizabeth as a Slave

Think of Elizabeth as a slave

By Stebbins Jefferson, Palm Beach Post Columnist
Saturday, March 22, 2003

For nine months, the length of time between conception and birth for a human being, Elizabeth Smart was held in captivity by self-anointed "divine" prophet Brian David "Emmanuel" Mitchell and his wife, Wanda Barzee.

In June, the Utah teenager, then 14, was kidnapped in the middle of the night from the bedroom she shared with a younger sister. During the furor surrounding her abduction, the entire nation fell in love with her through home movies and photos that showed her to be an extraordinarily beautiful girl who possessed an air of innocence and ethereal grace. Crimes like this weren't supposed to happen in upper-class neighborhoods in safe cities like Salt Lake City.

Through daily news conferences, a horrified nation watched as the people of Utah scoured the surrounding hills, searching for Elizabeth. We followed the interrogation and subsequent arrest, on theft charges, of Richard Ricci, a former handyman at the Smart home. We cursed fate in August, when Ricci died of a brain hemorrhage, still incarcerated and still denying his involvement in the kidnapping. With his death, hope of finding the girl many thought to be an angel plummeted. The general consensus was that Elizabeth Smart was dead.

To the nation's amazement, Elizabeth was found alive this month, and apparently physically well. Her family, the Salt Lake City community and the country were overjoyed. The homecoming celebration hardly had abated, however, when officials began to reconstruct Elizabeth's hellish 9-month pilgrimage with the fanatical Emmanuel and his demented wife.

Officially documented sightings of the group during their travels indicate that the trio wore white robes and that the two females' faces were covered with veils of the same white cloth. The women rarely spoke when spoken to, and they behaved like robots, subservient to the man who identified them as his wife and daughter.

Many who came in contact with Elizabeth during the time she was hidden in full public view suggest that she had ample opportunities to identify herself and ask for help. During some sightings, she was sufficiently far from the couple to speak out, but she did not. We now know that for six days in February, she was out of the prophet's custody because he was in jail in San Diego for breaking into a church. Even more puzzling to some is that when police separated her from her captors, she supposedly cried out, "Are they going to be OK?"

Considering this behavior, cynics suggest that Elizabeth was somehow complicit in her is bondage. She rejected the name Elizabeth to adopt the name Augustine. She changed her language to take on a biblical nuance, responding to police who asked if she were Elizabeth Smart, "Thou sayeth." She otherwise showed her kidnappers an unseemly allegiance resembling affection, suggesting that the couple had taken possession not only of her body but her mind.

The issue of free will becomes moot when we consider that the girl -- said at the time of her abduction to be "14 going on 11," in terms of knowledge of the world -- likely was conditioned over time to bond with her captors. Psychiatrist David Fassler, a professor at the University of Vermont, explains that, dependent upon the two adults to stay alive in an alien world, she subconsciously may have pursued a survival mode that dictated her behavior.

Behave as directed, or be punished. Be grateful for any benevolence shown you; it depends upon the largess of your owners, not your worthiness. In awe of your owners' power, you are heir to their stated and often demonstrated threats of punishment, whether you are in their presence or not. Most despicable of all was the coercion: Not only are you helpless; your subordination in the hierarchy of human life has been decreed by your religion, the holy doctrine that dictates one's fate.

So over nine months, 14-year-old Elizabeth was reborn a subjugated 15-year-old woman. Many with whom Elizabeth interacts forever will embrace the idea that she somehow was responsible for what happened to her. Such total control of another human being is considered possible only when the captive lacks integrity. This kind of skepticism is likely to haunt her throughout her life. She, her children and even her children's children will bear the scars of her captivity.

Many find all of that hard to believe. For me, as an African-American, it's easy.

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