BARRON, WIS. – Elizabeth Smart couldn’t escape her fame.
Returning to her Salt Lake City home after she was abducted and held captive for nine months as a teenager in 2003, Smart was recognized by strangers at the grocery store and saw her own face on magazine covers. She had survived horrors, but then she had to begin another journey.
“I thought I could just go back to who I was before I was kidnapped. … I didn’t know at that point in time that I would never be that girl ever again, and that was one of the hardest things coming home,” Smart told a crowd of about 1,300 people jammed into the Barron High School gymnasium on Friday night — a community trying to understand how they could best support their own famous kidnapping victim, Jayme Closs.
Few other people in the world have any idea what it is like to be Jayme, snatched at age 13 from her home outside Barron five months ago, her captor shooting both of her parents before dragging her into his car trunk, her mouth, wrists and ankles taped.
Closs escaped nearly three months later from a cabin near Gordon, Wis., when her captor left for a while and she ran outside and approached a neighbor who was walking her dog.
Jake Patterson, 21, was soon arrested and is being held on charges of murder, kidnapping and armed burglary.
Smart, now a 31-year-old wife and mother of three, offered insight to the community over a couple of days this week, capped by a speech that captivated the crowd.
It was part of her broader effort to raise awareness and help child crime victims and their families through speaking engagements, books and her foundation.
Smart said she was inspired by the outpouring of support in Barron and by the strength of the girl they’ve rallied around.
It’s a time for reclaiming “all of your lives, because this has touched so many people,” Smart said.
She wanted people to understand what it was like to be a victim, she said, before telling details of her own horrific story. She was snatched from her bedroom, taken into a mountain camp and raped repeatedly by a man who proclaimed that she was his wife — while a woman who was his wife stood by.
The ordeal made Smart wonder if she had value, she said, if she was still worthy of love.
At one point, she realized her captors might never let her go, and she worried that she would be captured so long that she would forget her own name. So she did everything she could to memorize her family, she said. “I never wanted to forget who I was. I never wanted to forget where I came from. I never wanted to forget my family,” she said.
Plenty of times, Smart said, she wanted to give up. Feeling the love of God and her family sustained her, she said.
Authorities found Smart and her captors walking on the streets of Sandy, Utah, after people recognized the couple.
At first, Smart said, she was terrified to even admit who she was to police, because her captors had threatened that they would harm her family if she ever told.
After she returned home, she said, she wanted to live life to the fullest and didn’t want to miss out on anything. She appreciated the carpeting and running water in her home, and even homework.
But, she said, some people asked her why she didn’t scream during her captivity, why she didn’t run.
“I want to take a second and tell you, you should never ask a victim a question that starts with the words ‘Why didn’t you,’ because they hear ‘You should have,’ ” Smart said.
In reality, she said, whatever the survivor did was the right thing — because they survived.
Smart gently offered other tips, too:
What should acquaintances or strangers do if they happen to bump into Jayme in town?
“If you see her, it’s OK to smile, but don’t stare,” Smart advised. “If you see her, it’s OK to walk by and just let her go on her way. If you feel compelled to talk to her, write her a letter, and she can choose to read it whenever she’s ready.”
And as much as people want to keep publicly showing support for the girl, she said, it’s OK to take down the “Welcome home, Jayme” signs that dot businesses and churches.
“They don’t have to stay up forever, because Jayme will want her anonymity some day … nobody will have thought that you have forgotten her,” Smart said. “I know you all love her. I know you are all extremely protective of her and will defend her tooth and nail.”
Support and space
It was the kind of advice the community needed now, a couple of months after Jayne escaped her captor, said Barron School Board Member Dan McNeil.
“We have to give her space,” he said. “Give her support, but do it in a respectful way.”
Patterson is set to appear in court on March 27. He wrote in a recent letter to a KARE 11 television reporter that he intends to plead guilty.
“I’m not glad that this happened, but I’m so glad that she has you,” Smart told the crowd. “All of you have come out tonight because you care so much.”
Smart said Jayme “will reclaim her life. She will go on to become an extraordinary woman. Whether she ever decides to tell her story publicly or not, that is her choice.”