June 06, 2011 12:00 PM

Two weeks after returning home to Salt Lake City from her church mission abroad, Elizabeth Smart can still barely contain her enthusiasm as she describes the 18 months she spent walking the streets of Paris, trying to introduce passersby to Mormonism. “I got people interested,” she says. “It was very rewarding.” But the real fun was “going out in the city and getting lost,” she says, laughing. “Stopping at a bakery and deciding what to buy.” Her faves? “Well, the bread,” she says, her blue eyes brightening. “And I loved their strawberry or raspberry mille-feuilles [napoleons]. They were too good!”

Smart’s ability to savor life’s simplest pleasures hints at the deep reserves of strength that have enabled her to move beyond the unspeakable horrors that unfolded after she was kidnapped in 2002 at age 14. “I don’t want to live in the past,” she says firmly. “I still have a lot of life to live.” To claim the busy future she envisions for herself-graduating from Brigham Young University in 2012; rolling out an ambitious youth self-defense education program nationwide; having a career, a husband and a family-the religiously devout Smart, 23, heeded the advice of her mother, Lois, who cautioned that first she needed to forgive Brian David Mitchell, 57. “I have forgiven him,” Smart says. “But that doesn’t mean I have to invite him up to my house or send little support letters. I’m at peace with what’s happened.”

She credits her faith and her parents for her remarkable capacity to let go of the nightmarish nine-month period in her life when, held hostage by Mitchell, she was raped up to four times daily, plied with drugs and alcohol, and often tied to a tree. “We know there is a beginning and end to life,” she says. “I’ve already lived that section of my life; I don’t want to live [it] over again.” Instead, she regards May 25, the day of Mitchell’s sentencing (and, as it happens, National Missing Children’s Day), as a moment of affirmation. “I’d like it to be a day to give others courage,” she says, “to let them know they can overcome whatever they’ve gone through, that life is wonderful and beautiful and that they should make the most of every day they have.”

At the 11th hour, Mitchell’s defense team tried to use Smart’s optimism and spirit to their client’s advantage in hopes of landing him in a mental institution instead of a prison. Recalling the calmness of Smart’s courtroom testimony last November, Mitchell’s two attorneys argued that Smart’s captivity “did not cause extreme psychological injury.” Outraged, her father, Ed, shot back in a newspaper interview, “It certainly impacted her at the time.”

Plainly, it still impacts her. Awarded $50,000 last March by the Diller-von Furstenberg Family Foundation for her commitment to transforming women’s lives, Smart is using the money to found the Elizabeth Smart Foundation, which will focus on protecting children from physical abuse. One of her first projects: to promote radKIDS (Resisting Aggression Defensively; radKIDS.org), a program that teaches children how to fend off attackers.

Longer term, Smart sidesteps suggestions that she might pursue a legal career as a prosecutor. While admitting interest, she says she has not yet decided whether she wants to attend law school. A harpist, Smart plans to complete a music degree at BYU, then remain “very open to future opportunities.” Copy that on the subject of guys. Laughing off the question of whether there was a special boyfriend waiting for her when she returned from France, she says, “I was on a mission. That was the last thing on my mind! Certainly one day I hope to marry and have a family.” For now, she says, “I’m not sure yet exactly what I want to do. It will be whatever I decide will make the biggest difference.”

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