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Where She Is Now

There’s a remarkable story on CNN.com today: It’s a Where is Elizabeth Smart now piece. If you remember—as the story details—Smart was the pretty, blonde 14-year-old girl who in 2002 was the focus of a massive manhunt. She had been stolen from her bedroom, her sister the only witness. The article supplies a fine summary narrative of it all: her abduction at knife-point, her parents’ worry, the rewards they offered for her recovery, the nine-month search, her recovery, the charges against the man who stole her and his wife, the support for Amber alerts.

What’s remarkable about the story, though, is that it’s the same story that CNN has been running about her abduction since 2002. The story is a captivity narrative, Mary Rowlandson writ in Utah. A pretty girl, removed by a drifter and “self-described” prophet, disappears from her family and from civilization and is forced to live in the wilderness for nine months. Why wasn’t Elizabeth Smart murdered like so many girls in similar situations? Meanwhile, the search for her, despite rewards offered and thousands of volunteers scouring the country, is ineffective. Then, one day, she is seen, almost accidentally, at a crossing. Recovery! A daughter’s joy! A family’s relief! A nation relaxes: at least this story had a happy ending. Years later, the girl, now a young woman, although angry at her kidnapper, tries to live a normal teenage life. Her recovery has continued, and we can all sleep peacefully at night.

It’s such a sweet, sweet narrative. It has a sympathetic heroine, real bad guys, a happy family ending, and no major ill consequences. And chief among the things that didn’t happen: the heroine wasn’t murdered, unlike so many others in similar situations, and that’s saying something. Of course, to realize this is to raise one nagging question: Why wasn’t she murdered like so many girls in similar situations? But far be it from a CNN reporter to allow that kind of investigative journalism into a “Where is she now?” piece. A question like like that might break the story’s candy coating and reveal the bitter truth of it all.

Fact is, the story of Elizabeth Smart’s abduction has changed since CNN first reported on it. (And since it last reported on the story, since CNN hasn’t actually changed the story in the meantime. First is last, last is first: truth doesn’t matter so long as the narrative’s good.) The Smart abduction is a story of religion, not of kidnapping. The Smart family is a family of good Mormons of the mainline Church of Latter Day Saints (LDS). The drifter/prophet who stole her, Brian David Mitchell, is a Fundamentalist Mormon. He wasn’t connected formally to the FLDS church in Colorado City, Arizona and Bountiful, British Columbia, but he read the Book of Mormon with care, and he discovered in it that the LDS didn’t adhere closely enough to the book. He was a zealot who, because the scriptures said he might, discovered in his veins few prophetic cells. In 2000 he declared to his wife that his name was Immanuel David Isaiah, that he was a mouthpiece for God, and that he needed more wives than she. When he saw Elizabeth Smart, God told him she was to be his.

When Mitchell took Elizabeth into the wilderness, he married her, by which I mean he performed a marriage ceremony of his own devising and then raped her. More than that, he convinced her that she was his wife. His case was compelling, after all. She was a good girl who believed in the Book of Mormon and more importantly The Doctrine and the Covenants. He could show her Joseph Smith’s own words that touted patriarchal authority and plural marriage. The point is, he convinced her. For the better part of the nine months Smart was under Mitchell’s control, she was less than five miles from her home. She could have run home to her parents or asked somebody for help (Mitchell took her in public all the time, once, even to a party in downtown Salt Lake), but she didn’t. When she was finally discovered, she even claimed she was eighteen years old and that Mitchell was her father! The story of Elizabeth Smart’s abduction, in other words, while certainly a captivity narrative, isn’t a story of a body kept captive and a mind kept free; rather, it’s a story of a body kept (relatively) free and a captive mind.

All of this has been reported before. John Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven, while a book with problems (more of which I’ve realized since I reviewed it in June, some of which are actually described in Richard Turley’s very defensive review), reports the story well (it’s from his account that I gathered much of the above); moreover, his book was a bestseller.

Why is it, then, that the more troubling, but more truthful story is the one that is forgotten? Why is it that the classic captivity narrative is the one that CNN remembers? (Where is Richard Slotkin when you need him?) I of course have an argument or two, but my reasons are at the moment amorphous; while I give them time to mull, what do you think?



Let me try my hand at one theory right away: protection. It is important, nay necessary to protect E.S. by glossing the truth and disguising how she was taken in by a wacko. Therefore CNN, perhaps at the behest of her parents, chose to report only a surface of things. The point of their story, after all, was public interest, not truth telling.

There are many problems with this, if indeed it is the (or a) reason for CNN’s reporting as it stands. Not the least of which is that it creates a distinction between “public interest” and “truth telling” that probably shouldn’t be made. Further, this reasoning exposes a strange ethical dilemma. CNN is caught weighing goods: the good of “protecting” E.S. from the truth, or the good of exposing FLDS beliefs and actions. But is protecting E.S. really a good thing—or, let me put that another way—is protecting her in this way a good thing? Indeed, I believe storytelling (truthtelling) can be a therapeutic act. Who’s to say that letting the truth out wouldn’t be better than covering it over with another can of paint? And why wouldn’t we want to expose fundamentalist Mormons if by their exposure we can prevent the abduction and “marriage” of teenage girls, not to mention the incest that is rampant among the larger FLDS communities?

So while “protection” might be a reason, I think it’s a terrible one.

could it also be a fundamental resistance and misunderstanding and desire not to enter into the casuistry of the fundamentalist mindset?

that is, you go with the simplest answer—especially when the truth is as complicated as it is and shows a willing, though manipulated, victim.

that is, this is not a black and white story and we like our religion in blacks and whites, so we know who to pillory and who to praise…

and, the LDS has tried so hard in the last few years to move into the mainstream, to put away the more overt strangeness in their practices…and this would wipe off that patina of normalcy (because, in fact, they are normal only because of an allegorical, casuistic reading of their own text)

More generally along those lines, religious reporting is a function of broad swaths: All Mormons are LDS just like all Christians are either Catholic or Evangelical, which are themselves more similar than they used to be, even though in actual fact, they are not. And that’s the same as saying all Islamists are Arab Moslems, not Shiites and Sunnis who also are non-Arab Africans, Pacific Islanders, and Basketball Players.

In other words, sectarianism is too complicated for the evening news. (Paging Neil Postman?)

now you’re just trying to get fancy… with the little inset quote

You can do it too, you know—We’ve had the setup to do it for some time, and today I thought it was time to refine it. I’ll email you instructions.