Tuesday, May 24, 2011

That smart Smart girl

Like everyone else who lives in Utah, for years I've followed the Elizabeth Smart saga. The story, as they say, has legs, and became a story of interest across the nation. Smart, we were constantly reminded by the news media, was kidnapped out of her bedroom by a man in June, 2002. At the time Smart was a young teenager. She was hidden in plain site by the kidnapper and his wife, who had set up a campground in the hills surrounding Salt Lake City. Smart was raped almost every day by the kidnapper, Brian David Mitchell, who claims to be a prophet, told by God that Elizabeth would be his wife.

Smart was found with the couple nine months later and returned to her family. Justice was delayed, dragged out for years because Mitchell, suspected of faking his delusional behavior, has been in and out of psychiatric facilities. He was finally found competent to stand trial. He was tried and sent to prison. Elizabeth Smart has grown up, and gave some interviews recently where she said she's thinking of going to law school, after she finishes her schooling at Brigham Young University.

Public interest in the case is still very strong. But children are kidnapped for sex in other places, children are kidnapped and murdered, also, but we don't always hear about those cases. What made the Smart case stand out amidst the sea of crime stories of the past decade?

In the recent book, Popular Crime, author Bill James* has this take on the media interest in certain cases:
In the wake of the Natalee Holloway case and several similar [cases], there was a media contretemps provoked by objections from minority groups that the media was focusing disproportionally on what they called "Missing White Girl" cases, and ignoring murders that occurred in the black community, murders and disappearances of men, and murders and disappearances of ordinary, frumpy-looking people. As far as CNN knows, you're not missing unless you're cute.

. . .This is the way it has always been. Popular crime stories are of many different types and descriptions and it is not easy to say why one case becomes famous and another does not. In my view, it is not possible to predict whether a crime will become famous, based on the elements of the crime. What makes a crime famous is not the crime itself but the way the media reacts to it, which depends to a large extent on the contextual dynamics of the media competition.

. . .There are certain elements that the biggest stories tend to have in common. Number one is an attractive victim. It is inherent in the definition of the word "attractive." It means that others pay attention. . . .children and pretty women are dry tinder, especially children and women of privilege.
Elizabeth is a child of privilege from a well-to-do family, and is attractive in a very wholesome, girl-next-door way. Last week watching her on television being interviewed it appeared that she glowed. Her blonde hair glowed. Her skin glowed, her eyes glowed. Even her teeth glowed! She wants to use her experience as a victim to advocate for other victims.

The dark side of attractiveness is that it can also attract the wrong people, like Brian David Mitchell. Mitchell looks like a caricature of a street crazy. He is a bearded man who wore robes and was followed by his wife and Smart, also in robes, Elizabeth in a veil to hide her face.

There's a lot of second-guessing on the story. One day Smart, while still missing, was confronted by a police detective in the public library, and asked to remove her veil. Mitchell intervened. He told the officer it was against their religion, and the cop backed off. Had the veil been removed he would have recognized her. Her face was on thousands of fliers, posters, billboards and on television. The cop was criticized later for his decision.

Elizabeth Smart is smart. She has decided to return as much as possible to a normal life. Personally, I don't know how someone could get through an ordeal like she did and be "normal," not wake up screaming in the night, for instance. Maybe she does that. But at least in her public persona she appears that she has mostly put her time with the bizarre religious polygamist couple behind her. Her desire for a regular life--get married, have children, help other people--will help her to further adjust. I give a lot of credit to her parents and a supportive family and community.

For the rest of my life every so often I will probably be seeing stories on Elizabeth Smart, and especially if she does as she says and becomes a lawyer. I have no doubt she'll accomplish whatever goals she will set for herself.

*James, in his uneven book about media and public attention to crime cases, mentions many of the most high profile cases of the past couple of decades, but does not mention Elizabeth Smart at all.


No comments: