Coming home is just first step to being home

March 14, 2003|By Susan Reimer

I WAS STRUCK when I heard Ed Smart say that he'd had to adjust his embrace when he greeted his daughter Elizabeth.

Of course, I realized. She'd have grown in the nine months since she was kidnapped from her Salt Lake City bedroom.

"Is it really you?" he asked the child who had blossomed as she passed from 14 to 15 during her ordeal.

"Yes," she said.

Against all probability, Ed and Lois Smart have their daughter back, and the vagabond couple believed to have kidnapped her are in custody.

I am grateful Elizabeth is alive. Like many, I think, I assumed the worst as the days, weeks and months passed.

But I fear that child is still a long, long way from home, and the journey back to normal might be as long and mysterious as her travels with this couple.

It sounds as if accused kidnapper Brian David Mitchell might have taken Elizabeth as a replacement for his wife's 14- year-old daughter, who fled the family when things started to get crazy. His wife, Wanda Eileen Barzee, distraught when her daughter left to live with her natural father, is also in custody.

"I figure, Brian just tried to get her another child," Barzee's son, Mark Thompson, told the New York Times. "Who knows? He's so out there."

He certainly is, if the news accounts of his descent into madness are not exaggerated.

Thompson said Mitchell began to hear voices telling him to sell his worldly possessions. He retreated into fundamentalist Mormonism, began writing his own bible, praying for hours, holding seances, talking to God.

Barzee's children fled the madness as soon as they could. As the family disintegrated, she joined Mitchell in homeless wandering. Her children hadn't heard from them since the mid-1990s.

Even before I read the news accounts of Mitchell's slide into madness, however, I feared for Elizabeth Smart.

She and her kidnappers, though disguised, were spotted walking down the street, presumably not for the first time.

Even when finally approached by the police, Elizabeth did not immediately identify herself.

"It took some time before we could actually determine it was her," said Stephen Chapman, police chief of Sandy, Utah, where she was found. "Under the circumstances, that was probably very normal. I think there's a fear factor we have to look at."

In all these months, apparently posing as some kind of ragamuffin family, how had her captors kept her from escaping or crying out to strangers for help?

I thought of Patty Hearst and wondered what awful magic the kidnappers had worked on the tender mind of Elizabeth Smart.

"I don't know," her father said. "I am just praying she will be OK. You just can't imagine what this type of person might make her think or believe."

Police and Elizabeth's family are no doubt moving slowly. Ed Smart told the Today show yesterday that he and his wife would refrain from questioning Elizabeth and allow her to tell her story in her own time.

But, however carefully the adults proceed, however resilient this girl might be and however confident she might become in the embrace of her family, I fear that she has been changed in some fearful way by this ordeal - even if her kidnappers did not twist her mind or violate her body.

Ed and Lois Smart have their daughter back. But who is she now?

In the midst of a nation's gratitude at her safe return, her father's question echoes:

"Is it really you?"

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