Elizabeth Smart Reveals How She Manages Fears About Her Kids’ Safety

Elizabeth Smart Marks 21st Anniversary of Kidnapping Rescue

Elizabeth Smart has spent 20 years as an advocate for trauma survivors, willing to retell her own terrifying kidnapping story to prevent those who are still processing their experiences from feeling alone.

Or that they’re in some way complicit in what happened to them.

“When we are on the outside looking at something, it is very easy to judge,” Smart told E! NewsFrancesca Amiker in an exclusive interview. “It’s very easy to say, ‘Well, it wasn’t that bad,’ or ‘she could have left,’ or ‘she could have done this or that.’ Victims of domestic violence, they experience the same thing, where people are like, ‘You’ve got a car, you’ve got a phone, why don’t you just drive away?'”

She continued, “As someone who has experienced being physically chained up, but also experienced having someone wrapping mental chains around me, I can speak on behalf of victims who’ve experienced that, and say those mental chains really are so much stronger than any physical chain.”

And since serving as an executive producer on the 2017 Lifetime movie about her own 2002 abduction, Smart has continued to team with the network to bring more harrowing stories of survival to the screen.

Their latest effort is The Girl Locked Upstairs: The Tanya Kach Story, starring Jordyn Ashley Olson as the titular eighth-grader, who, while dealing with problems at home and school in Pittsburgh, fell prey to the attentions of middle school security guard Thomas Hose (played by Robert Baker). The 38-year-old persuaded 14-year-old Kach to run away to be with him in 1996 and held her captive for 10 years—half of which she spent living under an identity Hose created for her, technically unshackled but feeling like a prisoner nonetheless.

Jordyn Ashley Olsen & Robert Baker in “The Girl Locked Upstairs” (Lifetime)

Hose spent 15 years in prison—the maximum sentence available—after pleading guilty to involuntary deviant sexual intercourse and related charges. He was released in 2022.

Smart and Kach, who was “heavily involved in the script,” also sat down for a special that will air after the movie premieres on June 8. “She is a strong, incredible woman,” Smart said, “but she did not leave her experience unscarred, and I think it’s just so courageous of her to sit down and be wiling to talk with me.”

She added, “I felt a real connection with a lot of the emotions that she went through, and a lot that she experienced really spoke to me.”

Smart was 14 when, on June 5, 2002, she was abducted from her childhood bedroom by Brian David Mitchell, a drifter and self-appointed preacher who’d previously done some roof work on her family’s Salt Lake City home. Aided by his wife Wanda Barzee, Mitchell kept Smart captive for nine months before—thanks to the extensive media coverage of the crime—he was seen by two people who recognized him from a police sketch and called police.

Mitchell is serving a life sentence for kidnapping and transporting a minor across state lines to engage in sexual activity. Barzee, who pleaded guilty to kidnapping and unlawful transportation of a minor and cooperated in the prosecution of her husband, was released from federal prison in 2018. 

When Smart was rescued, she was out in public with the couple—like Kach, theoretically free to run but thoroughly terrorized into staying put.

Courtesy of A&E Networks

When she speaks to fellow survivors, Smart said, “The first thing I always want them to know is, ‘You’re here, you made it. Whatever you did, it doesn’t matter.'”

Because so many victims “never had the chance to do ‘the right thing,’ or what you think might be the right thing,” she added. “They did everything ‘right’ and they’re still not here, their lives were ripped away from them. So it doesn’t matter—it doesn’t matter what you did, [it] doesn’t take away from who you are. You are here.”

After that, Smart continued, “It’s how you move forward, being able to define those boundaries that allow you to have your peace. You are able to decide how much of yourself you want to share with the world or the people around you, and at what point do you say, ‘OK, no more’?”

If you go the route of opening yourself up to the world, “it becomes a lot,” she acknowledged. “Do you have a routine that you can turn to to help bring back your peace, to help you decompress from all the emotions that you felt? Do you have healthy practices?”

Smart has made tending to her mental well-being a regular part of her self-care routine, taking time when she can—even if it’s just a few minutes of quiet—to recharge.

And while she can’t help taking her work home with her, let alone everywhere she goes, the 36-year-old strives not to let what she went through cloud how her children see the world. Though striking a balance between teaching her kids about safety and not being irrationally overprotective can admittedly be a challenge.

When it comes to what Smart’s three kids with husband Matthew Gilmour know about her abduction, “they could tell you the overarching story,” she said. “My oldest would be able to tell you the most, and the youngest…she knows.”

Smart added with a smile, “I don’t know if she cares. She’s still very much the boss of everything.”

But at this point, Chloe, 9, James, 7, and Olivia, 5, have heard—to varying degrees—why their mommy sometimes freaks out if they go outside without telling her first.

While she’s found that the best time to discuss a difficult topic is when the kids bring it up themselves, Smart has taken the opportunity to explain to her little ones why she was bothered when they were suddenly out of sight, even if they were just in their own yard.

“There would be times they would wander off and then I’d be really upset,” she said. “That’s usually when I was like, ‘I am the way I am because bad things can happen anywhere. When I was little, I was in bed and something bad happened.’ That was the first step, and then just from there they think I’m overreacting.”

Which she’s still prone to do. But now, Smart added, when she asks them, “‘Do you know why that scares me?’ they’ll be like, ‘Yes, Mom, I know why.'”

Elizabeth Smart/Instagram

One yet-to-be-posed question still spooks Smart, however. And she remains unsure what exactly to say if her kids ever ask, “Will that happen to me?”

“I’ve spoken with a lot of parents and [they] always ask me, ‘How do I talk to our children?'” Smart said. “Quite frankly, I’m not a parenting expert, I only have the experience of raising my own kids.”

On her end, she continued, “I’m looking for that answer myself. I want to be honest with my kids and I want them to know, this world, not everybody has your best interest at heart. But I don’t want them to live in fear.”

Aiding her in that quest is her husband of 12 years, whom she credits for his uncanny ability to know when she needs to have it her way and when her concerns could stand to be taken down a notch. 

“He’s always been there for me,” Smart said of Matthew, a native of Aberdeen, Scotland, she met while both were doing missionary work in Paris. “He’s always respected if I’ve said no, or ‘I’m not ok with this.’ He’s also been the counterbalance to me, when I’m like, [in a mock-hysterical tone], ‘But I can’t let anyone out! No one can step a foot outside! Nobody can do anything unless I’m there!'”

Returning to her normal register, she added, “He’s there to calm me down a little bit, to even us out.”

The Girl Locked Upstairs: The Tanya Kach Story premieres Saturday, June 8, at 8 p.m. on Lifetime, followed by Beyond the Headlines: The Tanya Kach Story With Elizabeth Smart.

Watch E! News weeknights Monday through Thursday at 11 p.m., only on E!.

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