Elizabeth Smart and the 110% Mentality

The Silence of the Lambs [Blu-ray]I’ve been following the trial of Brian David Mitchell fairly closely over the last few weeks. For those of you who don’t know, he’s the guy who kidnapped Elizabeth Smart from her room over eight years ago. She was a fourteen year old girl living a normal life with her family in Utah, and overnight she became the essential slave of this psycho and his wife. I was living in Utah at the time, and I don’t know about the rest of the country, but her disappearance was huge news there. I remember after a few months thinking she was dead–she had to be. Cases like that never ended well. And then nine months later, she surfaced. She’d been walking around in the open for some time, following Mitchell and wearing a veil. It was the most bizarre turn of events I could have imagined.

Anyway, because I’d followed the case closely then, I really wanted to know how things turned out in the end. Mitchell’s defense lawyers had been going for an innocent-by-insanity approach. They didn’t deny that he did what Smart said he did–they argued that he thought it was the right thing to do. That he couldn’t tell the difference between right and wrong. The Deseret News had been supplying line by line coverage of the trial, so you can read and find out exactly what Mitchell did, in Smart’s own testimony. The man was a sick, depraved person who essentially used “revelation” to back up anything he wanted, whether it was drugs, sex or anything else. Smart was able to ultimately fight fire with fire, claiming revelations of her own and using Mitchell’s own techniques to put herself in a situation where she could be rescued.

In the courtroom, Mitchell had been going on with his “religious martyr” routine, loudly singing church hymns each day until he inevitably had to be led out of the room so the trial could continue. I won’t give you a full rundown of the ins and outs of the trial–you can read them all yourself if they interest you. Suffice it to say that Mitchell looks and acts every part the whacko.

And then I discover in the testimony that back in the 80s, Mitchell held some significant positions in the local Mormon church. (If you’re not Mormon, this won’t make sense to you, but if you are, he was on the high council, in a bishopric and a temple worker at one time or another.)


Hold on there a minute. Mr. Whacko had been giving advice to other Mormons on how to live their lives for a while? He’d been in positions of authority? How scary is that, and how does that happen? I read on in the testimony to see that at the time he’d been essentially a 110% Mormon. If there was a rule or a law or a suggested way of living, he’d not only follow it–he’d go beyond it. On the surface, at least. Underneath all of that 110% stuff was a man who was abusive to his family and had other serious issues. He was a good enough actor to make everything seem fine on the surface–but it was all there to hide what else was going on.

I believe life is all about balance. Balance work with family with personal interests with whatever. To be successful in life, you need to find that balance, and any time you start to focus on any one part, everything else goes out of whack. Put all your efforts into your business, and your family suffers. Put all your efforts into your family, and you might end up losing your job. Throw yourself into religion, and you’re doing something wrong. Not all of the time, certainly, but that’s the direction you’re headed.

In the Book of Mormon, when Christ first appears in the Americas, he lays out his doctrine and then states, “Verily, verily, I say unto you, that this is my doctrine, and whoso buildeth upon this buildeth upon my rock, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against them. And whoso shall declare more or less than this, and establish it for my doctrine, the same cometh of evil, and is not built upon my rock; but he buildeth upon a sandy foundation, and the gates of hell stand open to receive such when the floods come and the winds beat upon them.”

I think a lot of the time in Mormonism, at least, people see the “less” part of that statement and focus on it. We can’t do less. Less is bad. And so in an effort to avoid doing less, they do more, forgetting that Christ said more was just as bad as less.

You can’t have it all. Not in this life, anyway. Whenever you see someone who apparently has it all, there’s part of the story you’re missing. A person who’s wildly successful in his career has made sacrifices elsewhere. Fact. A person obsessed with sports is giving up time he could be using to do other things. We all have 24 hours each day. How we use those 24 hours is entirely up to us.

This isn’t a blog post to rail on people who throw themselves wholeheartedly into religion or their job or anything else. If anything, it’s an attempt on my part to work through in my head how someone like Mitchell could end up doing what he did. And maybe that’s an exercise in futility to begin with. Maybe I’ll never understand it, and maybe I don’t want to. But somehow, at some point in his life, Mitchell had his stuff together enough to convince multiple people he should have an important role in a Mormon congregation. He gave advice to other people, and that advice carried the weight of authority. He didn’t manage to pull this off for just a month or two–but for over a year, maybe more. Week after week of church meetings, and no one paused to question him? All the while he was being abusive and heading step by step toward Elizabeth Smart in his future.

I could go on, but I’m not going to. In the end, I think I’m just spinning my mental wheels and getting nowhere. Mitchell was found guilty. Smart has gone on to become a courageous young woman who’s now going back to France to finish her time as a missionary for the Mormon church. At least it seems like part of this nightmare has a happy ending–but what can we do to try and avoid nightmares like this in the future?

I don’t have an answer. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on anything I’ve discussed.

9 thoughts on “Elizabeth Smart and the 110% Mentality”

  1. Wow, I never knew he was a bishop. THat’s icky. BUT, they’re just men, and you always have to keep that all in mind.

    Did you see their kids on Oprah? Well, I guess mostly Wanda Barzee’s kids? The guy was a nutjob… so sad…

  2. For those who are trying to make a difference and trying to do some good in the world, Elizabeth Smart’s father had a fantastic idea of not perpetuating the circumstances in which he observed Mitchell. Unfortunately that backfired in a BIG way. I realize this is the most obvious answer to your question, but sadly we can’t do what her dad did (inviting Mitchell to their house to allow him to work and earn money). This isn’t a far cry from the type of practices used in the LDS church for those who are in need, but with the responsibility that parents have to watch over and protect their family, it doesn’t really work on this smaller, more intimate setting. Perhaps years ago the risk may have been much less, but not knowing who you can trust in this increasingly depraved world we have to take extra caughtion in protecting our family–our children–from any and all such situations/people. Even if it means not doing some of the “good” that you would otherwise do…or at least in the way you would have otherwise done it.

  3. I’m not sure not having Mitchell over to help at the house would have avoided the situation. Yes, it would have avoided it for Smart–but someone was going to have it happen to them. Mitchell was set on it, and it was only a matter of time. Scary.

  4. I, too, read all of the articles; every sickening detail. I have to admit that it was fascinating stuff.

    I’m glad the system worked in this case. Mitchell is getting exactly what he deserves. Whether mentally ill or not, he knew what he was doing was wrong.

    Unfortunately there are a lot of people who have held Church positions while hiding a dark secret. The seminary principle in Provo is the most obvious recent example. It’s creepy but just demonstrates that we must always be vigilant in deciding who to trust.

    I imagine that Mitchell’s high council talks did give reasonable advice or he would have been released. So there are at least some checks and balances, and true principles can be taught even by a deceiver.

    Again the seminary principle is a great example because his terrible mistakes still do not discount the good he encouraged in his students.

  5. That’s a good point, Dr. And when you get right down to it, everyone who gives a talk in church is–to one extent or another–being hypocritical. It’s not like any of us are perfect in anything. Sometimes I hear church members putting so much faith in men–be they bishops or seminary principals or whoever. We have to remember that people are fallible, and they’re not a good foundation for a testimony or a belief system. The most important check or balance we have available to us is our own relation with God.

  6. Reading this because of your link from today’s post, and I have to disagree w/ Dr. I’ve heard some REALLY out-there high counselors in my time. Depends on where you are, and especially in the 80s, certain people who were on the stands in, say, the Midwest said all sorts of nutty things that nobody blinked an eye at, high counselors included. So many high counselors ramble about nothing that people tune out. He could have been one of those.

  7. Also a good point, Stacy. There have certainly been some church meetings I left wondering how in the world anyone got anything out of a talk. (Or worrying that someone got something wrong out of it.)

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