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.”
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.