The intersection of faith and history has long intrigued Rep. Chris Stewart, who has co-authored multiple bestsellers, from techno-thrillers to pseudo-theological novels. The Utah Republican was an author — an actual novelist, not a fly-by autobiographer or tell-all storyteller — before entering the House as a freshman this January. That’s why, in part, the dust jacket of his newest book, “My Story,” written with Utahn Elizabeth Smart, doesn’t mention that he’s a congressman.
It could be, too, that the story of Smart has little to do with politics. In 2002, at the age of 14, she was abducted from her Salt Lake City home and held hostage for nine months by a man claiming a new religious order. Smart spent much of this time only miles from her home, sharing sparse mountainside campsites with one other woman, who also terrorized Smart. The well-publicized and headline-grabbing story instead has a great deal to do with faith, something that many in Washington can identify with.
“We all face trials,” Smart says in the 308-page book. “We all have ups and downs. All of us are human. But we are also the masters of our fate. We are the ones who decide how we are going to react to life. Yes, I could have decided to allow myself to be handicapped by what happened to me. But I decided very early that I only had one life and I wasn’t going to waste it.”
Stewart was first introduced to Smart’s father at a speaking event. When Smart decided she wanted to tell her version of the events, she read some of Stewart’s books and decided it would be an appropriate fit.
Stewart, like Smart, is Mormon and a long-time Utah resident. His other titles include “7 Tipping Points That Saved the World” and “Seven Miracles That Saved America,” both co-authored with his brother Ted.
Stewart worked with Smart for about two years on the book, interviewing her, visiting the sites near Salt Lake City where she was held and understanding her version of the events.
“When we originally started the book, and in some of the earlier drafts, we did kind of skip back and forth and give people a sense of what was happening,” Stewart told CQ Roll Call. “But we determined that it was a more powerful story and more compelling just to stay focused on Elizabeth.”
This was before Stewart had made any decision on running for the House; he finalized the book’s production during his first few months in office. “I had no idea that I would find myself in Congress at this time,” he said. “It never occurred to me.”
Smart’s abduction was thoroughly covered in the news during 2002 and 2003; her parents, Ed and Lois Smart, released their own book in late 2003, “Bringing Elizabeth Home: A Journey of Faith and Hope,” and MSNBC aired the hour-long “Taken: The Elizabeth Smart Story” in 2010.
But this book is the first time Smart’s side of the story has been told beyond her testimony at the trial of her captor, Brian David Mitchell. Stewart sought to preserve Smart’s voice throughout the book, a process that he says came relatively easily.
A swift read, “My Story” is simple in its prose and maintains the voice, thoughts and emotions of a 14-year-old Smart. But Stewart made certain to include the big-picture chapters that Smart, now heading up the Elizabeth Smart Foundation, surely wanted to express.
There is a chapter devoted to expunging any fault of her younger sister, who was sleeping in the room the night of Smart’s abduction and was too terrified to tell their parents about the man who crept in that evening. There are sections dedicated to Smart’s emotional and spiritual battle with the almost daily sexual abuse she experienced. The book doesn’t expose many graphic details of the abuse, but rather focuses on Smart’s mental battles to overcome it.
Overall, “My Story” is a chronological piece and gives readers details of the day-to-day struggles and experiences Smart faced, from being chained to a campsite to constant struggles for food and water.
“The real story can only be told by those of us who were there,” Smart says in the book. “I am the one who lived through nine months of hell. I am the one who was forced to lie beside Mitchell every night.”
The book holds a vivid sense of place in Salt Lake City. From the descriptions of the canyons and mountains that encircle the city to the illumination of the downtown district at night, all is done from the viewpoint of someone intimate with the landscape. Smart indeed coerced her capturers to return to Utah after they traveled to California, hoping that being closer to home would aid in her rescue; she was proven right.
Stewart, who says he is focused on committee work and the nuances of homeland security policies and environmental regulations, says the book wasn’t written with a D.C. audience in mind. He said he and Smart have loosely discussed legislative means to advance goals of her foundation, which aims to stop the victimization of and crimes against children. But he notes that the themes from the book are meant to inspire all, amid the “craziness” in Congress.
“[Smart] has a real realistic sense of what happened to her; it’s not like she’s turned a blind eye to that. Really, one of the points, if not the point, of the book is that life is hard sometimes,” he said. “I get that. But life is still good, and you can still be happy.”
Elizabeth Smart will be speaking about “My Story” (St. Martin’s Press, $25.99) at George Washington University’s Lisner Auditorium at 7 p.m. on Thursday. Sponsored by Politics and Prose, tickets are $25 for non-members and $20 for members.