Smart case renews focus on polygamy

Role of state's religious culture under examination in wake of teen's return.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

The welcome home party for Elizabeth Smart, complete with pizza and fireworks, took place at Salt Lake City's Liberty Park. It was indeed a day to celebrate liberty. Elizabeth had spent nine months in captivity while her family was held hostage by apprehension.

Lois and Ed Smart waved like winning candidates as they greeted hundreds of well-wishers, and Mrs. Smart enthused about Elizabeth's request for bubble baths. "Elizabeth is doing well. She's beautiful and she's happy to be home," Mrs. Smart said.

But for all the justified jubilation and the signs of a family joyfully reuniting, the homecoming of Elizabeth Smart is also stirring troubling questions about the role this state's distinctive religious culture may have played in one of the nation's highest-profile missing-persons cases.

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Most prominently, speculation that the 14-year-old's abductor wanted to make her his polygamous wife has brought renewed media focus to an issue that has stirred controversy here since the days of Brigham Young.

Regardless of whether this theory is born out as the kidnapping case is clarified, such questions represent a darker kind of publicity for a state that had been basking in the afterglow of success in hosting 2002 Winter Olympics.

"My daughter called me to say that all the good will Utah got from the Olympics is gone now that we're getting this bad press from polygamy," said Noemi Mattis, a Utah psychologist who specializes in abuse and multiple personalities.

The polygamy issue is one that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints had hoped to lay to rest more than a century ago. It officially disavowed polygamy in 1890, but the practice has endured among some who consider themselves fundamentalist Mormons.

Brian Mitchell, the homeless curbside preacher accused of stealing Elizabeth from her bedroom on June 5, 2002, was known to some on the streets of Salt Lake as Emmanuel. He and his wife, Wanda Barzee, were responding to a revelation that he should have seven wives, according to one of Barzee's friends. Authorities have not yet said if they believe this was the motive.

Mitchell was a lifelong Mormon who reverted to fundamentalist doctrine, later adding his own brand of patriarchy. "Emmanuel was an LDS [Latter-Day Saint] person, and then he started hearing voices telling him he should live polygamy and he took out on his own," said a fundamentalist Mormon who asked that her name not be used, fearing retribution. While she is polygamous, she says his behavior "is not a procedure we recognize as correct."

Details of Smart's nine-month disappearance are still emerging but already psychologists are speculating about why the girl seemed so compliant to the self-styled "Prophet of God."

When Smart, Mitchell and Barzee were stopped by police in the town of Sandy, 15 miles south of Salt Lake City, Smart initially seemed to evince Mitchell's brand of religious fervor. The 15-year-old was wearing a robe and covered in a veil. Her blond hair was disguised with a wig. When the officers confronted her, she told them she was Mitchell's daughter and that her name was Augustine. "You think I'm that Elizabeth Smart girl that ran away and I'm not," she said.

Ed Smart believes that his daughter was a victim of "brainwashing," a phenomenon that has appeared in other abduction cases. Patty Hearst succumbed to it as a hostage of the Symbionese Revolutionary Army.

Intimidated by Mitchell, "Elizabeth could have felt that there was a threat to her family, or she was keeping something from happening to her sister," says Marybeth Raynes, a psychologist who is Mormon herself.

Elizabeth also may have reacted to Mitchell's religious language, borrowed liberally from Mormon doctrine. (The Smart family is devoutly Mormon.) In a rambling, seven-page document, Mitchell borrows familiar Mormon passages, although with peculiar twists.

Whatever brainwashing there was may have prevented Elizabeth from attempting escape. Dr. Mattis thinks it may have even caused Elizabeth to help target a favorite cousin. Someone tried to break in to her cousin's home a month after Elizabeth disappeared. Mattis labels the kidnapping as religious abuse, in this case a perversion of mainstream Mormon thought.

But Ed Firmage, professor of law at the University of Utah, says it is simply too easy to stereotype such a man as a Mormon or a polygamist. "A deranged man who kidnaps little girls has a justification drawn from his own psychic substructure ... his own failures."

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