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Smart clan may be as fragile as Elizabeth

By HIL ANDERSON   |   March 14, 2003 at 7:22 PM   |   Comments

LOS ANGELES, March 14 (UPI) -- As the family of Elizabeth Smart lovingly lavishes the dazed 15-year-old with nine months of pent-up emotion, they will have to be wary of developing unconscious anger over the girl's inability or unwillingness to escape, a psychologist warned Friday.

Dr. Dorit Whiteman, whose New York practice specializes in post-traumatic stress, said that the euphoria and excitement over Elizabeth's recovery could give way in the future to questions as to why the kidnapped teenager put her family through nine months of anguish while she apparently made no attempt to get away even when she was found wandering the streets with her alleged abductors just a dozen miles from home and had once camped for two months in the hills not far from the safety of her own home.

"Can you imagine if your child comes home after this horrific abduction in the middle of the night and you then realize she's been around the corner?" Whiteman said in an interview with United Press International. "Parents would have terrible shock and disappointment that she was kidnapped and was nearby for some time."

Whiteman anticipates that after some time, the parents may unconsciously resent Elizabeth's lack of communication during her lengthy travails and travels.

"Another problem, not asserting blame, is that the parents have to be very careful not to make Elizabeth feel that she is a bad person, that there's something wrong with the girl, that she's a freak and that she has done something very peculiar," she noted.

"The adjustment of parents to such an event is hard to even imagine -- to control yourself not to think that your child has betrayed you," said Whiteman, who continues treating Holocaust survivors.

Whiteman's decades of insight into people plucked from harrowing situations include three books on the Holocaust, one on the separation of Jewish children from their parents, "Escape via Siberia: A Jewish Child's Odyssey of Survival" (Holmes and Meier, October 1999).

"Everybody is treating Elizabeth like a victim and that's probably so because no one wants to think she did something wrong. Right now, she has much sympathy as a victim, but after a while, people will say, 'How come you didn't cast aspersions?' You have to go slowly in therapy, and the feeling shouldn't be that she's such as odd ball that she needs some treatment."

Police believe Brian "Emmanuel" Mitchell forced Elizabeth from the security of her own bed at knifepoint on the night of June 5. After Elizabeth's terrified 9-year-old sister, Mary Katherine, waited some two hours to alert her parents, a massive search was launched that soon captured national headlines.

The pressure on the Smart family mounted as time passed and police looked closely at the handymen her father, Edward, occasionally employed in the home for rates far below what a licensed contractor would charge.

On Wednesday, the astounding news that Elizabeth had been found alive and well in nearby Sandy was tempered by reports that the teenager had been evasive in identifying herself to police who conceivably could have allowed her and her two abductors to go on their way had they not recognized her under the disguise.

Several witnesses quickly came forward to say they had seen the group around town, conspicuously dressed in white robes and with veils concealing the faces of Elizabeth and suspect Wanda Barzee. Photos were produced of Elizabeth and the suspects at a crowded apartment party in Salt Lake City where it seemed plausible that she could have easily slipped away or found recognition and protection among the guests.

These questions will have to be answered before elation over Elizabeth's return turns to doubts.

"I can see the steps from, 'Darling, you're home' to people saying 'How come you didn't call or why didn't you make an effort, or how come you stayed with these people?'" Whiteman observed. "The parents might have overwhelming betrayal issues, and all these people that searched for a victim now might wonder why she didn't help herself enough."

"To feel that helplessness is OK, you have to see what has made your child susceptible to this brainwashing and to strengthen the ties again with her," Whiteman said.

Police aren't yet saying much about what happened during Elizabeth's captivity other than to say she was undoubtedly "psychologically affected" by Barzee and Mitchell, the drifter and self-proclaimed prophet.

Judith Friedman, a Los Angeles psychotherapist specializing in family counseling, theorized that Elizabeth might have come to view Mitchell as more than a thug.

"I don't know the whole story, but her life may have been threatened, or they may have threatened a family member," Friedman told UPI. "Plus, he may have had the charisma of Charles Manson."

Mitchell has been portrayed as a predator, however there has been no evidence made public yet that he was violent. Police said Mitchell was also a believer in polygamy, but they have not confirmed a Seattle Times report that he abducted Elizabeth because God had instructed him to take the teenager for his bride.

The best that analysts have been able to come up with so far is that Elizabeth came under the influence of the Stockholm syndrome, a psychological bonding that hostages and kidnap victims sometime develop with their captors when escape seems impossible and minor kindnesses are granted to them.

"It happens to people who ... come out and say, 'He was very nice and gave me extra food,' and it takes over the picture of being nice in giving you an extra sandwich instead of this is the guy who kidnapped you," Whiteman ventured. "It's the pattern that people fall in to, and apparently it's not just children who begin to make excuses for their captors and this could have happened with Elizabeth."

"I don't want this to sound like blame, but my question is, what made her more susceptible? When you're only 14 or 15, is it never impossible to slip a note to someone or to give someone a certain wink that there is a problem," said Whiteman. "After a while, she would have had guilt for not having reached out to her parents. What are her emotions after she gets out of the limelight? Slowly, there will be a dawning -- 'How did this happen to me?' That's the process we have to look at."

Stockholm syndrome took its name from a 1973 hostage drama at a bank in the Swedish capital, however its most famous case to date had been the 1974 kidnapping of Patricia Hearst from her Berkeley apartment by the radical Symbionese Liberation Army.

Hearst, who re-emerged months later wielding a gun during an SLA bank robbery, said the support of the Smart family was crucial while Elizabeth slowly worked her way back to "normal" in a process that could take a long while.

"She's got to now kind of start over and she's also come home to a family where the dynamic that they had before her kidnapping has changed dramatically," Hearst told CNN's "Larry King Live," Thursday night. " She's come into a family now that has spent nine months totally focused on getting her back to them."

It may be too early to get an idea of the longer-term prospects for Elizabeth and the entire tightly knit Smart clan.

Whiteman said she hoped the Smarts would be aware that Elizabeth might be more willing to open up to a therapist to whom she is not emotionally attached rather than to her parents and her church. She went on to say that even therapists should tread cautiously and be patient in their attempts to forge a relationship with Elizabeth.

"On one hand, when she's home and has her old friends, she could be delighted to be where she is known and loved, but if the community has reservations and she is uncomfortable, it could be difficult," Whiteman explained. "Friends could make her happy and comfortable but she could also be feeling that 'everyone is whispering and wondering what I did.'"

Whiteman is confident that Elizabeth can adjust to her situation and go on to lead a fairly normal life.

She said: "I have a two-track theory I have written about. In people who have suffered severe trauma, they can be leading a very happy life, although there's also a second track running inside of them that speaks of experiences that are unique to that person."

The Smart family may have to change residences, Whiteman suggested, or be hyper-vigilant and utilize safety measures around their home.

Whiteman said: "So for instance, Elizabeth may need to only stay somewhere that is super-safe or a place with an alarm system in the house. This other track is there within Elizabeth, but it will not be there all the time."

© 2003 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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