The stories of Elizabeth Smart and Stephanie Nielson are not that similar. Yes, both had a hard year that they wrote about in a memoir, and both are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons). But there the similarities end.
Elizabeth Smart was abducted from her bed at knifepoint as a 14-year-old and raped repeatedly before being reunited with her family 9 months later; Stephanie Nielson is a mother who was burned on over 80% of her body, and yet lived to experience the pain and joy of rejoining the world afterward.
But despite the differences in their stories, both memoirs celebrate the strength of the human spirit to overcome adversity. Reading the two books at this time of year seems just right. It’s helped me appreciate the blessings I do have and prepare myself to enjoy this next year of my life as well as I can. The human spirit is strong in the face of adversity.
After all, a lot can happen in one year.
My Story by Elizabeth Smart
Like me, Elizabeth Smart is Mormon, a religion in which an emphasis on personal faith and belief is encouraged from a young age. Although Elizabeth Smart was still a teenager, her faith was what kept her going throughout her ordeal. I loved hearing about the little miracles that helped her remember to carry on, despite her fear, and I was impressed by the things that kept her grounded as time passed.
Further, despite the horrors of her months being kidnapped, I loved how Elizabeth’s book remains hopeful. She leaves the dirty things unsaid and resorts to generalities like “it was indescribable” probably not because it was indescribable but because she, like me, doesn’t want to write and reread the horrible descriptions. Some reviewers complain that it was weak because of that, but I’m okay with that. For this book, about child abduction, details of rape are certainly not necessary, and the book as a whole was tastefully done.
My Story by Elizabeth Smart is co-written with Chris Stewart. It is a little bit of a conversational read. I would not say it is incredibly well written — despite the ghostwriter helping. Yet it still is a gripping book simply because of Elizabeth’s strength to overcome.
Heaven is Here by Stephanie Nielson
I also felt a bond with Stephanie Nielson’s story about overcoming her serious injuries and finding joy in her life as a stay-at-home mom. I too am a stay-at-home mom, and while I can’t say I dreamed of only having babies, as Stephanie said she did when she was a girl, I did dream of being a mom. Stephanie and her husband both came from large families (9 and 11 children, respectively), so it was Stephanie’s dream to be a mom to many kids too.
One day in 2008, Stephanie was flying in a small plane with her husband and flight instructor when the plane went down. Stephanie dimly remembered the flames and shouting, but her next memory was waking up three months later. She’d been in a coma for months. She could barely move because her burned skin had been replaced and repaired. Her youngest child could not remember her, and another child refused to look at her.
While she had been in the coma, Stephanie had been given a choice in a special spiritual experience: come back to earth and face pain, or go to heaven and have no more pain. Either way, her children would be okay. But in heaven she would not have a body; on earth, she would. Stephanie decided to come back to earth and rejoice in her body. It was hard work. She could not be the mother she wanted to be. At first, of course, she could not ever sit up. Even after almost a year, she could not carry her children far or button their coats. Her skin was so damaged. She had to relearn how to do routine things.
Stephanie Nielson is a well-known “Mommy blogger” at NieNieDialogues. And she found that by returning to blogging she found a community of people cheering her on. Although she faces a world that stares at her scares, she found people inspired by her story. I think that may help her go on. But she had to decide for herself to look in the mirror, to begin blogging again, and to wake up each morning with a good attitude. That is a hard thing, and she does it. Surely I can deal with my downsides.
I have clinical depression. I have been on medication for it, on and off, for 13 years now. I’ve adapted. Stephanie’s story has reminded me of my own personal challenge to rise above my challenges and embrace life for what it is. Beautiful.
I cried as I read these books. They were so inspiring to me this week. What tear-jerker (inspiring) have you read lately?