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Elizabeth Smart was 14 years old when a man entered her bedroom, put a knife to her throat and forced her to accompany him into the nearby hills overlooking Utah’s Salt Lake Valley.

Nearly 15 years later, Smart spoke Monday night in Santa Rosa, sharing some of the horrific details of how her abduction led to nine months in captivity. She said the unconditional love of her mother provided the motivation to survive rape and abuse.

“You will always be my daughter,” Smart recalled her mother telling her. “Nothing can ever change that.”

Smart, an author and advocate for those who have suffered childhood abduction, spoke Monday to an audience of about 400 at the year’s first installment of the Sonoma County Women in Conversation series, a production of Sonoma Media Investments, which owns The Press Democrat. The evening at the Luther Burbank Center for the Arts was presented by Summit State Bank.

Now 29, Smart recounted in considerable detail the night she was abducted in a pair of red pajamas by religious fanatic Brian David Mitchell and his wife, Wanda Barzee.

“I have a knife at your neck,” she recalled Mitchell saying as he woke her in her bed the night of June 5, 2002. “Don’t make a sound. Get up and come with me.”

Hiking alone with him up the hillside behind her Salt Lake City home, she recalled stories she had seen on television news reports of abducted children who “never came back alive.” After Mitchell raped her that same night, the effect was so “devastating and completely shattering” that she felt the murdered children were “the lucky ones” because no one could ever hurt them again.

But recalling the love of her mother, father and family, Smart said, she made the choice not to give up.

“I decided I would do whatever it took to survive,” she said.

During her nine-month ordeal she was raped daily, chained, dressed in disguises and threatened with her death and the death of family members if she tried to escape.

The couple had taken her for the winter to Southern California. But Smart managed to convince them to return to Utah. That led to a day the next March when police in Sandy, Utah, surrounded the threesome and began asking whether she was Elizabeth Smart. At first she denied it, and it wasn’t until she was reunited with her father that she “connected the dots” to realize she truly had been rescued.

Previous news stories have said the rescue occurred after a couple spotted Mitchell walking with two women on a street in Sandy. They recognized him from an episode of “America’s Most Wanted” television show.

Smart recounted the events in the 2013 book “My Story.”

In 2012 she married her husband Matthew Gilmour. The couple has one daughter and is expecting a second child, a son, in April.

Smart told the audience Monday night that all people must endure hardship but the key is to “not let what’s happened to you define who you are.”

Smart began the evening speaking at a lectern and later sat for an interview before the audience with Katy Hillenmeyer, a former Press Democrat reporter who now is director of mission integration for St. Joseph Health in Santa Rosa.

The audience, which gave Smart a standing ovation, applauded loudly when she spoke of how much she disagrees with those who want to know what rape victims had been wearing or whether they had been drinking beforehand.

She said she didn’t care whether a woman was “drunk out of her mind and running down the street naked.”

“That’s never an invitation to be raped,” she said.

Asked if she had forgiven her captors, Smart replied yes, but not because they would accept her forgiveness.

“If I didn’t forgive them, it would affect me every day of my life,” she said. “Forgiveness was not for them, but it was for me.”

The Women in Conversation series continues March 6 with writer and political activist Gloria Steinem and concludes April 6 with Laura Schroff, author of “An Invisible Thread.”

You can reach Staff Writer Robert Digitale at 707-521-5285 or robert.digitale@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @rdigit.

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