CAPTIVE AMERICA: SMART, ROWLANDSON AND THE COLONIAL SENTIMENT
United States history tells of a white female abducted from her home and forced to spend months with her captors roaming the wilderness. A book is published upon her return detailing her miraculous recovery and her steadfast dedication to God. Contrary to academic tradition, I am speaking not of the infamous Mary Rowlandson of 1682, but of Elizabeth Smart—2002’s most famous abduction case. While the events in each of these narratives occur at widely different times in history, they both encapsulate the tropes of the captivity narrative genre and are presented for largely the same reasons. These reasons include: clearing misunderstandings; explaining their ordeal in religious terms and sharing that religion with others; representing the communities in which they inhabit and bringing them together against a common foe; and putting the experience behind them. The trope I will be discussing in this paper is the third: that of bringing a community together against a common foe.
David Spurr states in The Rhetoric of Empire, “According to [George] Balandier, the colonial situation is characterized by ‘the domination imposed by a foreign minority, “racially” and culturally different, over a materially weaker indigenous majority in the name of a racial (or ethnic) and cultural superiority’” (5-6). The premise of his book is that though America has now entered an age of postcoloniality, colonial tropes are still apparent in works documenting Western ideals. In this paper I will be looking at the ways
captivity narratives are still able to support the Othering of the wild subject in order to foster the colonial spirit of America.
Captivity narratives began as solely Anglo accounts of captivity among the Indians, with Rowlandson’s being the prototype. While the specifics have broadened over time, tales of captivity have not lessened in public interest or rhetorical impact:
[T]he captivity theme has persisted in Anglo-American literature and popular culture as a pervasive mode of representing a distinctively Euro-American identity. The selective tradition of captivity has expanded from print to drama, public sculpture, children’s games, film, and television, remaining today an implicit model for representations of threatening otherness (Strong 2).
As detailed above, the genre is as much about a certain type of person as it is about a certain type of situation. Both The Sovereignty and Goodness of God and Bringing Elizabeth Home are not just tales of captivity and release. They are accounts in which the protagonist is seen as everyone’s mother, or everyone’s daughter. She represents not just herself, but the goodness of her nation, and what that nation needs to protect. Elizabeth’s father, Ed Smart, states: “When she was kidnapped, she became everyone’s daughter. She belonged to America” (Bringing Elizabeth 3). Neither Smart nor Rowlandson desired such recognition. Indeed, if they had it would have gone against the humility their spokesmen said they possessed. However, it was precisely because of their public image and social status that they were captured and subsequently released.
Rowlandson and Smart were both daughters of wealthy businessmen. Smart’s father bought and sold real estate and shuffled his family to and from the various million dollar homes that he turned for profit. Reporters Maggie Haberman and Jeane MacIntosh assert that “Elizabeth Smart was from an affluent, socially and politically connected family of doctors, lawyers, journalists and businessmen that could trace its roots back to the days of Salt Lake’s early pioneer settlers” (3). Likewise, Rowlandson’s father was a landowner—“the largest landowner in town” (Salisbury 15)—and upon her marriage she became the only woman allowed the title of “mistress” in her New England community. When Smart was abducted from her bedroom and Rowlandson was kidnapped by Native Americans, both women had resourceful allies to spread the news of their captivity and provide rewards for their return. Their economic advantage also contributed to the level of public concern over their plight.
According to Ed Smart, the summer his daughter’s disappearance was coined “the summer of missing children” (Bringing Elizabeth 54). Statistically, he says, “there are 800,000 missing children cases a year in this country, or about two thousand children a day” (54). This particular summer did not have a noticeable rise in abduction cases, but it did have a rise in abduction media coverage, and much of that coverage went to Smart herself. Her family had the economic resources and professional savvy to obtain the help of the Laura Recovery Center Foundation and the Abby and Jennifer Recovery Foundation, to put up a web page, to work with the media, and to hire a publicist. On June 5th Smart’s sister alerted her parents to her disappearance at 3:58 a.m., and by that afternoon her father made the first of several press conferences. The day after Smart went missing, her parents had amassed $250,000 in reward money from private donations, and on July 4th her parents offered $25,000 of their own money for information related to the case. Though Rowlandson of course did not have the aid of media, author Gary Ebersole writes, “The events of Rowlandson’s captivity were surely the subject of discussion, both public and private, long before Mary’s narrative assumed its written form and was printed” (Ebersole 16). And though she was handed over willingly by her captors, it wasn’t before those captors received twenty pounds of ransom money from a “Boston Gentleman, and Ms. Usher, whose bounty and religious charity, I would not forget to make mention of” (Salisbury 108). Smart and Rowlandson were such high profile figures in part because of their high profile families. These families appealed, in both senses of the word, to the nation for their safe return.
Aside from their social connections, Smart and Rowlandson also became iconic captives because of their religion. Smart was a member of a large Mormon family which had the support of the fellow congregants in their ward, and Rowlandson was the wife of a prominent minister. Rowlandson’s narrative is highly devotional, and while Smart’s was written by her parents and not by herself, it recounts the spiritual anguish and redemption of her parents. Religion brings with it not just a creed but a certain type of persona upon those who practice it, and Smart and Rowlandson were no exception. Smart was described as angelic by everyone who had a public voice during and after her kidnapping—from family members to news reporters. Ed and his wife Lois write, “It’s often been said that she plays the harp like an angel and rides a horse like a cowboy” (26). Smart’s uncle, Tom, says, “Calling Elizabeth angelic was not a stretch. She was very accomplished on the harp, which only added to the image” (In Plain Sight 5). in like manner, Haberman and MacIntosh assert that “[t]he harp was a perfect choice of instrument for a young girl universally described as ‘an angel’” (95).While Mary Rowlandson lived before the age of photography and no one commented on her physical characteristics, as the wife of a minister it can be deduced that she too was seen as a highly spiritual person and seen ethereally as Smart had been.
Hand in hand with religion, piety was also a characteristic of both Smart and Rowlandson which was emphasized in their captivity narratives. Speaking of an instance when a horse got away from her daughter, Lois Smart recounts Elizabeth’s spiritual reverence: “Despite her panic, she had the presence of mind to kneel down and pray” (Bringing Elizabeth 27). Haberman and MacIntosh elaborate on Smart’s pious nature. Quoting a family friend, they state: “She was very innocent and sweet, very endearing. She was very sheltered—she didn’t use the Internet or have an email address” (91). This bit of information was crucial to her public appeal and support. That same year, two young girls in Oregon were abducted and murdered by a neighbor, and one of the girls reportedly dressed provocatively and “above her age,” therefore disqualifying her innocence in the minds of some of the public. Because of being written first hand, Rowlandson’s narrative is full of her own proofs of piety; but in the introduction to her book the editor, Increase Mather, asserts: “[T]herefore though this Gentlewomans [sic] modesty would not thrust it into the Press, yet her gratitude unto God made her not hardly persuadable to let it pass, that God might have his due glory and others benefit by it as well as herself” (Salisbury 65-66). Not being an outspoken woman was just as important to Rowlandson’s case as not dressing immodestly was to Smart’s. By being presented as not only God-fearing but unworldly women, Smart and Rowlandson were able to appeal to the sentiments of the public—sentiments which helped foster their position as America’s iconographic women.
Though America has now entered the 21st century, only white women are able to fill the role of those who represent America’s need for protection against an outside Other. Rowlandson’s role was very straightforward due to its time and place in American history. She was taken captive by neighboring Native Americans during Metacom’s War—a war over land and resources in which whites and Native Americans took opposing sides. As a white woman, she represented what the white community needed to protect, and a woman of any other race would not have been able to represent this Euro-American identity. Smart’s case is less straightforward. Because she was taken captive by a white, mentally ill, homeless polygamist, she did not represent a white victim of a racialized Other, but nevertheless her ordeal was seen as a reason to tighten America’s borders and go to war against Iraq.
THE COLONIAL IMAGE
There is no question that Elizabeth Smart’s appearance played a large part in the media frenzy over her kidnapping. As a blonde 14-year-old she epitomized the quintessential American child. Haberman and MacIntosh write, “Dozens of newspapers across the country had a story about the photogenic missing teen from Utah that day” (114). Just as the world could not tear itself away from the image of the Twin Towers crumbling to the ground in 2001, it could also not tear itself away from the angelic-looking teen who was being deemed “everyone’s daughter” in 2002. In a 2005 article in the Nation, Patricia Williams laments, “A recent study in Canada showed that children who are deemed ‘ugly’ get much less attention from adults than do their more attractive peers. In the context of assaults on children, it’s probably also an easy bet that older, minority and poor (factors that make anyone less ‘cute’) children are generally less well attended than younger, white, ‘adorable’ ones” (Williams 12). Indeed, according to an article in Essence entitled “What Happened to MY CHILD?”, “Just as quickly as the Smart family's polished image emerged, a negative image of the Harris clan took shape in the local papers: The family was seemingly portrayed as neglectful and suspect, living in a large, chaotic house with potentially shady characters coming and going” (Latour 228). While the image that Latour is speaking of is metaphorical, Jyrine Harris was a black boy who was also kidnapped out of his home, but whom investigators did not take an interest in the way they took to Elizabeth Smart. Latour attests that “While missing White children become household names, missing Black children are almost invisible” (Latour 224).
In Tender Violence: Domestic Visions in an Age of U.S. Imperialism, Laura
Wexler discusses a photograph of a young woman taken by her husband who was a professional photographer. While many of his pictures dealt with black nursemaids and their white charges, the photo of his wife sends a completely different message: “The portrait of Mrs. Cook bears the mark of patriarchal protection, in that it casts her in an ethereal light. . . The photographer has lingered on the luminosity of her eyes, on the gentle smile that plays about her lips, and on the way that the braid in her hair picks up light like a halo, wanting to record them” (85). She goes on to say, “Mrs. Cook’s eyes, though lively and focused, are averted slightly from the camera, in a relaxed indirection that signifies that she has no need to protect herself: the operator of the camera, who is her husband, has her best interests at heart” (86). Just as Mrs. Cook is able to pose by herself in a visual and angelic way, George Cook’s black nursemaids were always photographed as backdrops to their white charges and were “coded as not-to-be-looked-at-ness” (Wexler 90), contrary to white women’s to-be-looked-at-ness.
Though this photograph was taken shortly after the civil war, its resemblance to that of Elizabeth Smart is striking. Both women look away from the camera with luminous eyes. While Mrs. Cooks bears a braided “halo” above her head, Smart’s angelic accessory is the harp that she gently cradles. It can also be assumed that each woman’s ease in front of the camera is due to the love of Mr. Cook for the former and of Ed Smart for the latter. While George Cook’s photo was not needed for the redemption of his wife against a wild Other, the countless pictures of Elizabeth Smart were what finally brought her home. Americans had been so saturated with the image of the blonde teenager that she was spotted on the street by a couple of strangers. The angelic beauty was in the end reunited with her harp and was able to return to the fold of her father.
Though the person of Brian David Mitchell does not fit the stereotypical Other of the captive narrative genre, his characteristics are described quite similarly to those of the Native Americans who kidnapped Mary Rowlandson. In his introduction, Increase Mather describes the Native Americans as “aetheistical, proud, wild, cruel, barbarous, brutish (in one word) diabolicall [sic] creatures . . . the worst of the heathen” (Salisbury 67). Rowlandson describes her Euro-American war-torn neighbors as “like a company of Sheep torn by Wolves” (70), and the Native Americans “like Bears bereft of their whelps, or so many ravenous Wolves, rending us and our Lambs to death” (105). She goes on to speak of her captors as “black as the Devil” (101) and “merciless and cruel Heathen” (108). Likewise, Smart’s uncle describes Mitchell as “evil . . . a wolf in sheep’s clothing” (In Plain Sight 14). Haberman and MacIntosh describe him as a “faceless villain,” and write, “Even as a child, there was always a dark undercurrent to Brian, something just beneath the surface that served as a beacon to people who came near him: danger, stay away” (21). Regarding a temple re-enactment, Mitchell himself said to a friend: “They told me I was the best Lucifer they’d ever seen” (57). He has also been likened to Osama Bin Laden, Charles Manson, and a member of ZZ Top.
The dark character attributed to both the Native Americans and to Brian David Mitchell is also seen as a sexualized character. While there is no question that Mitchell sexually abused Elizabeth Smart, there was no sexual abuse between the Native Americans and Mary Rowlandson, as was true of all recorded captivities from that time period. Nevertheless, according to Faery, “Beginning with Rowlandson’s narrative, captivity stories have repeatedly positioned a woman—her body, spirituality, sexuality, and reproductive capacity—as a border zone where cultures in conflict meet and contend and where discourses of race and gender are generated and played out” (Faery 77). The mere fact that Rowlandson was a white woman among Native American men made her a sexualized target even though she was not treated as such. Native Americans’ tribal dancing, their taking of plural wives, and their scant clothing made them sexualized objects in the eyes of the monogamous and prudent colonizers, even when that sexuality did not in fact extend itself to the white community.
Brian David Mitchell’s practice of polygamy made him an obvious target of sexualized Other, and he more rightly deserves that title. By taking the 14-year-old Smart as his child bride, he not only violated the teachings of the church but the laws of the state. However, the LDS community in part riled so strongly against him because of their own polygamist history: “The practice was instituted as doctrine in the late 1840s . . . [and i]t was abolished in 1890 by a subsequent prophet as a condition of Utah’s being granted statehood” (Haberman 6). A common trope of the captivity narrative is fighting the liminal space that exists between captive and captor, as is the liminality of polygamy in LDS history. Therefore, Smart occupies the dual space of being a sexualized body and a body that needs to conquer the Wilderness within itself, the latter body being that of the LDS church.
The blurred borders of sexual deviancy often posit child molestation, polygamy and homosexuality in the same aberrant category. During the Elizabeth Smart investigation, the National Enquirer printed a story with the following headline: “Utah Cops: Secret Diary Exposes Family Sex Ring,” and alleged that the three Smart brothers “Ed, Tom, and David were involved in homosexual activity that their wives knew about” (Haberman 174). The National Enquirer is known for its absurd stories that the general public don’t question as being completely false advertising. However, residents of Salt Lake were so upset by the story that they turned editions around or had stores pull them from the stands. In addition, after Elizabeth was found the Smarts threatened to sue the National Enquirer if it didn’t retract its statement, which it then did. Even though male homosexuality would have had nothing to do with the disappearance of a daughter or niece, for the Smart brothers to be part of a sex ring would discredit not only their position in the Mormon faith but would somehow discredit their innocence in the face of Smart’s kidnapping—The thought of aberrant sexuality, in any form, points to the perceived savagery in human nature and the fine line between Us and Other.
Both Elizabeth Smart and Mary Rowlandson experienced the liminal space between captive and captor. Smart experienced some of the traits of Stockholm syndrome, “a phenomenon where victims begin to identify with their captors as they fear for their own lives” (Bringing Elizabeth 99). Though Smart never believed that Mitchell was the prophet he said he was, and though she tried to escape only once due to fear that he would hurt her family, Smart was reluctant to identify herself when found by police, and she repeatedly asked them if Mitchell and Barzee were in trouble, seemingly concerned about their welfare. Smart had spent nine months “going native.” She wore the long robes that Mitchell and Barzee required of her and which they wore themselves, she slept in the same tents in which they slept, ate the same food, walked the same miles, and created the same spectacle to passersby.
Mary Rowlandson did not suffer from Stockholm syndrome, but she did identify with her captors more than she would like to admit. Her narrative tells of incidences of savagery and selfishness which she would be loath to profess outside her captive setting. During the seventh remove she is offered horse liver, and “before it was half ready they got half of it away from me, so that I was fain to take the rest and eat it as it was, with the blood about my mouth, and yet a savory bit it was to me” (Salisbury 81). In the eighteenth remove she takes food from the mouth of a child: “but the Child could not bite it, it was so tough and sinewy, but lay sucking, gnawing, chewing and slobbering of it in the mouth and hand, then I took it of the Child, and ate it myself, and savoury it was to my taste” (96). Rowlandson makes no excuse for her behavior, because that behavior is supposed to be seen in the light of her capture and degradation. While she offers no sympathy and understanding to her fellow Native Americans who live with hunger every day, her own savage behavior is seen as stemming from her situation and not her personhood.
Rowlandson also admits at the end of her narrative that she actually desired affliction and suffering. She was no doubt traumatized by her experience in the wilderness, but it can be surmised that she also took from the experience a sense of having “gone native” and thus conquering both the wilderness and the native spirit. In Going Native: Indians in the American Cultural Imagination, Frederick Jackson Turner is quoted as giving a speech at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. An excerpt from that speech reads:
The wilderness masters the colonist. It finds him European in dress, industries, tools, modes of travel, and thought. It takes him from the railroad of puts him in the birch canoe. It strips off the garments of civilization and arrays him in the hunting shirt and moccasin. It puts him in the log cabin of the Cherokee and Iroquois and runs an Indian palisade around him. Before long he has gone to planting Indian corn and plowing with a sharp stick; he shouts the war cry and takes the scalp in orthodox Indian fashion. In short, at the frontier the environment is at first too strong for the man. He must accept the conditions which it furnishes, or perish, and so he fits himself into the Indian clearings and follows the Indian trails. . . . [H]ere is a new product that is American. (Huhndorf 56)
Smart and Rowlandson both had to adapt to survive. They had to “go native” in order to hold out hope that they would one day be home again. Thus the supposed gulf between savagery and civilization cannot be an impassable divide or due to a congenital trait—it can instead be seen as a response to circumstance, as a garb that one puts on in order to exist in his or her surroundings.
CONQUERING THE WILDERNESS
While the characteristics of both captive and captor are important to the captivity narrative genre, so is location. Both Smart and Rowlandson literally roamed the wilderness with their captors. While there is no use of the word “wilderness” in Bringing Elizabeth Home, Rowlandson uses the word at least six times in The Sovereignty and Goodness of God. These instances include:
While Rowlandson is sometimes speaking metaphorically, she is also being quite literal in her use of the term. Because her captors were being robbed of land they were forced to roam throughout New England searching for food and shelter. Since she was a captive, Rowlandson rarely knew where her next steps would take her. She only knew how far she was traveling from her own home. The historian Rebecca Blevins Faery writes of Rowlandson:
Out-of-doors, she occupies what is for her an unarticulated space, one that will require of her a new consciousness; she experiences the disintegration of the familiar world that anchors and gives substance to a remembered and recognized self. The security and predictability of the walled garrison gives way to the openness of the ‘wilderness,’ its utter unpredictability. (Faery 28-29)
After being captured by Brian David Mitchell from her own “walled garrison,” Elizabeth Smart was forced to live in the canyons behind her house, “[i]n a tent . . . tethered between two trees on a cable that ran along a line, allowing her some movement, but only as far as the cable reached” (Bringing Elizabeth 58). She, Mitchell and Barzee traveled from Salt Lake City to Lakeside, California, to Las Vegas, and back to Salt Lake. In Lakeside, Mitchell “built their main camp in an area known to Lakeside residents as the “river bottom,” (238). Smart’s travels as well were undertaken against her will, and she presumably had no say regarding where her next steps would take her.
While the use of “wilderness” is quite obvious for these two narratives, it also represents a certain symbolism within the captive narrative tradition. Because both narratives are also religious accounts, the wilderness can be likened to a spiritual wilderness in which the captive is taken from her material blessings and tried by God amidst those who would wish to do her harm. Both Smart and Rowlandson symbolically entered enemy territory and emerged as victors against the wild. This symbolism not only represents the actual wilderness or a spiritual wilderness, but a location of a threatening Other that needs to be tamed. A historian views the representation of Anglo-American identity as “struggles of a collective Self surrounded by a threatening but enticing wilderness, a Self that seeks to domesticate this wilderness as well as the savagery within itself, and that opposes itself to Others portrayed as savage, bestial, demonic, and seductive” (Strong 1). This “savagery within itself” can be seen as the savagery within the borders of America—savagery that Ed Smart hopes to combat in his support of both the war and of child advocacy, and Elizabeth represents the freedom to keep America’s daughters safe.
Rowlandson’s narrative is seen as a tool to bring the community back to a greater sense of unity. This unity consists both of an increased fervor of protecting the Puritan way of life and an increased fervor of extinguishing the Native American way of life. With the extraction and return of Rowlandson as a matriarchal figure, the Puritans as family close ranks against those who threaten to break the familial bond. The collective self represents Good, and the wild other represents Evil. The narrative is a didactic tool to help the collective self embrace the Good. Smart’s narrative is also seen as a way to bring the country back to unity. This time the Other is not so easily defined, but as stated earlier, the Other of Brian David Mitchell has been associated with the need for America to go to war against Iraq and to protect its borders against foreigners. Laura Martin writes, “[Ed] used the one-year anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks to draw attention to the importance of security in our homes and our families” (Bringing Elizabeth 121). Towards the end of Bringing Elizabeth Home, it is stated: “Her safe return came just as the country was facing imminent war, threats of terrorism, and economic doom” (193). At Smart’s homecoming vigil, Ed “asked for the crowd to pray for President Bush, as we were a country about to go to war and we had to remember those servicemen and -women who were fighting for our freedom” (195). Even though Mitchell was not a terrorist in the traditional sense of the word, and not a foreigner, his kidnapping was used as a way to foster increased American patriotism against any who would attempt to hinder the freedom of its countrymen.
Rowlandson’s Native Americans and the Smarts’ Iraqis go hand in hand in much of today’s war rhetoric. Faery writes: “A Cherokee acquaintance told me a few days ago of having read in the newspaper a remark made by Gen. Colin Powell in Saudi Arabia, announcing the military’s readiness to invade Iraq: ‘We’re prepared to go into Indian Country if we have to.’ I remember the phrase ‘Indian Country’ being used in Vietnam as well” (Faery 21). Even more striking, a Christian fundamentalist by the name of Mark Ludwig used The Sovereignty and Goodness of God as a didactic tool for unity in 1988. He says:
The Christians of this age find themselves embattled with those who would redirect the course of our nation, and attempt to reestablish it on principles which are entirely at odds with the Bible and with God. While we may not have come to the point of bloodshed yet, the battle is very real and vicious. The stakes are nothing less than our freedom to worship and serve God, as well as all of the prosperity and blessing which has resulted from doing his Will. (Faery 216)
While most present day Christians would not associate Rowlandson’s racial prejudice with their own beliefs, this sentiment eerily foreshadows Desert Storm by only two years. It is therefore obvious that the principles of colonization have continued into the present day, and that captivity narratives continue to serve as “evidences” for the country’s need for protection and control.
As I hope I have demonstrated, captivity narratives are used to foster colonization by presenting the vulnerability of the white female against the wild Other. Faery asserts that,
Those endlessly circulating tales of captivity . . . not only helped to construct Indians as a distinct racial group, with the bodies and sexuality of white women captives as the contested border zone, they also served a larger purpose: the narratives contained epic elements, in that the captive’s story became the story of the colonial, and later national, culture itself. (Faery 40)
Rowlandson and Smart have both become part of the national culture. Three hundred and twenty six years later, Rowlandson’s narrative is still being published and discussed. While the reasons for her publicity have changed, the strength of her story as representing the colonial spirit of the 1700s is timeless. Likewise, Ed Smart begins his narrative saying, “It is a story we hope people will still be talking about one hundred years from now—not because it is about our daughter, but because it is a story about all of us” (Bringing Elizabeth 15). While there is no way to predict such an outcome, Smart’s story lasting a century is not implausible. Adding to this plausibility is the fact that Elizabeth is at work on her own captivity narrative. While the tropes of Ed and Lois Smart’s story faithfully fall into that of the captivity narrative genre, a narrative by the captive herself will no doubt ignite a continuation of the frenzy and publicity of her experience.
Rowlandson and Smart both did not choose to be American icons. Rowlandson most likely did not have much of a part in Metacom’s war, and Smart played no personal part in being the target of Brian David Mitchell. They both experienced excruciating and heart wrenching ordeals, and they both can be commended on their strength and perseverance through their trials. While captivities occur every day across the world, the stories of these two women have lived on in history because they represent the vulnerability and sentiment of the United States. America will continue to create Others, and these Others will always be seen as a threat to the safety of the Smarts and Rowlandsons of the world. Their captive narratives have captured the heart of America.
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Haberman, Maggie and Jeanne MacIntosh. Held Captive: The Kidnapping and Rescue of Elizabeth Smart. New York: Avon Books, 2003.
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Latour, Francie, Cynthia Gordy and Ebonie Ledbetter. “What Happened to MY CHILD?” Essence 38 (2007): 224-251.
Salisbury, Neal, ed. The Sovereignty and Goodness of God, Together with the Faithfulness of His Promises Displayed: Being a Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson and Related Documents. Boston: Bedford/St. Martins, 1997.
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Williams, Patricia. “Beyond the Pale.” Nation 280 (2005): 12-12.