National Alliance on Mental Illness
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Faith, Delusion & Forgiveness
The Ft. Hood tragedy has opened new debate over distinctions between intense religiosity and fanaticism—and delusions that may lead to bizarre behavior or worse.
Similar issues marked the Salt Lake City kidnapping case of 14-year-old Elizabeth Smart in 2002, which recently took a new dramatic turn.
One of the kidnappers was a woman living with severe mental illness, Wanda Barzee, now 64. NAMI Utah’s executive director, the late Vicki Cottrell, knew Barzee through work in outreach services to homeless persons.
Cottrell visited Barzee in jail and became the first person to learn the motive for the kidnapping—the religious delusions of her now estranged husband, Brian Mitchell, who allegedly believed himself a prophet, Emmanuel.
Cotrell mentioned the visit to a friend—a local reporter. An hour later, television satellite trucks and reporters from around the world surrounded her home. It was the first week of the Lenten season, devoted to renewal of faith.
Later that year, NAMI awarded Utah’s Deseret News an Outstanding Media Award for the story "From Faith to Fanatic Delusion" for thoughtful reporting that avoided sensationalism.
For seven years, Barzee has been treated for her mental illness in order to become competent to stand trial. On Nov. 17, she accepted a plea bargain with a prison sentence of 15 years with credit for time already served. In a statement read in court, Barzee apologized to the Smart and her family.
"I realize how much Elizabeth Smart has been victimized and the role I played. I'm so sorry, Elizabeth, for all the pain and suffering I caused you and your family. It is my hope you will be able to find it in your heart to forgive me."
Smart's father, Ed, said he felt the apology “was sincere.”