Chris Thomas’ new memoir, Unexpected: The Backstory of Finding Elizabeth Smart and Growing Up in the Culture of an American Religion (Post Hill Press 2023), grounds its premise in Thomas’ work as a public relations specialist with expertise in crisis communications related to his work on the Elizabeth Smart abduction, rescue, and the trial of her kidnappers. Unexpected also, with varying degrees of success, serves as a memoir of Thomas’ own life and his experience growing up in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Thomas’ memoir has two competing tracks. The first is the dramatic and rarely considered perspective of the public relations surrounding an international case that requires media attention to gain traction and recognition: a kidnapping. The abduction of 14-year-old Elizabeth Smart in 2002 from her bedroom in Salt Lake City, Utah galvanized the general public in the US and internationally. Even more stunning, her return to her family after months of abuse and captivity—a return that became more and more statistically unlikely as time went on—was a happy end to a story that was more than harrowing for Elizabeth and her family.
Amidst the frantic search for Elizabeth and the international attention from media outlets, Chris Thomas appears. With expertise in public relations and crisis communication, Unexpected details the ways in which Thomas was able to manage public relations and media attention for the family, and how he was able to keep Elizabeth’s story in the news and on people’s radars as the search for Elizabeth continued. The second track of this story is a straightforward memoir style, with chapters detailing Thomas’ childhood and his life growing up in the LDS church (commonly known as the Mormon Church). These two tracks intersect because Thomas suggests that it is precisely his LDS background, and LDS culture more generally, helped him manage the Smart case and intuit the right steps to take in helping the family cope with her kidnapping.
There are several interesting elements to this memoir. First, the text includes a foreword by Elizabeth Smart herself, which not only gives her blessing to Thomas’ narrative, but contextualizes her feelings around Thomas’ role in her life and her parents’ lives (a role that continues to this day). I truly loved the foreword, and it was genuinely wonderful to hear from Smart herself on the subject of this memoir. Further, the details around Thomas’ job in public relation and crisis communications were fascinating. His role is one I think the general public forgets a lot, and in this case, he seems to have saved the family from a great deal of grief, pain, and stress. This role also took a toll on Thomas, and it was fascinating and heart-wrenching to read about how the Smart kidnapping effected Thomas’ work and personal life as he devoted al of his emotional energies to the Smart family.
All of that said, there was a lot about this book that did not resonate with me. Frankly, I don’t think I am the right audience. Unexpected positions itself as counter to many narratives of the LDS (Mormon) church, which either do one of two things: regularly position the church as a negative, traumatic, and exclusionary organization for various reasons, or suggest that extremist cult leaders have roots in the LDS church. Thomas’ memoir wants to position the LDS church as a positive force, or at the very least a not-entirely-bad one. His ambition, as he says in the memoir, is not to preach or to induct anyone into the faith, but rather to educate. In some ways this is productive, in others, I felt that the uncritical perspective was grating. In some ways, Thomas provided only information, but in others it was clear that his positive relationship to the church coloured his perspective in a way that just left me with a lot more questions than answers. I think LDS readers would be very impressed with this book, but I felt confused and unconvinced by the religious leanings of the text.
Further, the memoir sections of the book—which are wholly dedicated to Thomas’ early life and LDS membership—were difficult to read. I struggled to find them relevant, which takes me back to my point about the religious leanings of the text. These sections didn’t hold my attention and didn’t interest me. It’s difficult to splice a story like the kidnapping of Elizabeth Smart with personal interjections from childhood and reach the same level of intensity. I always wanted to get back to the Smart case. Perhaps I need to read more closely, but these memoir sections from Thomas’ youth were not meeting the story of the Smart kidnapping in any meaningful way for me.
Unless the religious elements of the LDS church interest you, I would suggest picking up a different text if you’re looking for more information about the Smart case. While there were moments in Unexpected I really felt engrossed by, it was generally not for me at all.
Please add Unexpected to your Goodreads shelf.
Don’t forget to follow True Crime Index on Twitter and please visit our Goodreads for updates on what we’re reading! You can find Rachel on her personal @RachelMFriars or on Goodreads @Rachel Friars.
About the Writer:
Rachel M. Friars (she/her) is a PhD student in the Department of English Language and Literature at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. She holds a BA and an MA in English Literature with a focus on neo-Victorianism and adaptations of Jane Eyre. Her current work centers on neo-Victorianism and nineteenth-century lesbian literature and history, with secondary research interests in life writing, historical fiction, true crime, popular culture, and the Gothic. Her academic writing has been published with Palgrave Macmillan and in The Journal of Neo-Victorian Studies. She is a reviewer for The Lesbrary and the co-creator of True Crime Index. Rachel is co-editor-in-chief of the international literary journal, The Lamp, and regularly publishes her own short fiction and poetry. Find her on Twitter and Goodreads.
A digital copy of this book was graciously provided to True Crime Index from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.