Don’t ever tell anyone. No one will believe you. If you tell, I’ll hurt your family. If you tell, I’ll keep hurting you. It’ll always be our secret.
When Erin Merryn was 6 years old, she was sexually abused by a friend’s uncle; when she was 11, she was raped by a cousin — an older boy she loved and trusted. She didn’t understand what was going on, but the messages of warning and secrecy came through loud and clear.
On Wednesday Merryn, now a 26-year-old author and activist, came to the Hilton Vancouver Washington to speak out about her survival of childhood sexual abuse and the law that’s been passed in her honor in Illinois: Erin’s Law, mandating that age-appropriate sexual abuse education be developed for Illinois elementary schools.
“I’m a very determined woman, and I won’t stop until it’s passed in all 50 states,” she said of Erin’s Law.
The information needs to come from school, Merryn said, because it’s often family members who are doing the abusing. That was true in her case, and according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, more than 80 percent of children who are sexually abused are abused by a parent or relative.
Merryn, who has written two books about her abuse and survival, was speaking to hundreds of people who attended the YWCA Clark County’s 18th annual fundraising luncheon. The Y is a leading local agency that supports and counsels children and women who have faced sexual abuse.
‘There is help available’
In recent years the Y has served thousands of local children — not just fielding abuse complaints and providing help, but reaching out to educate kids in classrooms. “There is help available, but the child needs to hear about it and be able to trust it,” said Y volunteer and patron Dr. Chuck Carter.
Coming to that trust isn’t easy for a confused, terrified, threatened child.
As a kindergartner, Merryn lived what should have been a “picture-perfect” life, she said, with loving parents and a good school, and one day she was extra happy to be invited to her first-ever sleepover at a friend’s house. Her friend’s mother was single and absent a lot, and an uncle served as kid caretaker — except he was usually sleeping in the back room.
This time, the uncle appeared in the girls’ room and closed the door behind him. When he saw that Merryn was awake and staring at him, he raised a finger to his lips: you be quiet.
“This strong man, this authority figure, was telling me to be quiet,” she remembered. What else is a little child supposed to do except comply? She didn’t say a word. She also refused to spend any more nights at her friend’s house.
But once during daylight hours — when she figured it was safe — she was back again, playing with Barbie dolls while her friend had stepped out of the room for a moment, when the uncle appeared, locked the door and raped her. Her friend was screaming on the other side of the door, she said, and she realized that her friend had already been raped by her uncle.
“It’s a moment in my life that 20-plus years later I remember clear as day,” she said. “One of those moments you cannot forget.” But she never said a word about it until years later. In fact, her little friend made her “pinkie promise” never to tell — because she was sure the whole family would get in trouble for it.
Somehow, Merryn said, the end result was shameful feeling she had done something wrong.
Secrets and survival
She grew depressed, withdrawn and volatile; her parents were amazed when she put her fist through a glass window. It should have been a relief when Merryn’s family moved to a different neighborhood. She thought she was leaving danger and trauma behind. But she was only moving closer to more abuse, it turned out.
She was 11 years old when her teenaged cousin, an older boy who was also a neighbor, started abusing her. It happened over and over again, she said — whenever she was asked to baby-sit the younger children, whenever the families gathered on holidays, whenever she saw him at all. Childhood games like household hide and seek turned into horrific episodes of rape in locked bedrooms, bathrooms and basements by her more powerful cousin.
“This is our secret,” he warned her. “You have no proof. No one will believe you.” It went on for two years, and Merryn felt she could tell no one except her diary.
What finally broke the silence, she said, was when her 11-year-old sister mumbled to her, “Brian is gross.”
“Those words are etched in my mind,” Merryn said. It was obvious what they meant. After keeping the same secret from one another, the sisters talked it all out and then brought the news to their horrified parents.
From there it was a visit to the local Children’s Advocacy Center, an agency with a similar mission to the YWCA Clark County. Merryn said she’ll never forget how she walked in full of fear and shame and walked out feeling liberated and empowered.
Cousin Brian denied everything at first but eventually confessed. The extended family was ripped apart by the revelation, and some of the relatives on Brian’s side don’t speak to Merryn’s immediate family anymore. Brian was sentenced to seven years of probation, 1,000 hours of community service and mental health treatment; but all that eventually was watered down to nothing very meaningful, Merryn said.
Brian ultimately did write her a heartfelt letter of apology, she said. She chose to forgive him, she said, partially as a gift to herself.
“I needed to reclaim happiness,” she said. “I can’t allow this awful thing to define me for the rest of my life.”
Merryn and her sister pursued therapy in a number of different situations, and there were some ups and terrible downs, including a failed suicide attempt. She was a junior in high school when she realized her diaries could be collected into a book; she has now published two memoirs of her experiences, called “Stolen Innocence” and “Living for Today.” She has appeared on the “Oprah Winfrey Show” and in Time magazine while pursuing justice and healing for sexual abuse victims. She’s been braced to see Children’s Advocacy Centers spread across the nation, she said, and to help raise funds and the profile of agencies like the YWCA Clark County.
It’s crucial that children learn to understand and report sexual abuse, she said, and not to feel ashamed.
“Don’t deny yourself the right to talk about this,” she said. Shameful childhood secrets come back to haunt adults when they’re 30 and up, she said. Don’t think you are alone in your pain, she said, since there are people around you — wherever you are — who have survived similar traumas.
Merryn pointed out that elementary-age children are taught about all sorts of dangers these days — earthquakes, fires, bullying, strangers — but not about this particularly insidious form of danger that can come from the heart of one’s own family.
“I thought people like Brian jumped out of bushes and attacked you at night,” she said. “I wasn’t worried about my own family.” Unfortunately, that’s where the majority of childhood sexual abuse occurs.
Safe secrets and unsafe secrets, safe touch and unsafe touch — these are the age-appropriate concepts Merryn expects to be covered in Illinois classrooms due to the passage of what’s known as Erin’s Law. The law was signed by Gov. Pat Quinn in February; it established a task force that will study the issue and report back to the Legislature by Jan. 1.
Meanwhile, Merryn has earned a master’s degree in social work from Aurora University. You can learn more about Merryn, her books and her advocacy at http://www.erinmerryn.net.
“My life is not defined by evil — but by how I have risen above it,” she concluded.
Scott Hewitt: 360-735-4525; http://www.twitter.com/col_nonprofits; firstname.lastname@example.org.