Secrets are an integral part of growing up. But not all secrets are fun. Erin Merryn knows this. Having kept her sexual abuse at the hands of a best friend’s uncle and later a relative a secret. She knows how they can ruin lives.
But Merryn is no quiet survivor. Describing herself as a voice, “a loud passionate voice, doing its best to prevent another child from getting molested,” Merryn, 25, is the force behind Erin’s Law – passed unanimously in the Illinois senate in May 2010 – that stipulates that “each school district may adopt and implement a policy addressing sexual abuse of children that may include age-appropriate curriculum for students in pre-K through 5th grade; training for school personnel on child sexual abuse; educational information to parents or guardians provided in the school handbook on the warning signs of a child being abused, along with any needed assistance…”
In simple terms, this law works to see that students, educators and parents understand about child sexual abuse, ways to prevent it and methods to deal with it by incorporating the learning in the school curriculum. And even as the law went national a day before the World Day for Prevention of Child Abuse (November 19), Merryn is now hoping that one day it is adopted by countries the world over.
Little about her growing up years in Illinois prepared Merryn to be the busy activist she is today. “Till I was about five I had a typically happy childhood growing up with my two sisters and making my first best friend in my Daisy Scouts group,” she recalls. It was at a sleepover at this friend’s house weeks before her seventh birthday that Merryn was raped by her friend’s uncle. When he threatened her, consumed by fear and control she kept her silence.
At age 11, her cousin violated her, told her the same thing and some more: “Don’t tell because no one will believe you. You will destroy the family,” he said.
The abuse continued till she was 13. Finally, it was when her sister told her that she too was being victimised by the same cousin that Merryn mustered the courage to speak up. Her parents immediately took steps to make the sisters feel safe and they were taken to Children’s Advocacy Centre to be interviewed. “I was told exactly what I needed to hear: That it was not my fault and that I would never be hurt again,” remembers Merryn.
But the way ahead wasn’t easy. “I was going through a lot of self destructive behaviour in high school. I realised that I was letting my abuser take away my happiness. I wanted to let go of all that anger. I confronted him in a five page letter (I was 17 at that time) and corresponded with him for seven months. He admitted his guilt and in his final letter said, ‘I am sorry about what I did to you… I wish I could go back into my past and stop myself’. It was this letter that let me come out and be a voice of this silent epidemic.”
In 2004, at 18, Merryn began the long crusade of fighting child sexual abuse. The process of healing had begun. She was surprised that her abuser had spelled out everything in his letters and emails. He was put under arrest and probation for six months with a short counselling session. Though hardly adequate punishment, Merryn refused to be angry and instead turned the letters exchanged and her personal diary – written during the years of her abuse – into her first book, ‘Stolen Innocence’.
Writing proved therapeutic and at the end of it Merryn realised that she had a message for people. “I thought it helped me heal so it might help others as well,” she says. Her second book, ‘Living for Today’, chronicles the roadmap for self-discovery and empowerment that led Merryn to earn her Masters in Social Work.
Erin’s Law is very comprehensive in its scope more so because the situations that brought it forth are deeply personal. Merryn describes this regulation as “a law to protect the innocence of children. It’s meant to be a wakeup call. One-in-four girls and one-in-six boys will be abused by their 18th birthday. People need to be educated otherwise the scars stay for the rest of your life. Sexual predators use threats to keep children silent. Learning about stranger danger really isn’t adequate. I just wanted someone in school to give me the courage to speak.”
Today, Merryn urges people to get help for abuse. She wants them to understand that “there will always be sexual predators. There will always be people who want to harm kids.” So speaking about child sexual abuse is a must.
“There is so much shame associated with this. Also the healing isn’t just about feeling better ‘now’. When victims go into counselling, they are laying the foundations for healing for the future. We must make children understand that there is nothing to be ashamed of. When you talk you let go of the shame,” she asserts.
A voracious reader, memoirs are her favourite genre. Now she is reading a lot of children’s books like ‘My body is Special’ and ‘Grope Secrets’ to understand more about teaching kids to stay safe.
Merryn says, “I have never regretted going public with my story. I believe if I can help one person speak up for abuse I will consider my mission fulfilled. My life isn’t defined by the evil that happened but how I have risen above it.”
Erin blogs at http://erinmerryn.hcibooks.com/. A recent post she had filed was about a homework assignment for parents (http://erinmerryn.hcibooks.com/2010/09/08/homework-assignment-parents/). It is an exercise parents can do with their children to teach notions of safe touch, safe secrets and people they could trust. “A lady in Oklahoma did this with her Boy Scout team and discovered that a parent was abusing two of the boys in the group. The abuser was arrested and the children and now in the protective custody of their grandparents,” says Erin.