Break the silence about stolen innocence
Paromita Pain meets young, gutsy Erin Merryn who was abused as a child, went public with her story and is now relentlessly working to protect kids around the world from sexual predators
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 secrets can ruin lives. But Erin is no quiet survivor.
Describing herself as a voice, “a loud passionate voice, doing its best to prevent another child from getting molested”, she has been working tirelessly so 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 in Illinois in the United States a day before the World Day for Prevention of Child Abuse (November 19), she is now hoping that one day Erin’s Law is adopted by countries the world over.
Little about her growing up years in Illinois prepared Erin 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 Erin 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 Erin 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 Erin.
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, Erin 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, Erin 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 Erin realised that she had a message for people. “I thought it helped me heal so it might help others as well,” she says.
Erin’s candour is refreshing but she isn’t completely unscathed. “I am often unable to trust men because I fear that I will be betrayed like I was as a child. What works best for me in relationships is to be very open about my past and keep communication open, but it is my greatest area of struggle in life. I also run into people who get very uncomfortable when they learn what my books are about. I have come this far, so I know someday I will conquer that area of my life too,” she says.
“Kids need the tools to speak up. No one ever told me that my body belonged to me. As a child I displayed all the signs, but no one caught on. In my school reports teachers and counsellors wrote that I needed to control my temper. I was throwing tantrums and had anger issues. But no one asked what was making me angry,” Erin says.
“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,” she adds.
School safety education programmes — that teach young people many things, including saying no to drugs — don’t address issues of sex abuse.
“At school,” Erin says, “I learnt about how not to take candy from strangers. All those videos we saw in elementary school of a creepy man pulling up in a rusty car offering candy aren’t enough. Ninety-three per cent of the time it isn’t a strange man that is the classic abuser profile. Mostly it’s people that the child already knows — close family members, a relative, a family friend,” she points out.
Today, Erin 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. 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.
Her greatest achievement is helping others break their silence.
“I will never forget one Indian girl who told me that her uncle was abusing her. Her mother refused to believe her. This girl’s had one door shut. She must know that there are other doors like teachers and counsellors to help,” says Erin.
“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,” she adds.