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Meet the woman behind 'Erin's Law' -- giving voice to sexual abuse survivors

  • Author: Jill Burke
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published March 25, 2014

Visiting Alaska this week, Erin Merryn is a long way from home, and even farther from the torturous past she endured as a sexually abused child. As an adult, she's reclaimed the voice her abusers tried to silence. Now she's on a quest to make sure lawmakers across America hear what she has to stay.

Merryn travels the country bearing witness to what happened to her in hopes of encouraging states to enact laws requiring sexual abuse education in schools. Sponsored by Rep. Geran Tarr, D-Anchorage, HB 233 puts Alaska among the states considering "Erin's Law" in 2014. Eleven states have passed the legislation. Children learn all kinds of safety lessons in schools, like how to deal with natural disasters, fires and strangers. Merryn believes more can be done to ensure children also learn how learn how to protect themselves from sexual predators.

In a Q&A with Alaska Dispatch before boarding her flight north, Merryn wasn't shy about sharing the difficulties she's experienced, including a suicide attempt, or the one thing that happened to make her finally tell someone she was being hurt. Here's a glimpse of her life and why she's on a quest for social change.

Alaska Dispatch: So often we hear about "helpers" who encouraged a victim to come forward, or reported for him or her. Did you have a helper or helpers in your life? Who were they? Should someone have known something was wrong sooner?

Merryn: What caused me to come forward was unfortunately finding out that my little sister was also being abused. She came to me after I had been abused for two years and told me words I never expected to hear, that she too was being abused by the same family member. Her courage breaking her silence allowed me to take a stand for both of us and be brave and tell her we can't keep this a secret, that we have to tell our parents. ... Someone should have known in my earlier years when I was being abused by an adult neighbor. I had all the warning signs of an abused kid -- labeled behavior(ally) and emotionally disturbed, given an IEP (Individual Education Plan) for that behavior, I had anger problems, put my hand through a window weeks after being raped at 7 years old and threw tantrums on the floors in school. But nobody asked those important questions.

The Children's Advocacy Center of Northwest Cook County, Ill. (there are 900 of these centers across America in every state), helped give me the courage in my forensic interview after my sister and I broke our silence to tell what had happened. I found hope and healing there and people that believed me. As I describe in my books, that center was the foundation of my healing.

Alaska Dispatch: Let's talk about two words we hear a lot when covering sexual abuse stories: victim and survivor. How do you identify? Do you believe one word is more appropriate than the other?

Merryn: I cover these two words in my second book, "Living for Today." I am a survivor. Victims are those who don't survive. I often say victims are those who are killed by their attackers. I survived it and eventually learned how to thrive from it by breaking my silence and putting a face and voice on this silent epidemic.

Alaska Dispatch: Silence is a powerful way in which sexual abuse is kept secret and is perpetuated. Why is it so difficult to talk about?

Merryn: There is so much shame and stigma attached to sexual abuse. We live in a society that keeps it hushed and (there is) so much taboo around it; people are afraid to speak up and say this happened to them. The shame is so overwhelming. When all you have ever been told by an abuser is to stay silent, no one will believe you, this is our secret, you learn to believe that, and (it) makes it extremely difficult to speak up about. Sharing those details can be difficult because as survivors, they bring us back to the place where we endured the horror. It brings it all back to the surface.

Alaska Dispatch: What can someone reading about this do in their own life, or change about their own perspective, to make coming forward easier for victims? What's your advice for sexual abuse victims who may want to come forward, but who feel the abuse is better kept secret or forgotten? What if their family is pressuring them to just keep quiet and get on with their life? These can seem like powerful forces to go up against. How do we lessen the control these pressures have on ourselves, our loved ones?

Merryn: The first thing someone can do is start talking about it. We live in a society that doesn't want to even address this issue. People would be amazed how many people this really does affect and that they know but have never come forward. Survivors need to know they have nothing to be ashamed of. By breaking your silence you are reclaiming your voice. As I often tell people, our innocence was stolen, (our) trust taken, but the one thing we can reclaim as survivors is our voices. The voice that was silenced for so long. Families pressuring loved ones to stay quiet is not uncommon, but as I often like to tell survivors, by speaking up you are not only helping yourself heal; you will help save other children from experiencing this same horror at the hands of their abuser. By speaking up even when family is against the idea, it is freedom for a survivor and allows them to reclaim a piece of their lives back.

Alaska Dispatch: When you broke your silence and spoke up, was it frightening? How and when did you do it first?

Merryn: I was terrified. I had only ever been told no one (would) believe me, I feared ruining our large extended family when they learned a family member (teenage cousin) was molesting my sister and I. Sixteen years ago, on March 29, 1998, my sister broke her silence to me. My sister and I told our parents the next day (and) we were referred to the Children's Advocacy Center by police detectives to be interviewed. I feared (they) would not believe us ... I was told repeatedly by my cousin that I had no proof, that he would deny it, that no one would believe me. As a young child from 6 to 8 (years old), when the neighbor was abusing me, he warned me if I told anyone he would come get me; he knew where I lived. I always feared he would come back.

Alaska Dispatch: You have since spoken up in a big way. You didn't just tell one person. You've grown into a powerful voice who is bearing witness to the nation. How did you find this voice? Who encouraged you to keep talking, to keep fighting?

Merryn: I reclaimed my voice in the Children's Advocacy Center. The day I left that place I took a piece of my life back, and that was my voice. It would be many more years until that voice would become the strong, confident woman that I have become. After years as a teen struggling with nightmares and flashbacks of my abuse, attempting suicide, self-injury, etc., I decided to use that voice to confront my abuser... For seven months we corresponded in letters. For so many years I stayed angry and bitter towards him. Confronting him empowered me and eventually allowed me to forgive him when he wrote a letter apologizing. Forgiveness set me free. I found (the) freedom and peace I had longed for. It allowed me to go on this mission to be a face and voice for millions by letting go of hatred and instead turning pain into a purpose. I was a senior in high school when I published my first book, my childhood diary where I kept my secrets of abuse with my cousin locked away. The book is titled "Stolen Innocence." Therapists (and) an amazing school psychologist in high school really helped me heal.

Alaska Dispatch: When you decided to confront and start corresponding with your cousin, how did it go at first? Did you ever wonder, or ever ask him, why he did what he did? What do you think made him want to apologize, finally? Do you know if it was as healing for him as it was for you? Do you still stay in contact with him?

Merryn: I didn't expect a response back from my cousin because my letter was very harsh filled with so much anger and rage. He did respond admitting what he did and saying he is using his past to not make the same mistakes now in his life. I continued to write him because I wanted answers. I wanted to know why, and when I asked if he was abused, he denied it and said he abused me out of curiosity and an urge of sexuality. I finally got, after seven months, what I had been looking for: an apology. ... It allowed me to let go of the bitterness, anger and rage I had toward him and find the freedom and peace I longed for and the ability to turn this painful event into something positive. Since going public 10 years ago, I have had no contact with him.

Alaska Dispatch: In your quest to get Erin's Law passed in every state, you must have encountered some surprising remarks. Has anything particularly heartened you? Caught you off guard?

Merryn: I have witnessed some lawmakers come in voting against the bill who got on their mic after hearing me testify and (told) me they had all planned to vote against this bill and that my testimony changed their mind. My favorite story is out of my own state of Illinois ... (One lawmaker) had been against school mandates her entire career, and (the sponsor) warned me, she is going to get on her mic and go on about how this should not be passed, schools should not be mandated to do things, etc. He told me, "Your goal is to convince everyone else." Well, something shocking happened. This representative did get on her mic. But instead of telling everyone to vote against it, she told everyone to vote in support of this bill. She broke down and cried and said Erin's Law could have saved her as a child, but instead she only got the message from her abuser, who she knew, and stayed silent. It was the first time she supported a school mandate, and she retired later that year.

Alaska Dispatch: Do you think most lawmakers meaningfully comprehend the issue of sexual abuse? What are the most persistent knowledge gaps?

Merryn: Many don't realize that there are 42 million survivors in America of child sexual abuse. That is just (in) America. Lawmakers are in the dark about this. It is when they hear my story of how I was raped, and how my abusers controlled the situation by being the only ones talking to me about what was happening, that they "get it." My abuse first happened at weeks shy of my seventh birthday by a neighbor ... it went on until age 8 and a half. It happened again after we moved away, when a cousin started abusing me in my sleep when I was 11 years old. That happened until I was 13. My abusers threatened me, and I believed them. The only education I ever received about sexual abuse was when I became a victim, and the abusers threatened bad things would happen if I ever told. I really open lawmakers' eyes when I share this with them. I pull out my sixth grade DARE card and tell lawmakers I knew the eight ways to say "no" to drugs and have never tried even a cigarette and I am nearly 30 years old. But where were the eight ways on how to "get away and tell today?" They never came, so I stayed silent.

Alaska Dispatch: You were preyed upon not once, but twice (two different abusers during different stages of childhood). Was this just bad luck? Is there anything about your life circumstances that you think made you a target?

Merryn: This wasn't bad luck. Unfortunately, children who are abused once are at even higher risk of being abused again by someone else because they are vulnerable and easy to prey on. I came from a good home, two parents, good schools, safe neighborhood, etc. There is a misconception about this issue ... many people think sexual abuse only happens to the poor, to people who come from broken homes, etc. ... It can happen to anyone, which is why we need to empower our children with their voice to speak up and tell and to not keep it a secret if they are abused.

Alaska Dispatch: Thank you for reminding us that abuse happens across all socioeconomic conditions. I guess what I was trying to ask is, why do you think your abusers chose you instead of some other girl as a target? Did anything make you an attractive target, or particularly vulnerable?

My second abuser, my cousin, came from a family of all boys. My sister and I ... were the only girls that he was around all the time. The first abuser, our neighbor, is someone I think who did this to any girl he had access to. He was the father of my best friend. She was abused. I was abused. And a third girl I know was also abused by him. I think he knew that once he had us conditioned, we were easy targets. He got us quiet and continued to get away with it. Around the time we were getting ready to move away, my friend had a birthday party. Her dad singled me out during the party. While the party was going on, and my friend's mom was in the house, this neighbor cornered me in a bathroom and abused me. He'd conditioned and kept me silent for two years, so he knew he could get away with that behavior, even with so many people around.

Alaska Dispatch: Would something like what you are proposing -- Erin's Law -- have helped you? How?

Merryn: Yes. This law could have given me the ability to know I would be believed, that this is not a secret to keep, and how to report it. I feel it would have given me the voice that these men took from me. It would have given me courage to know that I didn't have to live in constant fear that they could hurt me, and hurt me even worse if I told anyone. One thing my abusers kept telling me was that I had no proof that they were hurting me, so why would anyone believe me? One personal safety lesson learned at school that actually helped me in life was "stranger danger." It was taught every year, and when a creepy van pulled up when I was 12 having a lemonade and the man put his hand out the window asking me to take the change ... those lessons immediately played back in my mind. The yearly videos ... had educated me, so I knew to tell the stranger to keep his change.

Alaska Dispatch: Resiliency can be an important factor in how well survivors of abuse cope and in whether they go on to lead a healthy, happy life. You seem incredibly resilient. Have there been times in your life when haven't done well? What factors came together for you to be able to not only overcome what happened, but to also thrive?

Merryn: My resilience took a lot of psychological help growing up as a kid, teen, and young adult. The ability to forgive both my abusers set me free and gave me my voice back and the strength to speak out for others. But there were many years of taking razor blades to my wrists in high school or taking the bottle of pills at 16, wanting to end my life because the flashbacks haunted me daily... When people ask how I have overcome all that I have and doing what I am doing now, passing Erin's Law in 11 states, 26 introducing it and going to each capital to testify on it, I tell them all of this comes from our creator. God has healed me, made me whole again, and has shown me the ability to forgive, the freedom it brings yourself, and shown me my purpose in this life, and that is to give kids the voice I didn't have. I am so confident I will get this law passed in all 50 states, because God has already told me it will happen. I wouldn't have quit my job four years ago as a master's level counselor to go after this had I not been lead by the Lord.

Read more about Erin Merryn on her Erin's Law Facebook page and her website. Alaska's version of Erin's Law is currently under consideration by the Alaska State Legislature as House Bill 233.

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