Throughout her school years, Erin Merryn of Schaumburg, Ill., received plenty of lessons in the dangers her elders thought she could encounter during her childhood. She was taught how to ride out a tornado, instructed in the eight steps for turning down illegal drugs, and told how to react to a friendly stranger who might try to abduct her. But nothing prepared her for two traumatizing events that have turned Merryn, now 25, into an activist, determined to prevent the same thing from happening to other children.
The first episode began on a warm May night in 1991. Merryn, then 6, was excited about her first sleepover with her kindergarten classmate Ashley. After an evening of playing with Ashley's dollhouse and watching The Little Mermaid, the girls went to bed in Ashley's room. Merryn lay on blankets on the floor next to Ashley, who was in her bed. In the wee hours of the night, Ashley's uncle "Richard" (not his real name), who lived in the house with his niece, appeared in the darkened room. He sat down in front of Merryn and put his finger to his lips signaling her to remain quiet. Seconds later his hand was down her pants. Merryn was as bewildered as she was frightened. "I didn't understand what was going on," she says. "I just stared at the ceiling waiting for it to end." Her friend slept through the assault, and Merryn remained silent.
Merryn kept her confusion to herself. She didn't want to stop visiting her friend but tried to find times when Richard wasn't around. She wasn't always successful. The man, then in his late 20s, abused her several more times in the next year, including, she says, raping her during a daytime visit when she thought he wouldn't be home.
When Merryn eventually confided in Ashley about what had happened, her friend was not surprised; in fact, the scene was depressingly familiar to her. But Ashley begged her not to say anything because Richard had told her they would "lose the house" if the girls told anyone. Says Merryn: "[Ashley] made me pinky promise not to say anything."
Merryn's family, including her two sisters, moved to another neighborhood in the same town when Merryn was 8, and she stopped seeing Ashley. But at age 11, Merryn's second nightmare began. At a family gathering at her grandparents' lake house, she awoke in the middle of the night to find her cousin "Brian" (again, not his real name), then 13, lying next to her with his hands down her underwear. He continued to abuse her on and off for nearly two years, she says, often at holidays and celebrations with her close-knit extended family. He cornered her in basements, bathrooms and bedrooms, always reminding her that she shouldn't bother telling anyone because no one would believe her. It ended only after a chance conversation between Merryn and one of her sisters, who blurted out one day that their cousin Brian was "gross." Merryn realized he had been molesting her sister too. They talked for hours about what had happened, and the next day told their parents about their shared horror.
The family pressed charges against Brian, who ultimately admitted to three counts of sexual abuse. The case never went to trial, and Brian received some counseling, but no punishment. The two families have ceased having contact.
Merryn's experiences belie the more common parental fears of "stranger danger." Young children tend to hear a lot of messages about avoiding interactions with people they don't know, when in reality they are far more likely to face harm from a relative or family friend. Victims of abuse know their perpetrators 80% to 90% of the time, says David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire.