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Silent no more

OPRAH OFFERS TO HELP Erin Merryn's story of sexual abuse has impacted many, but none more than one of the world's most famous people — Oprah Winfrey. In October, Erin appeared on Oprah's show and made quite an impact on the host. During a video showing what Erin has endured in her life, she admitted it was a show Oprah had done years earlier in which she talked with a guest about her abuse as a child and cried on stage in front of the cameras. Erin was in high school at the time. She said in the video when she saw Oprah being so emotional about her abuse, she realized she no longer had to be ashamed of what had happened to her. "I thought, if Oprah can cry about it, I can let it go, too," she said. In the October show, Erin said Oprah had tears streaming down her cheeks after she saw the video. She said after the show went to commercial break Oprah said, "Now that Erin has me crying and all of you crying, makeup team, I need you out here." Erin said Oprah told her something after the show. "She said that in her 25 years of covering this topic, what an inspiration I was," Erin said. "I thought, wait, I'm inspiring her. I thought she was supposed to inspire me." Erin also has appeared as a guest on the Montel Williams show and was featured in a story on Good Morning America. She admitted she never is nervous to talk, whether it is front of 100 people or millions on television. "It is a very empowering experience," Erin said. "You know the words coming out of your mouth are going to change people's lives. What I say could be the reason someone comes forward and heals their life." Check out www.erinmerryn.net to watch clips from these shows.
December 15, 2010 | 08:38 AM
Several times, Erin Merryn was ready to give up on life. She attempted suicide at 16, cut herself with needles when she was 17 and became anorexic in college.

But, her story starts like most others — with childhood innocence and happiness. When she was 5, those feelings were replaced by confusion, anger, frustration and silent secrets which haunted her for years.

Merryn's story is about sexual abuse, a topic most people don't want to discuss.

Now she appears consumed with talking about what happened to her all in an effort to inspire fellow abuse victims to remain silent no more and reclaim their lives.

"I realized that all bad things can be turned around for good," the 25-year-old said minutes after speaking at a Walworth County Alliance for Children workshop last week. "I have been able to take a good portion from the bad and turn it into something positive — not look at it as this terrible thing that will haunt me forever. I could let it haunt me, but why not do something positive and let others know they have nothing to be ashamed of and to break their silence?"

Merryn, a summer resident and visitor to the area, is on a mission to inform young people and adults about the horrors of sexual abuse. She has written two books — the first focused on what happened to her using diary entries she wrote as a pre-teen and the second is about forgiving and moving on with life. She has told her story on daytime television shows with Oprah Winfrey and Montel Williams.

Most recently, Merryn led the effort in the Illinois State Legislature for a bill called Erin's law. Merryn said her hope is to create a school curriculum about sexual abuse which can be used along with bullying prevention, stranger danger and Internet safety programs.

She said she will be involved in a task to create the best curriculum to used in the schools. That curriculum will be sent to the governor of Illinois next year.

"I want Illinois to be an example of what to do in the rest of the country," Merryn said. "Maybe I'll come to Wisconsin next."

She said the focus will be on talking to kids about who they should tell if there is sexual abuse. Merryn often uses the phrase "how to get away and how to tell today." Merryn has a very good reason for using that phrase — she was unable to do either for many years.

Her story of abuse starts in the spring of 1991 in Schaumburg, Ill., when she spent the night with her best friend. After playing with Barbie Dolls and watching "The Little Mermaid," Merryn was sleeping on the floor. That's when her best friend's uncle entered the bedroom, awoke Merryn, put his finger to his lips, and proceeded to sexually abuse her. She was just 6 years old.

About a year later, Merryn was at the same friend's house, this time during the day. The girls were playing with a large dollhouse when the friend left the room to go to the bathroom. Merryn heard footsteps and thought her friend was returning, but when she looked up, it was the uncle standing in the doorway. He locked the bedroom and despite Merryn's screaming and kicking, he raped her. She was six weeks shy of her seventh birthday.

"It is crystal clear," she said during her speech. "That day, you just don't forget."

A few years later, Merryn stayed away from the friend's uncle and attended a new school. She was starting to overcome some of the behavioral problems that had stemmed from the abuse. Then, the unthinkable happened.

She was 11 in September 1996 when she was staying at her family's condo at the Cove in Lake Geneva. She woke up in the middle of the night and realized her teenage cousin Brian was next to her with his hands in her pants. For the next nearly two years, Merryn says her cousin sexually abused her at family functions such as birthdays, weddings, graduations and holidays.

It wasn't until Merryn's younger sister one day said "Brian's gross," did she realize she wasn't the only one. The two told their parents what was going on and in 1998, the cousin admitted to the abuse occurring at the Cove. The sexual abuse and Merryn's public appearances has torn her previously large extended family apart.

Her immediate family remains estranged from the rest of the family, most of whom supported her cousin in the situation, choosing either to not believe Merryn and her sister's claims or to believe to dismiss it as a teenage boy experimenting.

"They believe he did things, but they minimize it," she said. "They make it sound like he was playing doctor or something. Some of them say we're liars."

Because of what happened, the families no longer get together for holidays and other events the way they used to. Merryn said it's been like that for more than four years.

"It's not my place to judge them," Merryn said. "They have made choices and I have made choices. I can't reclaim my innocence and I can't get back what was stolen from me."

She said she still prays for them every night.

"For us all to have a relationship again, it would take a miracle," Merryn said. "It is one of the devastating things out of this."

She also has forgiven her cousin for what he did. Merryn said if she didn't he would still be controlling her life.

"I don't hold hatred for him. What good is that?" she said. "I pray he does good with his life and makes a difference in his life. I hope he does not allow this to consume his life."

But after some of the healing, there's one thing Merryn is focused on — talking about what happened to her as much as possible.

"The one thing I could get back was to not be silenced," she said. "I have gotten that back and that empowers me to keep going out and talking. I have a lot of fire and passion now to get things done."

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