Erin Merryn knew how to say no when her friends invited her to drink. She knew how to turn down smoking marijuana and getting high. She said she learned all of this in elementary school.
But what no one ever told her was how to speak up about sexual abuse.
It’s been 21 years since the now 27-year-old woman was sexually assaulted for the first time by her best friend’s uncle at a childhood sleepover. It’s been even less time since her older cousin — her second abuser — locked her in a bedroom at holiday family gatherings and raped her.
No one will believe you, he told her. It’ll destroy our family. And Merryn believed him.
“I started to blame myself, which so many kids do,” she said. “Then there was the fear that no one would believe me. It was my word against his.”
But Merryn found her voice.
Today, it rings loud and clear, as Merryn shares her story with thousands of people around the world. The child sex abuse advocate was recently named one of Glamour’s Women of the Year, alongside names like Selena Gomez, Lena Dunham, Ethel and Rory Kennedy and United States Olympians. Even now, she said she can’t believe it.
When Merryn got the phone call from Glamour Editor-In-Chief Cindi Leive, she thought she was going to be interviewed for a story about the sentencing of former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky. At the time, the October date was only a week away, she said.
The phone call Merryn received, however, was much different.
“When she called and told me that I was going to be honored among a Supreme Court Justice and celebrities, I was like ‘No way, are you kidding me?’ ” she said. “I just kept saying, ‘You have no idea how many kids you’re going to help me save.’ ”
Glamour Executive Editor Lauren Smith Brody wrote in an email that the work Merryn is doing isn’t only going to protect children, but also empower them.
“Erin Merryn would be a hero simply for surviving the abuse she suffered as a child,” she wrote. “But she's also taken that unthinkable experience and turned it into something so positive — educating other children.”
Merryn is currently working to get “Erin’s Law” passed in every state in America — legislation that will require students in pre-kindergarten through fifth grade to receive age-appropriate education on sexual abuse.
She said that growing up, she thought the people that would ever sexually assault her would be jumping out of bushes or offering her candy on the street. She said she never thought it would be someone she knew.
While working on her first book, “Stolen Innocence,” which is based off of Merryn’s childhood diary, she said she discovered the most telling moment of sexual abuse.
“I thought people like [cousin] Brian jumped out of the bushes and attacked you at night,” it read. “They don’t warn us about our own families.”
Today, Merryn chooses to go by her first and middle name in an attempt to distance her family from the difficult nature of her story. She adopted the pen name of Erin Merryn when she went public about 10 years ago.
Even now, despite years of speaking engagements and two books documenting her abuse and struggle, she said some relatives do not believe her story.
Merryn’s legislation has been signed in by governors in the states of Illinois, Missouri, Indiana, New York, Maine and Michigan and is being introduced and voted on in 10 other states within the next year, she said.
Through this legislation, Merryn said she hopes to make sexual abuse less of a taboo subject and as talked about as breast cancer.
“I want to walk into coffee shops and see information about sexual abuse,” she said. “I want to see people dressed in blue, bringing awareness to the issue of child abuse.”
Steve Miskin, press secretary for Pennsylvania Speaker of the House Rep. Sam Smith, said the bill is basically dead as session ends Friday, after many Democrats in the House looked to add amendments rather than pass the legislation through.
Unless the bill is passed by Friday, Erin’s Law will need to be reintroduced in the next session.
But Miskin said Smith was a strong proponent of the bill, as the underlying issue of teaching children about exploitation and potential abuse is a lesson Pennsylvania’s children cannot miss.
“Unfortunately, times have changed since I’ve grown up,” he said. “While yes, parents are doing a lot to help their kids learn, it’s never enough to ensure that our kids are aware of possible exploitation and abuse.”
Through empowering those who have suffered from childhood sex abuse — numbers that Merryn called “staggering” — the world can begin to heal and grow from this crime.
Tor Michaels, chief of staff for Rep. Scott Conklin, D-Centre, said he believes that if the bill could pass in Pennsylvania, it could be a good addition to help the children of our state.
“We need to make sure we can do all that we can to protect our children,” he said.
Merryn said she hopes to see Penn State grow and learn from the actions of Sandusky. Through research and the right approach, the university can help in the fight to make childhood sex abuse known, she said.
“My innocence was killed,” she said. “My trust was taken, but the one thing I’ve reclaimed from both my abusers is my voice.”