(TIME MAGAZINE) – 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.