Erin Merryn met with some of the Duggar children in 2013 to discuss sexual abuse prevention at the request of Michelle and Jim Bob Duggar. (Photo: Erin Merryn)
Erin Merryn is a mother and an advocate for sexual abuse prevention. At age 6, she was molested and later raped by a friend’s uncle. At 11, her teenage cousin began abusing her. The author of three books about abuse, she is the creator of Erin’s Law, which requires public schools to teach sexual abuse prevention. In 2013 — 11 years after Josh Duggar first told his parents he had “inappropriately touched” five girls, four of whom were his sisters — she met with the Duggar family to discuss safe and unsafe touching, not knowing the family’s own history with abuse. Merryn opens up to Yahoo Parenting about the text messages she exchanged with Michelle Duggar this week, the surprising reason why the Duggar girls might be protecting their brother, why the parents are partially to blame for Josh’s alleged repeated molestations – and her own painful experience with childhood molestation.
You’ve met the Duggar family before, and have spoken to some of their children about sexual abuse. How did that first meeting come about?
I was the keynote speaker at a child abuse fundraiser that they were attending. Michelle and Jim Bob approached me afterwards and they said, ‘We love what you’re doing, we want to help you get Erin’s Law passed in other states, we want to help you gain contact with the right legislators.’ And then they left. But 10 minutes later they came back in and said, ‘Erin, we know it’s late, but is there any way you can come to our house and talk to our kids about Erin’s Law?’ So for two hours on September 24, 2013, I sat with nine of their kids, telling them about safe touches, about how people shouldn’t touch you in areas that fall under a swimsuit, and what types of secrets you should tell adults immediately. Only nine of their kids were there – the younger ones. The girls who were abused were out of town, and Josh wasn’t living there at the time. He was already living in DC.
Did you have any inkling then about what had gone on in their home?
Not at all. The kids I was speaking with, they were shaking their heads at the stories I was telling them. When I posted on Facebook about meeting the Duggar family, I wrote about how they were some of the most well-behaved and respectful kids I had ever met. I know people who have one kid who do not behave as well as their nine kids did. I was really impressed with them. So when I learned of this, I was stunned. Not that they had to tell me anything – why would they tell a stranger they just met? – but I was shocked, and it got me thinking: Is this why they brought me into their home? So this doesn’t happen to their other kids? They wanted their children to know about safe secrets, unsafe secrets, safe touches, unsafe touches. Were they trying to stop something from happening again under their roof?
What do you think of the way that Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar handled the situation when they found out Josh abused his sisters? They didn’t call the police right away, but instead tried to handle it at home and eventually sent Josh away to a training center for kids who made bad choices.
They made mistakes. They should have gone to the authorities right away. If they had removed their son from the beginning, we wouldn’t have multiple victims. Keeping Josh in the home was a danger. He said, ‘I’ve done this,’ so why are you keeping him in the home? Send him to an aunt or uncle’s home, to a grandparent’s… they needed to put in safety measures more than just making sure Josh can’t get into the girls’ bedrooms at night. When you have a family that big, you can’t keep an eye on everyone.
Erin Merryn, a child abuse survivor and advocate, with Michelle and Jim Bob Duggar in 2013, 11 years after their son Josh admitted to “inappropriately touching” five girls. (Photo: Erin Merryn)
Josh told his parents about sexually abusing his sisters on three separate occasions, so they knew it wasn’t handled after the first time.
Right. He realized that ‘what I’m doing is wrong,’ but obviously he couldn’t control himself because he kept doing it. He was saying, ‘Mom and Dad, I’m committing a crime. Help me stop.’ They should have gotten him out of the home.
I think one thing parents should get out of all of this is to try and put themselves in the Duggars’ shoes. What if your teenage son told you that he molested his sisters? What would you do? This is the conversation we need to be having. This is going to happen in other families, sadly. So parents, talk to your spouse. Ask yourselves, ‘if one of our children did this to their sibling, what would we do?’ I certainly hope you would go to the police and find a different place for this child to live. Yes, they need psychological help, but when you look at the statistics of how these perpetrators re-offend, they have some of the highest re-offending rates across the board. More than drunk driving, more than murder. So why would you keep someone like that in your lives?
Have you told the Duggars that you disagree with how they reacted?
I spoke to them this week. I reached out because I wanted to let them know that with everything going on, and the fact that they brought me into their home to talk to their kids about personal body safety, I was getting requests for interviews. I said, ‘I know a lot of the media is throwing you under the bus. It’s not my place to judge you, no parent is perfect. I don’t want to sling mud at you, but I don’t agree with how you handled this. You should have gone to the authorities and Josh should have been removed.’ I told them that I hoped moving forward there can be some positive lessons from this negative event, and that I hoped their daughters wouldn’t be re-victimized.
What was their response?
I was texting with Michelle, and she said she understood that I was being hounded by the media, she told me she would be doing an interview on Fox News and asked me for resources they could give other parents to use in similar situations. After I spoke with CNN I sent Michelle my interview and she sent me a text message that said, ‘Thank you for sharing. That was powerful, you did a great job. Praying the Lord continues to expand your ministry.’
The one thing I have to give the Duggars credit for – they are not in denial. They may be protecting their son, but at least they aren’t in denial. I can’t tell you how many horror stories I have heard about parents who don’t want to accept that cousins, uncles, pastors, grandfathers have done things like this. My cousin confessed to the police and to this day his parents are still in denial. They say the police convinced him to confess something that he didn’t do, that my sister and I were making it up.
Jill and Jessa Duggar’s interview with Fox News airs on Friday night, and clips have already been released of them defending their brother. Are you surprised?
Not at all. What I can take from my own experience is that they are probably protecting their mom and dad. These are their parents, and they probably hate seeing their parents destroyed in the media, so the last thing they are going to do is say their parents handled it the wrong way or that it was dirty or shameful. I did the same thing. After I was abused — first by a friend’s uncle and then by a 16-year-old cousin — my mother was crying every night because someone she knew did this to her daughter. For two years I saw my mother cry, and so I put on a happy face and said ‘I’m ok, this doesn’t bother me.’ I wanted to protect my mom because we hate seeing our parents in pain. It’s that protective instinct kids have. Parents are supposed to protect their kids, but kids want to protect us, too. So I’m not surprised at all – I figured they would take this position. If they had a problem with their parents, or how they handled it, this would have come out long ago.
Knowing what you do as a survivor of abuse, also by a teenage family member, what do you think might be going through the girls’ minds? What are they feeling?
There’s a lot of shame there. Everybody in America knows that their brother sexually abused them. I’m not going to speculate on whether or not they remember it, if it happened while they were asleep [editor’s note: Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar claim they told their daughters what happened to them because they were asleep and ‘weren’t even aware’ of the abuse], because even if they don’t remember, what they do know for a fact is that their brother molested them. For the rest of their lives they will have the label that they were sexually abused by their brother. That carries shame and feelings of worthlessness and being dirty. Even if they slept through it, it doesn’t matter. It happened.
Hearing that their abuse came at the hands of someone they knew, that doesn’t surprise you, right?
Ninety-three percent of the time the abuser is somebody the child knows and trusts. Over 60 percent of the time it’s a family member, so this is not startling at all. The fact that it happened at home and not by a stranger they met on a family field trip – it’s not surprising. The fact is that one in four girls and one in six boys will be molested by the age of 18, and this family has 19 kids. So statistically, it isn’t shocking that this happened.
So many parents only talk to their kids about stranger danger. They don’t have the conversation about people the family knows because parents can’t get themselves in the mind frame that someone they trust would do something like that. But we all know someone who has been sexually abused. It’s not just the Duggars. We just might not know their names because there is so much shame and stigma that they don’t speak up.
What should parents teach their kids about sexual abuse?
This firestorm is the perfect opportunity for families to sit down and prevent this from happening in their home. It’s a simple conversation. ‘Kids, the areas covered by your swimsuit, nobody ever touches you there. If somebody does, you report it and you report it immediately. If the first person you tell doesn’t do anything, keep telling.’ Make a list of safe people in their life that they can say something to, like parents, grandparents, teachers. The message should be that you don’t keep the secret, you stand up and tell. And you will be believed.
Erin’s Law was passed in Alabama Thursday, making it the 25th state to pass the law. What are your goals for this law?
Erin’s Law requires that every year, kids are taught in public schools about body touching. Safe and unsafe touches, safe and unsafe secrets, and teaching kids how to ‘get away and tell today’ when they’ve been sexually abused. We don’t give kids that message enough. We talk to them about peer pressure and alcohol abuse but the only message they get without Erin’s Law about abuse is from the perpetrator. And that message is not to tell, to keep it a secret. I’ve found that, usually, the only parents who tell their kids about safe touching are the ones who were abused by something they know. Erin’s Law first passed in Illinois in 2010 and it’s now in 25 states, so we’re halfway there.
In fact, the Duggars were huge supporters of Erin’s Law. They told me, ‘Erin, we want to get you to the home-schooling community.’ That was the one area I’d been banging my head against a wall with, since I can’t require homeschoolers to teach kids this.
The very first page of my book, An Unimaginable Act, even has a quote from Michelle and Jim Bob. They wrote, ‘Erin Merryn is a dynamic Christian young lady who shares her tragic testimony of how she was abused growing up, but once she was able to open up, God set her free. She is one of the best speakers we have ever heard and her story will help millions.’