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Not easily scarred

Almost exactly five years ago Merlyn Nuttall was dragged off the street in broad daylight, sexually assaulted and almost killed. Emma Daly listens to her inspirational story of physical and mental recovery
Merlyn Nuttall runs her sculpted nails lightly across her throat as she speaks, brushing the faint scar lines, the visible signs of a frenzied sexual assault by a stranger who left her for dead. People sometimes asked her bluntly about the scars, when they were fresh and livid: "In a shop someone would just say, oh, what happened to you then?" she says with distaste. Nowadays they have faded, so the story tends to come out when they ask what she does.

What she has done for the past year is write a book, It Could Have Been You, an account of the attack and of her recovery from it. As the title of the book implies, Merlyn refuses, absolutely rightly, to accept any shame or blame for the savagery which she suffered. She did not bring it upon herself by her dress or her behaviour, nor was she marked out as an obvious, inevitable victim. "I thought, as most people do, that it wouldn't happen to me," she says. "I felt I was the least likely to be picked out as a victim, because I did walk confidently, I certainly wasn't small or slight."

Merlyn was a fashion buyer for BhS; she loved her job and relaxed by lifting weights, had many friends and a good life in London. Her life changed radically after the attack, though you might find that hard to believe if you met Merlyn at a party, vivacious, confident and cheerful as she is. "It's easy for people to look at me now and say it can't have been that bad," she says, sitting in the south London flat she shares with her boyfriend. But anyone who has forgotten the headlines in February 1992 - along the lines of "Sex fiend slashes girl's throat" - can check the hideous details in the book. Merlyn talked her attacker out of sodomising her, but was instead forced to bite his penis and swallow his semen (technically not rape). He tried to strangle her with cheese-wire, slashed her neck with a broken bottle, then set the room on fire and locked her in. She survived thanks to a squatter who raised the alarm and a fireman who held her neck together until an ambulance arrived. Her book is gripping stuff, moving from the attack through the investigation and court case and her physical and mental recovery, and ending with a checklist of tips for the victims of violent crime.

"Luck" - good, not bad - is a prominent theme in the book. Merlyn says again and again that she is lucky: she is alive, her three sisters were marvellous, her friends were terrific, her bank manager was understanding, her police liaison officer a delight, the investigating team dedicated beyond the call of duty, the QC Helena Kennedy generous in appearing free on Merlyn's behalf at a compensation hearing. "I just felt so lucky to have survived the attack, because I did truly think at three times that my life was over," she says. "It made life that much more worth living." Furthermore, because of the circumstances - she was pulled off the street at knife-point, at 7.15am, by a stranger - no one questioned her account (though she was asked how she was dressed at the time) and she did not, therefore, have to argue "rape" against "she wanted it".

But for those close to her, however, who had seen her horribly disfigured (albeit temporarily) by the attack, and who knew a few of the details, it was difficult to acknowledge "luck". It seems clear from reading the book that Merlyn survived the attack rather better than some friends and relatives, partly because of her euphoria at simply being alive. Merlyn's sister and co-author, Sharon Morrison, felt compelled to move to the country, for example, while Merlyn lost her best friend, Valerie. "Sharon couldn't live in London, she didn't want to bring her children up in London after what had happened to me," Merlyn says. "The ripple effect for all my family and friends was so vast ..."

Her friends were towers of strength, but they did not necessarily understand that what Merlyn wanted and needed was to resume normal relations. She wanted again to be the friend that others relied on, she did not want to be treated with kid gloves, to shock her friends by cracking the odd joke about her ordeal. Valerie, she says, had been such a support, yet the two became "very estranged" for a while. "I had to be very selfish, and look after me," she says. And, returning to practical issues again, as she was living outside London she did not have much time to see her friends and found the demands of reciprocal love very tiring. Everybody wanted to know what was happening with the case, the trial, her new job: "And this wasn't a soap opera, this was my life." She also found a new friend, one who hadn't known her before the attack, which caused, she says, some resentment among the older friends.

It is clear that in some sense Merlyn needed an escape from a life now defined by the attack, by the change, and so found herself a kindred spirit who treated her normally and, moreover, who needed comfort when her father died. "Nobody could recognise the goodness in that, there was a lot of rivalry and jealousy, mixed with concern." As Merlyn began to rebuild her life - returning to work at BhS once the police had arrested the prime suspect - she realised that she wanted a change. After the trial she sought psychiatric help for the first time. "Everyone thought it was over, everyone thought the sentencing had given a conclusion to the whole traumatic event. But as far as I was concerned there was suddenly this blank space, where people were saying `you can get on with your life'. And I hadn't a clue what direction my life was going to go in."

But even in seeking emotional help, Merlyn seems to have been driven by very practical concerns. She experienced few symptoms of trauma but decided to visit a psychiatrist anyway so that she would be prepared to deal with any problems that surfaced subsequently. When she was nine, Merlyn's mother had died. She survived partly through the care of her father and three elder sisters, but also because "I felt I had to show them I was OK and that would ease their pain". It is clear that this early experience of loss shaped her and subsequently helped her to overcome the attack.

But as well as being independent and emotionally hardy, Merlyn is one of those informed consumers who make life so irritating for obnoxious doctors and officious clerks. She demanded proper treatment - even in the aftermath of the attack she told a nurse to recall the forensic medical examiner because he had failed to scrape under her nails. "And I've watched Quincy - I know that's what they are supposed to do," she says. If the police said they expected a test result by a certain date, Merlyn would phone to ask what had happened.

She was extremely distressed by her injuries, she was terrified of seeing her attacker again, she wanted to escape. But she also wanted to regain the control which was wrenched so viciously away by her attacker. It is clear that immersion in the practical details of the investigation and trial and then the compensation helped her recovery, which explains in part, perhaps, the book's function as a handbook for the survivors of violent crime.

She also wanted to highlight flaws in the system she now knows so well. Merlyn is critical of the criminal injuries compensation system, for example. She was told to fill in forms on her own, yet knows that acting alone she would have won only a fraction of the pounds 76,101 awarded to her after Helena Kennedy represented her, gratis, at the board hearing (where legal aid is not available). Money is an important issue, she says, because there are so many things a victim might need almost immediately: a holiday, just to get away, especially while an attacker is still at large; a mobile phone for security, ditto a car; cosmetic surgery not available on the NHS; legal representation.

In hospital, Merlyn received wonderful emergency medical care, but was left lying naked on a trolley for hours, was examined by a male doctor and was ordered to stop blocking hospital lines as she tried to contact friends and relatives in the aftermath. In court, she was only a witness, and was not allowed to discuss the case with the prosecuting barrister. She was not even told until the last minute that she could give evidence hidden from the defendant, which greatly distressed her.

Merlyn is eager to help the cause of victims' rights. But while she is irrevocably defined by her own experiences, she is determined not to make the assault a career. "I want to make some good come out of the bad, but there are other things I want to do with my life"

`It Could Have Been You' is published by Virago on 6 February, price pounds 9.99.