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.

News
peopleActress speaks out against historic sexual assault claims, saying things have 'gone quite far now'

Arts & Entertainment
A stranger calls: Martin Freeman in ‘Fargo’
tvReview: New 10-part series brims with characters and stories

Arts & Entertainment
Shaun Evans as Endeavour interviews a prisoner as he tries to get to the bottom of a police cover up
tvReview: Second series comes to close with startling tale of police corruption and child abuse
Sport
Raheem Sterling and Luis Suarez celebrate during Liverpool's game with Norwich
football Another hurdle is out of the way for Brendan Rodgers' side
VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Life & Style
Guests enjoy food and cocktail parings by Chefs Jimmy Bannos, Jimmy Bannos Jr, Daniel Rose and Mindy Segal with mixologists Josh King and Alex Gara at Bounty & Barrel: A Jack Daniel's Single Barrel Dinner Series at Heaven on Seven on April 9, 2014 in Chicago, Illinois.
news Sprinkle Palcohol 'on almost any dish' for 'an extra kick' firm says...
Arts & Entertainment
Charlotte Brontë, the English novelist, poet and the eldest of the three Bronte sisters who lived into adulthood, has been celebrated with a Google Doodle depicting her most famous novel, Jane Eyre.
arts + ents "Reader, they doodled her".

Arts & Entertainment
Schwarzenegger winning Mr. Universe 1969
arts + entsCan you guess the celebrity from these British Pathe News clips?
News
Portrait of Queen Elizabeth-II by David Bailey which has been released to mark her 88th birthday
peoplePortrait released to mark monarch's 88th birthday
Arts & Entertainment
The star of the sitcom ‘Miranda’ is hugely popular with mainstream audiences
TVMiranda Hart lined up for ‘Generation Game’ revival
Life & Style
The writer, Gerda Saunders, with her mother, who also suffered with dementia before her death
healthGerda Saunders on the most formidable effect of her dementia
Arts & Entertainment
Oxegen in Ireland has been axed as promoters decide it is 'no longer viable'
arts + ents Promoters have axed the event as it is 'no longer viable in current form'
News
The troubled star is set to give fans the biggest insight into her life away from the headlines
people Star made the announcement during the final episode of the programme, entitled Lindsay
News
YouTube clocks up more than a billion users a month
mediaEuropean rival Dailymotion certainly thinks so
Arts & Entertainment
The original design with Charles' face clearly visible, which is on display around the capital
arts + ents
Arts & Entertainment
‘Self-Portrait Worshipping Christ’ (c943-57) by St Dunstan
books How British artists perfected the art of the self-portrait
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Geography Teacher

    £130 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Ilford: Secondary Geography Teacher Lo...

    Do you want to work in Education?

    £55 - £70 per day: Randstad Education Cheshire: Are you a dynamic and energeti...

    SEN Teaching Assistant

    Negotiable: Randstad Education Group: SEN TAs, LSAs and Support Workers needed...

    Private Client Senior Manager - Sheffield

    £50000 - £60000 per annum: Pro-Recruitment Group: The Sheffield office of this...

    Day In a Page

    Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter: The man who could have been champion of the world - and the Bob Dylan song that immortalised him

    The man who could have been champion of the world

    Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter and the Bob Dylan song that immortalised him
    Didn’t she do well?

    Didn’t she do well?

    Miranda Hart lined up for ‘Generation Game’ revival
    The Middle East we must confront in the future will be a Mafiastan ruled by money

    The Middle East we must confront in the future will be a Mafiastan ruled by money

    In Iraq, mafiosi already run almost the entire oil output of the south of the country
    Before they were famous

    Before they were famous

    Can you guess the celebrity from these British Pathe News clips?
    Martin Freeman’s casting in Fargo is genius

    Martin Freeman’s casting in Fargo is a stroke of genius

    Series is brimming with characters and stories all its own
    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

    Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
    Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

    British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

    The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
    Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

    Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

    Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
    A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

    A History of the First World War in 100 moments

    A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
    Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
    Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

    Cannes Film Festival

    Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
    The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

    The concept album makes surprise top ten return

    Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
    Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

    Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

    Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
    10 best baking books

    10 best baking books

    Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
    Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

    Jury still out on Pellegrini

    Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players