To see the stunningly beautiful Merri Dee, you’d never imagine that she had been kidnapped, shot twice in the head and left for dead in a forest preserve. Yet in 1971, the Chicago TV and radio legend survived that harrowing ordeal which changed her life and made the married mother of one live with purpose. After recovering, she helped establish the nation's first Victim's Rights Bill. Also a survivor of childhood and domestic violence, she works to raise awareness about both. Dee, 76, chronicles her journey in her upcoming memoir, Life Lessons On Faith, Forgiveness & Grace, to be released June 5. Renowned song stylist Nancy Wilson, Dee’s longtime friend, provided the foreword. The award-winning broadcaster talked to EBONY about surviving gun violence and overcoming life’s adversities.
EBONY: How do you keep it all together and remain so poised and polished after all you’ve been through?
Merri Dee: I have learned through the hard knocks that I have been given many gifts. Being able to be calm in a storm and poised when under fire are examples of those gifts. I tell other women who have been victimized that you have the power to overcome anything; just put your mind and heart to it and regain your control.
EBONY: What was the most difficult part about writing this book?
Merri Dee: Having to remember the childhood that I lost. I was shocked to recall that I never had the opportunity or privilege to just be a kid.
EBONY: How did you learn to forgive your stepmother who abused you, your ex-beau who abused you and your attacker?
Merri Dee: My dad once said, “Don't go to bed angry with anyone. Forgive before you go to sleep or they sleep with you.” They invade your private moments.
EBONY: How long did you stay in the abusive relationship? What moment made you leave?
Merri Dee: He became abusive probably less than a year into our relationship. It was sometime later when he used his celebrity to impress the authorities and blamed me for the dissent between us. Then I knew I was not with someone who would look out for me. I felt that I deserved better.
EBONY: What advice would you give to other women who are being abused?
Merri Dee: Plan your work and work your plan. You were given the gift of life and no one has the right to try and take that life from you. The Lord giveth and HE taketh away. That is HIS privilege.
EBONY: Your stepmother changed your name so family couldn’t find you. Did that encourage you to fight for child rights?
Merri Dee: Yes, my childhood led me to fight for the rights of children. Having my name changed was one of the most hurtful things that happened to me. Having family offers a sense of belonging, a sense of protection and a sense of self. I wanted children to have what I didn't have.
EBONY: What steps would you offer about healing and forgiveness?
Merri Dee: Be the leader in forgiving. Let go and let God.
EBONY: Crime in Chicago has reached a national high. Does it frighten you?
Merri Dee: I am not frightened. I am concerned that we as adults may have a tendency to proclaim that it is someone else's responsibility. Our youth are all of our responsibility. It is imperative that we as adults show the best of us at all times.
EBONY: What advice would you give about being more aware of one’s surroundings?
Merri Dee: I don't like being referred to as a victim. Being aware is optimal, but being afraid only invites fear. Always make plans where you intend to go, be mindful of your surroundings and think through how you might act in an encounter.
EBONY: Did you know your attacker?
Merri Dee: No, I did not know him.
EBONY: What happened to him?
Merri Dee: He was caught in my automobile up in Michigan with my purse on the seat. He was given a 120-year sentence. He served 12 years, was released on good conduct, stole an automobile, arrested again (fifth time) served time, came out and eventually finally quieted down. I was informed that he died in 2009.
EBONY: The TV talk show guest who was kidnapped with you did not survive. Do you ever wonder why God spared you?
Merri Dee: There are two things I do not have any control over: birth and death. We all have a time to enter and to leave this earth. It was not my time to leave. I honor that every day. We all have a purpose in life. My life was directed by this sense of "mission." I helped open doors for women of color in broadcasting, raised millions of dollars for UNCF and placed hundreds of children into loving homes.
EBONY: After the shooting, you were partially blind and paralyzed. You were given the last rites twice. Yet a year later you returned to work. How did you succeed against the odds?
Merri Dee: I was alive. I realized that it was a privilege I could not ever take lightly. I planned my work and worked my plan.
EBONY: Did you ever have a moment when you thought you wouldn’t make it?
Merri Dee: Yes, there were moments, but that is exactly what they were: MOMENTS! Life is not guaranteed and as a result I do not allow myself the privilege of having a pity party that lasts long.
Ebony: You became a victims’ rights advocate. Is it true that because of your efforts those who’ve been attacked must be made aware when their attacker is released from prison?
Merri Dee: Yes, my experience became fuel for the first Victim's Bill of Rights in Illinois. The bill was soon replicated across the United States. It added years to some crimes, access to data on releases and financial assistance to victims.
EBONY: Healing and forgiveness are long journeys. Any thoughts on helping others take it one day at a time?
Merri Dee: Prayer is very important. It also is so very important to forgive others and forgive ourselves. Blaming someone else without looking at the part you played will not allow healing. I say forgive; I don’t say forget. Prayer will do that for you when you least expect it.
EBONY: What are the “Aha” moments that people will take away from your book?
Merri Dee: You can have what is seen as a hard life, yet be gentle, kind, loving, gift giving, caring, patient and tough when necessary.
EBONY: Any plans to turn your memoir into a Lifetime movie?
Merri Dee: I frequently hear from others how my life’s story is so compelling. In that spirit, I would love for my memoir to become a film and help others who are struggling to overcome challenges.
To order Merri Dee’s book or for more information, visit merridee.com
Margena A. Christian is Senior Writer for EBONY. Follow her on Twitter @DrMargenaXan