At just eleven years old, Sherry Johnson was informed that because she had become pregnant as a result of the rapes she had endured, she would have to get married to the very man who had raped her. At the time, Johnson did not even know what marriage was or what it was to be a wife.
Officials from her church and her parents colluded in arranging a marriage between Sherry and her rapist. Their goal was to avoid a criminal investigation by child welfare into the abusive events of Johnson’s early childhood.
Originally rejected by the first government office they approached, the wedding party took Johnson and her husband to be, who was nine years her senior, to the nearby office in Pinellas County, where a license was issued. Not only was this completely legal (as it is throughout Florida), but the license lists Johnson’s date of birth. This implies the clerk who issued the license was fully aware and complicit in the marriage.
In the United States, there are still twenty-seven states that allow child marriage to occur at any age as long as the parents give their consent. In Canada, the Civil Marriage Act limits the age of consent to sixteen, which may be raised by provincial governments (and often is to ages eighteen or nineteen years). In addition, the marriage must be approved by the court.
Johnson describes her personal account in her new book, Forgiving the Unforgiveable [sic]. Johnson writes that she was raped four times before the age of ten. Even more disturbing, however, is that she was unable to give consent and her complete lack of understanding of what a marriage is was dismissed by her own mother. Johnson stated that she did not understand what it would mean to be a wife. Her mother told her she would just have to get married.
In light of Johnson’s shocking story, Florida state representative Cynthia Stafford introduced a bill to outlaw child marriage in Florida, much like the Civil Marriage Act does in Canada. The bill was not passed. Lawmakers in various states argue that such a bill would infringe on the cultural and religious rights of the citizens of their state. Even if their intentions are to protect the religious traditions of religious people in their states, however, lawmakers continue to make it possible for twenty-year-old rapists to marry their child victims. This appalling reality is the unfortunate one Johnson was forced to live.
After having and raising nine children, to the detriment of her education and the remainder of her childhood, Johnson eventually divorced her husband after years of neglect, single parenting, and occasional abandonment. Forgiving the Unforgiveable will stand as the legacy of a woman who overcame terrible abuse, excelled, and was eventually able to forgive a truly unforgivable series of events imposed on her.