A Former Miss America Speaks With Experience On Sexual Abuse

Posted: September 21, 1994

On Monday evening, at the Adam's Mark Hotel on City Line Avenue, concerned citizens - and dozens of traumatized survivors - gathered to talk about something that most people usually whisper about: sexual abuse of children.

The keynote speaker at the meeting of the the Delaware Valley Associations for Accurate Advocacy About Abuse was Marilyn Van Derbur Atler, Miss America of 1958.

Thirty-six years later, at age 57, she proudly claims another title: incest survivor. She is one of the busiest and most gifted speakers in America. She has produced teaching videos for survivors and therapists.

She told me during an interview that despite the fact that she made straight A's, graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Colorado, won various awards, sang, acted and was a competitive swimmer and golfer, her greatest accomplishment was surviving, without shame, her father's threatening and abusive nocturnal visits to her bedroom.

To survive the trauma, she subconsciously became two individuals, a "day child" and a "night child." The day child dearly loved her family, including her father, Francis. The night child knew only her father's transgressions, and she feared him completely. Neither the day child or the night child was consciously aware of the other's existence.

Van Derbur was abused by her father from age five through 18 when she went off to college. Despite her father's sexual violations, her life was filled with extraordinary success. She says her success stemmed from a consumming ''need to be the best at anything I did."

In sports, she broke and trained her own horses and raced for her high school and college ski teams.

"I needed to balance the night child's lack of courage to stand up for herself, with a fight-to-the-death kind of courage in the day child's life," Van Derbur said.

Becoming Miss America turned out to be "the worst thing that could happen to an incest victim. The still-unknown night child felt so dirty, shamed, guilty and unlovable," she recalled in a recent rebellious article titled: ''Say 'Incest' Out Loud."

She revealed that she was a survivor of incest on May 8, 1991 ("I'll never forget that date"). The usual number of doubters turned up, including her mother, who accused her of "fantasizing."

Another skeptic was Gene Amole, a columnist for the Rocky Mountain News in Denver, who seemed to believe her, but insisted that Francis Van Derbur, the millionaire president of a mortuary company, "was not all bad."

"For example," Amole wrote, "he made a generous endownment to the Boy Scouts of America. The scout headquarters in Denver is even named for him. Can we, or should we, remember him as a public benefactor as well as a child abuser?" (Francis Van Derbur's name was recently removed from the building.)

His daughter was incensed at the column and said to me: "I imagine that even Hitler was not all bad. Maybe he did some good, too."

She told the conference that one of her sisters, Gwen, is also a survivor who had validated her accusations. Gwen said she had been forced to spend several weekends in a hotel room with her father. "If people doubt me at my age, what chance does a child have?" she asked.

Two males helped pave the way for Marilyn to come to terms with incest.

"The boy was Larry Atler, a senior in high school, who became my husband 12 years later. The man was D. D. Harvey, a youth minister at my church in Denver . . . who began to notice remarks I made and actions that didn't fit into the pattern of my life. He probed like a dentist searching for my pain. He saw my somewhat frequent calls as cries for help. Finally, when I was 24, he began the conversation that saved my life."

Van Derbur can't recall all the minister said, but remembers he connected ''father" and "bedroom."

"They were words that brought my repressed past up before my eyes," she said. "I burst into heaving sobs. My night child had come into my conscious mind. . . . At his insistence, I shared what I was beginning to understand with Larry."

In 1971, a girl was born to the couple. When Jennifer turned five, Van Derbur was hospitalized by an inexplicable paralysis. Years later, she realized that 5-year-old Jennifer was the same age she had been when her trauma began.

She believes that the love of the minister who opened her eyes, and that of her husband and daughter, enabled her to do the difficult work that led to recovery, which included confronting her father, who didn't deny her accusations.

"If I had known what it would do to you, I never would have done it," she recalls him saying.

"I didn't believe him then and I don't believe him now. We never spoke of it again. When he died in 1984 I, the day child, wept endlessly."

Perhaps she cried because she would never again have the opportunity to win her father's daytime love.

But a woman wrote to Van Derbur to say that Francis Van Derbur had abused her, too, and had done so at least 20 times the year before he died at age 76.

"That letter," she told me, "resolved my feelings about my father. He knew what he was doing. The truth was, he didn't care."

It was 1984 when anxiety and pain caused Van Derbur to become dysfunctional. It was then "that I began my healing process," she told a hushed audience on Monday.

If there is one thing she wants all those who are agonizing in families traumatized by sexual assault to understand, it is that it is necessary to speak out. "Turn to a trusted friend or family member," she advises. "Find the courage to attend a group meeting.

"We stay shamed by acting ashamed," she says. "We have nothing to be ashamed of. Together we must say to every violator: 'The child may be mute today, but someday the child will speak her name and your name.' The children will speak every single name! And as we take away the children's secrets, we will take away the violator's power."

The applause was thunderous.

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