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MARILYN VAN DERBUR (ATLER)
MISS AMERICA 1958
HER INCEST STORY
One in three adult women is a victims of child sex abuse. Among their ranks is Marilyn Van Der Bur Atler, Miss America 1958. As such, her life was/is defined by 13 years of incest.
Marilyn Van Der Bur Atler, Miss America 1958 and incest survivor, was guest speaker at the Fourth Annual Awards Dinner of the former Safe & Sound, Western Pennsylvania Chapter of the National Committee for the Prevention of Child Abuse. I attended the event as director and representative of the Family Support Program of Jamestown, Pennsylvania. Board member Jennifer Johnson also attended.
The date was April 7, 1993. However, Marilyn’s story is as relevant today as it was 21 years ago.
..the greatest accomplishment of my life—surviving incest.”***
How does a person survive being sexually violated as a child?
- The feelings of abuse of this kind, or any kind, are “too intense for a child to absorb; that’s why children split their minds”, explains Van Derbur.*
Marilyn’s survival was enabled by her ability to “split into a day child and a night child…Until I was 24-years-old I had absolutely no conscious knowledge of the traumas or the terrors of the night child. The more the night child came, the more the day child needed to excel.”
- People ask me why I didn’t tell what was happening to me. It was because I perceived no way out. A young child tells on her father and what happens? She’s taken away from her family. Her father goes to jail. The family is destroyed, and the message is, “It’s all your fault.”***
Marilyn’s church youth minister, suspecting something was wrong, spent nine years trying to learn the source of pain he sensed was behind her smile. Marilyn said that when she was 24 “he penetrated the concrete wall I had built around my secret.” Sobs erupted from the deepest part of her soul. The only words she could speak following her revelation were “Don’t tell anyone!”
Her minister’s response was “Who don’t you want to tell?”
“Larry.” Larry was her high school sweetheart who she had pushed away for fear he would “find out who I really was.”
“Then Larry is the only one you have to tell.”
- “I had loved Larry with all my heart for nine years, but I kept running from him without understanding why…***
“It was May 8, 1991, the first time I was ever able to say the ugliest six letter word in the English language—incest. I was an incest victim from the age of 5 to the age of 18. I stand before you a 54-year-old incest survivor. Every day and every night of my life have been dramatically impacted by incest.”
It was agonizing to tell Larry. His response? Today is the happiest day of my life. I understand everything now. Since that day they have walked every step of her painful journey together.
- A week later I visited my sister Gwen in Kansas City and revealed my secret to her too. I remember seeing the blood drain from her face. She said, “Oh, no. I thought I was the only one.”***
When Marilyn’s daughter Jennifer was turning five, the age when Marilyn’s violations began, her memories returned. She tried with every ounce of energy to repress them.
- Beginning with a state of physical paralysis, Marilyn began to break down, mentally and physically.*… I’d tell Larry, “I don’t love her anymore.” It would take 10 years for me to understand that in Jennifer I was seeing myself as a 5-year-old.***… that her daughter’s age had instigated feelings about the abuse that had begun when she was 5 herself.*]
Then she decided she had to confront her father.
When he realized why she was visiting him, he excused himself, returning immediately. Marilyn was aware he had retrieved a gun which he wouldn’t hesitate to use—probably on both of them.
“Although I don’t recommend this to anyone else nothing would have kept me from talking to him that day,” she said.
Unlike most violators, who deny their acts, her father didn’t deny anything. “His response was ‘If I had known what it would do to you, I never would have done it.’
“I didn’t believe him then, and I do not believe him now!”
Marilyn withheld her story from her only daughter Jennifer, but she couldn’t continue to lock Jennifer out. In 1985 Larry agreed to let Marilyn share her story with Jennifer, “though it must have been difficult to allow perversion to enter into the life he had always shielded.”
It was Jennifer who finally broke the silence. She believed Marilyn could change lives if she would share her story with others.
Marilyn was stunned. What if Jennifer’s friends found out? Jennifer responded “They would respect you more.”
Marilyn’s worst fears ended—her daughter knew her secret and wasn’t ashamed of her.
- Last May (1992), Ms. Van Derbur, 54, spoke publicly about her sexual abuse for the first time at a meeting sponsored by a child abuse prevention and treatment center in Denver, to which her family donated money. She thought the small audience was made up only of therapists and incest victims, but it also included a newspaper reporter. The next day, her story appeared on the front pages of newspapers across the country.** For a few days following the public release of her story, Van Derbur felt that she had been violated once again. But then Van Derbur’s sister, Gwen, revealed that she, too, had been abused by their father. People began coming up to Marilyn to thank her for coming forth with her story.*
When, as a 53-year-old outstanding community member, Marilyn revealed her story, people asked Why should we believe her?
- the details: a debutante and former Miss America abused for 13 years by a millionaire father, who was a businessman and pillar of the Denver community.
- “My family was so picture-perfect,” she said**…”We had all the trappings of a perfect family, ” Marilyn says now. “Wealth, social status, a handsome father and lovely mother.”***…Ms. Van Derbur said her mother, Gwendolyn “Boots” Olinger Van Derbur, thought she had imagined the abuse. “I was devastated when Mother didn’t believe me,” she said. It wasn’t until her sister, Gwen, talked about her experience that her mother accepted what had happened to her daughters.**
Only when her sister came forward with her story was Marilyn’s story validated.
Who, then, would believe a child?
Society understands little about what happens to a young child’s mind when her body is invaded and violated.
“Our belief systems are shattered; we learn we are dirty, ugly, unacceptable, unlovable, and guilty,” Marilyn said.
How long does this belief system last?
How long are secrets held in?
Often, a lifetime.
My goal now is to make the word incest speakable and to take away the stigma we attach to it. We have to figure out how to stop these violators and how to help their families heal. I want to say to them, “Look at my family. We are free of shame.”*** Marilyn’s passion is educating society about the long term impact of sexual assault so that people will better understand why resources need to be available for prevention and intervention.
Miss America By Day: Lessons Learned from Ultimate Betrayals and Unconditional Love by Marilyn VanDerbur—
- “I wrote the book, not because I want someone to learn more about me but so readers can learn more about themselves. And so that loved ones can better understand the brutal recovery process and never again say, “just get over it.”
Read a free chapter and see a video, 2014 Interview with Marilyn VanDerbur: The Power of the Mind