Ex-Miss America's tale of incest, has led others to come forward

March 30, 1992|By Susanne Althoff | Susanne Althoff,Staff Writer

When Marilyn Van Derbur Atler shares her tale of incest, people respond with confidences of their own.

The 1958 Miss America received a letter from a 73-year-old woman who, after reading about Ms. Van Derbur, told a friend that she was a victim of incest.

It was the first time the woman had shared her trauma with anyone, Ms. Van Derbur said.

"It's going on in every community in America," she said in a telephone interview from her home in Denver. "[Incest] survivors are beginning to understand now it is safer to come forward."

Ms. Van Derbur expects many incest victims will be moved to tell their stories and write her letters after she speaks about surviving sexual abuse Wednesday at Notre Dame College. Her talk, sponsored by the Sexual Assault Recovery Center in Baltimore, marks the beginning of Rape Awareness Month.

"I know that to be true. Hundreds will take action," she said.

Last May, 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.

Her story has attracted attention -- she has appeared on a People cover and the "Sally Jessy Raphael" show -- because of 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.

But her unplanned public confession was not unwelcome. "I'm glad [the reporter] was there," she said. "This has been good for me."

What followed, she said, were 11 months of healing, talking, hugging and sharing. Her mission now is to remove the stigma society attaches to incest and to end child abuse. She travels throughout the country from audience to audience, detailing the steps of survival for sexual abuse victims. Wednesday, she said, "I will talk of the barbaric journey of recovery. . . . The real message is healing is possible."

When she was trying to cope -- and was searching for role models -- incest survivors who were leading happy, fulfilled lives were hard to find, Ms. Van Derbur said. The incest survivors she came across often had difficulty sustaining relationships: None seemed able to rebuild their lives.

"I couldn't find a woman who still had a husband, a daughter, the picket fence . . ." she said.

This lack of powerful and vocal role models for incest victims has given Ms. Van Derbur her drive. And her efforts seem to be working: In addition to the more than 3,000 incest survivors who have written Ms. Van Derbur, Roseanne Barr Arnold said she, too, was inspired by the former Miss America to reveal that she was molested by her parents.

From the age of 5 until she left for college at 18, Ms. Van Derbur's father, the late Francis S. Van Derbur, came into her bedroom and raped her. Days after Ms. Van Derbur revealed her incest last year, her older sister, Gwen, came forward to tell of the same sexual abuse. Ms. Van Derbur's other two sisters have refused to comment.

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.

Growing up, Ms. Van Derbur said she split into a "day child" and a "night child" in an effort to cope. Her smiling and happy day child excelled in her studies and sports and adored her father, while the night child laid awake in fear. It wasn't until she was 24, at the prodding of her youth minister, that Ms. Van Derbur cracked the shell of her night child and admitted her father had molested her. Two years after that she married her high school sweetheart, attorney Larry Atler, with whom she has a daughter, Jennifer, 20.

Several years after her reign as Miss America, she opened the Marilyn Van Derbur Motivational Institute in Denver, giving presentations on self improvement to businesses and high school assemblies. Yet physical problems -- linked to her childhood of incest -- persisted. She continually suffered from lethargy, physical paralysis and acute anxiety, she said.

Even though she now considers herself recovered, scars remain, she said. Her night terrors ended only three years ago, and she has never fallen asleep without a sleeping pill. "Sleep was when a man could do anything to you," she said.

Nonetheless, she said, supporting others helps her endure. "If you work through the pain, the pain ends."

Talk about incest

Marilyn Van Derbur Atler's talk at 7 p.m. Wednesday in LeClerc Auditorium at Notre Dame College marks the beginning of Rape Awareness Month. Tickets are $5. Call (410) 243-8328 to order tickets by phone.

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