“It’s the secrets and the shame that keep us shackled.” says Marilyn Van Derbur. “Everyone needs a safe person that they can turn to. My mother was not a safe person. I didn’t have anyone to tell as a child.”
Van Derbur kept her identity as an incest survivor secret for 51 years. Before the world knew her real story, Van Derbur was known for her inspirational words and beauty. Her career in front of the spotlight began when she was crowned Miss America in 1958. For the next 25 years she worked as a motivational speaker. By her mid-30s, Van Derbur was chosen as “The Outstanding Woman Speaker in America.” She was the first woman to be given this speaking award, the highest possible, by the National Speakers Association.
Yet, by age 45, with public notoriety growing, her personal life began to unravel. “When I say that my life shut down, I mean completely. There were many weeks I couldn’t open my mail or answer the phone.”
Burying Your Feelings Alive
From age 5 to 18, Van Derbur’s father sexually molested her over 600 times. “When my father would come in my room, I’d stay as still as I could. I would try to pretend I was asleep. All of the feelings- the degradation and the humiliation that I couldn’t express day or night were put some place. When you bury feelings alive, they stay there until they are triggered.”
Van Derbur’s trigger was her daughter’s fifth birthday. Her daughter’s age began to trigger memories and feelings that, as a child, Van Derbur had buried deep within her being. She was hospitalized for weeks. Even though her body was at times in physical paralysis, she was released when physicians, baffled, could find nothing physically wrong with her.
“When something triggers your memories and feelings, it comes up as it if is happening in real time.” says Van Derbur. Van Derbur was in therapy for six years. The hardest part was her inability to “find anyone with similar experiences that had made it. If I could talk to someone that said I had to go back and re-live those memories to make it to the end, I would have found it more possible to move on.”
With a Life Unraveled, A New Mission Is Discovered
By age 51, six years after her life first began to unravel, Van Derbur saw a light at the end of the tunnel. At the same time she realized she could never go back to the life she was living before her breakdown. “It’s like being a soldier in Vietnam who found a way to get out of prison. He’s about to get on the plane to go home to his family, but he realizes he has information that could help get other people out. He has to go back.”
Removing the Cloak of Shame
Van Derbur went to the Kempe National Center to explore the creation of an adult survivor program. She gave the center one condition: no one was to know she was an incest survivor. After two years of planning, a psychiatrist was hired to work with 10 survivors per month. On the day of the opening ceremony for the new center, Van Derbur was contacted by the Public Relations Department of the University of Colorado Health Science Center alerting her that the press knew her story. “They said you can give us your text and we will negotiate with the Denver Post and only use your words or you can show up (at the opening ceremony) and they will write what they want.” Still apprehensive and in a fog of emotions, Van Derbur gave her text to the Public Relations team. The next day, her story was front page news.
“I thought, my life is over now. My biggest nightmare is here. People know; no one will respect me.”
With a cloak of shame still enveloping her, Van Derbur was surprised as community members came forward thanking her for sharing her story. The Denver Post marked her as a “woman of courage,” giving other survivors “the thought of ‘what if I came forward and told my story to others… would I be accepted?’”
Need and Pain Unmasked
In less than three months after her story was released, over 3,000 survivors of physical and sexual abuse came forward in the greater Denver area for help and support. Speaking to her team at the Kempe National Center, Van Derbur explained that “We don’t have 10 survivors to serve, we have hundreds of survivors.” From this public outcry and need for additional support, Van Derbur founded the Survivor United Network (SUN). Up to 500 people came to SUN each week for 35 different support groups. Thanks to funding from Marilyn’s family and other fundraising efforts, all services were provided at no cost to participants.
For Van Derbur, the work was still personal. “I was asked by a reporter ‘what has changed for you?’ I realized, something has changed! I’m talking to you today and realizing that I have no shame.”
Although Van Derbur confronted her father, she deals with the complex mix of anger and love she had hidden for so many years. “He never asked for forgiveness. He never said he was sorry. I had to work through on my own the feelings of degradation.”
Van Derbur held her secret for most of her life, believing that there was no one she could tell. “When you have an advocacy center and can go somewhere where people can believe you that makes the difference. Just having that support can start a healing process that brought down my life at age 45. You don’t have to live that way if you can work through it as a child.”
Creating a Space for Healing
Since first telling her story over 20 years ago to a few people in the Kempe National Center, Van Derbur has spoken in over 500 cities, creating a space for healing that for many survivors of sexual assault is often life-changing.
“If you can only do one thing to make your community safer for children, it would be to have an advocacy center.” says Van Derbur. “That would be the first on your list.”
Van Derbur will share more of her story this Friday, Nov. 2, from 6:00 to 8:00 pm at the Adams State University Student Union Building. Although the event is free, attendees are required to register and will be asked to consider contributing to the future Children’s Advocacy Center of the San Luis Valley (SLV CAC). For more information on this event and the SLV CAC, call 719-580-0379 or e-mail [email protected] To learn more about or to contact Van Derbur, visit www.missamericabyday.com.