Crowning Achievement

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"Deep, heaving sobs took over," Van Derbur writes. "I remember the thoughts I had, as I tried to control myself so I could try to form words. 'Why is she just sitting there? Why isn't she holding me? Comforting me?' I don't remember what words I spoke. I do remember knowing that when I said two specific words she would get it. 'Daddy. Bedroom.' Nothing could have prepared me for what happened next. She was sitting straight up in her chair with her arms folded across her chest, and she said, 'I don't believe you. It's in your fantasy.'"

Four years later, while her mother was still alive, Marilyn Van Derbur went public with her story. The Atler family had donated $260,000 to establish the Kempe Adult Survivors Program at the Kempe Center, the Denver-based organization that's a world leader in the prevention and treatment of all forms of child abuse, including sexual abuse. And in May 1991, Van Derbur agreed to give a speech at the ceremony celebrating the new Kempe program.

After she won the Miss America contest, Van Derbur made a good living on the lecture circuit. She was the only woman hired by General Motors to travel the country, giving inspirational lectures as part of the automotive giant's guest-speakers program. She also had hosted more than twenty network television specials and was the spokeswoman for the popular AT&T Bell Telephone Hour.

But as she approached the microphone at the Kempe ceremony and looked out at the audience, which included a newspaper reporter, Van Derbur knew she was about to make the most difficult and profound speech of her life.

"Tonight I break my silence," she said. "That means shining a bright light into the blackness where my 'nightchild' has been hidden for so many years. It means speaking the unspeakable word. Saying the specific word that I was never able to say -- not to my husband or daughter. Saying the ugliest six-letter word in the English language. The word is 'incest.'"

She spoke of how her childhood and adolescent personality split in two, how she "disassociated" into a "daychild" and a "nightchild."

"During the days, no embarrassing or angry glances ever passed between my father and me because I had no conscious knowledge of the traumas and terrors of the nightchild," she explained. "But the more degraded the nightchild became, the more the daychild needed to excel -- from the University of Colorado's ski team, to being a debutante, to graduating Phi Beta Kappa, to being named Miss America. I believed I was the happiest person who ever lived."

Only the youth pastor at her church sensed her dark secret. When she was 24, he punctured the barricades that she had built in her mind, and the truth spilled out. She also told the love of her life, Larry Atler, whom she'd repeatedly pushed away. And then she began to work on her public-speaking career at a crazed pace, allowing no time to deal with all the memories that were coming to the surface.

"Even with medication, I could not allow deep sleep," she told her audience. "Beneath my closed eyelids was another set of eyes, always open, always aware of any movement in the room. Nor did my ears sleep. The slightest sound was petrifying. Every night of every week, of every year, I could find no peace, because almost every night at precisely 2 a.m., I would awaken in terror. I sensed that a man was entering my bedroom. I could feel his presence. Too terrorized to move, I would lie there until morning, unable to go back to sleep. For 33 years, the black hours were endless."

In the mid-'70s, Van Derbur said, she returned to Denver after a successful speaking engagement and felt a compelling urge to lie down, "as though my body were being drawn down by a huge magnet." She lay in bed like a dead person in a casket, stricken by a paralysis that would afflict her sporadically for the next decade. Looking back, she realized the onset of this paralysis coincided with her only child, her daughter, turning five -- the age Marilyn was when her father began to come into her room at night.

"In 1984, when Jennifer began entering puberty, I became completely dysfunctional," she said in her Kempe speech. "At the height of my career, having recently been named the Outstanding Woman Speaker in America, my life was stopped. From 1984 to 1989, there were many times when I thought I would lose my mind.... In deep despair, I was often dysfunctional for long periods. I looked upon death as peace -- as a release from a mind and body that could no longer contain the agony."

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David Holthouse
Contact: David Holthouse