Longform

Crowning Achievement

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This was the reason she was helping found the Kempe Adult Survivors Program, she said.

"This program will help families understand how they can help the healing process. When a good friend of mine knew I would be speaking here tonight, she said, 'Why do you want to ruin your father's reputation? Write an article and do it anonymously.' This was my father's greatest weapon. He knew I would never tell. It has been thirty years since I consciously learned of my nightchild, but I say to my father tonight, 'You were wrong.' We must say to every member of our society: If you violate your children, they may not speak today, but as we gather our strength and stand beside them, they will, one day, speak your name. They will speak every single name. It is not my father's reputation that I seek to destroy. As difficult as this is for most people to understand, myself included, I loved my father. It is innocent children and mute adults that I hope to help free. If I cannot speak the truth with my father dead, how, dear God, can we expect a child to speak?"

Van Derbur's revelations made national news, and she began a second successful public-speaking career, this one as a high-profile survivor of childhood sexual abuse. But not everyone in her home town respected her decision to bring down her father. Rocky Mountain News columnist Gene Amole, who always began his columns with a one-word declaration, started his take on Van Derbur's speech with "Assassination" and ended with this: "What this really boils down to is one person's word against another's, or as in Marilyn's case, her word against her father, who is dead and cannot respond.''

(Actually, one of Marilyn's three sisters had already come forward to corroborate her story and reveal that their father had victimized her as well.)

Amole's column coaxed readers to remember all the good things Francis Van Derbur had done, like give lots of money to worthy causes, including the Boy Scouts. For the next three years, Van Derbur and Amole dueled. In September 1994, Amole wrote a column that was an open letter to her.

"Dear Marilyn," it began. "You have been demonizing me in your appearances for three years and I have said nothing. At one point, you suggested I was part of an 'old boy network' protecting men who commit incest. You even bad-mouthed me when you met with state legislators. You are angry because I suggested that some cases of repressed incest memory may be bogus...Why is it, Marilyn, if you hate your father so much, that you cling tenaciously to his name? Why aren't you just Marilyn Atler instead of Marilyn Van Derbur Atler? You know what I think? You thrive on notoriety to feed your ego. You love the spotlight. In your heart you still hear Bert Parks singing, 'There she is, Miss Amer-i-ca.' I have watched your testimony of sexual abuse several times. Not long ago I had a sleepless night and went downstairs at 3 a.m. to zap through the TV cable channels. There you were on one of the public-access channels, clutching your doll and talking about the 'daychild' and the 'nightchild.' I'll give you this, Marilyn, you do a dynamite show. You look like Saint Marilyn with that beatific expression on your face. I am sure you have helped some women confront their incest experiences and you deserve credit for that, but now it is beginning to look as though you are no longer helping. You are exploiting. You went public with your repressed memories after people forgot you were Miss America of 1958. You weren't getting any invitations to make your motivational speeches. And then all of a sudden, BINGO, incest! You were in People magazine and on network television. You were a celebrity again.... But there is so much more to living than being a professional victim. Get a life, Marilyn. Get a life."

By that time, Van Derbur was indeed a celebrity again. In the early days of e-mail, she was receiving mailbags full of letters every day, most from survivors of childhood sexual abuse. (Since going public, she has corresponded with more than 8,000 of them.) She was back on the lecture circuit, and survivors were lining up for hours to talk to her after her speeches.

"A lot of them want me to be their mother," she says. "I tell them, 'I can help you, and I can be in your life, but I can't be everything you want me to be.'"

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David Holthouse
Contact: David Holthouse