Longform

Crowning Achievement

Page 5 of 5

At the end of a speech, Van Derbur asks all survivors in the audience to silently stand. Some people always do. "I ask survivors to stand because it was standing in the light that changed my life forever," she says. "When newspaper reporters took me forward, I was standing in the light. Within a period of two weeks, my shame was gone."

In 1992, Van Derbur spoke at the University of Colorado Medical Center before an audience of about a hundred doctors. One of them was Fred Mimmack, a respected psychiatrist and teacher at the center who'd practiced medicine in Denver for more than thirty years and was then in his late fifties.

"When I asked survivors to stand, this man stood, and it just sucked the oxygen out of the room," Van Derbur recalls. "He was in the third row, and he was about 6'4", and he didn't look left or right, he just stared straight ahead, and all I could think of was this lone pine tree standing erect in a storm. He didn't know several others were rising behind him."

Remembers Mimmack: "I was not prepared for what she did, but it took almost no thought for me to stand. It was the truth, and it was a relief to say it by standing. There is a Spanish proverb which says, 'A life lived in fear is half a life.' A life lived in shame is half a life as well."

Van Derbur still speaks in public often, most recently to the national convention of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, which was held in Colorado earlier this month to coincide with a national gathering of Catholic bishops in the Denver area.

"I opened by saying that they are the ones who brought the horrors of sexual abuse into the consciousness of America and, indeed, the world," she says of her keynote address to SNAP. "Many not only had the courage to come forward and speak publicly, they had the courage to take on the Catholic Church! I knew their stories, their struggles. I also knew that many of their survivor friends had committed suicide and that they are still grieving. It was a very powerful morning for me. All survivors are in their debt."

Last year Van Derbur self-published Miss America By Day, subtitled "Lessons Learned From Ultimate Betrayals and Unconditional Love." The book spent thirteen weeks in the top ten of Colorado's non-fiction bestsellers list, which tracks statewide sales of all books published in the country, and in May it won first place in the prestigious Writer's Digest awards as the Most Inspirational Book published in 2003.

Though printed under one cover, Miss America By Day is really two books disguised as one. The first is Van Derbur's autobiography, a survivor's tale. The second is perhaps the single best clearinghouse of meticulously sourced information on the pervasive evil of childhood sexual abuse in this country, as well as a "how to" guide on how to talk to children about inappropriate touching by those they know: their siblings, coaches, priests, babysitters and fathers. (The vast majority of sexual assaults on children are committed by family members or acquaintances, not strangers.)

"We are just now beginning to come of age with this problem as a society," Van Derbur says. "It would never have entered our minds thirty years ago to worry about our kids at camp." It is a few days after the death of former president Ronald Reagan, and she holds up that day's USA Today, in which Reagan's son, Michael Reagan, reveals that he was sexually abused by a camp counselor when he was a boy. "It's like Maya Angelou says: 'We did what we knew. When we knew better, we did better.'"

Almost fifty years after the terror ceased for the nightchild, Marilyn Van Derbur's doing better.

"The truth was devastating to me," she says, "but it did set me free."

And then she smiles.

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David Holthouse
Contact: David Holthouse