Back from the edge
Former Miss America overcame an abusive childhood and is now an advocate for awareness and prevention
By Dawn Pearson
In 1958 America was experiencing a post-war golden age and undergoing a metamorphosis from “Mayberry” into the super power of the Cold War and the space race.
It was a different time and place. America seemed almost naive by today’s standards. Bad things were not communicated, only shoved into a closet to hide so the neighbors wouldn’t find out, said that year’s Miss America, Marilyn Van Derbur.
But the crown, smiles and beauty that Van Derbur displayed on the outside were only masking the horrible reality she grew up with.
As Ralph Waldo Emerson famously said, “People only see what they are prepared to see.”
And Americans weren’t prepared to see incest and sexual abuse in 1958, and the common thought was that it just didn’t happen in America at that time.
But regardless of public perception, Van Derbur’s life was a nightmare. It was all a façade to convince others that she had a loving family, a beautiful home and an active social life.
The reality was that Van Derbur was raped by her father from the age of 5 until she was 18 years old, resulting in horrific panic attacks and excruciating physical pain every day of her adult life.
After years of therapy, Van Derbur wrote a book, “Miss American by Day,” an inspirational resource for healing from childhood sexual abuse, and has made it her life’s mission to educate and talk about sexual abuse.
“We have to talk about this and educate our children on this. It’s astonishing how many children will be sexually abused in their childhood,” Van Derbur said. “The main reason I still speak and travel all over is to make the words more ‘speakable’ and to make people understand just how common it is. One in four girls and one is six boys will be sexually molested. Those are very scary odds.”
‘People can heal’
When a newspaper reporter learned of her story, Van Derbur’s private shame became front-page news. She even landed on the cover of People magazine.
Soon incest survivors from around the country were reaching out to her, desperate to tell someone what had happened to them. It became clear that her new role in life was to help others who had suffered through incest and to help teach everyone how to make sure their children are safe from predators.
She desperately struggled most of her adult life to overcome the memories and feelings from her childhood.
“I healed through therapy and education and forgiveness,” Van Derbur said. “I’ve been out of therapy for 23 years, so people can heal and get through the tragedy of sexual molestation.”
And helping other is what she has done since.
In 1989 she asked the Kempe National Center in Denver to begin a program to help other men and women who were victims of child abuse. Her family contributed $260,000 to establish the program.
‘A wonderful opportunity’
During the past five years, Van Derbur has spoken in 160 cities and personally answered more than 7,000 letters from men and women who were victims of child abuse. In 1993 she co-founded two organizations based in Washington D.C. dedicated to public education and to strengthening laws for victims of child abuse.
And she will be the keynote speaker for Chaucie’s Place April 23 breakfast, helping to educate Carmel families on methods for the prevention of childhood sexual abuse.
“April is Child Abuse Prevention Month, and each April we host a friends of Chaucie’s Place breakfast,” said Toby Stark, executive director of Chaucie’s Place. “This breakfast is really special because our old friends and founders and longtime grass-roots supporters attend. And it is a wonderful opportunity for new supports to come and support us, so it’s a very special mix of people.”
And Chaucie’s Place makes it very affordable. Breakfast tickets are only $10.
“We purposefully eliminate the financial barriers for the breakfast, even though it is a fundraiser, because we want people to learn about us and our work and why it is so important,” Stark said.
Stark said she feels this year’s breakfast promises to be the biggest fundraiser yet because of Van Derbur and her message.
“We already have 300 folks attending, and it’s such a great opportunity for them to learn about the work we do and if so moved, support our work,” she said.
Chaucie’s Place April Breakfast
Featuring former Miss America Marilyn Van Derbur
7 to 9 a.m. April 23
At Ritz Charles in Carmel
Cost is $10
For more information visit www.chauciesplace.org