The Darkest Secret


“My father was a handsome, intelligent man,” recalls Marilyn Van Derbur. “He served as president of the Denver Area Boy Scout Council and helped establish Denver’s Cleo Wallace Village for Handicapped Children. But there was another—secret—side to him. From the time I was 5 until I was 18 and moved away to college, my father sexually violated me.”

Even in an age when public confessions are commonplace, Marilyn Van Derbur’s has the power to shock. The crime is repulsive almost beyond words; the people involved, as in a Greek tragedy, are larger than life. Francis S. Van Derbur, the father, was a millionaire socialite and a pillar of the Denver community; Marilyn, the youngest of his four daughters, was a golden-haired beauty, a straight-A student and an AAU swimming champ. In 1957, when she was 20, her predecessor, Marian Ann McKnight, would crown her Miss America in Atlantic City.

“We had all the trappings of a perfect family, ” Marilyn says now. “Wealth, social status, a handsome father and lovely mother.” So perfect was the illusion, in fact, that Marilyn completely repressed any knowledge of sexual violation by her father until she was 24, when D.D. Harvey, former youth minister at her Presbyterian church in Denver, broke down her guard. She shared her painful secret with her husband-to-be, attorney Larry Atler, now 56, and with her eldest sister, Gwen, 59, who revealed that she too had been victimized. (Sisters Nancy, 55, and Valerie, 57, have not commented.) Still, Marilyn’s experience continued to haunt her, causing her emotionally rooted bouts of lethargy, physical paralysis and finally an anxiety so crushing that in 1984 her career as a motivational speaker came to a complete halt.

Since then, with the help of a number of therapists, she has found the courage to talk with her mother, Gwendolyn, about the incest (see box, page 92) and, more recently, with the world. On May 8, after two years of working with Denver’s Kempe National Center for Prevention and Treatment for Child Abuse and Neglect, Marilyn told an audience of 35 the grimly inspiring story of what she calls “the greatest accomplishment of my life—surviving incest.” Her address was frequently interrupted by applause. At her luxurious Denver ranch-style house, she talked to correspondent Vickie Bane about her struggle to survive.

PEOPLE ASK ME WHY I DIDN’T TELL what was happening to me. It was because I perceived no way out. A young child tells on her father and what happens? She’s taken away from her family. Her father goes to jail. The family is destroyed, and the message is, “It’s all your fault.”

In order to survive, I split into a day child, who giggled and smiled, and a night child, who lay awake in a fetal position, only to be pried apart by my father. Until I was 24, the day child had no conscious knowledge of the night child. During the day, no embarrassing or angry glances ever passed between my father and me. I had no rage toward him at all, because I had no conscious knowledge of what he was doing to me. Anyone who knew me would say I was the happiest child. I believed I was happy.

Still, incest colored every aspect of my life. I couldn’t stand to play with dolls. Nor did I like to be touched or hugged. I also had a need to excel, to have some control over my life. I was an AAU swimmer, a skier and a golfer. I got straight A’s in school. Afternoons I volunteered to work at the Wallace Village for Handicapped Children. I was drawn to children who were different.

Incest is an isolating experience. You feel all alone. You feel isolated from your family and your friends. I did date, but my first real boyfriend was Larry. I was 15, a sophomore in high school, and he was a senior. He tapped into a warm, funny side of me that my family had never seen. I loved him from the moment I laid eyes on him. I was safe with Larry.

After graduating from high school in 1955, I enrolled at the University of Colorado. I went home for Christmas vacation, and one night I went into my parents’ bedroom to say goodnight. My father pulled me down to him. I pushed away from him with such anger. That was the day child reacting, still without knowledge of the night child. He never violated me again.

During my sophomore year, my sorority sisters elected me as their representative to be Miss CU. I won that title and then the Miss Colorado title. Then I had to go to Atlantic City to compete for Miss America. It never entered my head that I would win. But once I did, I wanted to be the best Miss America ever. Every single day I did the best possible job of whatever I was asked to do. It was not uncommon to have more than 20 appointments in one day.

When my term as Miss America was up, I returned to Colorado to complete my education. That same year I was hired by AT&T as the only spokeswoman for their commercials on the Bell Telephone Hour, a bi-weekly showcase for fine music on NBC. I had that job for five years, the last three after I graduated Phi Beta Kappa and was living in New York City. In 1962, when I was 24, I took a trip to Los Angeles for a filming. One day I had lunch with D.D. Harvey, my former youth minister. With words I don’t remember, he punctured the wall I had built around the secret, and I began to sob. The only words I was able to say were, “Don’t tell anyone.” He said, “Whom don’t you want me to tell?” and I said, “Larry.” D.D. said, “Then he’s the only person we have to tell.”

I had loved Larry with all my heart for nine years, but I kept running from him without understanding why. In 1961 I even went so far as to marry someone else, a former CU football player. The marriage lasted only three months. I hadn’t seen Larry, who had gone to college in Virginia and law school in Denver, since the divorce, but at D.D.’s urging I called him. Larry flew to L.A. the next morning. I sobbed and sobbed, but eventually I got the words out. When Larry finally heard what I was telling him, he held me and said, “Now I understand everything.” A week later I visited my sister Gwen in Kansas City and revealed my secret to her too. I remember seeing the blood drain from her face. She said, “Oh, no. I thought I was the only one.”

Larry and I dated for two years more, as I struggled to allow myself to trust and to love. I was frightened of marriage. Finally he said, “Why don’t we try being married for a week or two, and then if you want to leave, that’s okay.” Our wedding was on Feb. 14, 1964, in a mountain lodge in Colorado.

After all those years of trying not to feel anything, I thought marriage would be difficult. But I never had a problem with Larry. During our first sexual experience, he made me laugh. I couldn’t believe that it was possible to have fun. We bought a house in Denver. With the experience I gained as a Miss America spokeswoman, I started the Marilyn Van Derbur Motivational Institute. I kept up a frantic pace, speaking to employees of IBM and Kodak and to high school assemblies about how to give the best of yourself.

I wanted a baby so much, but Larry and I had been told we couldn’t have children. Then eight years after we married, I got pregnant. In the delivery room I was told that the baby was in a difficult breech position. I had told Larry that I’d consider anesthesia only if the baby or I were near death. For me, sleep is when a man could do anything he wants with you and you have no power. I have never fallen asleep naturally. From age 18, I have taken a sleeping pill or lain awake. So I locked my eyes with Larry’s and had a perfect, natural delivery.

Jennifer was our miracle baby. But when she turned 5, I began to have these uncontrollable fits of sobbing. I’d tell Larry, “I don’t love her anymore.” It would take 10 years for me to understand that in Jennifer I was seeing myself as a 5-year-old.

Around that time I also started having attacks of paralysis. My body functions would slow, my pulse rate would drop into the 40s, and I would just lie there unable to move. I thought I’d die. But the doctors could find nothing physically wrong with me. After seeing a psychiatrist, I decided I had to talk to my father.

When I went to him at his house, I started by saying that it was the most difficult thing I had ever done. He said, “Just a minute,” and climbed the winding staircase, two steps at a time to the second floor. I didn’t hear a toilet flush or a phone call being made, and when he came back, I knew instinctively that he had a gun. He had always kept them around the house. I talked for almost 20 minutes, and my father didn’t deny anything. He said, “If I had known what this would do to you, I never would have done it.” I didn’t believe it then, and I don’t believe it now.

After our conversation, he pulled out the gun. He said, “If you had come in any other way [which I took to mean public exposure], I would have killed myself.” I believe if he had used the gun, he would have killed us both. From that day on, we never spoke of it again. The month before he died, he knew my life was beginning to shut down, but he never reached out to help me.

It wasn’t until Jennifer entered puberty that I became totally dysfunctional. It was 1984. I was 47 years old and had just been named Outstanding Woman Speaker in America by Meeting Planners International. But I couldn’t proceed with my career; I was suffering from acute anxiety.

Larry thought if Gwen were to fly to Denver and talk about her violation, maybe I would go into a rage at my father and begin to heal. Gwen told me her story in vivid detail. I cried for her. The anguish was as fresh as if it had been the previous day.

Three days later I went to a psychiatrist. Ten days after that my mother called. She said, “We haven’t seen you.” I said that I wasn’t doing very well and that I had gone to a psychiatrist. I knew that my father had heard me because he always listened in on the extension. That night he suffered a fatal heart attack. I felt it was my fault. I had told.

Up until this time I had kept my secret from Jennifer, but I knew that I couldn’t lock her out anymore. After I told her, I took her in my arms to cradle her. Then all of a sudden she was rocking me and crying for me.

Over the past seven years, from 1984 up until last month, I spent many hours a week in various kinds of therapy. I remember the first time I allowed myself to imagine the night child. She was manacled in an outhouse, lying in urine and feces. Recently, I saw her again. This time she had no mouth. I realized then I was not only afraid of what would come out of that mouth but also what would go into it. As part of the healing process, I spoke with each member of my family, including my mother. At first, she didn’t believe me, and it was only after my sister Gwen said, “me too,” that my mother acknowledged the truth. These past years have been an agonizing journey for us. It was profoundly significant to me that she agreed to support me and that the Van Derbur family gave $240,000 to start the Adult Incest Survivors Program at the Kempe Center.

Although none of my sisters could be there, 17 other members of my family stood together that night when I acknowledged the humiliation, and the world didn’t fall apart. My goal now is to make the word incest speakable and to take away the stigma we attach to it. We have to figure out how to stop these violators and how to help their families heal. I want to say to them, “Look at my family. We are free of shame.”

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