Former Miss America and sexual abuse victim to speak at the Wheeler | AspenTimes.com

Former Miss America and sexual abuse victim to speak at the Wheeler

Andre Salvail
The Aspen Times

Courtesy photo

A former Miss America who survived sexual abuse as a youth — and has been speaking about the issue for the past few decades — will be featured at the Wheeler Opera House this week.

Marilyn Van Derbur, 77, is a Denver native who was crowned Miss America in 1958 when she was a 20-year-old student at the University of Colorado. Her presentation, which is free and open to the public, will be held at the Wheeler at 6 p.m. Thursday. Doors open at 5:30 p.m.

"I feel richly blessed that I have been in a position to educate families and serve as a role model for survivors," Van Derbur said. "I will talk about how to keep children safe. I will tell parents about the conversations they need to have with their children. Parents are not having those conversations."

The common perception of a Miss America winner is that of a beautiful, shapely, talented woman living in a fairy-tale world. But when Van Derbur was 39, her life began to implode.

According to Van Derbur, her father abused her more than 600 times from age 5 to 18. As a young adult, working as a motivational speaker, she buried those memories. They were triggered when her daughter, Jennifer, turned 5.

Van Derbur said her body "suddenly went into physical paralysis." She was hospitalized for weeks, and when her doctors could find nothing physically wrong, she went to the Mayo Clinic, but the famed health care facility also found no answers.

Recommended Stories For You

Although neither Van Derbur, the doctors nor the clinic understood the connection, her body went into physical paralysis over feelings related to the sexual abuse as her conscious mind struggled to suppress them. Her paralysis spells would last several hours, continuing almost daily for 12 years.

She said during that time, she and her husband, Larry, wondered whether she would ever snap out of the despair. After being hospitalized in a psychiatric ward at age 50, Van Derbur pleaded with therapists to find a woman who had survived the brutal healing process to find peace. She said she believed that if she could talk to one woman who had survived sexual abuse, she also would be able to do so.

"I could not find a woman who had survived and was healing," she said. "People just seemed to stuck in the trauma and the depression. And Larry said to me, 'Role model for yourself.'"

After turning 51, Van Derbur said, she began to see the light at the end of her agonizing journey. She knew she had to make the recovery process easier for others. She went to the Kempe Center, a foundation specializing in child abuse and neglect, to explore the creation of an adult survivor program. The Van Derbur family would later contribute $250,000 to fund the program.

Soon after the creation of the program, word got around that she had been abused as a child. A couple of stories appeared in The Denver Post.

"It was my worst nightmare come true," she said. "I felt it was the end of my life. It was just really overwhelming."

But the publicity turned out to be a blessing in disguise, Van Derbur said, because women starting coming forward to share their stories with her while beginning their own paths to recovery.

Based on that response, she had a sudden change of mind with regard to keeping her story private.

"I called the newspapers, I called the television stations, and I said, 'Let's get to work.' And I will continue to educate in whatever ways I can, to my last breath."

Within weeks, more than 3,000 men and women came forward in the greater Denver area in search of help and support. Because the Kempe Center could not help the massive amount of people who were coming forward, Van Derbur immediately founded an organization called Survivor United Network.

As many as 500 people relied on the network each week, participating in 35 different support groups. All services were provided at no cost to participants, she said.

Van Derbur said that because she realized how important it was to help survivors overcome shame, large meetings were held — usually around 1,000 people attended — where one by one, survivors would stand and speak their names. Actress-comedienne Roseanne Arnold was among those who went to Denver to break their silence.

Following a June 1991 People Magazine cover story with the headline "Miss America Overcomes Shame," there was a national outpouring of support. Soon, Van Derbur was asked to testify at congressional hearings and to address medical conferences nationwide.

To date, Van Derbur has spoken in more than 500 cities. She said she never leaves the room until the men and women in attendance have personally said everything they want and need to say to her.

"It is not unusual for people to line up for two to three hours to speak words they have never spoken. The healing that takes place during this time is often life-changing for survivors," she said.

In 2012, Van Derbur authored an award-winning book, "Miss America By Day," an account of her life and experiences. It has a five-star rating from reviewers on Amazon.com.

Though the Wheeler event is free, donations to the River Bridge Regional Center — a nonprofit child-advocacy center in Glenwood Springs that specializes in the prevention, assessment, treatment and investigation of child abuse — will be accepted.

andre@aspentimes.com