Fifty-seven years have passed since Marilyn Van Derbur was crowned Miss America. Approximately fifty million viewers tuned into the pageant in 1958. She instantly became known across the U.S. Girls and women wanted to be like her. Men wanted to date her. It was a different world for women, and appearances were more important than truth.
Or, so it seemed. Never did she imagine that her truth could be set free.
It wasn’t until she reached her 53rd birthday that she was finally able to say out loud in public, “I am an incest survivor.” Some people doubted her story. At that time, Marilyn confirmed what so many sexual abuse victims felt when she said, “If people are not going to believe 53 year old me, who would believe a child.” When her sister said her prominent father had sexually abused her, too, her story was more widely embraced. Once she started talking, she didn’t stop. She shifted her focus from motivational speaking to telling her story and helping people understand the effects of sexual abuse. And, she helped countless survivors.
Yesterday, 77 years old, poised and still beautiful, Marilyn Van Derbur kicked off Sexual Abuse Awareness Month, by speaking at the Child Abuse Prevention Breakfast in upstate New York, in the same county where I grew up. I attended, because her book helped me find a way to talk to my brother, parents, and kids, about the sexual abuse that occurred while I was a child. They had no idea it had gone on. By finally being able to tell, I gave my family an opportunity to love me for my whole self. I needed to go there to meet Marilyn, because nowhere else could this bit of healing occur for me. Coming back to my old hometown, feeling lighter and stronger, ready to stand up, was freeing.
Marilyn Van Derbur’s book, “Miss America By Day,” is a more than a memoir. She tells her story, which is validating to survivors who have struggled for years. Her story is followed by a guide and addresses topics such as, “Is It Safe to Tell,” “Conversations With Children,” and “Trauma Doesn’t Have to Last a Lifetime.” It did feel that it would last a lifetime to Marilyn at one point, and it does for many victims. The healing process takes time, but with support, it can happen. She also mentioned that abuse histories cannot be compared. She emphasized what mattered in healing was not so much what was done, but how the abuse made a person feel. She stated, “I wrote the book, not because I want someone to learn more about me but so readers can learn more about themselves. And so that loved ones can better understand the brutal recovery process and never again say, ‘just get over it.’”
Statistics on sexual abuse are frightening. She mentioned in her book that the largest age group of offenders of young children was 14 years old. Sexual offenders aren’t all older men, as one might expect. She emphasized that it is our job, as adults, to talk about it and let kids know how devastating even one event can be. Kids need to hear from us to know we will support them, no matter what, if they are victimized. They also need to hear from us about not being a victimizer.
At the end of Marilyn Van Derbur’s talk, she asked that survivors who felt comfortable, please stand. I stood. And, a few others along the periphery of the room stood, with the vast, exposed middle of the room devoid of anyone standing. The secrecy and shame that victims of sexual abuse carry is strong, even well into adult years. Statistics say there were many victims still sitting. Maybe, one day they will be able to stand. They need to be ready. I get that. As Marilyn asked, “How can we ask our children to speak up if we haven’t been role models for doing so?” It is time for the shame victims have held to be thrown back at the perpetrators. The shame belongs to them. It is time for survivors and supporters to stand in solidarity, talk about it with each other, and talk to our kids. Let’s all stand up and say, “No more!”
For more information, go here.