She still carries herself with that trademark Miss America posture that ironically helped her win the crown as America's ideal young woman in 1958. What America didn't know was that the ramrod straight carriage was a result of an omnipresent self-protective tension throughout her body, a response to her father's frequent, terrifying night visits to Marilyn Van Derbur's childhood bedroom. Still fit and trim, she is as wholesome looking as she was 51 years ago, with a peaches and cream complexion. Aquamarine in color, her eyes are quick to brim over when she is suddenly caught off guard by a passing emotion, which is surprisingly often.
Denver is Marilyn's town. It is where her highly regarded father made his fortune and raised his perfect family, the family that Bert Parks invited to the Miss America stage in Atlantic City when his youngest daughter was crowned. It is where Marilyn first told her story and where she founded Survivor United Network (SUN), ironically with a quarter of a million dollars seed money from her father's estate, that served up to 500 survivors per week for three years at no cost. Already a successful motivational speaker at the time of her 1991 public disclosure of incest, she worked tirelessly as the face of childhood sexual abuse in hundreds of powerful presentations all over the country. She spread her message of honesty, hope and healing one speech at a time, often one survivor at a time. Known for staying sometimes hours after a presentation, until the last survivor who waited to speak to her departed, she personally answered every letter, took every call, and in more recent years, responds to every e-mail. Still an active speaker at a striking 72 years old, she has already accepted an offer to address a group in Germany in 2012.
In her earth shattering book, Miss America by Day, she not only tells her own story but devotes the last third of the book to a tutorial on how all of us can learn to make a difference, whether it be as parents creating a safe home environment for our children or as friends and family members whose willingness to listen without judgment can help save a life impacted by sexual abuse.
The most compelling thing about Ms. Van Derbur's story is not the hideous abuse of her childhood or her uncommon strength in overpowering its force, but instead the Colorado avalanche she unleashed when she publicly proclaimed her status as a sexual abuse survivor for the first time. Just like snow barreling down the mountain, the roar of the cumulative voices of those who were empowered by her courage and spoke the words out loud for the first time cleaned out the secrecy and shame that had been lying beneath the surface for so long.
Fifteen years ago, in Phoenix, beautifully dressed in a mohair suit with hose and low heels, Marilyn walked onto a bare stage in a high school auditorium, no podium, no notes. In a steady, eerily calm voice that belied the physical and emotional violence of her story, she concluded that sexual abuse impacts every part of your being. Take a bucket of white paint, add red, and stir. The red will infiltrate the pure white and the two can never be separated again. Spellbound, the audience hung on every word. At the end, she asked survivors in the room to stand. Enveloped in the safety and security of what they had witnessed, one after another slowly rose to their feet, some fearful and some defiant, some declaring themselves for the first time, all empowered beyond anything they could have imagined. I know. I was there, standing with the others. Somehow I made it out to the car, where crushing sobs turned to weeping. I have never forgotten what happened in that auditorium that evening, not just to me. Had any of us ever felt like part of anything bigger than our own solitary suffering? Now, even if just for a moment, we were part of a community of newly minted survivors. It was simply extraordinary.
We cannot all stand in an auditorium together. God knows there are far too many of us for that. But we can stand together. The time has come for us to be known for the sheer volume of our numbers, for us to be acknowledged as hard working survivors, for us to hold our heads up and reach out to others. Let us teach our own society about who we are and the consequences of what happened to us. Let us assure them it is not our fault and that we hold abusers accountable. Let us not rely solely on others to decide when and how it should be spoken of, on television or in other media, nor do we need to ask those with more visibility to do this for us. We must do it for ourselves. Let's stand, as Marilyn has been asking survivors to do for many years in auditoriums, halls and banquet rooms. Today our reach is wider, it is a virtual world with no boundaries. Be heard. Write a comment below, send me an e-mail (email@example.com) with ideas or stories, speak to a friend or family member if you are ready. Use your e-mail lists and social networking sites to connect. Share links and resources. Use the internet to communicate when you see, hear or read something that is harmful, hurtful or inappropriate. Or stand up if you see, hear or read something that is positive and encouraging. Speak your mind. Find your voice, and by doing so, we will find our collective voice.
When Bert Parks crooned on that night in the fall of 1957, "There she is, your ideal...she'll take the town by storm, with her all American face and form", he had no way of knowing exactly how the new Miss America 1958 would live up to her promise. Now let's live up to ours, in her honor.