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Miss America of 1958 Tells Of Incest Ordeal

May 9, 1991 GMT

DENVER (AP) _ A former Miss America on Thursday revealed a dark family secret: that her millionaire father repeatedly assaulted her sexually.

Marilyn Van Derbur, Miss America 1958, told reporters she was making her story public to help children and their families by making the crime ″speakable.″

″A list of all my accomplishments - times 100 - pale before the only real accomplishment of my life, said in only three words: I survived incest,″ Van Derbur said.

″There are so many children that are going to be violated tonight and I fear they don’t have options,″ she said.


″I’ve thought it through ... and I believe that the greatest service that we adult survivors can give to the children is to stand up in such vast numbers that we begin to take away the stigma and the shame.″

The offender was her father, the late Francis S. Van Derbur - millionaire Denver businessman, socialite, philanthropist and pillar of the community, she said. He died in 1984.

Van Derbur, 53, met with reporters Thursday after telling her story of incest to a support group meeting at the Kempe National Center for the Prevention and Treatment of Child Abuse and Neglect.

Van Derbur told about 150 people she was violated by her father from age 5 to 18.

″When a good friend of mine knew I would be speaking here tonight, she said, ’Why do you want to ruin your father’s reputation? Write an article and do it anonymously,‴ Van Derbur said Wednesday night. ″This was my father’s greatest weapon. He knew I would never tell.″

She added that after all this time, ″I say to my father tonight: ’You were wrong.‴

Van Derbur, accompanied by her husband of 27 years, lawyer Larry Atler, and her daughter, Jennifer, used her wrenching story to emphasize the importance of a new ″survivor program″ at the Kempe Center for adults who were sexually traumatized as children.

The Van Derbur family donated $240,000 to initiate the program.

The former Miss America said her pain has been ″incomprehensible,″ but she felt she must tell her story to help her recovery and to help other incest victims.

Dr. Tom Roesler, who heads the adult survivors’ program at Kempe, said during the first 13 years of a girl’s life there’s a 75 percent chance that she will be molested. For boys, the chances are half that of girls, he said.


Van Derbur said she confronted her father when she was 40.

″He said, ‘If I knew what it would have done to you I never would have done it.’

″I must tell you I didn’t believe him then and I don’t believe him now. But let it be crystal clear to every father that that excuse can never again be used. A daughter assaulted and traumatized by a father is devastated to every aspect of her life.″

The assaults split her into two disparate lives - the driven personality, the beauty queen, the Phi Beta Kappa scholar she would call the ″daychild,″ and the fearful, repressed ″nightchild″ who harbored unspeakable secrets.

″During the days, no embarrassing or angry glances ever passed between my father and me because I had no conscious knowledge of the traumas and terrors of the nightchild.

″But the more degraded the nightchild became, the more the daychild needed to excel.″

Van Derbur later founded the Marilyn Van Derbur Motivational Institute, which markets motivational videotapes and promotes Van Derbur as a speaker.