Surviving the Unthinkable



Author of “Miss America By Day,” child protection champion Marilyn Van Derbur inspires hundreds of thousands with her candid story of survival.

His night time visits began when she was only 5 years old. By the time she turned 18 and left for college, Marilyn Van Derbur’s father had sexually penetrated every part of her body… over 600 times. A serial predator, he had other victims, as well. Marilyn recalls her oldest sister Gwen being “defiant”, then being sent away to boarding school. As a young girl, Marilyn interpreted that act as a strong message: if you disobey, you too, will be forced to leave home. She later learned as an adult that Gwen was also raped by their father. Marilyn said when Gwen learned about her youngest sister’s abuse, she turned “white as a sheet” and shared, “Oh my God… I thought I was the only one. I never should have left you.”

The “Perfect” Family

Marily Van Derbur Family Collage“50 years ago, you couldn’t have looked at my family and thought anything was wrong,” Marilyn reflected. Her father, Francis Van Derbur, was a prominent figure in Denver society. A millionaire, successful businessman and philanthropist, no one would have suspected he was a pedophile. The youngest of four sisters, Marilyn respects the wishes of her two middle sisters to maintain their privacy and not comment.

When asked about her mom, Marilyn said, “My mother wouldn’t have seen anything — I compensated by being the perfect child.” Marilyn excelled academically in school, was involved in all sorts of extra-curricular activities, was even a member of her collegiate ski team and graduated Pi Beta Kappa from the University of Colorado… on top of that, she earned national prestige when she was crowned “Miss America” in 1958.

“How could I get up and go to school, be on the swim team and student council?” Marilyn reflected. “How could I do all that and know what was going to happen that night. Tell someone? Who in the world could I tell? There was no one.”

She does, though, believe her mother was aware something was happening in her room above the garage. She recalls an incident one night when she was at least 10 years old:

“My mother wore slippers with a hard heel. My father was in my room that night when she started down the three steps to the hall leading to my bedroom… everything stopped. My father froze. I froze. We heard her heel on the second step. I thought to myself, ‘Just one more step then 10 steps to my door’… then she was on the third step. There was a long, dramatic pause… then we heard her walk back up the steps. As a child, how could I cope with the knowledge that my mother would never help me? It was at that moment I realized my mother wouldn’t have done a thing for me.”

“Tell someone? Who in the world could I tell? There was no one.” ~Marilyn Van Derbur

For so many child abuse victims, sensory details are a vivid part of their memories. Marilyn recalls lying in bed after dark, waiting for the sound of the garage door to go up. She also dreaded hearing her father’s slippers “scuff” as he walked down the hall to her bedroom. Those memories, though, were buried for years. As a child, she literally assumed two personas. In an interview with People Magazine in June 1991, Marilyn shared:

“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.”

Repressed Memories Unlocked

A longtime family friend who was Marilyn’s former youth pastor connected the dots for her when she was 24. Their family was so pristine on the outside, Marilyn recalls, “… that it took him nine years to figure it out.” At that point, Marilyn had repressed memories of her abuse. They sat down together and the youth pastor began asking questions like, “Why did you always leave for summer school in college when the love of your life, Larry, was back home for the summer?” He then started piecing bits of her life together, including the fact that she married into an abusive relationship which led to divorce after three months. Marilyn commented, “He said to me, ‘I knew you were trying to destroy yourself, but I didn’t know why.”

She added, “There were so many things I was trying to put together and he asked me THE question, whatever the words were… and I sobbed uncontrollably. The reason I kept leaving every summer is because I didn’t want to be in my room again – I didn’t get it then or consciously know that when I would leave for summer school. The reason I kept leaving Larry, the love of my life since age 15, was that I felt I was undeserving of him. If he only knew my truth…”

Marilyn with her husband Larry
Marilyn and Larry

Immediately, the memories of her sexual abuse started flooding back. She realized she needed to share this with Larry. “It was the most difficult conversation I’ve ever had,” Marilyn stated. “When I told Larry, he then had to go back in time and realize that after I kissed him for the first time at the door, I then had to go down the long hall to be with my father. I was 5’8’ 130 lbs. and there was nothing I could have done.”

Marilyn speaks adoringly of her life-long love and husband of 40 years. “Larry loved me unconditionally. He just loved me.”

Life Began To Implode

Marilyn with her daughter Jennifer
Marilyn and daughter Jennifer

As Marilyn approached the age of 40, her body began to shut-down. She suffered physical paralysis off-and-on for 13 years, during which time she sought help from doctors, including physicians at the Mayo Clinic. No connection was made to the sexual abuse she suffered as a child. She would later learn her daughter’s puberty triggered buried memories she had so long tried to hide, the stress of which manifested itself physically.

At age 45, Marilyn says her life began to shut-down completely. She recalls:

“All the feelings I repressed… it was as if (the abuse) was happening in real time. In an instant, I was 8 years old again. There were months when I didn’t open the mail or answer the phone. I just tried to get through another day. I didn’t know I would get through the panic attacks or night terrors. I was so terrorized I couldn’t even have a thought.”

She was hospitalized in a psychiatric ward at age 50 where she pleaded with therapists to find a woman who had “… come through the healing process and found peace and joy.” She needed that lifeline, someone who could relate first-hand to the trauma she had experienced… but there was no one they could find.

Throughout this trying ordeal, Larry remained steadfast at her side. Marilyn recalls Larry saying to their daughter Jennifer, “Your mother is the most courageous person I know.” She added, “He never said to me, ‘You need to try harder.’  He knew that if it was doable, I would do it. He knew that if I could get over it, I would get over it.”

Front-page News!

She began to turn a corner at age 51 and decided she wanted to help make the recovery process easier for other incest survivors, so the Van Derbur family donated $250,000 to the Kempe National Center to fund a survivor’s program. Her name was never to be used… but the Denver Post learned of her story and the next morning, Marilyn was front-page news. At first, Marilyn was horrified, the ‘shame’ that so many survivors experience was overwhelming. She recalls that some people simply didn’t believe her story was true. “I was 53 years old when I was on the cover of the Denver Post. My father was a philanthropist, a community leader…and people didn’t believe me. I remember thinking, if people won’t believe a 53 year-old woman, who is going to believe a child?”

“If people won’t believe a 53 year-old woman, who is going to believe a child?” ~Marilyn Van Derbur

To her surprise, though, her story began to inspire other survivors to speak out. The Kempe Center was inundated with over 3,000 people in the Denver area alone who came forward to share their stories. The center would not assist that huge number of people, so Marilyn immediately stated an organization called SUN (Survivor United Network) which provided a plethora of support group resources to survivors, at no cost to them.

She talks about a daydream she had… she envisioned a Vietnam veteran who was a prisoner of war. All he wanted to do was hop on a plane to go home and see his family. “As he got on the plane, though, he realized he had information that would help others,” she reflected. “So, he had to turn back. I knew I had information that would help others and I couldn’t turn away from that.”

“I know exactly what my life is about.”

Marilyn Van DerburMarilyn’s award-winning book, “Miss America By Day” details the pain and healing throughout her journey as an incest survivor. Adding to her list of accolades, she is a motivational speaker who says she never, “… leaves a room until I’ve spoken with every last person who wishes to speak with me.” She shared that she recently stayed until after 10:30 p.m. following a speech in York, PA to meet with a long line of people. She has answered over 8,000 letters and spends hours each day personally responding to emails she receives from survivors and supporters alike

“I know why I’m here,” Marilyn stated. “I know exactly what my life is about. When I saw my picture on People, ‘Miss America Overcomes Shame’– that’s why I became a motivational speaker. This is my purpose in life. It is such a privilege for me to reach out to people and give them hope. They know I’ve been to the bottom of the bottom of the bottom of the well. My job is to show people how to start the work of healing. Of course we’re scared – was I scared to confront my father with a gun in his pocket, sure! But, I was dying a day at a time.”

“It is such a privilege for me to reach out to people and give them hope. They know I’ve been to the bottom of the bottom of the bottom of the well. My job is to show people how to start the work of healing.” ~Marilyn Van Derbur

Marilyn’s Advice 4Parents

When asked what parents can do to help protect their kids, Marilyn offered a fabulous example of an act that may seem simple, but sends a giant message of empowerment to kids:

“Let’s say Annie is going with her parents to visit Uncle George and the whole family is going to be there. Uncle George hasn’t seen Annie and says, ‘Come give me a big kiss.’ The natural inclination for parents is to encourage Annie to oblige Uncle George with a kiss. If Annie seems at all uncomfortable, a parent should instead say, ‘I don’t think Annie wants to kiss right now, but I will!’ Then plant a big kiss on Uncle George’s cheek. That shows a child they don’t have to touch or kiss someone if they don’t want to. Even if it’s your mother-in-law, the child has the right to say no… you are sending the wrong message making them go through with it.”

“Don’t leave your child with a violator for 10 seconds… not even 10 seconds.” ~Marilyn Van Derbur

As I finished my conversation with this inspirational lady, she stated, “We don’t know how to change a man like my father. A man like my father never stops. I was the youngest. I knew I was the last. But, he violated until he died… pedophiles never stop. Don’t leave your child with a violator for 10 seconds… not even 10 seconds.”

Meet Marilyn!

chauciesplace_logoMarilyn will share her inspirational story of survival and message of hope at the Friends of Chaucie’s Place Breakfast at Ritz Charles in Carmel, IN on Wednesday, April 23, 2014, from 7:30 to 9:00 a.m. Tickets are only $10. To reserve your seat at the table and personally meet Marilyn, register online no later than Wednesday, April 16.


You can also connect with Marilyn via email on her website. Committed to sharing her message of hope and healing, her inspirational book and DVDs are also available for purchase online.




About Ginger


Chance and GK 2013-04-26Raising awareness of the world-wide epidemic of child abuse has become Ginger’s life mission. An impassioned child advocate, trainer, speaker and child forensic interviewer, Ginger can be contacted via her website, “Ginger Kadlec: 4UrKids” at or find her on Facebook at

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