A Conversation with Marilyn Van Derbur

Former Miss America Speaks out on Child Sexual Abuse

Story by Lyda Kay Ferree, The Southern Lifestyle Lady. Photography by Lisa Adkins


The Leadership Jackson Alumni Association (LJAA) presented Darkness to Light: Stewards of Children “An Evening with Marilyn Van Derbur” to educate West Tennesseans on the prevention of child sexual abuse on September 28 at Union University’s Carl Grant Events Center.

Marilyn, a former Miss America, shared her moving story to empower others to help prevent child sexual abuse. 

“Education about this issue is so important for our children and youth and others in the community who work with children or train others to serve in that capacity,” said Dr. Beverly Absher, President of the LJAA Board.

Following the event Marilyn signed her book “Miss America By Day: Lessons Learned from Ultimate Betrayals and Unconditional Love” and was available for photographs.

Sponsors of the event included Leaders Credit Union, Creative Dining Services, Golden Circle Exterminators, Doug Hale Electric, Miss Tennessee Organization, Kelley Cash, Exchange Club, West Tennessee Healthcare, Leadership Jackson Alumni Association, and Union University.

Darkness to Light is a non-profit organization whose mission is to reduce the incidence of child sexual abuse by shifting the responsibility from children to adults. Stewards of Children is a revolutionary training program developed by the Darkness to Light organization (darkness2light.org) that educates adults to prevent, recognize and react responsibly to child sexual abuse, and motivates them to courageous action. Leadership Jackson got involved with Darkness to Light through a partnership with the Carl Perkins board.


About Marilyn Van Derbur

Marilyn Van Derbur was crowned Miss America and then graduated from the University of Colorado with Phi Beta Kappa honors. Marilyn chose motivational speaking as her career and was named “Outstanding Woman Speaker in America” after 30,000 questionnaires were sent to business and civic meeting planners asking whom they considered to be the outstanding speaker. For 16 years, she was the only woman guest lecturer for General Motors.

Marilyn’s worst nightmare came true when she was 53. A newspaper reporter learned she was an incest survivor and the next morning it was front page story in “The Denver Post.” Her millionaire, socially prominent father had started coming into her room at night when she was 5. It didn’t stop until she was 18.

Within weeks, over 3,000 men and women came forward in the greater Denver area for help and support. Marilyn immediately founded an organization called SUN (Survivor United Network). She contributed to and raised tens of thousands of dollars. Up to 500 people came to SUN each week for 35 different support groups. Everything was free.

When “People” magazine put her picture on the cover, there was a national outpouring from survivors who turned to her for help and support. She opened the door for tens of thousands of sexual abuse survivors to also speak the words, many for the first time.

During the past 20 years, Marilyn has spoken in over 500 cities. She never leaves the room until men and women have personally said everything they want and need to say to her. She has been in personal contact with more adults, sexually violated as children, as anyone in America.

The culmination of Marilyn’s work is her book, “Miss America By Day…” Of the 1,900 books entered, “Miss America By Day” won a prestigious first place Writer’s Digest award. It is now in its 7th printing and is graded a 5 star—the highest a book can be rated on Amazon.

Marilyn spends hours each day responding to survivors. She has answered over 8,000 letters and tens of thousands of emails. Many survivors have written to her on a weekly basis for years. She continues to answer each letter and email until the survivors feel strong enough to move on with their lives.

We can stem the (child sexual abuse) tide. We do not know how to stop a man like my father, but we can educate our children. But then you need to say that 14-year-olds are the largest sex offenders! Really? Oh, I’d better go home and talk to my kids, parents say.
— Marilyn Van Derbur

VIP: Why did you write the book in 2004 entitled “Miss America by Day: Lessons Learned from Ultimate Betrayals and Unconditional Love”? In your book, which I read, you describe in details your healing process after 13 years of abuse.

Marilyn Van Derbur: I didn’t write a book for 11 years after my story went public because my mother was still living and a major theme of my book is my mother. And I could not have written that with her still living. The other reason I wrote it is because during those 11 years I spoke in literally hundreds of cities and after I speak, people talk to me and I kept hearing the same phrase: My brother, my brother, my brother, and I kept thinking to myself we don’t know how to stop a man like my father, but we do know how to stem the tide of older brothers inappropriately touching younger children and we do it by talking to them. When I educate the audience on how prevalent this is (14 year olds comprise the largest number of sex offenders of any age group; I think that is such a shocking sentence)… if we can educate 13-16 year old boys and girls about the long term impact of being sexual with a younger or less powerful child, we can change huge sections of our society. Brother was the word I kept hearing.  Knowing that I could help stem that tide and that I could write freely about my mother—I think those were the two reasons why I finally decided to write a book.


VIP: You wanted the readers of your book to learn more about themselves whether they are survivors of sexual abuse or they have been spared of sexual abuse. It is very thought provoking and enlightening. 

MVD: I read articles about how the girl had been consensual and she was 14 and he was 40. They were so uneducated. I also wrote the book because there are so many men and women survivors and when I was in so-called recovery (for 6 years I was in recovery) I wanted to meet somebody who made it through it. I wasn’t sure I would make it through it. I don’t really want them to know more about me. I want them to know more about their process. I think it gives them different ideas. For example, talk therapy was important, but getting into my body and having feelings was even more important. I write about going to self-defense therapy and how I was supposed to protect myself against this man. Instead, I wanted to put my arms around him. For the first time I understood what I had longed for as a child and that was I just wanted to be loved. I had to find compassion for the child I was in order to heal, and that was my most difficult challenge because I really hated her. I didn’t want her to be part of my life. Nothing changes about our childhood. The only that changes is how we think about it. We have to accept ourselves. Our shame is overwhelming. Logically I knew the shame wasn’t mine. It wasn’t my fault. Now I can feel more compassionate to myself. I didn’t feel like I had to forgive myself because I hadn’t done anything wrong, but I had a very difficult time finding compassion for the child I was. She should have fought back. She should have screamed. Only when I felt what she felt, which was powerless, was when I began to find compassion for her.

We split off that part of ourselves that we are ashamed of or we don’t want to deal with. I put it on a shelf. All of a sudden something triggers you and the feelings come back and you are forced to deal with it. When my body went into physical paralysis, and the doctors found nothing wrong, I thought maybe we had better look physically. I had paralysis for 12 years.


VIP: Fast forward. You parlayed your moments in the spotlight into a career in the motivational speakers’ circuit. Had you not pursued the professional speakers’ circuit, what profession do you think you would have entered or would you have chosen to be a housewife and mother?

MVD: If we could take Miss America out of the picture because that was life changes that put me in New York on television, but television didn’t fill me up. I felt empty. It’s when I began speaking that I began to feel a mission and a passion. I would have loved to have been a counselor. I would have loved to have been Barbra Streisand. Being a high school counselor would have been a privilege. I wouldn’t have been a stay-at-home mother. Please don’t misinterpret that. I cherish my daughter, but I needed to contribute to society.


VIP: When you performed in the Miss America Pageant, what was your talent?

MVD: I played the organ. I have never seen a contestant play the organ. I think that’s why I did. I was a pianist but not the best pianist. I’d be the only pianist and therefore I’d be the best. I play the piano for pleasure, but I had much rather sing. I love ballads (Barbra Streisand, Frank Sinatra, Ella).


VIP: What has been the greatest blessing of going public with your story?

MVD: When “The Denver Post” told my story on page one of their newspaper I thought it was the end of my life at age 53. What I did not understand was that was the beginning of a life filled with meaning and richness. I have the privilege of speaking in cities and having people saying the words for the very first time. ‘I’m going to go home and talk to my teenagers.’ Men and women say I’ve never told anyone and they thank me.

It’s been 28 years. It’s been such a gift. Who could have imagined that? I could never have imagined  that my biggest nightmare would have turned out to be such a privilege!


What To Know

To contact Marilyn Van Derbur personally or to order a book go to MissAmericabyDay.com