Hope & Healing

Abuse victim and former Miss America to speak in Steamboat Springs

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Marilyn Van Derbur, author of "Miss America by Day"

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Former beauty queen Marilyn Van Derbur, who will speak about her book "Miss America by Day" in Steamboat Springs.

If you go

What: "Miss America by Day" with Marilyn Van Derbur, Miss America 1958

When: 7 p.m. Tuesday; book signing at 6:30 p.m.

Where: Steamboat Springs High School Auditorium

Cost: Free

Call: 879-2034

— Former beauty queen Marilyn Van Derbur's book, "Miss America by Day," is intensely personal. But she didn't write it for herself.

"The reason that I wrote the book was not so that you would know more about me, but so that you would know about you," Van Derbur said.

From ages 5 to 18, Van Derbur was sexually abused by her prominent, well-respected father. On the surface, her life was calm and well-managed, culminating for a year as Miss America in 1958. But beneath the surface, it took years to acknowledge her emotional scars.

On Tuesday, Van Derbur will speak about the long-term effects of childhood abuse and give suggestions for how parents can talk to their children about appropriate sexual behaviors. The free talk starts with a book signing at 6:30 p.m. in the Steamboat Springs High School Auditorium.

Advocates Against Battering and Abuse and First Impressions of Routt County are sponsoring the presentation as part of October's National Domestic Violence Awareness Month. Diane Moore, Advocates executive director, said she hopes the talk will increase awareness and provide parents with information about how to talk to their children about healthy sexual development.

"I think it's important in some way to let the community know that sexual assault does happen in our community, and Advocates is there to provide help and counseling," Moore said.

The most difficult part of surviving sexual abuse is finding the words to express what has happened, Van Derbur said. Once those words are ready, someone has to be available to hear them.

"Sometimes a survivor will say to me, 'I'm too scared.' And I say 'We're all scared,' we're scared and we do it anyway," she said.

It took Van Derbur almost 20 years to tell anyone about her experiences and about 20 more to come to terms with it.

She wrote an article on the topic, "Say 'Incest' Out Loud," in 1991, and published her book in 2003. She is now a full-time advocate against sexual and domestic abuse and fields between 50 and 100 e-mails a day from victims reaching out, anonymously or otherwise.

There are a lot of reasons for her advocacy: wanting close friends who had told her 20 years was long enough to get over the abuse to understand what she was going through; wanting parents to know the importance of talking to their children; and most of all, wanting victims of sexual abuse to know that it is possible to get through it.

"When I was in the bottom of the bottom of the darkest well imaginable, I couldn't find a woman who had come through it," she said. "It would be like having breast cancer, and you feel better if a woman comes in and says, 'I have breast cancer, too, and it's been 10 years and I'm cancer free."

"I thought 'I can't find anyone who's come out of the despair.'"

So Van Derbur continually envisioned herself as being whole and functional, and at peace, when all the craziness would be behind her.

"I've heard these exact words through the years: 'I need to see you and touch you and know that you are real. I need to look in your eyes and see that it's true - did you really find peace?'" she said.

"So I say, 'Just take a snapshot of the peace that you feel coming through me and know that this is available to you if you do the work of healing,'" she said.

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