Former Miss America sheds light on sex abuse

Van Derbur

Toward the back of the ballroom at the Daniel Island Club, a 61-year-old James Island woman stood up during lunch Wednesday, publicly identifying herself for the first time as a survivor of sexual abuse.

She was one of about 20 men and women in the audience who stood up as victims, prompted by a former pageant queen — an incest survivor herself — speaking at Darkness to Light’s spring fundraising lunch.

Marilyn Van Derbur was crowned Miss America in 1958. She travels the country now, talking to groups about how her father sexually abused her from age 5 to 18.

She shared the story with about 300 people Wednesday on Daniel Island.

“So many people think rape or sexual abuse is just something that you get over,” she said. “Only in this past year have I, mercifully, been able to fall asleep without medication.”

Van Derbur wrote a book about the abuse and her decades-long healing process, “Miss America by Day: Lessons Learned from Ultimate Betrayals and Unconditional Love.”

In it, she urges parents to talk to their children about sexual abuse because 14-year-olds “comprise the largest number of sex offenders of any age group,” she said.

“No one knows how to stop a man like my father, but we do know how to stem the tide of teenagers inappropriately touching younger or less powerful children, and we do it by talking to them,” Van Derbur said. “If you think I’m talking about those children, I’m talking about our children — ‘A’ students, good kids, from fine, wonderful families. They just don’t know when they’re 12 or 13 or 14 because we haven’t sat down and talked to them.”

The James Island woman who identified herself as a sexual abuse survivor said that, like Van Derbur, her father abused her when she was about 5 years old.

“I wasn’t sure if I was going to (stand up) or not,” she said. The Post and Courier generally does not identify victims of sexual abuse.

“I was having almost a panic attack sitting over here. I mean, just extreme anxiety and I still wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to do it in the moment, but I did it,” she said. “I feel such a relief. I think I’m going to be talking about it more. It’s been such a huge shame.”

Reach Lauren Sausser at 937-5598.