Bringing beauty to unwarranted shame |

Bringing beauty to unwarranted shame

Kimberly Nicoletti

DILLON – When former Miss America Marilyn Van Derbur’s story of incest appeared on the front pages of the Denver Post and The Rocky Mountain News in 1991, she thought her life was over.

She had hid how from age 5 to 18 her father had abused her. She didn’t want people to know she ended up in a psychiatric ward when she was 48 because of the traumatic memories.

And she didn’t want people to know that she spent six years in what she calls “full-time therapy,” from age 45-51.

But it must have been time for the story to come out because in 1991, when a reporter from The Denver Post asked her if she had been abused, she answered truthfully.

The story jumped from local Denver papers to the front page of People Magazine.

And Van Derbur became a lifeline for survivors of sexual abuse.

The turning point for her to speak publicly came within the first days her story broke.

As she was jogging, a woman stopped her. She told Van Derbur people had called into her radio show and said it wasn’t until Van Derbur’s sister came out and confirmed the story days after the original accusations, that people believed the former Miss America.

“I thought, “If people aren’t going to believe 53-year-old me, who’s going to believe a child?” Van Derbur said.

That’s when she knew she would extend her public speaking engagements to focus on sexual abuse. She has addressed 900 people at the subcommittee on family violence, 250 doctors at the Mayo Clinic and thousands of people throughout 225 cities.

Last May, her book, “Miss America By Day: Lessons Learned from Ultimate Betrayals and Unconditional Love,” came out.

The book tells the story of how her father abused her and details her healing journey. It also includes extensive research on the subject, specific suggestions for talking with children about abuse and stories of hope.

Though she had been a motivational speaker for years, winning the title of Outstanding Women Speaker in America, she didn’t consider writing a book until she kept hearing the same words: “When I was 7 and my brother was 14 …” The ages differed, but the story remained the same: stories about brothers abusing their sisters.

“There’s one sentence I want everyone to remember as they walk out the door (from my talk): 14-year olds comprise the largest amount of sex-offenders of an age group,” Van Derbur said.

“We need to talk to our children together because sibling abuse is much more prevalent than father-daughter, boyfriend-daughter and other abuse. In the book, I give word-for-word conversations to have with siblings. The average age when abuse starts is 5 years old. Parents need to talk to their children by then.”

Through her research, Van Derbur also discovered 70 percent of girls who violate younger children do so while they babysit the children. She includes conversations to have with babysitters in her book.

Her book not only guides parents but also supports people who have experienced sexual abuse.

Her first suggestion is to stop keeping abuse a secret and to talk about it. She also believes in therapy, journaling, self-defense classes and reading about others to help heal.

“The whole book is about recovery,” she said. “What I know is I can support these people who don’t have enough courage to go into therapy, so my privilege is to empower them. After I speak, I don’t leave the room until everyone has said everything they have to say to me, and many times, people will line up for two to three hours.”

Kimberly Nicoletti can be reached at (970) 668-3998, ext. 245, or by e-mail at

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