Looking radiant and intense, a former Miss America revealed at a news conference this past week that she has spent what seemed a perfect life fighting off nightmare memories of childhood incest.
Marilyn Van Derbur Atler, Miss America 1958, described the torture she endured from age 5 to 18 at the hands of her father, the late millionaire Francis S. Van Derbur."My father's greatest weapon was: `I know she will never tell.' And it's been 30 years," she said as her husband, Denver attorney Larry Atler, and her 19-year-old daughter, Jennifer, watched.
For nearly two hours, Atler, 53, held the room spellbound with her pain and her poise. Bright eyes rimmed with tears, she described a childhood hell of nocturnal visits from her father that left her with split personalities.
"The most traumatic thing in my view that could happen to an incest victim is to be crowned Miss America," she said.
The honor of the title, she said, was a chilling contrast to the horror of her self-image.
Though she would not discuss specific details of the abuse, Atler said the episodes were so ugly that she was 24 before she could admit to herself that they had happened.
Francis S. Van Derbur - seen for decades as a handsome pillar of Denver's smart set - was an ebullient, hale man with ramrod posture, elegantly styled silver hair and an impeccable wardrobe.
As a former actor, Van Derbur began his ascent in Denver society when he married Gwendolyn "Boots" Olinger, then worked his way to the top of her family's mortuary business.
Thursday, his youngest daughter, Marilyn, admitted to harboring a hodgepodge of feelings toward her father, whom she confronted about their dark secret before he died in 1984.
"I have to tell you that I loved my father," she said.
When she demanded that he meet with her and speak with her about what he had done, her father's apology was empty.
" `If I knew what it would have done to you,"' Ms. Atler recalled him saying, " `I never would have done it."'
She did not believe him then, she said, and she does not now.
Among the most devastating aftershocks of being sexually molested, she said, is her fear of sleep, so great that she has needed a sleeping pill every night of her life since she was a young girl.
In her late 40s, she was hospitalized with paralysis of her legs and arms, she said, because she was touching on memories as sharp as shards of broken glass.
She decided to make those memories public at the news conference after speaking Wednesday night to a group of "adult survivors" of incest who were meeting at the Kempe National Center for the Prevention and Treatment of Child Abuse and Neglect.
Atler thought she was sharing her tragedy with a small gathering of close friends and family. But she discovered at the last minute that the media were on hand.
That was the reason for the news conference, she said, a giant step in her recovery - "like walking over the Grand Canyon" - that she hadn't planned to take.
None of her three sisters, nor her mother, was present at the news conference.
Atler has given $240,000 to the Kempe Center to provide care for adult victims of incest.
"There are so many children who are going to be violated tonight," she said, "and I feel that they don't have any options."