October 21, 2009

There She Is...Miss America....in Recovery

Miss America By Day by Marilyn Van Derbur is not an easy thing to read. Van Derbur takes us on a frank, very painful journey through her recovery from incest by her well respected father, and how she struggled through the shame to reach the lives of many, many others suffering with recovery from sexual abuse.

Van Derbur has dedicated her life to public speaking to encourage youth and those who work with them to find the best ways of encouraging self esteem and routing out the pain of those living with a shocking secret.

It was my husband who first alerted me to this book. He is a CASA worker, and yet I think the thing that most shook him about this book was the tireless support of Van Derbur's husband Larry, who stood by her through an incredibly difficult and long recovery. He seemed perfect. I think it terrified my husband to think such perfect spouses were wandering the earth making him look bad! And this is sort of where the book has its major flaw for me...because I suspect that even though Larry is doubtless a wonderful guy, that he had moments of despair and wanting to give up. He either hid that from Marilyn Van Derbur, or she is hiding it from us..still trying to please the man in her life (though this time he is clearly more deserving than her wretched father).

Which begs the question, how should we support those in our lives who are struggling with recovery from incest or sexual abuse?

There have been endless books and articles written on that subject, but I think I can boil down what I think is most important from Van Derbur's book combined with what I know from other sources and my own experiences.

How Do I Support My Loved One Through Recovery from Sexual Abuse?

1. Believe them. They may say things that sound completely insane...but incest and sexual abuse IS insane...its an insanity they have had to wrestle with. Don't assume because it sounds implausable that it isn't true.

2. Listen to them. Sometimes, just listening to the story, sometimes over and over, is the best gift you can give.

3. Ask if you aren't sure. If you don't know what you can do to help, ask the person. They probably know. They may want to be held. They may not want to be touched. Everyone is different and in different parts of their journey. So ask.

4. Support them in finding professionals to help them through it, and don't be afraid to say so if you think one professional is not right for them (but respect it if they don't agree). Marilyn Van Derbur had some doozies of therapists and doctors...one who even sexually abused her and one who suggested she smoke pot! Sometimes a person in recovery may not be strong enough yet to say no to something even if they feel it isnt in their best interest, so don't be afraid to validate them if you see something is wrong.

5. Don't ask them to finish their recovery before they are ready. Don't ask when they are going to get over it, or suggest they should be done by now. Everyone's recovery is different. For Van Derbur, it took years. For some they are able to deal with it rather quickly....but everyone has to go through their process.

6. Do get support for yourself. You need to find somewhere you can safely blow off steam and get help too. Especially if its a long journey. This can be a therapist, trusted friend, support group, church...whatever helps YOU.

7. Keep their secrets until they are ready. Don't tell other people what your loved one is going through without their permission. As they deal with the shame and learn that what happened wasn't their fault, they need to be the ones in charge of deciding who knows and how they find out.

8. Love them. And when its appropriate, protect them and help them protect themselves until they are able to do it alone.


  1. I've added Miss America by Day to my to-read list. I liked your point that "incest and sexual abuse IS insane" but it doesn't mean it's not real. I was recently disturbed by someone's mocking disbelief of a CSA scenario; there certainly needs to be more awareness . . .

  2. Its an interesting book...

    I think its difficult for people to understand how anyone could do such horrible things. Its understandable, but you HAVE to find a way to accept it even if you cant understand it in order to help the victims

  3. Excellent post, Lynda. This is a great, helpful list. I actually met Marilyn and heard her speak once. She is a powerful advocate.

    Looking forward to The Blog Carnival Against Child Abuse tomorrow.

  4. Thanks for sharing this article and your list of how to help a survivor. The list is really helpful.

    I wish my husband had it when I was going through the worst of my incest issues back in the 1990's. Yes, as good a man as my husband is, he got really frustrated at times and wanted to know when it would be over.

    My first five years in counseling were bad because of all of the rage that came out. We made it through the worst of it and our marriage of 37 years is stronger because of the struggles.