A Not So Perfect Family (Miss America by Day Re-Read-6: Chapter 1)

(The following is the 6th in a series of posts related to my re-reading of Miss America by Day: Lessons Learned from Ultimate Betrayal and Unconditional Love, by Marilyn Van Derbur.)

In Chapter 1, which is titled, in partial irony, “Blessed by Being Born Into a Perfect Family,” Ms. Van Derbur, in telling detail, skillfully describes the dichotomy between the image her family presented to society in her hometown of Denver, Colorado—of the archetypal “perfect” family—and the far less than perfect reality behind this societal facade.

Reading this chapter again, a number of things struck me in particular for their resonance with my own experience growing up in a middle class, high status family in Nashville, Tennessee, including the massive contrast between the image of Ms. Van Derbur’s father’s public persona and what he was doing in private to at least two of his daughters (Ms. Van Derbur and her oldest sister, who, as Ms. Van Derbur recounts in Miss America by Day and elsewhere, publicly disclosed her own childhood sexual abuse by their father after Ms. Van Derbur had disclosed hers).

Ms. Van Derbur describes her father as having been “successful, charitable, charming and gracious.” As a “Renaissance man” who could play the piano by ear (“the kind you would hear in a piano bar at 2 a.m., the kind of music Frank Sinatra sang”) and recite poetry from memory. Who built the business he bought from his father-in-law into the largest mortuary chain between Missouri and California. Who was one of Denver’s civic leaders—a “highly recognized and esteemed member of the community.” Who for several years had a weekly radio and television show featuring his inspirational readings. Who once a year played the male lead in Denver’s civic theater and became president of the Denver Center for the Performing Arts. Who, as an active alumni supporter of his college fraternity, was elected president of the National Inter-fraternity Council—the body governing all college fraternities in the US. Who was a major donor to the Boy Scouts of America, a 33rd degree Mason, Chairman of the Board of Trustees of a home for handicapped children, and a board member of the University of Denver and Colorado Women’s College. Whose obituary appeared on the front page of Denver’s local newspaper.

Similarly, my father, though not nearly as publicly prominent, active, and successful as Ms. Van Derbur’s, enjoyed, to a substantial degree, a favorable public persona—as a professor in the Economics Department at Vanderbilt University; a member of Westminster Presbyterian Church, which counted among its members some of Nashville’s leading citizens; the “head” of a family with a beautiful, intelligent wife (my mother) and three children; and as a man whose eloquence, wit, and gift for telling jokes others found quite attractive and entertaining (at least from what I perceived as a child and was later told to me by my mother) at parties and other social functions.

In my experience, to some people it’s nothing short of incredible that men with public personae as positive and “normal” as those of Ms. Van Derbur’s father and my own could sexually abuse their children. Whereas such people might readily accept, as a general proposition, that appearances often do not reflect—and sometimes to a massive degree—the total reality of a situation, and might just as readily accept the plausibility of imperfections on the part of such fathers—imperfections concealed behind a “perfect” or, at least, highly favorable facade—on the order of, say, an alcohol addiction or verbally or even physically abusive behavior towards their wives and / or children, such people seem to find it impossible to believe that the imperfect behavior of such men could in some cases extend to child sexual abuse.

Why such incredulity? My sense is that the reasons have to do, mainly, with the substantial degrees of shame and taboo that continue to surround child sexual abuse as a topic for intelligent, calmly considered public discussion. The very idea that men so “normal” and successful as my father and Ms. Van Derbur’s could engage in behavior whose mere discussion still suffers so from the depredations of shame and taboo is, to some people, simply unthinkable.

For survivors who’ve been abused by such highly successful men—or, in some cases, women—the possibility of such behavior is, of course, entirely plausible.

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