Category Archives: reads & re-reads

“Tornado” and My Sister’s Tragic Early Death

I’ve felt quite moved by the publication of a piece of creative non-fiction—”Tornado,” powerfully and eloquently written by my niece Feagin Jones, in “Hippocampus Magazine.” Among other things, the piece—which could be termed a personal essay or a brief memoir—focuses, directly and indirectly, on my sister’s—Feagin’s mother’s—tragic early death and some of its possible harbingers.

I plan to write more about this next week. Meanwhile, I hope you’ll read “Tornado.”

Chapter 2 Wrap-Up (Miss America by Day Re-Read-19: Chapter 2 – The Night Child (continued))

(The following is the 19th 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.)

Following are some final words from Chapter 2 that particularly resonated with me in one way or another.


I knew I had to win respect—big time. It would be a motivation that would rule my life.


I developed a life-time habit of staying busy, very busy.

These words resonated for me with my middle school and high school years, during almost the entirely of which I would keep myself very busy with various extracurricular activities (baseball, soccer, church basketball, debate team, school paper, etc.) and obsessive studying (I recall, in middle school, trying to take down everything the teachers would say, verbatim, then memorizing word-for-word as a part of my homework. I believe one of the main reasons I did these things was to find validation in my school grades in and of themselves; in the respect such grades seemed, at least, to earn from my teachers; and in the acceptance into elite universities (Harvard, Yale, Williams, Stanford) which my grades and extracurriculars would earn me, providing me with yet more external validation.

Not that I believe that such external validation is necessarily lacking in value; however, when external validation is pursued obsessively in order, consciously or subconsciously, to serve double duty, substituting for the more central, internal validation and sense of self-worth that will, ideally, be nurtured in abundance through, in significant part, positive, healthy relationships with one’s parents (and that is substantially threatened when one is sexually abused by one parent while not being adequately protected by the other), the continuing obsessive desire for external validation, can pose an impediment to any possibility of a child sexual abuse survivor being eventually able to heal from the effects of their abuse.


If I had not met Larry as a young teenager, I do not believe I would have survived the long-term effects of 13 years of incest.

Ms. Van Derbur is here referring to meeting Larry Atler, a senior at her high school when she was a sophomore, who would become her husband, life partner, and a pillar of support.

This sentence resonated with me not because I could identify with it but because I couldn’t. Although I did have a handful of dates during my middle school and high school years (I attended an all-boys prep school and the dates were with girls from public schools or all-girls private schools), my first romantic-sexual relationship possessing any degree of seriousness didn’t develop until I was in my mid-twenties, and I’ve yet to find a longtime life partner as Ms. Van Derbur did in Larry Atler.

Nonetheless, despite what could be seen as this lack, I believe that I’ve still managed to achieve a substantial amount of healing, and I believe Ms. Van Derbur would agree that, although meeting her life-partner-to-be as a young teenager would prove to be essential for her surviving the effects of childhood sexual abuse in her own particular case, the finding of such a long-term life partner is by no means essential for substantial healing to occur, and that, even in the absence of such a partner, healing can be amply nurtured and sustained by a network of supportive friends as well as by various non-permanent intimate relationships of a romantic and/or sexual nature which, in one way or another, provide various incentives and opportunities for healing.

(Chapter 2 also features the entrance into Ms. Van Derbur’s life of D.D. Harvey, who became the youth minister of Denver’s Montview Presbyterian Church, Ms. Van Derbur’s family’s church, when Ms. Van Derbur was 15. D.D. Harvey would also play a crucial role in Ms. Van Derbur’s healing.)


The only person [between Ms. Van Derbur’s mother and father] who, on rare occasions, ‘heard me’ as I grew from a teenager into an adult, was my father.

Ms. Van Derbur’s complimenting her father’s superior openness to listening to her true needs and desires—in comparison with her mother, for whom such openness seemed non-existent—illustrates the complexity of the relationship a child can have with a parent who sexually abuses them. The relationship can, in other words, possess some decidedly positive aspects, which, in turn, can make it all the more difficult for an adult survivor of such abuse to come to terms with whatever devastation the abuse may have caused in their life.

Hoaxes? “The Witch-Hunt Narrative” by Ross Cheit

What looks to be a very important new book by Ross Cheit, a Professor at Brown University, on supposedly bogus high-profile child sexual abuse cases in the 1980s and early 1990s came out this this past April.

Here’s a link to the publisher’s page (Oxford University Press) on the book.

According to the page’s description, the book:

“Empirically challenges the view that a series of high-profile cases in the 1980s and early 1990s were hoaxes

Shows how a narrative [the “witch-hunt narrative”] based on empirically thin evidence became a theory with real social force, and how that theory stood at odds with the reality of child sexual abuse.”

And here’s a link to Professor Cheit’s blog connected to the book.

I ordered a copy today; look forward to reading it.

The Wall Around the Secret (Miss America by Day Re-Read-18: Chapter 2 – The Night Child (continued))

(The following is the 18th 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.)

Continuing with Chapter 2 content that stood our for me, I took special note of Ms. Van Derbur’s description of a “confrontational and humiliating” experience she had as a part of an initiation for her high school’s most popular sorority, in which, after being brought into a dark basement, with 60 girls looking on, a spotlight was shown into her face and she was asked to answer the question, “What is digitational intercourse?” This question, so full of sexual innuendo (though the answer was: holding hands), caused “extreme anxiety” to “well up into every part” of her body:

I couldn’t think. I couldn’t breathe. I felt my heart pounding. My head dropped. I couldn’t move. . . . My mind had completely shut down. I just knew I had to get out of there.

When her silence continued, she was asked, “. . . what is osculation [kissing]?”  Her reaction?

All of a sudden I burst into loud, heaving, convulsive sobs. I had lost control completely. Someone took me to another room where I sobbed to exhaustion.

Her assessment, from her perspective as an adult survivor, of this episode?

I had no idea what made me cry, I had no conscious memories of my nights [when her father would come to her bed to sexually abuse her]. The night was buried so deep. Only something as confrontational and humiliating as this initiation could even begin to puncture the wall I had built around my secret.

Reading about this reminded me of an incident in my own life, following the end of my father’s sexual abuse, in which something in the present triggered perceptions and feelings connected to my experience of abuse:

As I recall, I was ten or eleven years old—within a year or just over a year after my father’s sexual abuse (of me) had ended. It was during the daytime, on a Sunday afternoon, I believe, and I was in my bedroom, sitting on my bed, I believe, and when I looked at one of my big toes, it appeared to me to be raw, swollen, and discolored into various shades of purple. I started screaming in utter terror, at the top of my lungs, which immediately brought frightened calls from my parents, who were sitting in the living room downstairs, asking me what was wrong. I ran downstairs, still screaming—mostly just “My toe! My toe!” as I recall—and reaching the living room, showed it to them. Both of them looked at it for a moment and said, “There’s nothing wrong with your toe.” And when I looked at it myself, it was as though all of the rawness, swelling, and discoloration immediately faded away. Only decades later, after recovering memories of my abuse, did I, remembering this incident, realize that my big toe must have served as a momentary stand-in for my penis, which had become raw, swollen, and discolored during my father’s abuse.

Did this incident, when it occurred, cause my father to remember his having abused me? Or my mother to remember taking me to our family pediatrician to show the doctor the condition of my penis during my father’s abuse (although she didn’t know that he was abusing me)? I have no idea. My father, until his  death, never admitted to having abused me sexually, and I never asked my mother about this incident.

The Other Parent (Miss America by Day Re-Read-17: Chapter 2 – The Night Child (continued))

(The following is the 17th 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.)

Click. She was on the first step. Then, slowly, very slowly, click, down to the second step. Then even more slowly we heard the third click as she stepped down the third step. My door was less than six feet away. Finally! My mother was coming. Finally it would be over. At the sound of the first click, my father had frozen. I had frozen. We remained motionless at the second click and the third. It was a dramatic moment in time when each of us knew what the other was thinking. . . . Then we heard another click, but she wasn’t coming to save me, she was going back up the steps. She knew.

In this passage from the second chapter of Miss America by Day, Ms. Van Derbur describes a moment one night when she was ten or eleven, her father had come to her bed to, as usual, sexually abuse her, and, after he had begun doing so, they heard the click of her mother’s mules (slippers with leather heels) on the top step of the short set of stairs that led down to Ms. Van Derbur’s bedroom. And so a hope bloomed briefly in Ms. Van Derbur’s child’s heart that her mother was finally going to save her—to enter her bedroom, confront her father, and end the abuse. But, instead of opening the bedroom door, her mother walked away.

She walked away from me, back into her perfect world—a world in which she was admired, respected and charming.

This incident is a perfect illustration of the all too common phenomenon—from what I’ve read and heard of other survivors’ experiences—of the “other parent,” the non-abusing parent, turning away from an opportunity to confront the abusing parent and protect their child. As I describe in my short story Preludes, In my mother’s case, she did confront my father to some degree when he was abusing me when I was nine years old: she told me (after I had become an adult, recovered memories of the abuse, and we were discussing it) that after I had shown her—when I was nine—my raw and swollen penis, a result of the abuse (but without telling her how my penis had gotten that way, even though she asked me directly about this, since my father had threatened to kill me if I told anyone, including my mother, and I had believed him), she had asked my father if he had any idea how my penis could have gotten that way and he had denied any knowledge. But as for directly questioning my father as to whether he was the cause of the damage (thankfully transient) to my penis or whether, more generally, he had ever behaved sexually with me or my siblings, she was never able to do this.

In my mother’s case, I believe the substantial power imbalance that existed between her and my father (my father was the breadwinner, one hundred percent; my mother was a housewife without any income) was a major factor in her never directly confronting. Another factor seems to have been her conviction that no one would have believed her accusation if she had taken it public. And, actually, thinking about it, this may well have been true, or it may have been true, at least, that no one would have publicly supported her, given that she couldn’t have presented any definitive physical evidence (for, after all, when she took me to see our pediatrician about the state of my penis, the pediatrician seemed to believe that the rawness, swelling, and discoloration were perhaps the result of an insect bite, or, perhaps, masturbation) and that I had denied any knowledge of how my penis had gotten in the state it had.

And I believe that the combination of these two factors—a power imbalance favoring the offending parent over the non-offending parent, combined with the non-offending parent’s quite understandable fear that they may not be believed if they can present no definitive proof the abuse and the abused child seems unwilling or unable to testify to the abuse’s occurrence—often continue to prevent the non-offending parent from directly confronting the offending parent about the abuse.

The solution? Parity or near parity, economic and otherwise, in the power balance between parents, plus a degree of trust between the non-offending parent and abused child so solid and deep that it can withstand even death threats made to the abused child by the offending parent, thereby enabling the child to tell the non-offending parent of the abuse. But how all too often, in cases of child sexual abuse occurring within a family, do these conditions continue not to exist!