From the July/August 1994 issue

IN THE 1951 NEWSPAPER PHOTOGRAPH, A MAN SITS ON THE ARM OF Ai couch, his knees spread, his hands relaxed. Even though the jacket of his pale spring suit is casually unbuttoned, his handkerchief peaks sharply at the pocket. The gray in his hair frames his patrician, which angles toward the other occupants of the couch, his four daughters. He relates to them in a friendly fashion. He says something of interest. Parted lips reveal straight, white teeth. His body is lean and athletic. He looks easygoing, the very picture of middle-aged health and success.

Girls’ legs in very high heels fill the bottom half of the picture. Lean and well shaped, the legs suggest horseback riding, golf, swimming and siding. Three of the girls are blond; one sister has dark hair. Their pin-curled, shoulder-length hairdos shine from attention and good health.

The father’s right hand barely touches one daughter’s back. She looks up at him. This is Gwen the oldest. Her hair is so light that it rivals Jean Harlow’s in the old movies. The dark-haired girl is Val, the second oldest. One girl dresses in black, while the others wear the pale shades of late spring. This is Nancy, who looks sophisticated, but whose feet in their high heels land awkwardly on the floor.

The youngest girl sits in profile and clutches her gloves with tightened fingers. Her curls are not fully combed out. She is the tallest and the thinnest. She is Marilyn Van Derbur at 13. In this photo, Marilyn and her sisters are attending a ceremony at the University of Denver to honor their father. The handsome man at his ease is Francis S. Van Derbur, who has been named the Outstanding University of Denver Alumnus for 1951.

FRANCIS S. VAN DERBUR AND HIS wife, Gwendolyn Olinger Van Derbur, were two of the best of the best people in Colorado. Bill McNichols, a former mayor of Denver, called Francis S. Van Derbur, “a figure in the state’s history.” Mr. Van Derbur was an ambitious boy who made good. He went through college on scholarships. He worked every spare minute. He played piano by ear and recited poetry by heart. While finishing his studies at the University of Denver, he met a charming and very rich, socially connected coed nicknamed “Boots.” And he and she, once introduced, never parted. Boots Olinger was absolutely swept away by Van’s looks. “He was an Adonis,” she later said of Francis S. Van Derbur. “I took one look at him and fell in love.”

The couple married on June 30, 1930, after Francis had worked a full year for Gwendolyn’s father. Francis then began the long task of building up the Olinger family’s mortuary firm. By 1959, when he became the company president, it was a multifaceted giant. Of their 55 years together, Boots Van Derbur told People magazine, “It was a perfect life. … My heart beat fast every time I saw him from [the] first moment until the day he died.” Boots, well into her eighties now, tries to remember “the good things” Francis did. She remains active and committed to charities and to her family. Family has always been the center of Gwendolyn Van Derbur’s life.

Francis S. Van Derbur was an outstanding philanthropist, board member, socialite, businessman, and pillar of the Denver community. When he died suddenly in 1984 at age 76 of a heart attack, the Denver papers put the announcement on their front pages. He is interred in a mausoleum at the top of Mt. Lindo near a huge neon cross he built years ago so that his mother could spot his father’s grave from her house. The lighted cross, an official Jefferson County landmark, serves as a reference point for airline passengers flying into Denver. Mr. Van Derbur also left less visible but more important marks on Colorado institutions. Among his favorites were the Cleo Wallace Village for Handicapped Children, his alma mater, the University of Denver, Colorado Women’s College, the University of Colorado, the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, the Civic Theater, the national Intrafraternity Council and the Boy Scouts.

The four Van Derbur girls arrived in quick order, beginning in 1931. The family lived first in an old three-story white frame house in East Denver. In 1948, they moved a little closer to town to a nicer, more commodious house. The girls skied in the winter and sported over the Colorado countryside the rest of the year. There were schools, music lessons, games. Everybody strove to be the best. Marilyn, a skinny, bony kid, was horse crazy. Her sister Gwen remembers that there were switches of horsetail hair tied with a bow ,of string, statues of horses and horse paraphernalia all over Marilyn’s room.

It was a must in this excellent family that each child volunteer. Marilyn spent hours at the Wallace Village helping in programs for emotionally disabled children. Gwen developed a lasting love for all sorts of causes. To get their allowances, the Van Derbur girls had to sign “initiative slips” detailing their good deeds.

Rather than prizing pictures of movie stars, young Marilyn kept a scrapbook all about Gwen, who was six years her senior. In 1949, Gwen was named Homecoming Queen of the University of Colorado. Her face appeared on the cover of Photoplay when she was the Queen of the first Winterskol at Aspen. Nothing impressed young Marilyn more than Gwen. Gwen found Marilyn’s scrapbook, which was filled with newspaper and magazine clippings and photographs, surprising. Even Gwen did not save those things.

In 1957, when Marilyn was 19 and a sophomore at the University of Colorado, she entered the Miss Colorado beauty contest and won. As her junior year of college began, she competed in Atlantic City for the title of Miss America, playing two pieces on the Hammond organ that her father had selected for her “Tea for Two” and “Tenderly.” In reference to those choices, Marilyn remarked later to the press, “He’s never wrong.” She was clearly one of the crowd favorites in the evening gown and bathing suit contests, but she had to fight off a strong challenge by Jody Elizabeth Shattuck, an extraordinarily attractive Miss Georgia, in order to win the crown. When Marilyn was selected Miss America, 1958, she was surprised. “Even my sister wouldn’t bet on me,” she said. Following her year as Miss America, she completed her junior and senior years at the University of Colorado, functioning at the same time as the television spokeswoman for AT&T. Marilyn’s academics stayed important to her despite her celebrity status, and she graduated college Phi Beta Kappa.

Four smart, pretty girls, each of them busy with charity work and “initiative slips.” The Van Derburs appeared to have achieved the American Dream.

ON THE NIGHT OF MAY 8, 1991, In  Denver, a group of incest survivors, their families, their therapists and one reporter gathered in a small auditorium at the University of Colorado Health Sciences campus to hear plans for a new program at the Kempe National Center, a well-known university-affiliated institution that has no auditorium of its own. It is named after the Denver pediatrician C. Henry Kempe, who, in the summer of 1962, along with a psychiatrist, a radiologist and two other physicians, published “The Battered-Child Syndrome” in the Journal of the American Medical Association, an article that has come to be known as the classic medical paper on diagnosing physical child abuse. The Kempe Center is dedicated to the prevention and treatment of child abuse and neglect. A surprise speaker came to the podium the night of the Kempe benefit. Wearing a smart white suit, she spoke in a practiced, compelling style. She had come with an offer, she said. She, her mother, and her sisters would establish a Kempe Center program for adult survivors of childhood incest with a start-up donation of about a quarter of a million dollars. But what truly jolted the small audience was the speaker’s revelation about her own life. “Tonight I stand before you an incest survivor,” she said. The speaker was Marilyn Van Derbur Atler, Miss America of 1958.

Marilyn told her audience that Francis S. Van Derbur had “violated” her from the time she was five years old until she left for college. He had expected the true nature of their relationship to stay secret. “This was his greatest weapon,” she said. “He knew I would never tell.” Marilyn then delivered an apostrophe. “I say to my father tonight, ‘You were wrong!'”

A shocking revelation, no less so in an era when such confessions were becoming almost commonplace, Marilyn’s story carried the immediate fascination of an incest situation at the highest levels of society, and it commanded media attention nationwide. The part of the story that held the most fascination for me was Marilyn’s statement that she had remembered nothing about her sexual ordeals until she was 24 years old. She had lost all memory of what was happening as it was happening. From the first episode to the last, Marilyn did not consciously think anything was amiss. While she was dating Larry Atler, the boy who would later become her husband, she did not know that many times after they had kissed goodnight her father forced her into unwanted acts of sex. While she reigned as Miss America, she was entirely unaware of her incestuous past.

The technique that Marilyn Van Derbur used in order to put her incest out of mind is relatively uncommon. Marilyn explained to her audience at the university that as a child she had “split” into a happy “day child” and a terrified “night child.” She had evidently used the defense that Freud discovered late in his career and named “Icb-Spaltung” (literally I-splitting). Her “day child” never knew what her “night child” experienced. All memories of abuse had been sequestered in the night child’s mind. Splitting is a defense mechanism by which a person sees himself or others as “all good” or “all bad.” The person cannot integrate positive and negative qualities of self or others into full, cohesive images. Occasionally the memories of one of these “selves” are lost. Apparently, all this had happened inside the mind of Miss America.

Marilyn told her audience that she considered her ambition, athleticism and academic success characteristic of the day child. She applied “night child” to that side of herself harboring unspeakable shame, dirty secrets and terror. The night child could hardly sleep. The night child could not speak. But Marilyn’s day child was completely unaware of all this. Neither side knew about the other. The incest memories were stored in only one half of Marilyn’s consciousness. “During the days,” Marilyn told her audience, “no embarrassed or angry glances ever passed between my father and me, because I, the ‘day child,’ had no conscious knowledge of the traumas and the terrors of the ‘night child’…. I believed I was the happiest person who ever lived. I truly believed that.”

Marilyn was 24 years old before her memories returned. The occasion was a lunch in Beverly Hills with an old friend, the Reverend D.D. Harvey, who had at one time run the youth group Marilyn attended at the Montview Boulevard Presbyterian Church in Denver. Marilyn was in Los Angeles to make TV commercials for “The Bell Telephone Hour,” and the Reverend Mr. Harvey, who had moved to Los Angeles and was now a counselor for Synanon, had invited her to lunch. Since Marilyn had become a spokeswoman for AT&T, she had come to Los Angeles a number of times to make commercials, but she had avoided D.D. Harvey. This time, he insisted. He wanted to ask her something. Many adult victims of child abuse took part in Synanon’s drug-rehabilitation program, and Harvey worked with a number of them. He had suspected for years that something was wrong with Marilyn, and now he thought he knew what it was. At lunch he brought up the subject of incest. Marilyn fell into instant sobs. Just the mention of the word triggered a huge outpouring of forgotten emotion. Choked out through the tears, Marilyn’s first words to the minister were, “Don’t tell anybody.”

“Who is it that you do not want to tell?”


“Then he is the only person we have to tell,” Harvey responded.

Larry Atler was by now an attorney in Denver. His relationship with Marilyn had been an on-again/off-again thing. In fact the year she finished college, Marilyn had married a former University of Colorado football player. The marriage lasted all of three months, and then Marilyn went back to Larry, as she had so often done before. When the Reverend Mr. Harvey telephoned Larry, he agreed to fly to Los Angeles immediately. Marilyn found it almost impossible to discuss with him in concrete detail what had happened between her father and her. But Larry understood quickly and offered her all the comfort she could have desired. They married two years later. Marilyn went back to Denver.

Marilyn Van Derbur’s split into “day child” and “night child” is a defense occasionally employed by young children enduring very long or repeated traumas. The child who employs “splitting of the self” considers the unwanted side a kind of gangrenous appendage. The child tries to cut it off. This mental amputation is extremely costly, costing fullness of character, mental energy and considerable memory. The sick, or bad, or night side of the child remains intact though hidden, as if the child has to drag around a rotten, half-severed limb. Children who split lose consciousness of the link between their “selves.” They are aware, for instance, that a doll or an imaginary playmate possesses certain attributes. But they do not recognize these attributes as their own.

Marilyn Van Derbur Atler suffered a number of problems related to her split. The day child would never take a nap, she said in her Kempe benefit speech. The idea of general anesthesia was unbearable to her. She dreaded sleep. And, in fact, the night child awoke almost every night at two a.m. sensing a male intruder in her room. “Sleep,” she told her audience, “is when a man can do anything he wants with you and you have no power.”

When Marilyn was 34, her only child was born. It was a difficult breech delivery, but Marilyn allowed no anesthesia. When Jennifer turned five, Marilyn experienced a surge of mental symptoms in physical disguise. She Eved through long, terrible hours of paralysis. She lay immobile for several weeks at a stretch, while her mind worked overtime. She gradually realized that these problems related to the fact that her daughter was now as old as she had been when her father first abused her. Jennifer’s age had acted as a memory trigger. Marilyn’s memories were largely sensory memories bodily sensations that reflected her physical feelings during the time her abuses were taking place and they were the only memories Marilyn reported during her public revelation of May 8.

When Jennifer entered puberty, Marilyn experienced even more devastating physical symptoms. She began feeling pain. Again, Jennifer’s age had cued her to the agonies she had experienced at the same age. The adult Marilyn suffered excruciating pains in her back, chest and legs and on her skin when Jennifer was an adolescent. She often sobbed uncontrollably. By now she had remembered the incest for about 23 years. But the pain had grown right along with the child Jennifer. Her speaking career virtually stopped. She sought a number of types of psychotherapy, including group and individual treatment. She was hospitalized more than once. She could see no way out.

When Marilyn was 46 years old, Francis S. Van Derbur died. The person who had caused Marilyn’s problems permanently disappeared. But Marilyn’s problems stayed with her and, in fact, became worse. “In deep despair,” she told her Kempe benefit listeners, “I was often dysfunctional for long periods of time. I looked upon death as peace, as a release from a mind and body that could no longer contain the agony.” Near the end of her prepared text, Marilyn expressed her own wrenching ambivalence about Francis S. Van Derbur. “I loved my father,” she said.

THE CITY OF DENVER DID NOT unanimously respond to Marilyn’s revelations with empathy or belief instead there was a kind of communal denial. Denver radio talk-show callers asked such things as, “Why should we believe her?” Or, “Why did she wait to tell her story until Francis Van Derbur died?” Or, “Is she just trying to be famous again?”

Marilyn had described several symptoms internal confirmations that matched her memories. But Denver did not unanimously accept these symptoms as proof that her memories were true. Convincing memory confirmation arrived, however, three days after Marilyn’s speech. On May 11, 1991, Fawn Germer, of the Rocky Mountain News, reported a phone interview with Gwen Mitchell, Marilyn’s oldest sister, who had moved to California. Gwen said that she, too, had been sexually abused by Francis S. Van Derbur. But unlike Marilyn, Gwen had always remembered.

Gwen Mitchell was an attorney working in estate planning in the affluent Bay Area town of Hillsborough Bing Crosby’s hometown. Gwen had been married twice for 17 years in Kansas City to the father of her two children, and then for 19 years in California to her current husband. She had experienced anxiety attacks toward the end of her first marriage. But Gwen offered more than her own symptoms as evidence of incest. She actually remembered the incest, which had begun when she was 7 and continued until she was 18. She had always remembered. She did not tell anyone about it until she was 30 years old and Marilyn, then 24, approached her about her amazing return of awareness. Until that moment, Gwen had assumed that she was the only abused child in the family. Gwen said that with this realization, she had developed guilt about her own silence. She had vowed to back her younger sisters whenever they needed it.

Incest and other forms of unwanted sex are the most tightly held secrets a child can have. For some reason, youngsters know, without being told, that they must keep this kind of thing quiet. Gwen Van Derbur apparently imposed this prohibition on herself without any overt threats or mandates from her father. She kept quiet until her sister came to see her.

Gwen had had to back Marilyn on one other occasion. A year after their father died, Marilyn tried to inform her mother about the incest. “It’s in your fantasy,” Boots Van Derbur had responded. Boots’s dismissal was intolerable to Marilyn, and Marilyn reported it to Gwen, who phoned Boots and then went to visit her in Denver, revealing at that point that her father had abused her, too. Mrs. Van Derbur had no choice but to believe. Her denial broke.

Gwen Mitchell lives and works just a few miles from San Francisco. Before she went into estate planning full time, she handled a few child-custody cases in the San Francisco courts, and, as it happened, we had once worked on the same case. When I phoned her, Gwen said she was very willing to be interviewed. And thus my plans unfolded. I would compare what could be gleaned from Marilyn’s television appearances and public statements with my own interview of Gwen. I would concentrate on the question of why Marilyn’s memory had been lost while Gwen’s memory remained. I would try to understand why and how two people from the same family would defend themselves so differently from virtually the same kind of trauma. And I would try to learn how much each woman remembered now.

CHILDHOOD INCEST IS ONE OF THE most difficult traumas for adults to remember. Incest feels particularly shameful. It engenders tremendous loyalty conflicts. And it can be anticipated. The victim knows another incestuous episode is going to happen. The perpetrator, after all, has continuous access to the child. So the child anticipates. A little girl may self-hypnotize for example, she may count dots on the ceiling or repeatedly say her prayers. She may also use visualization of other scenes in order to dissociate. Or she may split. The child readies herself. She cannot stand the idea that somebody she loves is coming once again to overexcite and scare her. And she cannot stand her own response.

In the years that followed her realization that her dad had abused her, Marilyn did recapture a few episodic memories of her childhood abuse. “There were days,” she said on NBC’s “First Person with Maria Shriver,” “when all of a sudden a memory would come back of what my father had done to me. And it was so horrific to me and so unacceptable to me that I would, I would say in therapy, ‘I have no place to put that in my head! I have no place to put that in my head!'” Even after Marilyn became aware of some of her early memories, she could not tolerate her own awareness. Her immediate impulses continued to run toward defense.

It quickly became apparent to me that the Marilyn I was meeting in the press and on TV was not the entire woman. This was “day child” all the way. Because Marilyn’s “day child” incorporated only parts of her personality and memories, the whole Marilyn Van Derbur Atler, I began to realize, might be hard to know. Marilyn appeared to guard herself closely. She often used the exact same words in various widely spaced appearances, as if she had prepared her remarks in advance and then memorized them. She did not answer everything asked. Many times she graciously changed the subject.

Because the night child lost control of her life, Marilyn Van Derbur’s day child religiously took control and hung onto it into adulthood. Marilyn seemed unable to abdicate even for an instant; she prepared even when preparation did not seem necessary. In a “diary” chronicling the year that followed her Kempe benefit speech, published in the Rocky Mountain News, Marilyn writes of spending a whole day with a producer of “First Person” in order to get ready for her interview with Maria Shriver. She also writes about working with Roseanne Arnold for six weeks in the summer of 1991 in order to prepare for Roseanne’s public announcement of her own childhood incest. It was up to Marilyn to manage the media for the indomitable Roseanne. “Maybe I’m the only one who believes we can pull this off,” Marilyn writes in the Rocky Mountain News. But the day child did indeed “pull it off.” She could conjure up inexhaustible energy for such things.

Marilyn’s day child was her dominant, more fully realized half. Her split not only caused her memories of abuse to disappear until the age of 24, but also made it impossible for her to remember how she had managed to divide herself in the first place.

Marilyn’s night child could not speak. Rather than describing her split as “day child/night child,” Marilyn might have called the two parts of herself “speaking child/mute child.” Marilyn, as a survivor of child abuse, wants now “to speak for children and for the mute adults who never were able to speak” (“Good Afternoon, Colorado”). The night child’s speechless frustration is expressed in a quote from Oliver Wendell Holmes engraved, according to Gwen, for a number of years on Marilyn’s personal stationery: “Alas for those who do not sing but die with all their music in them.” In her early adulthood, Marilyn was the one dying with her personal feelings still unexpressed.

One wonders if many of the mute night child’s memories were laid down as nondeclarative, or implicit, memories. Such memories could not have been retrieved in words. The stories Marilyn told the media strongly suggested that her father must have assaulted several different parts of her body. Her nighttime memories may well have been implicitly formed planted time after time and then stored via entirely nonverbal pathways. For months during her daughter’s adolescence, for instance, Marilyn’s “skin screamed.” This points, of course, to how a child’s skin feels over time as her father unwantedly and repeatedly touches it. Of her feelings during Jennifer’s adolescence Marilyn told Maria Shriver, “For me, the hardest part was my body feeling like it was going to blow up. I felt like a ghetto blaster with 18 rock stations on all at the same time.” When a father stimulates a little girl incestuously, she often feels shamed, humiliated, pained, angry and excited all at once. What more graphically depicts such a cacophony of feelings than Marilyn’s “ghetto blaster”?

Marilyn Van Derbur appeared to have lost many of her memories as a result of her split. She may have lost the memories because her mute night child did not rehearse them in words. She may have also dissociated by night (“My mind left my body,” she told the Denver Post), and that, too, would have helped her to drift away from memory. When Marilyn Van Derbur was young, she apparently did not have the benefit of psychotherapy. Her splitting made many of her nighttime experiences fall into the night child’s black hole. And her dissociation must have put the experiences through a filter that let only her sensory memories and just a few episodic memories register. The childhood memories that Marilyn offered her listeners and readers sounded like disconnected and broken bits. Considering the defenses to which she admitted, this fragmentation was to be expected. What D.D. Harvey elicited from Marilyn at age 24 was uncontrollable and massive emotion. But it was not coherent memory; Amputated experiences make for impoverished memories, at best.

Marilyn used one other defense that deserves note “projective identification.” It, too, interferes with memory. As Jennifer Atler grew up, Marilyn unconsciously attributed her own memories to her child, even though Jennifer herself was never abused. Marilyn then reacted to Jennifer’s “abused-child” qualities with inner rage. She confided her discomfort about the then 17-year-old Jennifer to Gwen one day when the two sisters were talking alone. “Why doesn’t she fight back? She’s big. She doesn’t have to lie down and take it” in reference to a friend’s aggression.

In her mother’s mind, Jennifer’s stages of development reflected Marilyn’s own development. Marilyn told People that when Jennifer reached the age of 5, “I’d tell Larry, ‘I don’t love her anymore.’ It would take 10 years for me to understand that in Jennifer I was seeing myself as a 5-year-old.” Marilyn had remembered her abuse long before this point in Jennifer’s life, but her projective-identification defense prevented her from seeing the obvious link between herself at 5 and her daughter at 5.

Marilyn also gave a striking example of projective identification in her Kempe Center benefit speech. “When Jennifer was about 11,” Marilyn said, “she fell asleep in our bed. Larry leaned over to try to scoop her up in his arms. She was growing fast, and her arms and legs were long and dangling. As he picked her up, I was flooded with overwhelming feelings. I was enraged at her. How could she allow herself to fall into a deep sleep and not know what was being done to her? She didn’t even know someone was picking her up.”

Marilyn had projected her own childhood tragedy onto her husband and child. Projecting a lost memory onto another person makes the memory clearer the way a bright light clarifies dark film. But by attributing the experience to somebody else, it also becomes distanced and disconnected.

Marilyn used other objects besides Jennifer for her projective identifications. She hated dolls as a child and would not play with them. To Sally Jessy Raphael she confessed, “I hated dolls, because you can do anything you want to a doll, and the doll has no power.” In many ways, other people’s suffering was more real to Marilyn Van Derbur than her own. Other people’s plights even a doll’s plight come with intact beginnings, middles and ends. Marilyn’s own story never seemed to line up that way.

ON A SATURDAY MORNING IN MAY 1992,1 drove down to Hillsborough to talk to Marilyn’s older sister. Gwen Mitchell, tall and relaxed in a tailored dark-blue oversized blazer and a pair of wheat-colored slacks, did not have any memories that ran like films, even though she had always remembered her ordeals with her father. Gwen did keep a number of mental photos, however, in her album of episodic memories. “I have a photograph like a click in my mind,” she said. “I know what I felt and exactly what was in the room the first time my dad abused me. My grandparents my father’s parents owned a ranch up in Fairplay, Colorado. And in summertime, as children, we one or two of us would go up there and spend some time. I was about 7 though this is a little hard to pinpoint. Seven is a guess.” She paused a moment seeming to inspect her memory. “It was a second-floor bedroom. The head of the bed was against a wall. And then, if you were lying in the bed you faced a window looking over a roof on the porch below.” Gwen Mitchell connected her own precise placements in space with her memories of the most shocking moment of her childhood, her initiation. Little Gwen Van Derbur woke up in Fairplay, Colorado, utterly surprised and confused. “I awakened,” the 60-year-old exhaled a long sigh, “in the middle of the night as I was uh working toward um an orgasm.”

Gwen turned to me, asking whether children actually have “those.” Here was a Van Derbur family trait the Van Derbur women apparently had trouble saying specific words related to sexual matters. Gwen laughed in discomfort. I told her that children do have orgasms of a kind. Particularly if introduced to sex by adults or older children, very young children may get “hooked” on the increasing motions, the pressures and the rhythms that build to release. Otherwise, most young children fiddle with themselves a bit but are not totally committed to orgasm.

“I woke up,” Gwen continued, “feeling an accelerated feeling. And my father was manipulating me with his fingers. And when I understood what was happening ah, uh, a horrible feeling went through me. I knew instantly, even though I was young, that this was wrong. This was bad. I shut off my feelings, just like that. And I have to tell you that the shut-off has had a lifelong impact on my ability to have an orgasm with a man.”

“How did you manage to shut off?” I wanted to understand what had happened at age 7 or 8 to Gwen.

“I just stopped” Gwen said. “I closed down. I went rigid, I’m sure. And, um, I’ve never forgotten it. I don’t know if this was the worst moment of my life, but it sure had an effect on everything that followed.”

Gwen dissociated precisely at the moment she felt herself gathering sexual momentum. She dissociated far more precisely than her younger sister must have done. Only one particular circumstance triggered it moving toward an orgasm. As a result of choosing exactly when to dissociate, Gwen did not forget much just the final stages of her father’s sexual activity with her. And as a result of this precise timing, Gwen Van Derbur did not go “glassy” elsewhere. She never blanked out by day. She did not lose her feeling of being alive.

Gwen Van Derbur could almost always tell exactly when to expect a sexual session with her father. The anticipation must have been one of the factors that made it possible for Gwen to use such pinpoint dissociation. Francis S. Van Derbur would play the piano and then have a drink before approaching his oldest child. “I was very alert when I knew he had finished playing the piano” Gwen laughed “and having his drink. I would wait for the door to open.”

Two girls each waiting for the door to open. But one child must have blanked out almost from the moment the door widened. She became a nighttime persona, a different girl. She saw things through a haze. The older girl bided her time before making her escape. She was more curious. More adventuresome. She wanted to see first what would happen. She anticipated every step. She knew she could get away later. Once the door opened, Gwen let herself stay aware. Her father tried most of the standard sexual things with his hands and mouth. She even remembered his penis. “He felt flabby,” she recalled, “and he would rub himself against you. I don’t ever remember a real, hard erection. But maybe, now, that happened after I turned off.” She laughed again.

Gwen fled from the preorgasmic state by willing her mind to drift away from what was taking place. She diverted her attention before the final escape. When she had had enough, she simply “went away.”

“I can describe the wallpaper in a lot of different rooms,” she said. “Venetian blinds, too. I remember really detailing things that were there. I would concentrate on something else. I remember ceilings. Counting flowers. At 14, I thought I had escaped him for good by slapping my mother and being sent away to boarding school in Kansas City. But then we had these ‘parent weekends’ once a month, and Dad would come and take me off to his room at the Muehlebach Hotel. And I got to know the wallpapers and the ceilings there, too. It was just god-awful. So I reset my goals for 18. And at 18, I never went back.”

During sex with Francis S. Van Derbur, Gwen planned to murder him. She spent hours of foreplay devising his death. “I think I would have gotten weapons,” she said, “if it was today. I told myself how at 18, I’d be able to get outa there. I was home free at 18, and nobody would ever have to know. He wasn’t gonna tell anybody. And I sure wasn’t gonna tell. And so I’d think, ‘It virtually didn’t happen. No damage done. I’m fine.'”

Gwen thought her murderous and escapist thoughts while being fingered, fondled and poked. She planned hundreds of getaways. Most of her memories were registered, stored and available for retrieval even the memories she put into fantasy. Gwen thinks her anger kept her alive, but she also regrets the anger. Like Marilyn, she, too, loved her father.

Gwen’s angry thoughts were inspired by physical batterings as well as by sex. “He ran the place with an iron fist,” Gwen recalled. “He punished me for a bad attitude. I didn’t even have to do anything bad. Just my ‘attitude.’ He kept a wooden dowel over every door in the house, and he’d reach up, get the dowel, and whale the tar out of me. And I was the oldest. So he would be certain the other kids saw it. Everybody was pretty intimidated.

“On occasions, I’d go stay with Grams and GaBa [her maternal grandparents]. There was one time when they were going to call the police because of the welts on me. And Mother prevailed on them not to do it. But my mother knew I was being beaten. And my grandparents knew. And obviously nothing was going to be done about that. I just had to make it through.”

Gwen has no memory of penile penetration, but she thinks that it happened, because when she was 14, her father took her to an abortionist. Gwen sighed as she was telling me this the sound of a deep, deep sadness. “I was in junior high,” she said. “I missed a couple of periods. He found this out because my mother told him. He took me to a backstairs doctor. He said, “The doctor’s going to examine you. I’ve told him you were raped in the back of a bus. You go up these stairs. And you go see him. He’s going to see if you are pregnant.’ So I went. I remember that. And I wasn’t. So we got through that one.” Gwen can remember her visit to the abortionist. And she can remember her conversation with her father. But she cannot remember exactly what her father did to her that caused his concerns. Gwen covers for her lost memory by thinking things through. From the beginning of her incestuous relationship with her father, Gwen dissociated as the sex heated up, and thereby could not retrieve memories of what ultimately happened between them. In the matter of the abortionist, she compensates for this lack of memory by joining bits of actual memory to bits of reasoning.

It is difficult for many of us to distinguish what parts of a memory are really remembered and what parts we have reasoned through. Gwen distinguishes between these two things quite well, and she had concluded that she must have had intercourse with her father. This may be a false conclusion.

Gwen’s assumption that her father had to have been erect and had to have penetrated her does not necessarily explain her actual memories. Her father could have failed to ejaculate but mistakenly thought he did. Or he could have thought that his spirited, rebellious daughter was pregnant by some boy her own age. Since Gwen has no real memory of being penetrated by her father, we cannot reconstruct any more from the episode with the “backstairs doctor” than is already there. When we apply “thinking it through” to old, poorly formed memories, we may not get anywhere. Or we may come up with false memories.

Gwen asked me if she could show me something before I left. She laughed a little as she told me of a lifelong habit “a thing” about tea towels. She got out a pale green damask towel and twisted it between her third and forth fingers. “Tea towels send me into orbit,” she said. “Just touching the fabric. Twisting it. Napkins are good, too. I rub them between my fingers. At dinners I’m always disappointed when the napkins are paper.”

Everyone in the family knew about Gwen’s habit, she said. Everybody teased her. “I’ve got calluses. Look!” I felt the pads between Gwen’s fingers. The skin was very rough. “When I twist the towel,” she said, “I do it as hard as I can. With both hands. It feels really good. It gives me some kind of little ” Gwen seemed to want to say the word “thrill,” but, as in the instance of “orgasm,” she could not get it out.

Gwen used tea towels as a displacement. This defense involves diverting one’s attention away from something strongly felt to something less strongly felt. I immediately wondered if there were towels in Gwen’s childhood bed. Trauma symptoms can be surprisingly literal.

“Did you used to take a towel to bed?” I asked.

“I wet my bed till I was pretty big,” she answered. “Maybe that was one way of keeping somebody out of my room, out of my bed. People woke me up at night to take me to the bathroom. So I would tie myself to the bed with fabric, telling myself nobody was gonna get me up. I could have gotten strips of rags I don’t remember. And I tied them to my bed. And I would twist the cloth, twist it, twist it. It still feels good today. I sometimes still twist in my bed with my sheets.”

I knew we had found one of Gwen’s ways to stop one very specific kind of memory the memory of orgasm. She had found a substitute excitement and one which, in turn, might connect strongly to her adult sexuality. Gwen diverted her attention to her hand. At age two, Gwen lost the tip of a finger in Grams’s icebox door. Her hand was very important to her. And her genitals were important, too.

“I’ll tell you something else, as long as we’re on this subject,” Gwen said. “If I’m going to fantasize and have a good sexual experience now, the best way is [to pretend] I’m in bondage. And I’m it’s being done to me. And I can’t help it.

So it’s O.K. for me to feel good about it. You know, my father was dedicated to making me feel something in my childhood. And he did. But I managed to keep the old control by making some of it go my way. The bondage fantasy just-it just came to me. I don’t know when. But my bondage has to be with a soft cloth. Maybe a tea towel.”

At age 60, Gwen is outgoing and energetic, a dynamo. She has a great sense of humor. Marilyn, on the other hand, does not come far into the open. She says she frequently has to force herself into bravado. Marilyn shares Gwen’s enormous energy and perhaps she has even more. But she struggles when she has to use it. In an ancient Greek family, they might have described Gwen Mitchell’s demeanor as hubris the Jews would have named it chutzpa. And any culture would have recognized Marilyn as shy. Shyness has threaded throughout Marilyn’s life. Despite the image of bravery that she presents to the world, Marilyn has been, to paraphrase her quote from Holmes, “dying with her music still inside.” Marilyn’s and Gwen’s character differences are no doubt innate, and these differences probably account not only for their different choices of defense but for their very different uses of the same defense. They account for the difference in their memories today.

PICTURES DON’T TELL A WHOLE story. Knowing what I know now, I once again pick up the 1951 newspaper photograph. It shows the most photogenic family you could ever hope to see. Teenagers without frowns or pimples. A man aging gracefully. But I look deeper into the picture.

Where is the wife? Why is she absent? She didn’t take the picture it is a professional shot, taken for the newspaper. Boots is nowhere to be seen. I think I know why. She cannot face the incest in her family. She will not allow herself to perceive what is going on. She needs to preserve her relationship with her Adonis.

The father sits on the arm of the couch looking down at his very special daughters. He looks possessive and powerful. He owns them.

A blond teenager in black laughs in the direction of her dad. A darker girl sits farther away from him, and she, too, smiles. One of these two pretty girls misunderstands what is between herself and her father, perhaps even imagining in her bright young mind that he is helping her to adjust to the frightening world of men. In the middle of the picture sits a bony, tall girl in profile. Only half her face shows the half brightened by the photographer’s flash exemplifying the amputation of one whole side of her persona. We see only the “day child” of Marilyn Van Derbur. Eight years away from being Miss America, this child is painfully tight. Pin curls not quite combed out. Gloves clutched firmly on the lap. Her control makes no difference. Her father is quite used to her. He has already had her for eight whole years.

Next to Marilyn sits a girl in pastels a woman really, 19 years old. Gwen wears a smile and looks straight up at her father. She wanted to murder him for years, but the murder wish does not show on her face. What I see, instead, is relief. She has escaped. Francis S. Van Derbur no longer owns Gwen. Perhaps he never did. She’s “outa there.”

Lenore Terr, M.D., is clinical professor of psychiatry at the Langley Porter Psychiatric Institute of the University of California, San Francisco. She is also the author of Too Scared to Cry. Her prizewinning research on the kidnapped children of Chowchilla and other childhood trauma victims has established her as one of the world’s foremost experts on trauma and memory.