I had the privilege of seeing Marilyn Van Debur Atler and her husband, Larry Atler. The couple came to Steamboat and spoke about their experiences of overcoming the horrors of incest. I read Marilyn’s book Miss America By Day years ago and was amazed by the story of how she coped with being sexually abused by her father for 13 years of her childhood. For many years her coping was to keep the abuse out of her conscious awareness, unfortunately the side effects of this coping mechanism had very detrimental impacts that she eventually was forced to deal with through the process of recovery and healing. It was a long process with some key turning points being acknowledgement that the abuse happened and acknowledgement of how the abuse impacted her way of operating in the world. She told the audience last week that her recovery has been complete for 20 years now and she still speaks regularly about the incest because she believes in the value of making sure the topic is not swept under the rug and making sure other victims of incest know that they are not alone.
One of the points that stood out to me in listening to Marilyn speak was that she came to recognize that the recreational and vocational activities she was choosing to pursue where activities that triggered a feeling of terror; she was a ski racer in high school and college and chose motivational speaking as her career path. Now, most people would likely chose to avoid things that were terrifying, but someone who has a distorted view of self and who has become so familiar with the feeling of terror that it brings a sense of comfort will seek out those things that bring on the familiar feeling. What a confusing existence, to seek out and feel comforted by things that are terrifying or even potentially harmful. Marilyn shared that through her recovery process she was able to make sense of a lot of things she had done in her life that didn’t make a whole lot of sense before the lens of trauma was used to take a look.
Usually at her speaking engagements Marilyn is the only speaker but this time she asked to include her husband so that he could speak about the very important role he had in Marilyn’s recovery. Larry and Marilyn started dating in high school and fell deeply in love, unfortunately one of the impacts of the incest (a common impact of unresolved trauma) is that Marilyn pushed him away, repeatedly. With trauma comes a lot of shame and one of shame’s distorted messages is “I’m not worthy of love”, trauma also brings fear of vulnerability and the message “It’s not safe to be close to anyone”. Larry is someone that Marilyn felt very drawn to and that felt dangerous and extremely uncomfortable, so she tried to shut him out. When Marilyn spoke with someone for the very first time about the incest, it was her friend and pastor that helped her acknowledge what happened and when she told her friend not to tell ANYONE, he asked her who she did not want him to tell, when she said “Larry”, her friend replied “then that is exactly who YOU need to tell”. Thankfully, Larry is a man with boundless patience and love and even years of rejections, he answered the call to fly across the country next day and hear what Marilyn had to say, his response was “now everything makes so much sense”. Again, looking through the trauma lens greatly clarified things that, before, didn’t make a whole lot of sense. They stuck together after that and here they are 50 years later.
Larry spoke about how he was able to be a support to Marilyn as she went on with her life, both pre-recovery and in the depths of the excruitingly hard work of recovery. A couple things that really stood out in what he had to say had to do with control and not taking things personally. First, control: Larry recognized that a complete lack of control is the most damaging aspect of a traumatic event and that for 13 years of her childhood Marilyn had no control over the nightly terror inflicted on her by her father. So, Larry saw how important it was to let Marilyn have as much control as she needed and accomodated this by going along with needs she expressed or decisions that she made or if they seemed like really harmful decisions then gently attempting to show the other side so that she might change her mind. He let her be in control so that she could feel safe and trust that she was not going to get hurt. The other thing that stuck with me was how Larry talked about not taking things personally, or really more accurately not verbally expressing or reacting to the hurt that some of Marilyn’s action caused for him. He was able to see that her actions were more about her and her recovery than about him and how she felt about him, and because he could recognize that he could continue to be supportive, kind and caring to her rather than defensive, angry or withdrawing. If he hadn’t been able to take care of himself through all these years, you can bet he would not have been able to be the supporter he has been, and part of that care was to find ways to work through hurt feelings without taking it out on the survivor.
Neither Marilyn or Larry talked a whole lot about shame but it was in the back of my mind in a big way, partly because it is a very common by-product of trauma but more because I’m reading a book on shame by an amazing researcher, Brene Brown. I highly recommend watching her TED talk that is linked here.
I am so grateful to both Marilyn and Larry for coming to our town’s high school auditorium and sharing their story once again. It was a pleasure to see the love between them and feel the hope for positive outcomes from even the most horrific events. One of the last things that stuck with me from their talk was Marilyn’s mention of important and healing things people have said to her through the years, it is my wish as a therapist that I might say things that stick with people and have an impact on their path to living a more satisfying life.