“Abuse? What Abuse? Please Pass the Potatoes”

“We had all the trappings of a perfect family.”

~Marilyn Van Derbur, incest survivor

As noted in Behind the Playground Walls, a child being abused within the family makes accommodations in a “world where few things are as they seem and the power of the abusers is pervasive and magical.”

This conformity creates defenses that are seen as crucial by many children. They block the bad, only remembering the good, or at least what is humanly bearable. For many children, it is more useful to repress the trauma than to retain the memory of it.

It is not usually advantageous for a child, or an adult, to preserve the knowledge that someone they loved sexually violated, abandoned, or threatened them. Repression and dissociation allows the child to remain attached to the parent or other loved one who is assaulting them.

In Memories of Sexual Betrayal, an incest victim revealed she had been forced to watch her father rape and sodomize her sister. She then described that after a night of sexual abuse, life was back to normal the next day. Her mother was preparing the family breakfast and her father was reading the paper. She said, “Everything was just as it had been the night before when I went to bed.”

Jennifer Freyd points out that repressed memories of incest is more likely to be found in families that are somewhat functional.

A photo speaks a thousand words…

Marilyn Van Derbur and her sister Gwen, came from a prestigious and outwardly functional family. Even though both sisters grew up in the same home with the same sexually abusive father, and the same mother who ignored the signs of abuse… the dynamics of the two sisters were very different. Consequently, the sisters displayed two very different coping defenses.

Marilyn, who felt no anger for her father while growing up, was the one who repressed the abuse entirely. Gwen on the other hand, felt hatred for her father and wanted to kill him. The remarkable difference is that Gwen has always remembered being sexually abused by the father.

In 1992, Ross Cheit began having dreams and memories of being molested almost nightly by a camp counselor for the San Francisco Boy’s Chorus named William Farmer. Ross had spent the summer at the camp as a child. Cheit’s memories began to return after two separate incidents. The first was a phone call from his sister. She was calling to tell Ross that she was sending her son to a San Francisco Boys chorus. The other trigger was a newspaper article about Father James Porter who molested and raped hundreds of young boys, decades earlier.

After Ross Cheit remembered that his perpetrator was his camp counselor, he searched for more victims and discovered that other perpetrators also worked at the camp. Cheit subsequently discovered an enormous cover-up at the boy’s camp. He found at least a dozen other victims who had been molested by Farmer or another camp employee.

Madi Bacon, founder and director of the Boy’s Chorus, openly admitted to Cheit that Bill Farmer had done questionable things with some of the boys at the camp, but Madi Bacon blinded herself to it.

Madi Bacon told the boys many times they were lucky to have Bill Farmer, and this is how she helped create a distorted reality for the boys at the camp. She generated the image of a respectable perpetrator, while denying his dark side, and she pretended the camp was a joyous and normal place for the boys.

Madi Bacon said she kept things at the camp a secret because she wanted the camp to have “a happy ending.”

Madi Bacon is the epitome of those who shove child sexual abuse under the rug. She is just like all the mothers who choose not to see incest going on because they want the outside world to see a “normal-looking, happy” family. In this case it had been the reputation of the camp which was preserved over the children’s well-being.

After an emotional and difficult phone call to Bill Farmer, Ross Cheit waited for a promised apology by mail, which never came. Farmer refused to admit much responsibility at all and acted as if the abuse was no a big deal.

He probably learned that from Madi Bacon.

A contributing factor to Ross Cheit’s repression was most likely due to the fact that each morning, after Ross was molested by Farmer, life was back to normal. Everyone engaged in his or her daily routine, including Bill Farmer and Ross Cheit.

If an adult continues to tell a child wonderful things about the person who is abusing them, and creates the fantasy of an all-American home, then the child will cling to that false image, instead of relying on their own experiences. When a child has no sense of self-worth and cannot even trust their own experiences, and when the majority of the other family members do not acknowledge what is happening… the child will say to themselves, “Maybe I’m wrong, maybe it never happened.”

Former Miss America, Marilyn Van Derbur, raped by her prominent father from ages 5-18

Former Miss America, Marilyn Van Derbur, raped by her prominent father from ages 5-18

This is what goes on in a home where a child, who has just been raped by his or her father comes to the dinner table to find that everything is normal again. No one says a word about the molestation or rapes. It is merely “Please pass the potatoes” or “Would you like some more milk?” The child is forced to choose his or her reality. Does the child choose the reality of the incest, or is it the pleasantries and falseness of the dinner table?

The victim chooses the dinner table in order to survive.


Behind the Playground Walls: Sexual Abuse in Preschools, Jill Waterman Ph.D, Robert J. Kelly Ph.D, Mary Kay Oliveri MSW, Jane Mc Cord, Ph.D, 1993, The Guilford Press page 242
Stacey Lannert, Free Stacey Lannert Website, Stacey’s Writings
Dissociation, Repression, and Reality Testing in the Countertransference, Jody Messler Davies, Memories of Sexual Betrayal: Truth, Fantasy, Repression, and Dissociation, Jason Aronson Inc., Edited by Richard Gartner, Ph.D, pages 60-61
Betrayal Trauma: The Logic of Forgetting Child Abuse, Jennifer J. Freyd, Harvard University Press, 1996, page 45, 76, 77, 78
Unchained Memories: True Stories of Traumatic Memories, Lost and Found, Lenore Terr, M.D. Basic Books, 1994, page 146
Bearing Witness A man’s Recovery of His Sexual Abuse as a Child Mike Stanton The Sunday Journal Massachusetts edition of The Providence Sunday Journal Volume CXI, No. 19 A-1 May 7 1995
Bearing Witness A man’s Recovery of His Sexual Abuse as a Child Mike Stanton The Providence Journal Morning Edition of the Providence Journal Bulletin South County Monday May 8 1995 A-8 and A-9
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6 Responses to “Abuse? What Abuse? Please Pass the Potatoes”

  1. goddessnemesis says:

    It is so true about they way life goes on as normal the next day. You have to pretend everything is perfect. That you are the perfect family, when all you want to do is scream the truth out at the next social gathering. But you know better than to do that, for the consequences of such attempt are far more worse than the normal punishment of being a “good” child.

  2. little nel says:

    When I look at this photo of Marilyn and her father, I think how pleased he looks with his smug knowledge that he got away with raping his daughter for all those years and that he was free of any responsibility or accountability for crimes against her.

    What a fucking pig!

    • Oh yeah, it reminds me of many a family photo in my collection as well. Our parents alone with us always talked about sex from the time I was 6 to 16. The sexual harassment like this only made it easier for the abuse to be covered as normal nightly sexual education despite the attempts to make it stop, we were powerless and unbelieved.

      • little nel says:

        Hi compassionatecat,

        I can relate to the “sex education” talks. My father’s first attempt to educated me about sex at age 14, started out with this statement, “Have you noticed that boys are wanting to get into your pants?”

    • Alethea says:

      I thought close to the same thing when I saw that photo. I see Marilyn’s father as saying what you said, and I see Marilyn’s face saying, ‘I am going to keep his secret and pretend that nothing is happening…It’s even a secret from myself.’

      By the way, Marilyn’s father was a 33 degree Mason…just a little FYI…

      • little nel says:

        OMG, Alethea! My family has a history of Mason membership. I know of four lynchings (not racial) that family members participated in for the crime of murdering a brother Mason.

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