A Review of
Reform at Victory: A Survivor’s Story
By Michele Ulriksen
“Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.”
Michele Ulriksen, A Corvallis Secular Society member, spent a year in a locked-down all-girl fundamentalist Baptist reform school in 1986-87, when she was sixteen. Years after surviving this harrowing experience, she has been able to complete and publish the story of her experiences.
Victory Christian Academy was an “alternative residential treatment facility” or “all-girl Baptist boarding school” for troubled girls, near Ramona, California. It was not licensed or regulated: there was no oversight, education did not meet minimum standards, there were numerous safety violations, and staff were unqualified. As Michele wrote in her Author’s Statement:
“The facility I was in used severe brainwashing techniques to force those inside to conform to an extreme and oppressive version of fundamentalist Christianity that violated women’s rights, civil rights and freedom of speech. There were no professional counselors among the staff, and no one had qualifications to assist with mental health issues. The only form of counseling we received was biblical scripture. We were told numerous times by the preacher that people who were not born-again Baptist Christians were worthless hellbound rejects with meaningless lives; a dangerous, undemocratic and divisive belief that perpetuates hate and intolerance.”
Michele’s mom and older sister were “super-Christians” who despised anything or anyone non-Christian. After eight years at Christian schools, her parents let her attend a public high school; her mother soon regretted that decision: it was putting “bad ideas” in Michele’s head! As a typical adolescent during the summer, she wanted to spend time with friends, dress “cool,” and party. And not go to church. But this non-conforming behavior and attitude lead her parents to a cataclysmic decision: to send Michele to a Christian reform school! They trick her by saying that the family was going to the San Diego Wild Animal Park. But they drove to Victory Christian Academy instead. [It could have been worse: some parents use non-consensual transport by hiring “escort services” to effectively “kidnap” the child (sometimes awakened in the middle of the night by strangers), using force, if necessary, to deliver him or her to the program.]
This “academy” was isolated out in the desert, surrounded by a high, barbed wire-topped fence. Michele was dragged out of the car by the staff and hauled into the building, then taken to a room the size of a walk-in closet. She was shoved inside and the door was locked from the outside. The room was pitch black. She was in solitary confinement. Then taped loud religious music was played loudly outside the door. Hours passed. The desert heat was triple-digit. The music was replaced by a recording of Jerry Falwell preaching. His comforting message was that, if you are not a born-again Christian, you’ll be sent to hell where your flesh will literally burn off your body for eternity. Welcome to the G.R. Room – the “Get Right Room.”
Eventually she was let out and began to learn the many rules for the teen girls who were incarcerated there. One was no phone calls for 90 days (and then only a brief call from her family). No talking about boys or about secular music. Ever. Letters are allowed to and from immediate family only; all letters in and out will be read by staff first and be censored or trashed if anything “inappropriate” is written. For the first 30 days, inmates are not allowed to have eye contact with or speak to anyone but staff, “helpers,” and their “buddy” (a teen that will teach the new inmate the many rules). [Helpers and buddies are teen inmates sufficiently brainwashed to cooperate with the staff in controlling the other girls.] A list of words that are forbidden are introduced to new girls: these include all swear words, all known teen slang words, such as “cool,” or “yeah” in place of “yes,” and other words, such as “sex,” or the names of non-Christian friends. Pants may not be worn; no pajama bottoms; no talking about pants. King James Bible required. No TV or radio. Bathing must be completed in three minutes. Tampons may not be used. Food may be denied as a punishment. And on and on. Michele was unappreciative and ungracious, so she was thrown back into the Get Right Room while being accused of being a “sexpot.”
When she got out again, she was introduced to “Brother Patrick.” (“Brother Polyester” or “Polyester Pants,” Michele called him.) He and his wife owned the reform school, and he was the preacher. He later belabored the obvious when he preached that “Teens have no rights here.”
Twice monthly, a “rap session” was held. It was a cruel and embarrassing event where the girls got to complain about other girls for an hour. Staff started it off by singling out someone and mentioning their faults, such as a funny way of laughing or chewing. There were always tears at the end. The staff, at any time and supposedly for “building character,” were fond of calling a girl a “phony”: one who only pretends to be a sincere, “born-again” Christian.
While at Victory Christian Academy, the girls were “schooled.” Michele’s 11th grade schedule was: Math, English, Biblical Science and Creation, Music, P.E, and Bible Studies. Later, when Michele had left the academy, her mom attempted to enroll her in a private Christian high school for her senior year. The school reviewed her transcripts from Victory, then told them that VCA was not a state licensed facility, nor were the owners licensed to teach school, and hence Michele would have to redo her junior year. The administrators at this Christian school deduced that she was doing sixth and seventh grade work at VCA, as a 17-year old.
The holiday season finally arrived. Victory didn’t celebrate Halloween: “We don’t celebrate Halloween because it’s the devil’s holiday….People…play with Ouija boards and pray to the devil.” Michele thought of the last time she went trick or treating, when she was seven. “I wished to be seven again; a time when I had no worries or problems and no idea I’d end up in a place like this. A time when I was the apple of my mother’s eye and not a thorn in her side. When she became a Christian, everything changed.”
They did have a Thanksgiving dinner. Christmas was celebrated, with a restriction: “There is one aspect of this holiday we like to avoid and that is the story of Santa Claus. This ludicrous story has nothing to do with the true meaning of Christmas….Here, it’s all about Jesus, not silly mythology.”
Later, one of the new girls threw up a lot, and said she thought she was pregnant. She told the staff, but they just said she was lying to be able to go home. Michele talked to the staff about the girl, but was told, “That’s baloney!” The staff lady then laughed. She said, “Liza is not pregnant; she’s got a venereal disease….She whored around for months before her parents caught on…” The staff was treating her with antibiotics, without sending her to a doctor. Michele wrote, “Liza was sent home early one morning under mysterious circumstances…. I would find out two years later that she… miscarried shortly after leaving Victory. The miscarriage was attributed to insufficient medical care.”
Eventually, Michele’s one-year sentence came to an end, and she went home. Her mom and sister had thrown out almost all her possessions. After two months, Michele and her mom had a disagreement. Her mom threatened to take her back to Victory, which Michele couldn’t face, so she ran away and spent the next four months hiding at a friend’s house, until she turned eighteen. After her birthday she contacted her parents. They couldn’t accept that she was not a Christian. “I had tried it and it didn’t resonate with me. I couldn’t pretend. Church wasn’t the place for me. This was very hard for them to accept, but they had to. I wasn’t a child anymore and they no longer had control over me.”
Her mother died of cancer on Thanksgiving Day 1989. “Despite the hundreds of people praying for her recovery, she died in her late fifties with no hair, weighing only eighty pounds. My trust in God hit an all-time low from which it would never recover. No one prepared me for her death. I was not included in any of the family talks or plans after I became an adult, and after she died I was not given one single thing of hers to remember her by. Family and friends of our family from church subsequently blamed me for causing her cancer, and I was officially ostracized.”
Michele subsequently suffered from severe depression, panic attacks, and post-traumatic stress disorder, among other things. In time, she picked herself up and moved on. She wrote: “Since Victory, I have made some poor choices due to low self esteem and I have failed at some things, but I have also achieved many accomplishments in my life that I am proud of. At age thirty-eight, more than twenty years later, I am doing just fine without the fear and guilt of organized religion. I was born okay the first time.”
Michele demonstrated great courage and fortitude in writing this deeply personal story. Her book is a valuable contribution toward fighting the religious, mental, physical, and medical abuse of children. Michele, we at Corvallis Secular Society thank you for what you’ve done, and we are proud that you are a member of our community.
Reform at Victory: A Survivor’s Story, by Michele Ulriksen. Published by Pizan Media, Inc., Portland, Oregon. Copyright 2008. ISBN: 978-0-615-22253-0. For more information, visit: http://reformatvictory.com/. One way to order Reform at Victory is to go to the Corvallis Secular Society website, http://corvallissecular.org/ , and click on the Buy from Amazon button on the left. All Amazon purchases through this link benefit CSS.
Causes Michele Ulriksen Supports
The Separation of Church and State. I was just interviewed by Barry Lynn and was a guest on his radio program Culture Shocks. His organization, Americans...