The Survivor of a Christian Boot Camp Speaks Out
By: Leslie A. Zukor
Michele Ulriksen was a relatively normal Southern California teen, back in the summer of 1986. She enjoyed the warm sun, secular music, and drank on occasion. She even snuck out to smoke and get drunk a few times. She watched MTV, wore red lipstick like Madonna, and had posters of music bands on her walls. Sounds like the typical teen. Yet, two years into her high school “rebellion”, author, Michele Ulriksen, found herself in a situation that was anything but typical. What was supposed to be a family vacation to the San Diego Wild Animal Park ended up as a one-way ticket to an unlicensed, locked-down, reform school in Ramona, California.
The school, Victory Christian Academy, was an all-female fundamentalist boot camp surrounded by a ten-foot high barbed wire fence. The girls? – Everyone from atheists, to drug addicts, to lesbians in trouble with the Lord. When the girls arrived, many kicking and screaming, they were taken to the “Get Right Room”, a pitch-black room half the size of a walk-in closet, where Jerry Falwell sermons were blasted over the stereo. Mike Palmer, the school’s Dean, locked people in the G.R. Room for as short as hours to as long as seven days. The rules at Victory? No pants, no phone calls to parents for three months, and no outside visitors. In short, the girls at Victory were caged like animals.
Why did Ulriksen’s parents take her to reform school? It all began after she persuaded her mother to allow her to go to a secular high school. “I…began questioning some things I had been taught from the Bible,” Ulriksen explained. “The science I was learning at school was not in accord with the book of Genesis. I pointed out some of the things in the Bible I considered to be fallacy.” As was to be expected, Michele’s mother feared that the Devil had possessed her child. However, the school for troubled teens neither helped Ulriksen nor her peers. Most of them “got Saved” to ingratiate themselves with Victory staff, not out of a commitment to Christ. When they were finally freed from their one-year mandatory sentences, many girls left with more problems than they began with. In Ulriksen’s case, she experimented with drugs, something she had never done before her Victory incarceration.
From age eighteen until twenty-four, Michele’s life “was filled with bad choices, rebellion, anger, regret, pain, drugs, alcohol, low-self image, [and] friends and men who only used [her]”. She suffered from anxiety and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and was diagnosed with a host of different conditions by various doctors. In short, Michele explained, “The verbal abuse and bad representation of Christianity that I had received at Victory really took a negative toll on me.” Why did Michele Ulriksen write her book, Reform at Victory? “The message [is] not to put your kids in these facilities,” she emphasized. “After living an abusive religious experience, and seeing how much damage religion does in the world, I decided I wanted to speak out.” And Michele has made more than a small impact with Reform at Victory. After the book was published, Ulriksen collaborated with a newspaper in Victory Dean Mike Palmer’s hometown and discovered that there is a similar locked-down facility for boys in Iowa. Now, the state is forcing the school to become licensed.
And Michele has discovered a life after Victory. She has a daughter, is finishing her degree at Portland State, and has become very active in the freethought and secular communities. Ulriksen is a member of Corvallis Secular Society, The Secular Coalition of America, The American Humanist Association and the Freedom From Religion Foundation. She has spoken about her book to various audiences in the Portland-area. And she is working to raise awareness about other such facilities in the United States. “Parents don’t realize what goes on inside [these facilities] until it’s too late, and their teen comes out with PTSD and night terrors. I would love to go on Radio or TV…to warn parents.” And what a noble goal it is. For more on Ulriksen’s work, go to http://www.reformatvictory.com.
For more information about Michele Ulriksen, her time at Victory Christian Academy, and the dangers of unregulated religious reform schools, come to the Reed Secular Alliance’s “The Perils of the Faith Based Initiative” lecture. The Tuesday, March 31st event starts at 7:00 pm with a Meet and Greet, followed by a 7:30 pm lecture. The talk is located in Vollum Lecture Hall.
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