Seeing the press photo of Michele Ulriksen, author of Reform at Victory: A Survivor's Story, you could be forgiven for drawing an immediate connection between her and Emily the Strange. The jet-black hair and the absence of a smile make her look like she's still harboring a mean case of teen angst.
In 1986, at the age of 16, Ulriksen's parents sent her to an unlicensed, Baptist reform school in the deserted outskirts of San Diego. During her year at Victory Christian Academy, Ulriksen endured stints in a dark closet used for solitary confinement, suffered constant verbal abuse, and was monitored day and night through intercom systems and floor traps. She had no privacy and no rights, and the outside world lay beyond the electric fence surrounding the compound. As a privately owned, unlicensed reform school, there were no inspections of the facility by state authorities, no requirements for staff training, and no oversight by the Department of Education. It was a place where girls who weren't broken before emerged hollow and dispirited.
But at 38, this Corvallis resident is done fighting with her parents, finished grappling with the depression that consumed her for years after she left Victory, and has made peace with her religious demons by "deconverting from Christianity to atheism." Now she's committed to combating other unlicensed reform schools and preventing her arch-nemesis, Mike Palmer (preacher, owner and operator of Victory) from opening more of them. And along the way, she's written a compelling book about her year at Victory. Told from the perspective of Ulriksen at age 16, it's as straightforward and concise as it is gut-wrenching.
"They were threatened by critical thinking, threatened by science, threatened by anything that went against their Old Testament views," Ulriksen says of the staff at Victory. "Palmer called us 'whoremongers'—that was one of his favorite words."
Ulriksen holds Palmer responsible for more than just "spewing his hate" from the pulpit—she blames him for the death of her friend Carey Dunn ("Christi" in the book). A stack of lumber fell on the 15-year-old's head while the girls were illegally working on new barracks for the academy, an incident that ultimately resulted in the school's closure.
According to Ulriksen—and Iowa news reports—Mike Palmer recently attempted to purchase a church with the intention of opening another school in Fort Dodge, Iowa. After a litany of openings and forced closures of other schools by authorities in California, Florida and Mexico, accompanied by a rape accusation from former student Rebecca Ramirez, communities finally have Brother P in their crosshairs. "Concerned citizens of Fort Dodge contacted me to let me know what he was up to," says Ulriksen. "I called the police chief and the mayor...and they have checked into his past. So for right now, he's not able to buy the church. And that's good enough for me. I've done my job."
Michele Ulriksen reads from
at Powell's Books, 1005 W Burnside St., 228-4651. 7:30 pm Tuesday, Jan. 27. Free.