Life in the ‘Get Right’ room

Michele Ulriksen thought she was on her way to a fun day at the San Diego Wild Animal Park with her parents, but the day turned out to be anything but enjoyable.

Michele Ulriksen thought she was on her way to a fun day at the San Diego Wild Animal Park with her parents, but the day turned out to be anything but enjoyable.

Instead of getting a chance to see wild animals roam around a picturesque park in sunny San Diego, the Orange County native was taken to Victory Christian Academy, an unlicensed all-girls reform school run by conservative, fundamentalist Baptist Christians.

Upon arrival, Ulriksen was immediately thrown into solitary confinement in a “Get Right” room, where she spent between six to eight hours alone and frightened as a Jerry Falwell tape blasted in the background.

The year was 1986, and it was the beginning of a yearlong ordeal that would send Ulriksen’s life into a tailspin of drug and alcohol abuse as she struggled to cope with her experiences. She called her first day at the reform school the worst day of her life.

“You’re completely cut off from the outside world,” Ulriksen said. “No TV, no magazines, no books, no proper education. We were not allowed to talk during certain times—prisoners have more rights. We had no choice but to conform to their version of fundamentalist Christianity.”

The reason Ulriksen was sent to Victory? Her mother was a conservative Christian, and when Ulriksen told her that she believed in evolution, her mother hastily decided to send her to the boarding school.

Ulriksen said preachers purchase plots of land as their own private property and then open a “therapeutic boarding school” and start taking in troubled teens. The schools are not state licensed, a loophole designed to withhold rights from students.

“They put a fence up, and they’re out in the middle of nowhere,” Ulriksen said. “Because it’s their own private property and they’re religious, it’s very, very difficult to penetrate and get inside. There has to be probable cause. It’s not until there’s clear evidence of abuse or neglect that authorities can get in.”

Within the bubble of the reform school, Ulriksen endured six hours of intense Biblical instruction per day, a strict dress code and several stints in solitary confinement. There was no counseling or medical care provided. After a few weeks of rebelling against the rules, Ulriksen realized that the only way to survive was to conform.

“It was pretty quick,” she said. “You saw what happened. There were a few girls who didn’t comply and they made their lives hell. If you would comply and basically shut off your brain … they would treat you pretty good.”

Ten years ago, she began writing a memoir of her experiences there as a way to heal and also to warn others about reform schools and Mike Palmer, the preacher who ran Victory.

That effort ended last year with the publication of Reform at Victory by local publisher Pizan Media.
“The book was something that I wanted to get done for a long time,” she said. “It dragged on for a long time. It was very emotional. There were a lot of breaks in between.”

She will read from her book Jan. 27 at Powell’s Books on Burnside at 7 p.m. She will also present excerpts from her book at Portland State on Feb. 10 at 4 p.m. in the Smith Memorial Student Union, however, the exact location has yet to be announced.

Ulriksen, now 38, made it through her year at Victory and subsequently ran away to avoid returning to the school.

“I started moving around a lot [after leaving],” she said. “I started abusing drugs and alcohol. I was very insecure. I had self-esteem issues.”

After hitting rock bottom, Ulriksen called her father, and he helped her gain stability and start the process of healing.

As an adult, Ulriksen made her way to the Bay area, where she studied film and creative writing at the Academy of Art College in San Francisco. It was at the college that she first started her memoir in the form of a class assignment. After five years there, she moved to Oregon in 2001 with her daughter and landed a job working for Oregon Public Broadcasting.

Ulriksen will start the next chapter of her life as a Portland State anthropology major next term.

“I’m very deeply interested in human evolution,” she said. “That was something that was taboo for me growing up.”