Reform at Victory is a non-fiction memoir, written in first person, about my year as a teen held against my will in an unlicensed, unregulated, locked-down, fundamentalist, Baptist reform school. My hope is that my book will raise public awareness about such facilities that use illegal, humiliating and harmful behavior modification methods to break those inside into submission. The death of one girl, who is a main character in the book, prompted authorities to take a closer look at the facility. The facility was eventually ordered closed down. However, the owners moved to another state where they reopened. Sadly, there are many similar facilities operating today in the United States. They use fear and manipulation to convince parents to leave their troubled teens under the care of unqualified staff, that much of the time have nothing more than a high school diploma with which to treat teen girls who have a variety of disorders, ranging from light depression to schizophrenia. I hope Reform at Victory will offer insight to parents and inspire them to do the necessary research needed if they are considering this type of help for their teen. Not all who claim to help are capable or qualified to give such help. The results can be counterproductive and extremely damaging, at best, as you will probably agree with after reading Reform at Victory.
In the pages of Reform at Victory, readers will embark on a journey through the mind of a confused teenager, me, as I struggle to make sense of this extreme and sudden lifestyle change I am faced with. Be prepared to leave your freedom of speech, civil liberties, all communication with the outside world, your pants, your radio, your TV, secular music, make-up, books, magazines, reason, logic, self-esteem, and personal identity at the fence. Those things are not welcome at Victory Christian Academy. At VCA, the Old Testament is the cure-all for everything, including eating disorders, sexual abuse and bi-polar disorder. There are no therapists and no doctors. We are only permitted to discuss our problems with God through prayer.
The first day is spent in solitary confinement. The 364 days that follow are spent playing the game; a game that will rewire the brain forever. You’ll meet the misogynistic preacher, the staff, my parents, and the other girls, with whom I form bonds that not even death can break. This is a story of spiritual, mental and emotional abuse, and survival. It’s a story of self-discovery and critical thought. Come inside Victory for a year and experience life in lock down through my eyes, as a sixteen year old, peppered with a mild dose of satire. At the end of the book, we’ll try to make sense of the nonsensical year that has just taken place, and we’ll try to pick up the pieces of a shattered self-esteem, the best we can.
Dad turns left onto a secluded dirt road so long that I can’t see where it leads. There are no signs of The San Diego Wild Animal Park. It looks like there is nothing around for miles. In the distance, I view the outline of a building surrounded by a tall chain-link fence.
“Where are we?” I ask, nervously. I get no answer.
As Dad continues to drive, I get a horrible feeling. A feeling like something really bad is about to happen. My stomach feels as agitated as my mood. My cooperative attitude is diminishing. I tap my feet loudly on the floor mats so they know I’m annoyed by their blatant silence.
As our car travels down the dirt road, I get a better look at what turns out to be a large one-story concrete building with several rows of windows, completely surrounded by a tall chain-link fence topped with barbed wire. It looks like a prison. There are junky old cars parked on the property and a couple of trailers. I have a feeling that there were never plans to go to the animal park and that this is going to be a very bad day. The unsettled feeling in my gut churns like a toxic mix gone wrong in a witch’s bubbling cauldron. If only I had a broomstick that would take me high into the sky and out of this car.
As the car gets closer to the building the gate automatically opens. My heart beats fast with confusion and worry. I know now what is happening, but I don’t want to believe it. Dad navigates my sister’s white Isuzu Trooper slowly past the fence that surrounds the building. He glances at me nervously through the rear view mirror. I look into his eyes, fear in mine. His eyes say, “I’m sorry, I really don’t want to do this.” As the electric gate closes behind us, Mother starts to cry. Strangers surround our car. They stare at me like they’ve never seen a sixteen-year-old girl before. Then come the words from Mom that no teenager ever wants to hear.
“We’re sorry, Michele. We didn’t know what else to do. We’ve brought you to a place that will help you.” Her voice is shaky and filled with doubt.
“Where are we?” I yell. “What is this place? What have you done?”
Mom and Laura start to cry. Dad remains silent. His hands grip the steering wheel tightly with eyes closed, lips parted slightly. He’s fighting back tears. I’ve never seen Dad cry.
“Are you leaving me here? Is this to punish me for sneaking out? I won’t do it again! I promise! You can’t do this to me!” I scream and yell, and beg them to change their mind.
A grotesque looking man in light blue polyester clothing emerges from the building. His short, stocky body moves quickly toward the car. His eyes fix on mine with a hostile, controlling determination. His thick lenses in his glasses make his eyes look huge and bulging. He wears a condescending smirk.
“Don’t fight this, Michele. Mom and Dad had no other choice,” Laura says.
“What? You’re all crazy! You can’t leave me here! This is bullshit!” The sound of my swear word hits the bug-eyed man like holy water might hit a demon.
Another figure emerges from the building to help with the effort of taking me out of the car. I wrestle with my sister as she tries to unlock the door so they can get me out.
“I won’t go, I won’t go! I’m not getting out of the car!” I scream over and over at them through the window that I keep closed.
How can they bring me here? Why here? Who told them about this place? With each passing moment, it becomes more evident that my worst fears are confirmed: my family hates me. This is a secret sabotage, all planned out beforehand and carefully executed. I had always felt like my family hated me. I had always gotten into trouble for everything, even for things that were not my fault. Mom has probably wanted to do this for a long time. She can’t stand it when I refuse to go to church. This is my punishment: being dropped off in this strange and foreign place where normalcy doesn’t exist.
It looks like the set of the TV show Bonanza. Dirt and dust, everywhere. The ground is dry and parched. Strange faces study me. I don’t know what they are going to do to me. Are they going to hurt me? Surely, Mom and Dad won’t allow that… would they? I feel numb and betrayed. This hurts worse than all the paddling I got from Mom with that wicked wooden spoon when I was little. A whirlwind of worry moves though me. What is this place? A school, a jail, some weird cult place? I would soon find out that it is all of those places, and more.
The ugly man with the thick glasses speaks as he swings the door open and pulls me from the car. His creepy smile penetrates my eyes as his stubby fingers wrap around my arm. His grip tightens with each passing second.
“Welcome, Michele. You’re going to be staying with us for a while.”
“Fuck you!” I scream.
“We don’t use that language here, young lady!”
His grip tightens further until my arm throbs. His fingers press hard into my skin. I glare at my family in shock, hoping they’ll say this is a practical joke. Pain and regret fills their tired eyes. Anger rages through me like a fire charring everything in its path, turning everything midnight black.
“I’ll never speak to any of you again!”
I yell and curse, and spit into his thick ugly glasses. Grabbing my arms, he restrains me. My parents rush to help him hold me still.
“Get your fucking hands off me!”
Other staff members rush toward us. They grab me and pull me toward the front doors to the building. I resist with every step. I kick and scream and cry and swear but it doesn’t do any good; there are too many of them. I whip my head around to look at the dirt road that we drove up and wish there could be a car coming to rescue me and take me away from this place. I am frozen in time in my mind as I wish to be on the outside of this fenced-in asylum.
The ugly man with the thick glasses keeps saying “Amen!” and “Praise the Lord!”
I hate him. I hate everyone.
“We’ve got a live one here!” he says, with a creepy half smile.
Whatever this sick place is, I’m going in against my will. I don’t know what or who is in there. I turn to look at my family. They won’t make eye contact with me. With black mascara colored tears streaming down my cheeks, the faces around me are now only a blur.
They are letting him put his hands on me. His grip is tight and his breath smells stale. Spit flies from his mouth as he yells at me. I turn my head away. My parents always warned me about strange men and told me to always stay away from them, but now they’re watching one touch me. More of them join in on the effort to subdue me. They drag me toward the front door and I imagine the worst. I imagine bad people in my head that are only going to harm me. I don’t want to go in there! No! God, if you are real you will stop this now! Stop! If you want me to believe in you, you need to stop them from doing this!
When I was a little girl, I lost my Mom in the store. One minute she was there in plain view and then she turned the corner, and she was gone. I was scared. I felt like I didn’t have a Mommy anymore. It felt like she left me in the aisle, alone and trembling. The panic I felt when I could no longer see her bushy black hair was intense. In my mind, I was already very much alone. At the store, I turned the corner to find her standing there. She was annoyed with me that I hadn’t walked fast enough to keep up with her. This feeling was back, but I didn’t think the outcome of this would be as simple. They will leave me here, alone and trembling.
This nightmare manifests itself within me.
It is inside me, like a date rape.
The Get Right Room
We enter the long one-story building through the double doors, past a small office to the left and then a large windowless square kitchen with yellow Formica counter tops. The smell reminds me of my high school cafeteria, a place I fear I’ll never see again. We pass a dormitory with light blue concrete walls and several sets of wooden bunk beds. A second dorm boasts more bunk beds. I spy the glossy dark brown exterior of a wooden piano. A girl with a shaved head stops playing a hymn and stares at me with pity. Her eyes quickly fall to the floor. Dozens of eyes are glued to me.
I’ve become one of those caged animals that we were supposed to have gone to see today. There’s a war going on in my mind; everyone is dying. It’s silent, except for my sniffles from crying. No one will tell me anything. Now I wished more than anything to be at the San Diego Wild Animal Park. A few minutes ago my life was mine and it was normal, until Dad drove me into this hellhole.
After some cursory visual sleuthing I determine that an attractive appearance is discouraged. None of the girls wear make-up and many look like they had dyed their hair at one point but their roots had grown out by several inches. This is how I can tell how long a girl has been here. Clearly, the fascists that run this jail don’t allow hair dye or anything else that’s halfway cool. Girls wear long dresses and skirts or big baggy shorts cut off below the knee with bulky plain T-shirts. Most of the clothes look dirty and tattered—some are stained with dried paint and grease, and others show holes. They look like they’re living in the past. The girls look hard, cold and empty. Some have thin faces, ratty hair and bad complexions. Their eyes are sad and defeated. They look broken. Maybe it’s the depression from being here.
Photos and writings taped to the concrete walls surround each bunk bed. This must be how they can tell whose bed is where. Everything else looks the same, even the girls. They remind me of brainwashed robots. I feel like I had stepped into my favorite TV show, The Twilight Zone. I hum the theme song in my head. I want to pretend this isn’t happening. I curse under my breath.
“We don’t talk that way here,” I’m harshly scolded.
Two middle-aged women walk me silently the rest of the way through the dormitory. They both have curly hair and wear heavy canvas mint-green colored aprons. The older woman looks as if she’s had a rough life and is not one to be trifled with. Her apron is peppered with grease stains. Maybe she’s the cook. Food, however, is the last thing on my mind. I look behind me and realize my family isn’t there.
“Where’s my mom?” I ask, wiping a tear from my eye.
“She’s in the office finalizing your paperwork; then your family will leave,” she barks, coldly.
“There’s been a mistake!” I shout. “My parents are doing this to scare me! It’s a joke! I’m not staying here! I need to talk to them, please!”
They ignore my outburst.
Along the hallway, we pass several windows revealing a view of barren desert and the ugly chain-link fence that will keep me a prisoner here. I examine the windows as I walk by them, gazing at them carefully.
“Don’t even think about it!” one of the ladies barks. “They don’t open!”
“Bitch,” I whisper.
“What did you say to me?” She grabs my arm hard and gives me a good yank. “You’ll pay for that by writing so many lines your fingers will fall off!”
I can’t wipe the tears away fast enough.
We arrive at the back of Dorm Three to a small room the size of a walk-in closet.
“Sitting in here for a few hours will teach you to keep your dirty mouth shut!” the older woman says, “We don’t put up with profanity here, young lady. You can be in here for a few hours, or a few days; it’s up to you!”
She shoves me inside and into the wall. The door locks from the outside. There’s a peephole on the outside of the door so they can look in at me. I sit in the dark, wishing to be in my bedroom. I can’t see my hands in front of my face. There’s no gap at the bottom of the door to let in any light. It’s pitch black. I feel around the walls for a light switch, but can’t find one. I am afraid of the dark.
This “punishment cell” is about the size of a walk-in closet. I’ve never been in solitary confinement before. I feel physically ill. I close my eyes and tell myself that this isn’t happening. But when I open them, I’m still trapped in this lightless room. I repeat the exercise over and over, for hours. Still convinced that this can’t be reality, I push my fingernails into my arm. When I lick my arm and taste blood, what had just happened to me finally registers. I want to die. I scratch at my arms until they sting and bleed. Adrenaline pumps hard. I pound my fists against the door until they hurt and yell for anyone who can hear me. I hear faint voices from outside of the door. I know they can hear me.
Suddenly, I hear loud music outside the door. The singer says that Jesus is the only way and the only savior to save our souls. The lyrics say God is the way, the truth, and the life. Each time I pound on the door, the music grows louder. It gets so loud, it sounds muffled and it crackles and becomes so annoying I can’t even think. They are trying to brainwash me, like at church. There is nothing I can do but hope for a miracle.
Suddenly the light flips on just long enough for whoever is controlling the switch to look in and see me through the peephole. I feel violated. The light flicks on and off rapidly, and numerous times. I hear laughter.
“Fuck you!” I scream and pound on the door.
In the darkness of my mind and physical space, I think about dying. If I were dead, my worries would be over. I wouldn’t be in this room. But where would I be? What if it was true what the church said—that I’d spend an eternity in hell for taking my own life? Even if that were true, if I had a way to do it in this room at this very moment, my life would be over. I was more fearful of what was on the other side of that door than what was on the other side of being alive. I’ve never thought about suicide before now; nothing has ever felt this bad. I fall to a sitting position in the dark.
Type of Work:
Original Publish Date:
October 15, 2008
Pizan Media is located in Portland, Oregon
Jeneen Miller says:
A Review of Reform at Victory: A Survivor’s Story
I just read this and it is so sad to hear about your mom and the way things ended.
I am glad that you are finally free from religion. You are free to make a choice without feeling guilty. It took me 13 years to realize that I wasn’t going to hell but the “subdirectory” that Palmer created in my head is going to go there! I suffer from PTS too. I use to disassociate myself from what happened and then when I read articles from other girls, it made me angry and I want to help. I did contribute in getting VCA closed down when I was 18 by contacting the DA of San Diego. I believe his name was Rick Peralto. Does this sound familiar? I attended VCA in 1988 and did not get out until 8 months later in 1989. It was a horrific experience and I will do anything I can to put an end to this kind of abuse. Thank you so much for sharing your story. It makes me feel that I’m not alone and I feel stronger. You are an amazing woman to put your thoughts in a book (and I’m sure you went through hell doing it by reliving it again) but you did it for us. You did it for awareness and you did it out of love.
Wed, 04/07/2010 – 12:01am