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From victim to survivor

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About a mile from where he was nearly killed in a brutal attack, Matthew Boger has walked the same red carpet as some of his A-list celebrity clientele.

He’s gone from a homeless child to a Hollywood hairdresser.

The journey that Boger is usually most eager to share, however, is more introspective: How he went from seeing himself as a victim to identifying as a survivor.

“That’s the difference between forgiving and not forgiving,” said Boger, 53. “A survivor is from a place of personal strength, and a victim is where you’re holding yourself.”

Beyond the internal impact on Boger, his story of forward momentum and forgiveness has stirred the hearts of visitors to the Los Angeles Museum of Tolerance since 2006, and movie audiences since 2013. It’s that narrative that Boger, who moved to Medford in late 2019, wants to continue sharing in the Rogue Valley.

“It’s a passion,” he said. “It has been since we started this journey.”

Since moving away from Southern California, Boger often finds himself recounting a story that for years he only told halfway. Tim Zaal, who was featured alongside Boger in an Academy Award-nominated documentary, is a major character in their shared story of forgiveness.

Zaal is a former neo-Nazi skinhead. After living that lifestyle since his teens, he left it behind, and for the past 17 years has worked to counter extremist ideologies by sharing his own story.

But in 1980, Zaal, wearing a razor blade-equipped boot, delivered a nearly deadly blow to a then-homeless 13-year-old Boger in a Los Angeles alley.

“I said something to the effect of, ‘What’s wrong, don’t you guys know how to put a boot in?’” Zaal said in “Facing Fear,” the documentary that focused on the men’s journey to reconciliation.

“I kicked him in the forehead, and he was out.”

Boger miraculously survived his injuries, despite never seeking medical attention. His external scars healed, but he hid the internal scars for years.

“I was ostracized by my own community for being this homeless, uneducated gay man,” he said. “So I chose not to speak about anything that happened out there and created this other successful life so I wouldn’t have to.”

Both men never would have imagined seeing the other again. But neither the attack nor the moment at the Museum of Tolerance when each realized who the other was wound up being the end of their shared story.

“These two men just blow me away,” said Jason Cohen, who directed “Facing Fear.” The movie screened at the Ashland Film Festival in 2014.

As a director, Cohen said, he chose to focus on “what happened after this incident in their lives, and more importantly, after they came back into each other’s lives.”

Kicked down

Boger was living on the streets of Los Angeles when he was nearly killed.

His mother had thrown him out of his parents’ Newark, California, home after he told her he was gay.

“She either denied it, or she absolutely did not know,” he says now. “And you could see this anger come across her face.”

In another encounter, his mother slapped him across the face and called him a slur, Boger said. That time, he ran away.

Zaal and his friends were on a rampage that night. They already had beaten others before they reached the hamburger stand where Boger and his friends were hanging out.

Victims were always anonymous, Zaal said. Punk rock — and seeing his brother shot by a black man — had been the gateways by which he said he entered into far-right ideology that postured him opposite anyone non-white, or different.

“My perception of the ‘other’ was the enemy,” Zaal said.

It was that hatred that incensed him enough to drive the toe of his boot into Boger’s forehead.

For years after that, he didn’t know whether the boy whose forehead he had kicked in was alive or dead.

But Boger survived ... and was initially disappointed that he had.

“This sucks. I’m alive. And I’m wounded,” Boger remembered saying to himself.

But after three more years on the streets, he got a break: an offer of housing. From there, Boger pursued cosmetology and built a career as a hair colorist.

For years, he told no one about the part of his life when he was homeless, when he was hurt.

Then in 1998, Matthew Shepard was killed in Wyoming.

The story of the young gay man’s brutal murder would eventually galvanize the nation to support federal hate-crime legislation more than a decade later in 2009. But before then, it launched Boger.

“It kind of catapulted me,” Boger said. “I was very upset and angry, and I think it was because ... I had been through the same thing, but I had lived. And Matthew Shepard did not.”

That’s how he arrived at the Los Angeles Museum of Tolerance.

Founded by a Jewish human rights organization, the museum teaches visitors about varying legacies of hatred and bigotry, and how to resist them.

Boger started out as a docent. Later, he became a manager.

He met Zaal, who had begun serving as a speaker at the museum. They knew each other for about a year before they realized in a conversation what their true first encounter had been.

In “Facing Fear,” each man recounts the moment.

“I just looked directly at him, and I said, ‘You know who you’re sitting across from, don’t you?’” Boger says in the film.

His own anger at Zaal, he said, initially scared him more than knowing who Zaal was.

At the time, Zaal said, it didn’t seem right to quickly blurt out, “I’m sorry.”

Eventually, though, he did apologize, in front of a group from the museum.

“Maybe a couple weeks, a month later, I was approached by Matthew,” Zaal said. “And he said, ‘The museum wants us to do a presentation about this.’”

Forward to forgiveness

More than a decade after the two began speaking, after they’ve been featured in local, regional and national media and even walked the red carpet at the Oscars, Boger still sees the impact of his message as deeply personal and individual.

“I know that it’s not possible for anyone to change another person,” he said. “It’s only possible to introduce the idea, and it can only be introduced by personal experience. If you don’t have some connection, you’ll get tuned out.”

Neither he, nor Zaal — nor Cohen, who put their story on the silver screen — see themselves as social crusaders, out to convince others to forgive.

But humans wrong and hurt each other no matter who they are, they said. Both Boger and Zaal offer insights into a different facet of forgiveness as they speak.

Zaal struggled for years to extend forgiveness to himself for his past. Though he was initially hesitant to try it, meditation has played an important role.

“If it works, it works,” he said. “I think it’s kind of therapeutic.”

Boger said people are sometimes held back by feeling like forgiveness must involve the other person.

“You don’t have to call the person and be like, ‘Hey, I forgive you,’” he said. “That’s not the goal.”

He continues to seek opportunities to share what that process has entailed.

Since moving to Medford, he said he already has spoken with a group from Addictions Recovery Center.

The organization will often invite guest speakers to lend a fresh voice to clients’ work, said Joe Wilson, communications specialist.

“When we’re talking about recovery, resilience and rebuilding things that have been torn down, those stories are ... impactful,” he said.

Boger was recently cleared to begin speaking at Jackson County Juvenile Justice. He also hopes to share in other local classrooms.

Those interested in inviting him to speak can email matteo2cool@gmail.com.

Zaal sometimes will Skype in to tell his side of the journey. For people who may have one or both feet in radical ideologies but want to leave that, he said, “it’s good to know that you’re not alone.”

Boger wants hurting people to know they can choose how long their pain directs their lives.

“You are a victim once,” he said. “But you can be a victim forever if you don’t let go.”

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Kaylee Tornay at ktornay@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4497. Follow her on Twitter @ka_tornay.

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Jamie Lusch / Mail TribuneMatthew Boger talks at his home in Medford about his process of forgiving and healing from past traumas.