Leaving Elk Grove Saturday morning in dense fog to attend the “From Hate to Hope” program at the Federated Church in Placerville, Chris Slay drove into the sunshine.
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As she neared the foothills, blue sky and sunbeams emerged from the murky clouds. Over 150 people packed the Federated sanctuary to hear a modern story of redemption and forgiveness as a postcard perfect day reigned outside.
Strangers smiled and waved at Slay as she was directed to overflow parking at Sierra School. The feeling in the air and in the room was one of enlightenment and hope as out-of-towners, locals, young and old, came together to heighten understanding.
“Don’t you love the energy in this room?” asked Pam Hagen, amid resounding, friendly applause. As the voice of the Neighbors Group, she was instrumental in bringing the program to Placerville, along with the Center for Non-Violent Relationships and Zia’s Italian Caffe and Bar.
The author of “Freaks and Revelations,” Davida Wills Hurwin and the subjects, Matthew Boger and Tim Zaal, came prepared to answer some tough questions. Hurwin wrote the book, “Freaks and Revelations” about the early years of Boger and Zaal’s disparate lives that came together in a tragedy that would mark each of them forever. A short, well-done movie portrays the agony experienced by a perpetrator and by a victim.
Brief narratives after the movie broaden the picture: Boger’s mother kicked him out when he was 13 years old, relegating him to a life of scrambling for his existence. He never stopped loving his now deceased mother, and forgave her, but never saw or spoke with her again. A former nun, she married Boger’s father, a Hells Angel. They divorced and she struggled to raise her family, but disowned her son when he admitted that he was gay.
From the hectic streets of San Francisco, Boger made it to Los Angeles, where he slept in Plummer’s Park off Santa Monica Boulevard at night, and scrounged through trash cans by day. Boger, 14, did what “no teenager, nobody should have to do …” to eke out a living.
At the time, Zaal, 17, was in a group of Punk Nazis who beat up Boger and left him for dead, simply because they perceived he was gay.
“Remember, they only assumed that I was gay. Based on an assumption, they kicked me relentlessly … they only stopped because I was unconscious, and they thought I was dead,” Boger explained.
“It’s all about kicking,” affirmed Zaal. “Once you get someone on the ground, you just kick them. It’s a thrill when you’re in that mindset … violence was like a drug. We would beat up anybody for anything; if we saw someone with long hair, we’d beat him up, thinking he was a hippie. Anyone who was black or another race was targeted …”
Those kicking boots had razor edges to impart maximum damage.
Even though Zaal and his gang of neo-Nazi skinheads carried on a legacy of terror, they were lightweight, Zaal said. It was the ’80s and they were in the vanguard of the punk rock movement.
“That was who I was,” Zaal admitted. “I was a leader, but I was the scaredest one inside.”
But Zaal went on to be a heavyweight, actually joining Tom Metzger’s movement, the White Aryan Resistance. Some of the things he saw and heard, he reports, are too awful to repeat. Even he, a world-class hater at the time, was shocked and revolted. He moved to the Ozark mountains, away from the influences of the Neo Nazi group. Not only did he need to switch locales to start changing, he needed to remove himself from danger … his former friends don’t like turncoats. Former colleagues had met tragic ends when they no longer adhered to the group’s tenets.
At the time, Boger knew nothing of shelters or rescue, but his outer injuries healed and his life became better. A dear friend sent him to beauty school, where he excelled, especially in coloring hair. He became a sought-after colorist in the Hollywood scene.
But feeling the need to do something more with his life, he began volunteering at the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, where he became executive director.
Zaal’s road, after being jailed for a mere 12 months after battering an Iranian family (the hate crime law had not yet been enacted) went through twists and turns, a divorce and marriage to a Messianic Jew. Moving back to the Los Angeles area, Zaal obtained a position at the Museum of Tolerance.
There, the paths of these men converged.
Zaal and Boger recognized each other. Boger said he had looked straight into Zaal’s eyes as he lay on the ground praying for God to take him. But it was in conversing about their early days in Los Angeles that they discovered their morbid connection. Mention of the Oki Dogs, the hot dog stand near the park where Boger hung out, unlocked the memories.
Both parties had to come to terms with their pasts. Boger said forgiveness opened the door for growth. “Forgiveness does not reduce accountability … but it allows for growth,” Boger said.
Zaal’s path to hope did not come about in a single epiphany. It was a process, one in which he grappled with personal responsibility and memories of previous horrors. Though he grew up in a fairly typical American home, his father was a tyrant.
“To blame this thing on him would be a cop-out,” Zaal temporized. “I have no one but myself to blame. I said I am sorry, but there’s no way to erase the past. I did what I did, and I regret it.”
Boger’s forgiveness was a vital step in coming to terms with the violence and hate that Zaal endeavored to change, hoping to break the chain of intolerant families and society.
A story forms
In 2006 Davida Wills Hurwin and her husband read about Zaal and Boger in the Los Angeles Times. The story touched their hearts, and she remembers discussing it with her husband. But Hurwin, a drama teacher and writer of adolescent novels, had no idea that she would someday write their story.
“I don’t call myself a writer. I think of myself as a teacher first, but I tell the story,” Hurwin said.
It was her literary agent who suggested that she meet Zaal and Boger. They wanted to find a writer to write their tale.
Out of a room of writers, Boger and Zaal talked to Hurwin, and knew that she was the one to write their story. They didn’t interview the other writers. Hurwin felt right.
Hurwin interviewed her subjects ferociously and started writing. Boger became Jason in the book, and Zaal was named Doug. Hurwin didn’t want narration — she wanted to know how they truly felt. Finally, she employed a technique she uses in her drama classes, bringing one to identify their senses. It worked. Suddenly she and her muse found the voice, which came alive on the pages of the riveting story “Freaks and Revelations.”
“From Hate to Hope” has become a compelling program, bringing hopes of redemption, love and forgiveness to the world. Featured on the Oprah Winfrey show, Winfrey said that “Freaks and Revelations” “one in a million chance meeting and unbelievable friendship will inspire you.”
The Saturday audience in Placerville was clearly people consumed with good will, prompting someone in the crowd to say that “From Hate to Hope” was kind of “preaching to the choir.”
“But we all need this,” said Marcia, who manages the El Dorado Center for Non-Violent Relationships. “The more we know about tolerance, and what people experience, the more we can help others.”
Among attendees, one could see many from the Peace and Justice Community, the El Dorado County Round Table on Human Rights, and a multitude of teachers. Several attendees were members of Federated Church.
From the audience, a teacher sought advice on how to make the teaching of tolerance exciting and non-threatening. She said she has always emphasized the need for tolerance in her classroom, but found out from an anonymous assignment that some students felt that she was “cramming tolerance down their throats.” Other teachers echoed situations in their own schools where bullying and even violence have been encountered. Hurwin, Zaal and Boger had some ideas about how to diffuse some of those situations.
“Reach out, don’t ever give up” encouraged Boger. “We can’t preach; it needs to be real … they need tools … both bullies and victims need understanding. The first thing is to let them know that they’re OK.”
Susie Davies, executive director of Mother Lode Rehabilitation Enterprises (M.O.R.E.) was spotted at the event.
“The developmentally disabled experience a lot of bullying,” she said, “especially when they attend regular school. Talks like this are very important for all of society.”
Oak Ridge High School was represented by Brian Farmer, 17, a student leader and Angela Brown, the advisor for the Gay Straight Alliance. Assistant principals Pam Bartlett and Ron Thomas also attended.
Talking with attendees of the presentation revealed the actions of a community willing to establish a place where intolerance is not acceptable.
“Whenever a community shows true cohesiveness, most hate groups steer clear of them,” Zaal said.
The co-founder of the El Dorado County Round Table on Human Rights, Bob and Janet Walker of Placerville said their organization was begun in the 1990s. Some 60-90 firefighters from the Bay Area had come to work in the area, helping with the devastating Cleveland Fire.
“Many of these employees were black, and they suffered a lot of abuse. We had to do something,” she said.
Since then, the Round Table has been a forum to help anyone suffering from abuse or injustice, and an avenue for community members to help to prevent hate.
A firefighter in training from the Garden Valley Fire Department, Stacy Acosta said that she has seen situations where people in distress refused to be treated by a minority. “I don’t know their reasoning or even how often such a thing occurs; I just know that I’ve seen it happen.”
In school, she witnessed that students were harassed for being different. “We all have to do the right thing,” Acosta affirmed.
“It’s really a challenge; we must keep awareness up,” said Betsy Ripley, a member of the El Dorado Women’s Fund, which has contributed to an anti-bullying campaign in the schools.
Book-signing a crowd-pleaser
A great feeling seemed to envelope the Saturday occasion at Zia’s Italian Caffe and Bar at 312 Main St., Placerville where Boger worked for a time. Owner Shari Fulton, who donated coffee and other supplies to the light brunch at Federated Church, said she was exhilarated to have a “Meet and Greet Book-signing” with Hurwin, Boger and Zaal after the event.
“It’s been nothing but a joy and a pleasure,” Fulton said. “There are so many wonderful people in our community, and I’m glad to know they’re out there.”
Hurwin, Boger and Zaal do not limit their tolerant mindset to color, creed or sexual orientation. Nearly everyone can be victimized by hate — the elderly, the obese, the poor, the developmentally disabled, gender discrimination and those with mental illnesses, to name a few. Ethnocentrism, the feeling that your own group or milieu is “the best” is a natural human cultural tradition that diminishes with education, knowledge and compassion.
Everyone can be the target of misconceptions and abuse. “It’s OK to be different,” Boger said.
It’s especially OK to be different from the crowd when you are standing up for what you believe and refusing to tolerate hate and unacceptance on any level, added Zaal.
Slay had heard about the event on the radio. She said, “I love Placerville anyway, so this was a marvelous reason to come. I couldn’t believe that this was happening in Placerville! San Francisco, Sacramento, maybe … small towns are more likely to hold on to their stories, to their ingrained intolerances and I’m so thrilled that this beautiful enclave is trying to make a difference.”
Hurwin, Boger and the Museum of Tolerance are all easily researched online, and Boger can be followed on Facebook.
E-mail the writer at [email protected]