If someone told you that a rape survivor was writing a book together with the man who raped her, you probably wouldn’t believe them.
But that’s exactly what Thordis Elva has done with her former high school boyfriend who raped her when she was barely 16-years-old after a school Christmas party in Elva’s hometown of Reykjavík, Iceland.
Her boyfriend was an 18-year-old exchange student from Australia, Tom Stranger, who said he felt entitled to have sex with Elva despite her being so drunk that people at the party had suggested they call an ambulance. Stranger instead took Elva to her own home where he spent two hours accosting her as she faded in and out of consciousness.
The crime was never reported.
Elva said that at the time she wasn’t clear as to what rape actually was and that Stranger had returned to Australia a few days later after ending the relationship.
“I hadn’t told anyone because I harbored shame and self blame for being drunk and not being in a situation where I was in control” Elva says. “That slowed down my ability to recover and fully face what had happened.”
The two went their separate ways after that sinister event until nine years later when Elva contacted her rapist by email. Still struggling with the trauma of the rape, and “on the brink of a nervous breakdown,” Elva felt she needed to be eye-to-eye with her attacker in a bid to come to terms with what happened to her. And to her surprise, he replied with a confession and an offer of “whatever I can do.”
From that initial contact an extraordinary dialogue between rape victim and rapist started–beginning a raw, painful healing process documented in the book they co-authored South of Forgiveness: A True Story of Rape and Responsibility.
The book immediately became controversial not only because Stranger had actually raped Elva 16 years earlier and had only recently taken responsibility for it, but because Elva would eventually forgive herself and her attacker.
“It [forgiveness] is an extremely misunderstood concept,” according to Elva. “People somehow think you are giving the perpetrator something when you forgive, but in my view, it is the complete polar opposite.”
“Forgiving was for me so that I could let go of the self-blame and shame that I had wrongfully shouldered, that were corroding me and basically ruining my life.”
Creating additional controversy is the fact that the victim and the culprit are travelling the world together to discuss the very serious topic of rape. Together, they gave a TED talk that summarized a 20-year long process, whereby Stranger eventually shouldered responsibility for his actions and the way those actions impacted their lives. It was viewed nearly 2 million times in the first week and more than 4.3 million times since being posted. You can watch their TED talk here. The TED talk was presented in San Francisco, CA for the TEDWomen 2016 conference.
Stranger, it should be noted, is not benefiting from his work with Elva. “Any profits that I receive will be going towards a women’s’ charity in Reykjavík,” Stranger told an interviewer. “I realize how disrespectful and contemptuous it would be for me to benefit my bank balance or anything else.”
South of Forgiveness is an unprecedented collaboration between a survivor and a perpetrator, each equally committed to exploring the darkest moment of their lives. It is a true story about being bent but not broken, of facing fear with courage, and of finding hope even in the most wounded of places. (Source: South of Forgiveness website)
⇒ Is forgiveness a virtue? – Malay Mail Online, Petaling Jaya, Malaysia
⇒ Can I forgive the man who raped me? – The Observer/The Guardian, London, UK
⇒ South of Forgiveness – Forgiving rape – IceNews, Reykjavik,
⇒ Rape victim and rapist reconcile, co-author a book and give talks – IceNews, Reykjavik, Iceland
⇒ Could you forgive a rapist? A 17-year story of reconciliation – Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Australia
⇒ Our story of rape and reconciliation – TED Talks (video: 19:07), New York, NY
⇒ A Q&A with Thordis Elva and Tom Stranger – Ted Talks, New York, NY
⇒ South of Forgiveness – Promotional Website, Stockholm, Sweden
Please tell us what you think of this story, of the campaign being conducted by Elva and Stranger, and of Elva’s willingness and ability to forgive herself and her attacker. Could you forgive someone who raped you? Click on the “Leave a comment” button at the top of this story or use the “Leave a reply” box below to let us know what you think. Thank you. We appreciate your thoughts and your feedback.