A True Story of Rape, Forgiveness and Reconciliation

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)

Read more:
  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 reconciliationAustralian 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 ForgivenessPromotional 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.


Holocaust Survivor: “Let’s heal the world through forgiveness.”

Eva Kor (far right) and twin sister Miriam (front right) at the liberation of Auschwitz on Jan. 27, 1945

Those are the words of Eva Mozes Kor, a survivor of the Holocaust who, with her twin sister Miriam, was subjected to human experimentation under Josef Mengele at the Auschwitz concentration camp during World War II. Both of her parents and two older sisters died at the camp; only she and Miriam survived the near-starvation, illness, and other indignities of the camp.

Eva has written an emotional blog, exclusively for the International Forgiveness Institute, entitled “My Forgiveness.” It begins with these words:
“Forgiveness is a way of healing oneself from pain, trauma, and tragedy. It is a means of self-liberation and self-empowerment.”
You can access Eva’s entire blog on the IFI website by clicking here.

In one of her many interviews following her release, Eva told the anecdote of how she once sat in her room, imagining that Joseph Mengele was sitting right next to her. .

“I picked up a dictionary and wrote 20 nasty words, which I read clear and loud to that make-believe Mengele in the room. And in the end, I said: ‘In spite of all that, I forgive you.’ Made me feel very good, that I, the little guinea pig of 50 years, even had the power over the Angel of Death of Auschwitz.’ ” Source: The Vintage News
Eva Kor’s recent video, produced by BuzzFeed, has drawn more than 5 million views on YouTube: I Survived The Holocaust Twin Experiments. 

Hi Dr. Enright, I’m enjoying your 8 steps book. I’ve also been enjoying learning about self-compassion from the works by Kristin Neff. She has a 20 minute self-guided meditation which I often practice. I wonder if you have something similar for forgiveness? I really appreciate the work you’ve done!

While we do not have a specific 20-minute reflection for forgiveness, we do have exercises that can be done on a regular basis in the self-help book, Forgiveness Is a Choice, an Amazon.com best seller. There are further exercises in the two other self-help books, The Forgiving Life and 8 Keys to Forgiveness.

Additional information about all three books is available in the IFI Store.

EVA KOR: “Let’s heal the world through forgiveness. Not bullets, not bombs. Just forgiveness.”

Editor’s Note: This is a guest blog by Eva Mozes Kor, a survivor of the Holocaust who, with her twin sister Miriam, was subjected to human experimentation under Josef Mengele at the Auschwitz concentration camp during World War II. Both of her parents and two older sisters died at the camp; only she and Miriam survived. Her recent video, produced by BuzzFeed, has drawn almost 5 million views on YouTube:                                    I Survived The Holocaust Twin Experiments.

“My Forgiveness”

by Eva Mozes Kor

Forgiveness is a way of healing oneself from pain, trauma, and tragedy. It is a means of self-liberation and self-empowerment.

Forgiving is not forgetting. In many cases, it is impossible to forget events that deeply affect our lives. They shape our lives for better or for worse.

Eva Mozes Kor, a Holocaust survivor, chose to forgive the Nazis.

Forgiving does not mean we condone the evil deeds of the Nazis or other perpetrators. But in some cases, giving amnesty clears the issue for the victim and for society. The question of justice is separate from the issue of forgiveness. 

This concept of forgiveness has little or nothing to do with the perpetrator. It has everything to do with the need of victims to be free from the pain inflicted upon them.

This concept of forgiveness has nothing to do with any religion. All people yearn to live free of the pain and burden of the past. If it is confined to one religion, then some people will not be able to access it.

Each person can forgive only in his or her name. One cannot forgive in the name of all Holocaust survivors. Forgiveness is a very personal thing, but if we feel troubled and hurt by learning about the victimization of others, then we have the right to take action or forgive the perpetrators when the time comes to forgive.

Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp where Eva Kor and her sister Miriam were imprisoned.

When we live in a place where our lives are in direct danger, the mindset of survival sets in, and survival and forgiveness do not go together. We can forgive only after the violence has ended, and the victim is at peace with his or her surroundings and wants to heal that chapter of his or her life.

However, forgiveness can prevent future violence. If we can teach people that when they are hurting instead of acting out of pain they can heal themselves through forgiveness.

Forgiveness is more than just letting go. It is proactive rather than passive. We become victims involuntarily, when a person or entity with power takes away our power to use our mind or body or both. Something was done to us that put us in a position of feeling powerless. Thus, the conscious choice to forgive provides healing, liberation, and reclamation of this lost power.

I would like to share some more ideas about forgiveness.

Miriam and Eva (right) at the liberation of Auschwitz on Jan. 27, 1945

Forgiveness unclutters one’s mind and life, permitting us to view the world through unobstructed vision, see the beauty around us, be open to new positive experiences, and embrace the wonderful people in the wonderful world that we meet. If we did not forgive, we would not be able to experience these feelings.

Forgiveness is like a prescription or medicine for physical health and well-being. If we stay angry, this anger poisons our lives and our health. Some people say that the perpetrators don’t deserve forgiveness. That might be so, but if we can heal them and make them into loving, caring human beings, and therefore improve life for everyone in the world, I don’t see a problem with it.

Forgiveness in my opinion brings serenity, healing, respect, freedom, peace, and love. Let’s see what the opposition brings: pain, anger, revenge, and war. So I am puzzled that when people know all that, they are still willingly acting as victims, when they have the choice to live in peace and be happy instead.

Miriam and Eva (right) at the liberation of Auschwitz on Jan. 27, 1945

It would be nice if the great organization of the United Nations, with the upcoming anniversary in December 2018, 70 years to the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, would add an addendum. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a beautiful document, but it does not have anything for victims who have already been hurt. I think it should include that every human being has the human right 1. To be happy and 2. To live free of the pain and burden imposed on them by life or society. It would really help people if that came from an organization like the United Nations.

I would like to make an effort to use forgiveness in prisons. I believe that most of these prisoners were not born to spend their days in prison or to commit a crime. So my question is, were many of these prisoners victims before they became prisoners? I would say it is quite possible that every unhealed victim has the potential to become a perpetrator. (Read more from Eva Kor following the call-out text in the box below.)

I forgive you – In one of her many interviews following her release from Auschwitz, Eva told the anecdote of how she once sat in her room, imagining that Joseph Mengele was sitting right next to her. 

“I picked up a dictionary and wrote 20 nasty words, which I read clear and loud to that make-believe Mengele in the room. And in the end, I said: ‘In spite of all that, I forgive you.’ Made me feel very good, that I, the little guinea pig of 50 years, even had the power over the Angel of Death of Auschwitz.’ ” Source: The Vintage News

I also would like to help and have programs for veterans who have been trained to defend their lives on the battlefield, but they have never been able to heal themselves from that they have seen, experienced, or done. And the post-traumatic stress that they carry with them for years could be easily removed with forgiveness sessions and workshops.

I find it sad, and it pains me to know, that children who were born in the wrong place and the wrong time, who don’t get loving and nurturing families, end up in juvenile centers. We want to help them and teach them that it’s 1. Not their fault and 2. There is something they can do about it. We would teach them that forgiveness is a skill that will heal them. We cannot change their past, but we can teach them how to cope with it better.

And as I have been talking to Dr. Robert Enright in Madison, Wisconsin, he would like to start teaching forgiveness in first grade as a skill for life. And I agree with him 100%.

Let’s work together to heal the world through forgiveness. Not bullets, not bombs. Just forgiveness.


On the Accumulation of Wounds

Has the struggle with the injustice made you tired? Let us say that you have 10 points of energy to get through each day. How many of those points of energy do you use fighting (even subconsciously) the injustice as an internal struggle? Even if you are giving 1 or 2 points of your energy each day to this, it is too much and could be considered another wound for you.

When you consider the person and the situation now under consideration, do you see any changes in your life that were either a direct or indirect consequence of the person’s injustice? In what way did your life change that led to greater struggle for you? On our 0-to-10 scale, how great a change was there in your life as a result of the injustice? Let a 0 stand for no change whatsoever, a 5 stand for moderate change in your life, and a 10 stand for dramatic change in your life. Your answer will help you determine whether this is another wound for you. As you can see, the wounds from the original injustice have a way of accumulating and adding to your suffering.

Excerpt from the book The Forgiving Life (APA Lifetools), Robert D. Enright (2012-07-05).  (Kindle Locations 2750-2753). American Psychological Association. Kindle Edition.
Enright, Robert D. (2012-07-05). The Forgiving Life (APA Lifetools) (Kindle Locations 2784-2788). American Psychological Association. Kindle Edition.

I have a friend who has been deeply hurt in a family situation.  She keeps telling me that she can lead a perfectly healthy and happy life even if she puts forgiveness aside.  Is she correct?

She is correct if she truly can live a healthy and happy life without forgiving in the face of grave injustices.  A problem with ascertaining a healthy life is this: Ill health does not necessarily come on quickly.  Instead, in many cases, resentment can chip away at health such as poor eating habits that eventually take their toll on the body, or reduced energy that eventually leads to being out of shape physically.  Thus, people saying that they are healthy without forgiving is not so easy to discern.  With regard to happiness, she will see as she continues in life whether or not she has joy.  If she does, and finds this without forgiving, then she is correct.  If, on the other hand, she concludes that she is not joyous, then perhaps it is time to at least consider forgiving as an option.

Can you help me understand how to release a relationship as part of the forgiveness process? Choosing to erect an emotional boundary feels like a form of punishment, but there is logic in it too if the offender hasn’t taken responsibility for the hurt and is likely to offend again. When is releasing a relationship the best option, and how do you do it lovingly? Thank you.

The key here is to distinguish forgiving and reconciling. If the other refuses to change and is hurtful, then it may not be wise to continue a relationship. At the same time, you can see the person’s inherent worth and forgive.  Sometimes, even when we offer our best to another, the person rejects our love. We still can forgive and then go in peace.