In 1996, Iceland resident Thordis Elva was 16 and in love for the first time. Her boyfriend, Tom Stranger, was 18 and in the country on an international exchange programme from Australia. The two met at try outs for a school play and started a classic teenage romance, where they’d “meet at lunchtimes to just hold hands and walk around old downtown Reykjavik”.
A little over a month later, at the school’s Christmas Ball, riding high on her newfound maturity, Elva drank rum for the first time and got very ill. “The security guards wanted to call me an ambulance, but Tom acted as my knight in shining armour, and told them he’d take me home. It was like a fairy tale, his strong arms around me, laying me in the safety of my bed,” Elva says at a recent Ted Talk she gave along with Stranger. Since being posted on Facebook on February 7, the post has been shared over 3,900 times and has garnered over 10k reactions.
But what had at first seemed like every teenage girl’s fantasy, turned into a nightmare—one that Elva endured for years afterward. “The gratitude that I felt towards him soon turned to horror as he proceeded to take off my clothes and get on top of me,” she says. “My head had cleared up, but my body was still too weak to fight back, and the pain was blinding. I thought I’d be severed in two.”
Despite limping for days and crying for weeks, the incident didn’t fit into her ideas about rape, as she’d seen on TV. “Tom wasn’t an armed lunatic; he was my boyfriend. And it didn’t happen in a seedy alleyway, it happened in my own bed,” Elva says. By the time she could identify it as rape, Stranger had completed his exchange programme and gone back to Australia. So she felt it was pointless to address what had happened. “And besides, it had to have been my fault, somehow.”
After all, this is a world where girls are told that they get raped for a reason—for their short skirts, or their wide smiles, or the alcohol on their breaths. “And I was guilty of all of those things, so the shame had to be mine,” Elva says during the Ted Talk. “It took me years to realize that only one thing could have stopped me from being raped that night, and it wasn’t my skirt, it wasn’t my smile, it wasn’t my childish trust. The only thing that could’ve stopped me from being raped that night is the man who raped me—had he stopped himself.”
Every time a story of rape surfaces in the papers, we read about the victim’s account, what they endured. Seldom however, do we get to know the psyche of the perpetrators, the rapist—of what went through their mind, if they felt even a sliver of remorse afterwards. In this Ted Talk though, we get to hear an honest account from the perpetrator as well.
Tom Stranger didn’t show up at Thordis Elva’s door the next day. He didn’t see his deed for what it was, he didn’t crucify himself with memories of the night before. “I repudiated the entire act in the days afterwards and when I was committing it. I disavowed the truth by convincing myself it was sex and not rape. And this is a lie I’ve felt spine-bending guilt for.”
Without planning it, he sunk the memories deep. “What followed is a nine-year period that can best be titled as ‘Denial and Running’. Whether it be via distraction, substance use, thrill-seeking or the scrupulous policing of my inner speak, I refused to be static and silent,” Stranger says. He also sought out to construct a picture of who he was—a surfer, a social science student, a friend to good people, a loved brother and son, an outdoor recreation guide, and eventually, a youth worker. “I gripped tight to the simple notion that I wasn’t a bad person.”
Cut to nine years later. Elva is now 25 and headed straight for a nervous breakdown, while being consumed by misplaced anger and hatred towards herself. One day, after a fight with a loved one, she put a pen to paper and began writing the “most pivotal letter I’ve ever written, addressed to Tom”. But she didn’t just jot down an account of the violence that he had subjected her to. “The words, ‘I want to find forgiveness’ stared back at me, surprising nobody more than myself,” Elva says. “But deep down I realized that this was my way out of my suffering, because regardless of whether or not he deserved my forgiveness, I deserved peace. My era of shame was over.”
She had prepared herself for all sorts of negative responses, or what seemed most likely, no reply at all. But what arrived instead was a typed confession from Stranger, full of disarming regret. “As it turns out, he, too, had been imprisoned by silence. And this marked the start of an eight-year-long correspondence that God knows was never easy, but always honest,” Elva says. Their written exchanges—which were “everything from gut-wrenching to healing beyond words”—became a platform to dissect the consequences of the fateful night. Yet it didn’t bring her any closure.
So, Elva says, “after eight years of writing, and nearly 16 years after that dire night, I mustered the courage to propose a wild idea: that we’d meet up in person and face our past once and for all.” They met in Cape Town, for a week. They spoke about their life stories and analysed their own history—with a policy of utter honesty. “There were gutting confessions, and moments where we just absolutely couldn’t fathom the other person’s experience. The seismic effects of sexual violence were spoken aloud and felt, face to face,” Stranger says. “At other times, though, we found a soaring clarity, and even some totally unexpected but liberating laughter.”
They say that the journey resulted in a victorious feeling that something constructive could be built out of the ruins. It also resulted in a book, titled South of Forgiveness, co-authored by the two—the victim and the rapist. Elva hopes the book can be of use to people from both ends of the perpetrator-survivor scale. Stranger too asserts the power of words and says, “Saying to Thordis that I raped her changed my accord with myself, as well as with her. But most importantly, the blame transferred from Thordis to me.”
He continues: “Far too often, the responsibility is attributed to female survivors of sexual violence, and not to the males who enact it. Far too often, the denial and running leaves all parties at a great distance from the truth. There’s definitely a public conversation happening now, and like a lot of people, we’re heartened that there’s less retreating from this difficult but important discussion. I feel a real responsibility to add our voices to it.”
“It’s about time that we stop treating sexual violence as a women’s issue,” Elva adds.
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