How did this woman forgive the man who raped her?
A new book charts the journey of a young man and woman from ‘rape to reconciliation’
South of Forgiveness by Thordis Elva and Tom Stranger is the oddest memoir I’ve ever read. In fact, it’s one of the strangest books I’ve ever read, full stop. But it’s meant to be an uncomfortable, provocative and controversial read. The memoir is a collaboration between the Icelandic Elva and Australian Stranger; a collaboration that most people will inhale a breath at on realising the nature of it.
In 1996, Stranger raped Elva, when he was 18 and she was 16, after they had been going out for a few weeks. He was an exchange student in Iceland at the time. They had already had consensual sex together, but one night when they were both at a party, Elva got so drunk he took her home. He put her into her own bed, removed her vomit-flecked clothes and then raped her for two hours.
A few days later, he broke up with her, and then was soon back in Australia. Elva did not report the rape at the time, as she didn’t recognise it as such. Four years later, Stranger returned to Iceland for a summer, and they resumed a consensual sexual relationship.
Five years after that, Elva emailled Stranger, and told him of the consequences to her life after he had raped her that night at 16. She had suffered eating disorders, focused on over-achieving as a way of not having to be introspective about the fact she had been raped, she had self-harmed, abused alcohol, and in processing all this, finally realised a serious sexual crime had been perpetrated against her.
Among the topics not up for discussion with Stranger were “specific questions regarding the percentage of royalties being donated to charity”
The book opens with the email Stranger sent Elva in reply; an email that acknowledged what he had done to her when aged 18. It ends, “But this is not about me. Whatever I can do or offer you, I am more than willing. The question is where to go from here. You tell me.”
Where they went from there was a period of email correspondence over seven years, some 200 emails in total, all focused on analysing the events of the night of the rape, and the consequences for both. Then, in March 2013, the two of them met up for a week in Cape Town. What Elva wanted was peace and closure. What Stranger wanted was forgiveness.
During that week, which they combined with sight-seeing, they talked about their lives and the night of the rape in painful, excruciating and often repetitious detail. By the end of the week, Elva was eventually able to tell Stranger she forgave him. He in turn finally felt as if he could move on with his life, without the burden of guilt and shame he had carried for so long.
Fast forward to 2017, and Elva and Stranger are currently on an international book tour. Before I conducted a half-hour phone interview with them from London, I watched the carefully choreographed TED talk they gave together in October 2016; a talk which they describe as “Our story of rape and reconciliation.” By the time I watched it in March, it had 2,570,832 views. Last time I checked, that had risen to 3,333,517.
Elva and Strangerhave a well-rehearsed routine; much of it statements taken directly from their TED talk
Elva and Stranger’s story is challenging and complex in so many ways, not least because it’s a linguistic minefield. When my phone interview had been confirmed, the publishers of their book sent an email with a three-page attachment of requests about what could and could not be discussed in the interview, along with lists of words and expressions Elva and Stranger wanted me to avoid using.
These are some of them.
They’d like the book they wrote together to be described as “a non-fiction narrative” or a “travel story” instead of a “memoir” or “rape memoir.”
That the word “perpetrator” be used instead of “rapist”.
Similarly, with “survivor” instead of “victim”.
There was thought given to the choice of active and passive verbs. I was asked not to use the expression, “Thordis was raped by Tom”. It would be “more correct if written ‘Tom raped Thordis’, with the emphasis on Tom’s actions.”
As for the words “hero” or “heroism” – It should not be considered heroic of Tom to share his experiences.”
Among the topics not up for discussion with Stranger were “specific questions regarding the percentage of royalties being donated to charity”.
Recording the recorder
When the three of us eventually talked on speaker phone, one of the first things that Elva said was that they were recording the interview (as I was), because they had “been misquoted” by other journalists. It’s not the friendliest start to a difficult interview already made more difficult by the fact it’s not face to face, but it’s a measure of how closely Elva and Stranger are trying to monitor the telling of their complex story.
It’s a glaring irony that the actions arising from a deep betrayal of trust has now developed into a book tour
By the time we talked on the phone, public opinion about their story had already changed the shape of their itinerary. An invitation to appear at the Women of the World conference on London’s South Bank the previous weekend had been withdrawn, when a petition was undertaken to protest at a self-confessor perpetrator of rape being given a public platform. And one of the first things Stranger was anxious to tell me was that he was no longer going to benefit from any percentage of the royalties: “No profits that I have received from the book will benefitting me financially. I will be donating any profits to charity.”
Having watched, listened and read online several interviews with Elva and Stranger, I’ve realised that they have a well-rehearsed routine; much of it statements taken directly from their TED talk. Elva wants to “debunk the monster myth”: that rapists are men who wait in dark alleys for their victims, instead of men who are almost always known to those they rape; Elva describes Stranger as her “first love”.
Stranger wants to put out the message that he hopes by publicly taking responsibility for his actions, that the book “will spark a discussion, mainly among men and boys and the toxic attitude that can foster sexual violence”.
Both Elva and Stranger are clearly people with exceptional resources of strength of character, but to posit this is to run into all sorts of ethical dilemmas
Everything has clearly been agreed between them beforehand about what they say. Of course, it’s a glaring irony that the actions arising from a deep betrayal of trust has now developed into a book tour; a tour requiring media interviews and public appearances that can only operate on absolute shared trust. In other interviews, they have stoutly declared that they are not friends, but “collaborators”.
Elva now lives in Sweden with her partner and son, and much of her work is in promoting awareness of gender-based violence. Stranger is now married, lives in Sydney and works as a landscape gardener. Both their partners were supportive of the unusual collaboration.
There are so many layers to unpeel to Elva and Stranger’s story. For most women, the thought of initiating contact with the man who raped them, then meeting them again, let alone going on to work with them on a book and a series of public talks, is an impossible one. As for Stranger, how many men do you know who have publicly admitted they once raped their partner?
Both Elva and Stranger are clearly people with exceptional resources of strength of character, but to posit this is to run into all sorts of ethical dilemmas. Is it acceptable to simultaneously admire a man for his courage in publicly accepting responsibility for an act of sexual violence, and thus helping to create an important public debate, while also recognising that his act was a crime?
I ask Elva if she considers Stranger has been “remarkable” in his response to her during this process; from first answering her email, to engaging with the conversation over years, and then agreeing to meet her in South Africa.
I recognise that I am being given some very respected prominent platforms. I don’t seek to benefit or grow my profile"
Her answer is evasive. “Well, I think everything about our story is unique, because we are unique individuals, and in that sense, then yes. I don’t know how to answer that better than that. Tom is unique and so am I, and our story raises a unique process that two people went through.”
But does she think he was remarkable in responding to her ongoing requests for contact? Or is it difficult for her to acknowledge that fact, given that he was her perpetrator?
Asked the question the second time, she says this. “Well, I do think it should be a standard reaction in human communication, that when you hurt someone, you acknowledge that fact, and own up to your actions and take responsibility for them, so that should be the rule and not the exception. However, I do acknowledge that many people have a hard time facing their darkest deeds, and owning them. So that in a way, I guess, is what contributes to our story being what it is. And I guess that contributes to the fact that it is an unusual tale.”
By deciding to go public, it wasn’t only Elva whom Stranger was admitting his former act of sexual violence to, it was his family and friends. In the book, he writes of telling his parents, who remained supportive of him. How did his wider circle take it?
“It has not been just a simple case of everyone supporting me in this,” he says. “It’s difficult for those around me. I’m grateful that I do have the support of the majority of my family and friends, and it’s not as if they are commending me [by supporting me]. It’s complex. It’s difficult.”
The South of Forgiveness book tour started in Australia. What has the reaction been there to Stranger’s part of the story?
“In terms of the Australian media, there has been some critical reception and some judgment as to whether or not I should be given a platform. There has also been, from other parts, a recognition that there is a need for this story to be heard; a story from people who are responsible for sexual violence.” Later he says, “I feel it’s not so much my place to counter, or to debate any reception that I receive about speaking to my part in our history. I’m not looking to challenge any of the criticisms, essentially.”
Has he ever regretted going public?
“There’s nothing that’s been comfortable, or I guess easy in this process, but I would say, no, there isn’t regret,” he says. “I am invested in this. I am certainly not seeking any praise or limelight. I simply see my part as telling my part in our history very plainly and factually. I am unwavering in my commitment to this.”
He goes on to say, “I recognise that I am being given some very respected prominent platforms. I don’t seek to benefit or grow my profile. Thordis has been very active in this space for a long time now. I don’t think its right for me to be so visible. If there is a place for me, a background position in the future; that would mean conversations with men and boys, well then, I would be invested in that most certainly.”
Elva’s ad-hoc speech in the book about women’s rights is both simplistic and patronising, for any educated adult
In interviews, Stranger is careful to let Elva take the lead, and it is Elva who has written the bulk of the book. The book takes the shape of long diary entries written by Elva over the days they spent in Cape Town, with much shorter recaps of the day from Stranger added at the end of each chapter. There is an illuminating “Authors’ Note” at the back of the book, which goes into detail about how the book was constructed. It’s an amalgamation of their eight-year email correspondence, the diary Elva wrote when in Cape Town – which formed the basis of a narrative she spent 18 months working on – and notes Stranger wrote about the Cape Town week afterwards.
It seems churlish to critique the style and structure of a narrative written with such a genuine purpose to encourage public debate on sexual violence and responsibility. But the fact is, neither Elva nor Stranger are gifted writers, and there is a heavy monotone to the entire narrative, fascinating as the raw subject material is. There’s also an element of uncomfortable masochism in the book, as contextual events around the night on which the rape took place are explored again and again.
Elva has always wanted to know why her boyfriend and first love, Stranger, raped her; a question that must haunt many other similarly affected women. In Cape Town, she tries her best to find out. Stranger can’t explain it, beyond, “I have no answers . . . I took what I wanted.” He didn’t think about what he was doing at all, is the point he tries to make; an explanation which is even more hurtful and perplexing to Elva in its bald honesty. The answer is, sometimes there is no answer, which must be the hardest thing for anyone to hear who has ever been a victim of a similar criminal act.
As Stranger was never charged with rape, he was never tried for the crime, something which undoubtedly will disturb many people. However, he is rarely permitted to be a person in the book independent of the criminal act he did 20 years earlier, which, depending on your views on guilt, contrition, and rehabilitation, seems like a kind of literary punishment.
There is one particularly memorable scene, from Day Six, when they go together to visit Robben Island, where Mandela was incarcerated. Elva gives Stranger a lecture about women’s rights in history. He tells her he doesn’t need to be preached at, because he already knows about historical discrimination against women, and that she’s being “patronising”. At this point, the entire project almost falls apart, because she goes a bit nuts at being called patronising, and tells him he’s being a typical man who doesn’t understand the historical challenges women have faced, and continue to face.
It is a book you’ll find yourself endlessly discussing with very many people
The truth is, Elva’s ad-hoc speech in the book about women’s rights is both simplistic and patronising, for any educated adult. Stranger is correct to point it out, but the message coming from the book is that because of the act perpetrated against her by Stranger, Elva is now never allowed to be wrong in any way. Which just isn’t how life is, and has the odd, disconcerting effect of making her an often unlikable character in this narrative.
When they are in Cape Town, he writes that he hopes to earn Elva’s respect again, as well as her forgiveness. She does give him the gift of forgiveness. Did he also earn her respect?
I end up asking this question of Elva three times. The first time, she gives a long rambling non-answer about not pressing charges at the time, because she was “a 16 year old kid with a head full of misconceptions about what rape was and rapists were”. I’m not sure if she’s heard the question properly, so I ask it again.
The second time I ask, she answers, “I have a very deep respect for the project we have now birthed together. I have a very deep respect for his involvement in that project and how we are collaborating on something that we hope can have meaningful value to other people. Does that answer your question?”
I try a third time, explaining that I’m wondering if she now has respect for Stranger as a person, as opposed to respect for the project they have collaborated on.
“Yes,” Elva says eventually. “I wouldn’t be able to collaborate with him on this project if I didn’t have respect for his role in it and him as a person in that context. If I were still weighed down by my anger and hatred, then I certainly wouldn’t be able to share an involvement with him in what we’re doing.”
South of Forgiveness is not a book that you’ll want to read on the beach this summer. But it is a book you’ll find yourself endlessly discussing with very many people. Both Elva and Stranger have been brave enough to publicly expose their separate vulnerabilities, in order to contribute to an important debate about sexual violence. That’s a rare kind of public service.
South of Forgiveness, by Thordis Elva and Tom Stranger is published by Scribe at £12.99.