Warning: Readers may find some content below triggering.
Twenty years ago, when she was 16 years old, Thordis Elva was raped by her then-boyfriend, Tom Stranger, who was 18 at the time. Thordis had been drinking rum before their Christmas dance in December of 1996 ― when she was too sick to stay out, Tom took her home, and proceeded to rape her.
Tom, an Australian studying abroad in Thordis’s native Iceland, ended their relationship a few days after he assaulted her, and moved back to Australia shortly thereafter. In the years since, Thordis and Tom have committed much of their lives to understanding the “why” of that fateful December night. Their lives have been centered around the traumatic act ― with one of them having committed it, and another having endured it ― and in the years after, they both followed a path of self-destruction and denial for reasons that are, as one can imagine, starkly different.
Like millions of women all over the world, Thordis found herself carrying the shame and weight of being a “rape victim.” Meanwhile, Tom ran away from the memories of that night, unable to grasp that a man like him ― white, privileged, attractive by Western standards, brought up in a stable family with positive role models ― could commit an act like that.
But in 2005, almost 10 years after the assault, Thordis realized what she was missing, and what might set her free: forgiveness. She decided to reach out to Tom.
This email sparked eight years of often excruciating correspondence. They spent those eight years relearning the events of that night in 1996, and understanding that what Tom had done was inarguably an act of sexual violence; he had raped her. Their dialogue eventually culminated in an in-person meeting in Cape Town, South Africa ― between Tom’s native Australia and her native Iceland.
Their week-long meeting resulted in a book, South of Forgiveness. Thordis wrote the majority of the book, and entries from Tom’s diary during that week punctuate each chapter.
Thordis and Tom first shared their story in a TED Talk in October 2016. In the talk, they discussed the assault and their journey to finding forgiveness. “Regardless of whether or not he deserved my forgiveness, I deserved peace,” Thordis said
When HuffPost covered the TED Talk back in January, the responses from our readers were understandably varied. Many found that publicizing Tom’s story ― from the rape itself, to realizing he’d committed an act of sexual violence, to apologizing for it and learning from it ― did a disservice to survivors. “I worry this is only another method to legitimize rape culture,” one woman wrote. “No, no, no, no. He is a monster. This makes me sick. He does not deserve to be forgiven for what he did, he likely did it to others as well,” wrote another. Many also wondered why Tom avoided any criminal charges ― Tom and Thordis both explained to HuffPost that the statute of limitations had passed before they were both aware that what Tom had done was, in fact, rape. (In South of Forgiveness Tom also denies ever being sexually violent again.)
In a Q&A with HuffPost on Friday, Thordis and Tom discussed their book and TED Talk, and the journey that they chose to take together. Upon settling in into interview, the two of them wished to make a few things very clear.
The first is that Tom, though he co-authored the book, will have zero financial profits from its success. Any profits made on his behalf will be sent to a women’s center in Reykjavik.
Secondly, they are adamant that their story ― that Thordis’s decision to seek out her rapist and carry on a decades-long discourse and collaboration ― is not something that they are recommending to others as the sole way to recover from assault. They are neither advocating this option nor condemning it
The public’s response to their story has grown beyond Facebook comment sections, too. Just last month, Tom and Thordis were slated to speak at an event in London ― but so many petitioned to protest Tom’s presence that the event had to be postponed.
“In order for people to better understand this type of abuse, they need a three-dimensional view of those who perpetrate it, not two-dimensional stereotypes that either vilify the perpetrators as “monsters” or glorify them to the point where their crimes become unthinkable.”
But as Tom and Thordis discuss in the Q&A below, their cause is not to make a case of sympathy for rapists, or argue impunity for the crime of sexual assault.
Their goal is to open the conversation about the systems in place that give men entitlement to women’s bodies in hopes that sexual violence can be prevented.
This excerpt of Thordis’s writing from South of Forgiveness is an apt summary of their purpose in writing it:
If men like Tom ― who belong to a social group that often escapes analysis and scrutiny because they conform to what is seen as the “norm,” who come from stable backgrounds, and enjoy various privileges ― would confess to have raped and regretting it, it might provide the foundation for a long-awaited conversations about the root causes of sexual violence.
In order for people to better understand this type of abuse, they need a three-dimensional view of those who perpetrate it, not two-dimensional stereotypes that either vilify the perpetrators as “monsters” or glorify them to the point where their crimes become unthinkable. The ripple effect could be enormous, the possibilities endless.
This excerpt captures the essence of their cause: removing the burden and shame of rape and sexual violence from victim’s shoulders and placing it squarely onto the shoulders of those who commit it the most (men).
HuffPost: Thordis, you talk a lot in the book about your privilege, how even in something as horrific as sexual violence, there are still these levels of privilege. I wanted to talk to you about how you feel about the fact that so many survivors of sexual violence don’t get the kind of closure that you did, or don’t have a perpetrator who’s as willing to apologize or acknowledge their wrongdoing.
What’s your message to survivors who don’t have this opportunity or situation?
Thordis: You’re right, I am aware of my privilege and even within the subdivision of being a survivor of rape there’s still layers of privilege there. Just the fact that I can talk to you right now is a privilege. I have a story of having a dialogue with Tom, who committed this abuse against me, that is rare. I realize this.
However, I know that we’re not unique in the sense that conversations are being had around the world in restorative justice, for example. What I would like to say is that survivors, most of us, we share a common wish ― and it’s to have our hurt acknowledged. To have our suffering believed, and I guess corroborated...I am not suggesting that that person has to be the perpetrator of the hurt. It was in my case, yes, because I did go down this quite rare route of instigating communication. But we can all be that person for survivors of sexual violence. We can all be the person that says “I believe you,” and “you did not deserve what you went through” and “it was not your fault.” If there’s something that I can send out as a general, then that would be it.
We need to believe survivors.
Tom, a lot of your story has been met with disapproval. I realize that you were meant to speak in London, and there were some protests happening about you being on stage and your story being amplified. Did that make you question your role in this discourse? Did it make you more or less devoted to sharing your story?
Tom: It didn’t shake my resolve, it was a case of very much leaning in to that to try and comprehend how this is resonating with people. It’s a case of not wanting to cause any hurt or traumatize, but I’ve been heartened by seeing the discourse and the discussions and the arguments.
I understand myself to be problematic in the sense that giving me a platform is really difficult for some to come at. So I can comprehend it, it’s an educative process and trying to understand what role I can play that would be advantageous and where there are places that I shouldn’t speak to as a perpetrator. It’s evolving and I’ve certainly had some really powerful conversations with men and people since the TED Talk and the book.
Before you met in person in Cape Town, you spent eight years writing to each other about the assault. Tom, how long did it take you to identify what you did as rape? How did you get through that denial? It seems like so many men don’t think that what they’re doing is an act of sexual violence. What was that process like for you?
Tom: It took me a long time. It was a running, a suppression of memories, it was not wanting to inhabit that or absorb it. It wasn’t until 2005, when I received that first email from Thordis, and when I relearnt what I’d subjected her to. It was undeniable and I recognized myself in the details. That was the beginning of understanding the magnitude of the damage I’d caused.
There were eight years of analysis and speaking very plainly about that night. There was a movement through self-pity, and then a deserving shame, and then, after Cape Town...it was not a detachment...but it was not having this define my future and seeing this is my defining characteristic. It was essentially addressing the label that I’d put on myself. So yeah. The taking of responsibility was also liberating in a way. I hope that that is somehow the takeaway message for young men who are reading the book. Denial leads to decay.
In the U.S., campus sexual violence is a huge issue and you were 18 and 16 when the assault happened. Tom, I’m curious about how we go about preventing this. How do we talk to young men about entitlement and consent? We saw this with the Brock Turner case this summer ― what a moment that could have been, for him to take responsibility. It was such a missed opportunity. How can men talk to other men about the issue, and how we can prevent this?
Tom: I certainly followed that case very closely. I’m also trying to raise my awareness of how it works in the States, and I know there are amazing organizations doing important work on the ground, like A Call to Men and It’s on Us. That’s been inspiring to see. I think that those organizations are getting the message right.
And you’re absolutely right, about engaging young men in this discussion and discussing consent and looking at notions of toxic masculinity...I’ve been thinking a lot about the defensiveness that can rise when we discuss masculinity. There’s an aversion to see it as toxic.
If we admit that it’s this same masculinity that produces the devaluation of anything that’s coded as feminine, or perpetuates violence toward women, it does mean that the stereotype crumbles. If we admit that, then it means that, as a social group, men have to turn to an examination and criticize the normal guy, the jock, the “bloke” as it is in Australia, and these identities are kind of sacred and lionized.
If we criticize these tropes then it shifts, it becomes a man’s issue as it needs to be. And that’s the lens from which our language needs to be molded, and the awareness needs to be seen as a human rights issue but primarily a men’s issue.
I know it’s shifting in that direction, the discourse is around masculinity. I wonder about the push-and-pull forces. How do we attract men to this cause and engage them in this? How do we hold up notions of masculinity that are around the right attitudes? Around being emotionally accessible and knowing that you’re fallible...how do we champion those [traits]?
I saw myself as a normal guy. As a good person that wasn’t capable of this. So that was part of my denial. I internalized the rape culture to save myself.
There’s a stunning line in the book where Tom says that “nothing happened” to him to turn him into someone who could commit this act of violence. Thordis responds with, “patriarchy happened.”
How did you find that balance between accepting your actions in full and acknowledging that you were a character in a cultural narrative that gave you permission to do that?
Tom: I’d go with your word, balance.
It’s undeniable that I had agency. I made choices. I was self-absorbed and those choices had consequences. But then also, I came to recognize that I didn’t grow up in a vacuum. I was an 18-year-old young man who was susceptible to influences around him. And notions of masculinity and cultural influences as well. So it is a balancing, I guess.
As I say in the TED Talk I did have positive influences. I did grow up in a loving family. But I chose to draw upon the negative influences.
This project is born from a place of wanting to take the burden off of survivors and put it onto the shoulders of men, to get, as you write in the book, to the “root causes of sexual violence.”
What do each of you think those roots are?
Thordis: If I had the answer to that my work would be effectively done!
I don’t think it’s one simple answer. I think there are multiple forces at work that breed the ground for sexual violence. I do believe that it is in some way a manifestation of gender inequality. The fact that women have less power and influence and are therefore in less positions of respect throughout society, we see it manifested in so many areas ― the gender pay gap, political representation, the media and elsewhere. I think sexual violence is one of those manifestations of unequal worth. I do think that if we were closer to achieving gender equality then we would see less sexual violence. That is a theory I’d like to believe in.
But while I say that, I also need to acknowledge that I am from the country that repeatedly tops the gender equality index ― we still have a rape culture. We still have unfortunately widespread sexual violence. So, there is no one simple answer. But I do think gender inequality comes into play. And I do think the notions of toxic masculinity that Tom spoke about contribute to this huge problem.
Tom: I’m the same as Thordis. I think it’s a multifaceted issue. The next step is to bring it out into a public conversation. Sometimes it feels beneficial to return to the question of why men primarily are perpetrators.
I do hope this is where the conversation goes. Around the broader issue of how we engage men.
Thordis: Can I add just a little bit to that? I was answering really generally, but if I bring it closer to home and answer from the perspective as someone who has experienced sexual violence, I think the silence and victim-blaming are also feeding into the problem. The fact that victim-blaming is so pervasive. That we’re still scrutinizing survivors for what they wore or drank, more so than looking into the minds of those that actually do commit acts of sexual violence. And the shame and silencing that that brings for people that end up internalizing the blame and imprisoning themselves in their silence. All of that was true for me, for a long time.
I think it creates a culture of impunity. If it isn’t spoken about, I think that perpetuates the problem. [Victim-blaming] is very far removed from the root cause, and it contributes again to placing the responsibility to the wrong person.
When you sat down to tell this story, who were you envisioning as your audience? Survivors? Men? All of the above?
Tom: After the process of discussing the book with you, there is a hope that young men will come into contact with my story, and it can serve as lesson to young men.
In me speaking of the “why” of that night, that’s important for me to discuss. The fact that I did have a sense of deservingness, that when a boy goes out partying with his girlfriend that he’s entitled to sex, that was a mix of sexual urges and selfishness, it’s a horrible combination. I hope that that serves as a lesson of what not to do.
Thordis: It wasn’t intended as teaching material, or a formula to others, and by no means a methodology. I think that Tom and I, being on opposite sides of this fence, there will be different people that I identify with me and people that identify with Tom.
In the book’s epilogue you write about the friendship that developed after Cape Town. You marched together in a Slut Walk, spent a birthday together, did a TED Talk together and now the book. Is it difficult to spend so much time talking about this? Did you think when you met in Cape Town that this is what would end up happening?
Thordis: It’s never easy. It shouldn’t be easy. Both of us are connected to the events of the past, but now that we’ve put 12 years into working through it, it doesn’t feel like it dictates me anymore. I can revisit those feelings but they don’t dominate my existence anymore.
The hope I set off with was that a deep-seated pain could be transformed into something good and could potentially have value.
You’re right, also, in naming that there is a strong channel that Tom and I had to have to be able to communicate about this. However, I would be hesitant to give it a label, to now say that we’re sitting here as friends. I don’t want to make it sound like we’re unfriendly. I don’t harbor any ill will toward Tom. We’ve done some work together that will forever be beneficial. But I’d say that there’s no simple term for the 20-year history that lies behind us. If I can perhaps ask you to reconsider the word “friendship” then that would feel more descriptive.
Tom: I would echo what Thordis said. I don’t think there’s a simple overarching term [for our relationship]. This is two individuals invested in this, but also a shared commitment. I have deep respect for Thordis’s commitment to this and unwavering activism, and in writing the book. And she’s the one who instigated the correspondence and I don’t know entirely where I’d be had she not reached out to work through this.
There’s a lot of communication and there has to be a lot of trust as well. But there’s no simple term.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Need help? Visit RAINN’s National Sexual Assault Online Hotline or the National Sexual Violence Resource Center’s website.