When Thordis Elva was 16 years old, she attended a Christmas dance with her high school boyfriend and first love, Tom Stranger. When Elva drank too much rum and began to go in and out of consciousness, Stranger took her home, put her in bed, and raped her.
Sixteen years later, the two of them paired up to write a book, “South of Forgiveness,” about rape and reconciliation. The two also did a TED Talk about it in October, wherein Stranger fully admits to his violation, thus opening the space for a powerful discussion about shame, consent, entitlement, and, ultimately, the importance of rapists taking responsibility for their actions, rather than their victims.
In the talk, Elva describes the years she spent suffering self-blame and confusion about what Stranger had done to her.
“Despite limping for days and crying for weeks, this incident didn’t fit my ideas about rape,” she says. “He was boyfriend...It didn’t happen in a seedy alleyway, it happened in my own bed.”
By the time Elva came to terms with what had been done to her, Stranger had returned to his home country of Australia. She tried to put the issue behind her. “Besides,” she says, “it had to have been my fault somehow.”
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 have stopped me from being raped that night is the man who raped me.
But after nine years she could no longer keep her feelings to herself, she needed closure from Stranger as well.
“It took me years to realize that only one thing could have stopped me from being raped that night,” she says in the talk. “And it wasn’t my skirt, it wasn’t my smile, it wasn’t my childish trust. The only thing that could have stopped me from being raped that night is the man who raped me.”
So she wrote Stranger a letter out of the blue, and was shocked when he responded with a typed confession “filled with disarming regret.” The two of them then began an eight-years-long correspondence.
But Elva didn’t feel like she had gotten closure, even when Stranger fully admitted that he knew that what he’d done was rape.
Stranger describes those guilty nine years after he raped Elva as “denial and running.” “I didn’t see my deed for what it was,” he says. “The word ‘rape’ didn’t echo around my mind like it should have...I disavowed the truth by convincing myself it was sex and not rape...and this is a lie I felt spine-bending guilt for.”
He became a substance abuser and adrenaline junkie. By never sitting still, he avoided confronting what he knew was the truth about what he’d done. “It took me a long time to stare down this dark corner of myself, and to ask it questions,” he says in the talk.
And once he did, they decided to meet face-to-face in Cape Town, South Africa.
“Regardless of whether or not he deserved my forgiveness, I deserved peace. My era of shame was over,” Elva says.
They spent a week trading life stories and sharing their excruciating memories from the experience that had bound them to one another, and since then have spent years engaging in an open dialogue reconciling the darkest moment of both of their lives.
They both also acknowledge that the route they took to reconciliation isn’t a normal one, nor does it have to be.
“What we did is not a formula that we’re prescribing for others...Nobody has a right to tell anyone else how to handle their deepest pain for their greatest error,” Elva says.
She says that each survivor of sexual violence is entitled to recover however they see fit ― but they both reiterate that the victim is never, ever to blame.
“It’s about time that we stop treating sexual violence as a women’s issue,” she says. “The majority of sexual violence against women and men is perpetrated by men...Just imagine all the suffering we could alleviate if we dared to face this issue together.”
Head over to TED to watch their whole talk and read their Q&A.
Need help? Visit RAINN’s National Sexual Assault Online Hotline or the National Sexual Violence Resource Center’s website.