The role of forgiveness in healing from sexual assault is complicated and deeply individual: There is no “right” way to react to or process sexual assault and no formula for how anyone should relate to their assaulter. Thordis Elva, who was raped in 1996 at 16 years old, and Tom Stranger, the man who raped her, know this: They’re careful to say that they’re sharing their journey of reconciliation not as an example for others to follow but to demonstrate that healing after assault is possible. Elva and Stranger are co-authors of the forthcoming book South of Forgiveness, an exploration of the attack they both call “the darkest moment of their lives” and its ripple effects on both of their lives over the two decades since. Today, TED posted their joint TED Talk, which they gave at TEDWomen2016 in San Francisco in October of last year. In the talk, they describe their years-long collaborative process of reckoning with Stranger’s actions and jointly transferring blame for the rape from Elva to Stranger.
At the time of the assault, Stranger was an exchange student in Elva’s native Iceland, there for just one year of high school. Elva recounts the night that Stranger, her boyfriend at the time, forced himself on her one night when she was drunk and unable to fight back: “In order to stay sane, I silently counted the seconds on my alarm clock, and ever since that night I have known that there are 7,200 seconds in two hours,” she says. “Despite limping for days and crying for weeks, this incident didn’t fit my ideas about rape like I’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 room.” Afterward, Elva and Stranger, both sensing the irreparable damage to their relationship, saw each other only a handful of times before Stranger returned home to Australia.
Stranger recounts that for years, he didn’t view what had happened as rape either, but carried with him a hollowness and a guilt that he was determined never to sit still long enough to contemplate. When Elva was 25, she was “headed straight for a nervous breakdown,” she says. “I was consumed with misplaced hatred and anger that I took out on myself.” It’s then that she sent Stranger a letter about what she was feeling, which spurred an eight-year-long email correspondence that culminated in the two meeting for the first time since they were teens to spend a week in Cape Town discussing the rape and its impact on their lives, nearly 16 years after Stranger committed it.
“When the plane bounced on that landing strip in Cape Town,” Elva recalls, “I remember thinking, Why did I not just get myself a therapist and a bottle of vodka like a normal person would do?” But she calls her time in Cape Town with Stranger transformative and so does he. For years after the attack, he says, he “gripped tight to the simple notion that I wasn’t a bad person … It took me a long time to stare down this dark corner of myself and to ask it questions.”
“My actions that night in 1996 were a self-centered taking,” he adds. “I felt deserving of Thordis’s body … Saying to Thordis that I raped her changed my accord with myself and with her, but mostly importantly the blame transferred from Thordis to me.” Elva says that it took her years to realize that the only thing that could have prevented her rape “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.”
Many will find watching the survivor and perpetrator of a rape share a stage deeply unsettling. I did. Stranger’s use of influential platforms — as a TED Talk presenter, as the co-author of a book, as a speaker on tour — raises serious questions about the rights of assaulters to have their voices heard on the topic of assault, and these voices’ roles in and relevance to the conversation. Some of these issues Elva and Stranger sought to address in a Q&A followup to their talk posted today on TED’s website: “I understand those who are inclined to criticize me as someone who enabled a perpetrator to have a voice in this discussion,” Elva says. “But I believe that a lot can be learned by listening to those who have been a part of the problem — if they’re willing to become part of the solution — about what ideas and attitudes drove their violent actions, so we can work on uprooting them effectively.” Sexual assault, she points out, is not a “women’s issue” but a human issue, and perpetrators — the vast majority of whom are men — have not only the power but the responsibility to reshape the social forces that encourage assault in the first place. As jarring as it is to see a self-professed rapist take the mic, I agree with the point, and I’m both eager and apprehensive to read Elva and Stranger’s book when it comes out next month.
Listen to the full talk right here: