Thordis Elva and Tom Stranger: On Forgiveness

‘South of Forgiveness’ is the title Thordis Elva and Tom Stranger recently promoted at Bristol Festival of Ideas as their collaborative project on the topic of sexual violence. It takes courage to stand in public and present a story of overcoming rape – perpetrator and victim looking into the eyes of the audience while unravelling their unique account. As controversial as it may seem, Elva and Stranger have embarked on this journey in an attempt to include sexual violence as an important topic in the public realm from a different standpoint, breaking stereotypes and adding the perspective of the perpetrator which is not to be found in the ether.

Their story begins many years ago in Iceland, when Thordis was only 16 and Stranger two years older joining Thordis’s school as a foreign exchange student. They start on a typical high school romance, which turns sour when Thordis gets intoxicated with alcohol during a high school dance and Tom takes sexual advantage of her once he gets her home. This puts an end to their relationship and Tom moves back to Australia a few months later. Thordis is left on her own to digest what happened that night. Fast forward a decade, Thordis decides to face her fears and address her trauma by sending a bitter email to Tom, which turns into a correspondence between the two for 8 years. Not feeling this is enough to deal with the issue, Thordis suggests they meet in Cape Town – the exact middle point between their two respective countries – and they engage in a week-long tête–à–tête, discussing the past in brutal honesty and unprecedented vulnerability, looking for a way out of maintaining dysfunctional relationships with themselves. The book is the result of this crucial meeting and the therapeutic results they achieve in getting closure to the painful memories in a 20-year process.

Of course, many questions arise and Thordis, a well-known and celebrated Icelandic writer, playwright, human rights activist and public speaker on sexual violence, addressed a few of them to the audience in her beautiful and eloquent English. She recounted that she had naive notions about rape at the time because of the demonization of perpetrators in the media, which in fact prevented her to consider the weight of the abuse she experienced and addressing it responsibly. Instead, she internalized it as something that can happen, and bottled up her anger and shame, hiding her brokenness in over-achieving, alcohol and self-harm. Only by sending that crucial email to Tom many years later did she find an antidote to her toxic silence.

Tom spoke modestly about his own part in the whole story, and recounted his teenage feelings and thoughts of entitlement to Thordis, his deserving of her body that night. He later tried to cover it up in his mind and think of it as standard intercourse, rather than a violent act he had perpetrated, all until Thordis’s first email hit his inbox. Then he relearned his own brutality and accepted the definition of rape, freshly calculating the weight of his actions. He talked about shame being an isolating force which can easily lead one to try and punish oneself and that taking responsibility is the only way forward to gaining truth and internal understanding.

Both Elva and Stranger put a lot of focus on the aims of the project, emphasising that it’s not about offering a recipe for getting to grips with abuse, but about debunking the monster myth and providing a different perspective to sexual violence. By telling their story, Thordis and Tom are changing the public discourse that’s only ever been about survivor stories and have now put the focus on the perpetrator, which helps in answering many questions as to why sexual violence happens and what we, as a society, should do about it.

‘South of Forgiveness’ is not a dark book about rape; it’s an account of sexual abuse and dealing with trauma, with a light at the end of the tunnel. This light is not about forgiveness or rather not only about forgiveness, it’s about taking responsibility.

To hear more about Tom and Thordis, take a look at their TED talk on rape and reconciliation.