Twenty years after her rape, Thordie Elva is publishing a book with her rapist, Tom Stranger, to tell their story of reconciliation.
Elva was raped in 1996 at 16 years old. At the time of the assault, Stranger was an exchange student at Elva’s school in Iceland. While he was only there for one year of high school, the two dated and were dating when the rape occurred. In their TED Talk, which was released today, Elva recounts the night that Stranger forced himself on her one night when she was drunk and unable to fight him off.
“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 body.”
After the assault, Elva and Stranger only saw each other a couple more times before Stranger returned to his home in Australia. Stranger says that for years, he never viewed the incident as rape, but he did feel an unexplained guilt. However, he says he never sat still long enough for him to fully analyze his actions and feelings. Elva, on the other hand, says that by the time she was 25, she was “headed straight for a nervous breakdown.”
“I was consumed with misplaced hatred and anger that I took out on myself,” she explains, adding that it was during that time she sent Stranger a letter about how she was feeling. From there, an eight-year-long email correspondence began. Eventually the two reunited in Cape Town 16 years later to discuss the rape and its impact on their lives.
“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 says her time in Cape Town with Stranger was 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’ 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.”
The situation is definitely jarring and brings into question how appropriate it is to let assaulters have their voices heard on the topic of assault. Elva is aware of the concerns and sought to address them with Stranger in a followup Q&A.
“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.”
Elva and Stranger documented their journey in the forthcoming book South of Forgiveness, which explores the assault and the effects it has had on their lives since. You can listen to the full TED Talk below.