This article discusses sexual violence.
The empty ‘business room’ of the Sofitel Sydney Wentworth is a very small, windowless space, a few computers lined against a wall with wooden partitions between them. Near the door, there’s a small round table with a sofa chair on either side. Around this table sit Thordis Elva, Tom Stranger, and me. Elva is staying here ahead of a talk with Stranger at the Sydney Opera House’s All About Women festival in a few hours. Stranger lives in Sydney, and has come to the hotel to meet us.
The plan had originally been to talk in the library, but it too was a strange place – not at all what one thinks of when we hear the word ‘library’. It’s more of a nook, I guess – a small area a few steps above the back of the lobby, with a shelf full of books that seem more decorative than anything else, and certainly no silence. Not an ideal space to carry out an interview, and certainly not this one.
Depending on where you look, Elva and Stranger’s book South of Forgiveness has garnered either hushed murmurs or angry roars; furious reactions posted online in response to their TED Talk video and surrounding publicity of the book, or quiet messages among friends asking if it really is okay to read it. Since my meeting with Elva and Stranger, one of their appearances in London was picketed by feminist groups, having already been moved outside of the program of a women’s festival after no-platform protests. To write about it in this context is a daunting task, because I believe it to be one of the most incredible, and most important, books I have ever read.
In 1996 Thordis Elva, then 16 years old, was raped by her first boyfriend, Tom Stranger, an 18-year-old exchange student from Sydney who was attending her school in Iceland. They had gone to the Christmas ball, and Elva, in love for the first time and feeling mature, decided to try rum, another first for her. She became drunk and then ill, and after spending the night vomiting in the girls’ toilets was unable to move or speak. Stranger took her home. He carried her into bed and removed her stained clothes, but then he also removed her underwear. Elva’s gratitude and relief turned to horror and betrayal. She could only stare at her alarm clock, counting each second as a way to stay sane and bear the physical and emotional pain. “There are,” she says in the book, “7,200 seconds in two hours.”
Stranger returned to Sydney. Nine years later and on the verge of a breakdown after years of compensatory overachieving masking self-harm, eating disorders and alcohol abuse, Elva emailed him, a missive she describes as being “like a primal scream”. From this she got the only outcome she hadn’t expected – a reply in which he acknowledged what he had done; a written confession and apology. For eight years they maintained correspondence, navigating culpability and trauma and guilt and consequence in conversations that Elva has said often left them feeling ‘skinned’.
Finally, in 2012, Elva requested that they meet in person to reach the closure she identified as necessary for her: she wanted to find forgiveness. Five months later they met in Cape Town, South Africa – a city equidistant to their homes of Reykjavik and Sydney, with its own history of violence, trauma and reconciliation, but still with vast post-Apartheid wounds yet to heal and high rates of sexual violence – and for a week they went over the past. South of Forgiveness is a result of that week, told in Elva’s words and with entries from Stranger’s diary at the end of each daily chapter.
“I usually say, it didn’t resonate with my heart, really,” says Elva, about why her closure couldn’t be reached through more emails. “Yes, protected spaces like writing are excellent to introduce a subject and we had analysed that subject for eight years, but it felt like I had come as far as the written word would allow. And I think that, as a survivor I needed to voice some things, and after all, the written word is silent, and breaking silence has been a theme for me. So giving voice to them face-to-face was something that I felt would be empowering to the point where I’d get closure on something that I certainly didn’t want to spend my life dwelling on, or reflecting on or writing emails about forever. That was not something that I felt would be a self-sustainable and healthy future, so I wanted to sever the ties once and for all. And the irony of that is here we are, talking about it. But of course, that’s an entirely different journey that we’re on now.”
South of Forgiveness is not an easy read. Not to begin with, at least. Elva and Stranger delve into deeply uncomfortable and raw territory, a discomfort that hits you physically and viscerally. As Elva details panic attacks in airports and on planes as she travels to meet Stranger, we the reader feel it too. As she sees Stranger in person for the first time in almost two decades – as he sees her in person for the first time in almost two decades – as they say hello and sit down and try to quieten their roaring nerves, you can almost feel the tension course through you. It is palpable, tangible stuff, reaching up and off the page. Reading it for the first time, I felt anxious and a little bit sick – my jaw was involuntarily clenched and my stomach was a mess of knots.
But it is extraordinary, and so beautiful. Anxiety – theirs and ours – soon gives way to hope, as they tour Cape Town and its history and speak openly, empathetically, with the most brutal, almost unflinching honesty about what brought them there. (Understandably they both do, at times, flinch.) Elva, a respected advocate and author on sexual violence in Iceland, speaks throughout the book on the realities of sexual violence, trauma, misogyny and patriarchy. Stranger, who is a youth worker, provides accountability and an insight into a perpetrator’s psychology and emotions, having had to live with what he’d done and why he did it at all, which we ordinarily don’t get to see or hear. But he is always held firmly accountable, his actions never minimised or excused by Elva or by himself.
Stranger’s involvement in the book and its theme of ‘forgiveness’ is what has angered so many, and triggered the immense controversy surrounding it. Critics say a rapist is being given a platform and an income, is being congratulated for coming forward, and that this story could be seen as prescriptive; that it suggests every survivor should forgive their perpetrator. These are not invalid concerns (with the exception of Stranger’s finances – he is donating all proceeds he receives to a women’s shelter in Reykjavik), but to reject the book outright on this basis is, in my view, to woefully misread it, and to waste an important opportunity and resource to change the way we speak about sexual violence and responsibility, especially in educating boys and young men. While I understand their concerns, I find myself wondering how many of its detractors have actually read it.
“Ultimately,” says Elva, “South of Forgiveness, although it has ‘forgiveness’ in the title, is much more about responsibility than it is about forgiveness. And I also feel a need to state that forgiveness was for me. It’s a misunderstood concept; many people feel that forgiveness has got to be something that you’re giving the perpetrator, that you’re laying your blessing over the hurt – it’s quite the opposite for me. It’s an act of self-interest, and it freed me from some of the self-blame that I’d taken on, and it set me free from a lot of negative emotions that were weighing me down and robbing me of my quality of life. So never once was it for Tom, it was always for me.”
One of Elva and Stranger’s aims is to challenge the limitations of the labels ‘victim’ and ‘rapist’, which as stereotypes can minimise the reality of survivors and the actions of perpetrators. Men who rape are not monsters – they are people, and fully acknowledging this in all its messy nuance is to understand that anyone is capable of rape; even a loving boyfriend.
“I knew [publishing our story] wouldn’t be easy,” says Elva, “and I knew that there are some very strong connotations to a word like ‘rapist’, but also to a word like ‘victim’ – both of which I knew we would take on and become the face of somewhat when we went public with this. So I did have concerns for us both in that regard, and we’re trying our best now to… not reject those labels, not at all, we take them on and we understand them, but we’re also hoping to kind of break the stereotypes around them.
“We often think of a victim as someone who’s a dishonoured, damaged, broken person, which I hope to prove is not always the case – that you can definitely find your strength and find hope and happiness after an event like this in your life. And we also think of rapists as a monster, a knife-wielding lunatic lurking in a park or behind the bushes or something, and we’re hoping to show that no, they can be your boyfriend, they can be someone living next door from you. So yeah, we’re definitely interacting with these labels and feeling their weight, but also hoping to shift that.”
“We weren’t disillusioned about how [our story] was going to be received,” says Stranger. “And the criticism and the hostility this brought was anticipated, but then, for me to lean into some of those criticisms has really helped to know about what I can and cannot be in this telling of our story, and it feels like to do it justice is to just put it out there very plainly and very truthfully and factually, without making too much of my personal processes, because I realise I’m being given these platforms.
“We’re not being prescriptive in talking to this story,” he says, “it’s purely being put out as a personal path that’s been chosen, but it’s not a methodology in any sense. And nor do I seek to benefit myself personally, or my profile, or bank balance, from any of this. And I recognise the disrespect if I was doing it for any of those reasons.”
Reading this book we see that involving Stranger in the telling of their story is not to congratulate him – in the pages of this book and onstage at events with Elva he is never patted on the back. While some reviewers or commentators may have chosen to applaud him, the clear purpose of South of Forgiveness is to move the responsibility in addressing sexual violence from the survivor to the perpetrator, and away from being a ‘women’s issue’ to an issue in which everyone has a responsibility.
“I feel it’s important to state that that is part of the overall purpose for Tom and me, the shifting of focus,” says Elva. “Because the focus until now has very much been on the survivor of sexual violence, and I don’t really find that strange because if you think about it, the only people that have been talking about experiences of sexual violence that they’ve been party to have been the survivors, so we only have their stories to dissect, which ends up with people poring over their details – “Did she say she’d been drinking?”, “What was she wearing?” – and I think it contributes to this victim-blaming culture where we attach blame to the only person that we’re able to scrutinise.
“So we’re hoping that by giving a two-sided story, that we can shift the focus to where it truthfully belongs, to the person who makes the decision to perpetrate abuse, and thereby furthering a discussion that’s been sort of stagnant and not very helpful with regard to victim-blaming. So that’s part of what we’re aiming for – hoping for – and it’s definitely not a guidebook of any sort – we’re not prescriptive or putting this forth as a set of recommendations. It’s just a personal story that in my wildest dreams would just prompt discussion and prompt also the notion that every person has a right to heal from a traumatic event, and that could be a messy ordeal and it could seem immensely incomprehensible to people that haven’t experienced what you’ve gone through.
“So, I for example was not in a position to get justice fulfilled through a legal course of actions because I, like so many other survivors, fell through the cracks of that system … The fact that Tom did not spend time behind bars is not that we are preaching impunity or because I didn’t want that for me – it’s because it was never an option.”
In Iceland at the time, what Stranger did was not legally considered rape – it was ‘sexual misconduct’. Elva herself didn’t immediately view it as rape, so ingrained was the ‘monster myth’, and by the time she understood what had happened, her physical injuries had healed, Stranger had returned to Sydney, and she had no witnesses.
When their correspondence began, the statute of limitations had passed. Stranger could have walked into a police station and confessed – and he at times did feel incarceration would have been appropriate – and they would have told him they couldn’t do anything about it. “So I think South of Forgiveness is basically what we did instead,” says Elva, “because I had no less of a need for responsibility to be taken – even though it didn’t entail the gaol sentence, I still needed it to be taken and I think I can safely say on behalf of Tom that he needed to take it too, to feel better and set himself free from the past.”
“This was not a snap decision,” says Stranger, about agreeing to publish their story after what they undertook in South Africa. “This was something that surfaced along the way as an idea, as a sense that there’s a long and complicated process through literally, essentially 12 years of dialogue but a 20-year journey in addressing this.
“And – as much as I can understand and comprehend – I have a knowledge of the pain and the damage that I caused Thordis. That information, combined with seeing through my youth work first-hand the results of sexual violence, and seeing young people and their toxic relationships, at times, with themselves, because their own trust has been abused … and the substance abuse … the mental health issues – [I’ve seen it] in a professional sense, but obviously that resonated with me personally [as well]. And recently I’ve been lucky enough to study cultural studies and just, I guess, improve my broader understanding into the context. And in talking to it and looking to place our history within that context, there’s a sense that if this wasn’t spoken to, I’d be complicit in a problem that I have an understanding of.
“I’m not saying that I have a complex political understanding but it’s information that if there was a silence, then that’s an indifference to a problem that I’m aware is happening behind closed doors in lots of relationships. And I’m not trying to sound altruistic, and I understand that I’ve proven myself to be not worthy of trust in an instance in the past, so for people to bridge this chasm and to now see me as someone with a huge concern for others is a big ask, and I [understand] the questioning.
“But I think some of the personal costs could be worth it,” he says, “because if this means that at one party or in one family or in one relationship this is discussed, and it means that two people don’t have to move through what Thordis and myself moved through, then it’s worth it.
“And I’m hopeful. I’m hopeful that the discussion is being furthered, and that in a few years’ time this can be looked back on, and there’s a broader understanding, and this is seen as behaviour that needs to be discussed and is not reduced to labels that I think can be minimising and really stagnate the discussion. I’ve seen that already, I’ve been in some very powerful conversations with men who have an investment in this discussion and an eagerness to talk to it – albeit there has also been some concern, thinking about whether or not they may have crossed boundaries in their own relationships. And also I have heard my own actions minimised – saying, ‘You were only 18’, ‘You were drunk’, ‘She was your girlfriend, it was a party’ – so hearing some of those untruths and myths reflected back to me just confirms that this, to put it out plainly, might have some benefit.
“But I am aware – my position is this is not to disrespect the platforms that I am being given, and I am mindful that just to see and to hear me will be difficult for some. So I’m grateful that this is being communicated, and I don’t wish any more than just to sustain an involvement in the discussion in a background position and to not be representative of perpetrators of rape, or any other group. I’d just like to be in those conversations and in those rooms and listen, and participate.”
“I never thought it would be easy,” says Elva. “Not only because it’s a raw territory, difficult feelings and memories attached to this, but also because it’s a sensitive subject, which tends to make people uncomfortable. So I would never have underestimated that this would be challenging. But to balance that, we’ve had incredible reactions; an outpouring of support, and I’ve had private conversations with people that have wanted to talk to us after events that have told me stories that will forever be an encouragement, and have given me a sense that, though this is challenging, it’s deeply necessary to stimulate this conversation.”
Noise outside the business room is starting to pick up and the hotel is coming properly to life – as ‘to life’ as a rainy Sunday morning in a hotel can really be. I ask Elva and Stranger if they would sign my copy of their book – a book that, if I ever give birth to a son, will be made at home on his bookshelf.
They both kindly oblige. Inside its front page Elva quotes the Statue of Responsibility, a sign that she tells me adorns a tree in California, that almost says it all:
For without responsibility there can be no freedom.
If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit 1800RESPECT.org.au. In an emergency, call 000.
Men can access anonymous confidential telephone counselling to receive help in taking action on violent and controlling behaviour, through the Men’s Referral Service on 1300 766 491.
South of Forgiveness is published by Scribe.